Teams led by new head coaches and new staffs were supposed to struggle in 2011. According to know-it-all analysts, those franchises simply wouldn’t have enough time to recover from the lockout and properly prepare to be competitive after an abbreviated offseason.
Early results indicate that those prognostications were dead wrong.
In 2011, six teams are led by completely new head coaches and virtually new regimes — technically, the number is eight, but I’m not sure it’s fair to include Leslie Frazier or Jason Garrett, both of whom served as interim head coaches last season — and only two of those teams are under .500 at around the quarter pole. Here’s a breakdown:
San Francisco 49ers (4-1): The Niners appeared to take a step back in free agency and entered 2011 with a completely new staff led by Jim Harbaugh. Shockingly, they’re playing lights-out defense and Alex Smith has finally begun to live up to expectations. They already have a 2.5-game lead in the NFC West.
Oakland Raiders (3-2): Hue Jackson has an advantage in that he was technically with the Raiders as offensive coordinator last year, but Oakland has clearly improved under Jackson and a revamped coaching staff, despite losing key players Nnamdi Asomugha and Zach Miller in the offseason.
Tennessee Titans (3-2): No one expected the Titans to be competitive in 2011. In fact, most predicted that they’d be the one team hit hardest by the lockout. But under Mike Munchak and his new staff, Tennessee has been stellar on defense and the offense has hung in despite the loss of Kenny Britt and Chris Johnson’s struggles. They have a legit chance to make the playoffs in the AFC South.
Cleveland Browns (2-2): They haven’t beaten anyone good yet, and all indications are they won’t be able to compete in the AFC North. That said, Pat Shurmur’s team has done a tremendous job considering that they’ve had to deal with a transition to the west coast offense and back to a 4-3 defense. Despite a lack of talent, a new staff and two major transitions, they’re right there at 2-2.
Carolina Panthers (1-4): Technically, this is am improvement over last year’s 0-5 start, which means something when you consider that Ron Rivera’s staff is breaking in new offensive and defensive coordinators and a rookie quarterback. They’ve also yet to lose a game by more than seven points and came dangerously close to beating 2010 playoff teams Green Bay, New Orleans and Chicago.
Denver Broncos (1-4): John Fox probably isn’t happy with the start, especially since he started the year with the same quarterback and offensive coordinator combo that helped Denver have the league’s seventh-ranked passing attack in 2010. The return of Elvis Dumervil and the addition of top pick Von Miller was supposed to help as well, but the Broncos have been pretty bad early on.
If the season ended today, three of those six teams would be in the playoff mix. Their combined record of 14-15 is almost unbelievable, especially when you consider that teams making coaching changes are usually bad to start with. Last year, those half-dozen teams had a combined winning percentage of just .323. This year, it’s up to .483. And by comparison, the three teams that started 2010 with new head coaches — Buffalo, Seattle and Washington — finished with a combined record of 17-31 (.354).
So while the work stoppage has clearly affected several aspects of the game in 2011, it hasn’t held new coaching staffs back.