Difficult welcome to NFL for new coaches

By Barry Wilner

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 24 2011 7:45 a.m. MDT

NEW ORLEANS — Welcome to the NFL head coaching fraternity, gentlemen. By the way, you can't talk to your players, install new schemes or go after free agents right now.

That's not exactly what the rookie coaches bargained for. With the lockout, it's what they've got.

It's a most damaging dynamic to teams starting anew such as the 49ers, Browns, Panthers and Broncos who went completely outside their organization to hire a new head man. At least Denver grabbed a grizzled veteran in John Fox, who won a conference title during his nine seasons in charge in Carolina. Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, Pat Shurmur in Cleveland and Ron Rivera in Carolina are newbies.

The new coaches in Tennessee (Mike Munchak), Oakland (Hue Jackson), Minnesota (Leslie Frazier) and Dallas (Jason Garrett) either were with those organizations last year or, in Frazier's and Garrett's cases, actually took over as interim coaches in 2010. So their handicap isn't quite as severe.

Still, the lockout is a hindrance as all eight of them try to rebuild struggling teams.

"It's given us a little disadvantage," Rivera said. "You want to have the team around and your veteran guys so you get a sense or a feel for what they do. There will always be a learning curve and now it's steeper."

More like a slippery slope. Rivera couldn't put in place his offensive and defensive systems. He can't identify who the key players will be on his roster because of all the turnover required in Carolina. He can't chase free agents to fill some of the massive holes on both lines.

Teams aren't exactly dead in the water because all 32 of them are preparing for the draft, which was protected under the collective bargaining agreement that expired on March 11. But it's hardly business as usual.

"We have to be fluid, be ready as time goes on," Rivera said. "The bottom line that we talk about is we have to be ready to play and adjust to whatever the situation winds up being."

The longer the work stoppage, though, the more difficult it will be for the new guys. Except in Dallas and Cleveland, the quarterback scenario is in flux. It's possible the starter whenever the season begins — if there is a 2011 season — isn't even on the roster in San Francisco, Minnesota, Tennessee or Carolina.

New coordinators in most of those cities have little familiarity with their players. No matter how quick a study they might be, an assistant coach's film work doesn't replace hands-on teaching.

"The coaches are getting plenty of time to get ready for that," Munchak said with a chuckle. "You have to be smart about it. Let your staff do what it does best, let your coordinators do what they are comfortable with, nothing drastic. You don't want to be switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4."

Oops. That's almost what Fox is doing as he moves from Carolina to Denver; the Broncos are switching to the 4-3.

But Fox also knows his way around the league, going 73-71 with the Panthers and losing the 2004 Super Bowl to New England.

"Retread," he said with a loud laugh.

"I had a chance to meet our players early on. I've watched plenty of tape. I think system-wise offensively we're not much different since our offensive coordinator from a year ago will be back again. Defensively we've got some (coaches) back, but there's no doubt we've got an adjustment as we go 4-3.

"But again, these things are not rocket science."

They can be complex, though, when someone is coming from the college ranks and has been out of the NFL since 2003. Harbaugh, who spent 14 years as a pro quarterback for five teams, comes from coaching bloodlines. His father Jack has spent more than four decades on the sideline, and brother John has led the Ravens to the playoffs in all three seasons in charge in Baltimore.

For the new 49ers coach, who chose San Francisco over Miami — or remaining at Stanford or going back to his alma mater, Michigan — the biggest challenge is to stay positive.

"It doesn't do any good to get frustrated and I wish I could be with the players right now," said Harbaugh, who is finishing up his playbook and preparing for the draft. "The thing I was most looking forward to coaching in the National Football League was being back with those guys. The pros.

"It'll happen. But they'll be back. We'll be back with them."

When that occurs, the Niners in many ways will be starting from scratch. The other three teams in the division — Seattle, St. Louis and Arizona — are far deeper into their systems, their staffs far more familiar with the players.

"Everybody seems to agree that it's a disadvantage for first-year coaches," Harbaugh said. "It probably is. But we'll find a way to overcome it.

"I just love being in uncharted waters. There is something about it. There's more of a challenge to it. Maybe it's because I grew up in 12 different towns before I graduated from high school, I don't know. Something about it, I just feel more comfortable when it's the uncharted waters."

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