ORLANDO—Individually, they aren’t nearly as interesting as the picture they painted as a group, 16 men spaced out evenly at 16 tables, conducting media sessions over breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton on Tuesday morning.
These are the AFC’s head coaches, and at the front of the room sat the conference’s leader, Bill Belichick, the most decorated coach in the NFL with three Super Bowl titles. It would be five, if it weren’t for the Giants and two miracle finishes.
Belichick slouched in his chair and spoke in low tones, saying nothing of particular interest to what was the largest collection of media at any of the 16 tables. A media that complains of Belichick’s predilection for dullness apparently finds him interesting.
The table next to Belichick belonged to Joe Philbin, a man who grew up as a coach at think-tank schools and the Green Bay Packers. You didn’t think in terms of controversy when you thought of Philbin, or at least you didn’t until last year. These days, Philbin is at the head of the No. 1 controversy in the NFL.
“I’m the one responsible for the workplace environment,” Philbin was telling the media at his table. He made the same remark at the combine a month ago. Blame it on me, he was saying.
They are, Joe. What a shame.
Next to Philbin sat one of the newcomers to the AFC, Bill O’Brien of the Houston Texans, owners of the first overall pick of the draft. O’Brien left college coaching to re-join the pro pressure cooker. He’s off the Belichick tree.
O’Brien is a quarterback guru. Who will he select to be the cornerstone of his building project? Will he make a quarterback the first overall pick of the draft? More to the point, what does he think of Johnny Manziel, the favorite of Texans fans?
“You can’t box him in to a certain way of playing. We have a system that is very adaptable. You can’t force a guy to be something he isn’t,” O’Brien said.
Marvin Lewis has been in this room more times than any coach in the AFC other than Belichick, and Lewis just got a contract extension and the security of knowing he’ll be in this room at least one more time. What Lewis doesn’t have is a playoff win, and that’s beginning to wear on Bengals fans.
“It speaks for the profession,” Lewis said when asked what his tenure says about the room. “You have to have great respect for what everyone does. I remember when I was the young coach. I’m no longer the young coach.”
Yeah, change is constant. Always, the room changes.
Andy Reid has spent most of his coaching career in the other room, the NFC room. Last year, Reid became the head coach of the AFC Chiefs and he and John Dorsey, both off the Packers tree, led the Chiefs to a Cinderella season that ended with a nightmarish collapse in the playoffs.
“I thought he brought the whole organization together. He’s a tough guy. We know that,” Reid said of Dorsey, who left the Packers to become the Chiefs’ GM, and then promptly hired Reid.
Mike Pettine is new to the room. He’s being asked to do the impossible: coach the Cleveland Browns to respectability. To do that, Pettine will have to find a quarterback.
“This is a deep quarterback class. It’s an outstanding class. There are more than just the first three. There are some guys down the line,” Pettine said.
Not everyone agrees with Pettine’s assessment of the 2014 crop of draft-eligible quarterbacks.
Pettine’s chief rival, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is trying to rebuild his team and take it back to the playoffs. He nearly succeeded in 2013.
“All positions for us, at this point, are incomplete,” Tomlin said.
The Steelers are looking for more than a few good men.
Tomlin’s chief rival, John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens, is different from his brother Jim in that John has won a Super Bowl. Most everything else is the same, as evidenced by the khakis John wore and his answer to the following question: What do you perceive to be the No. 1 issue confronting your team in the offseason?
“I don’t have that list in front of me,” he said.
Whoa! The reporter locked eyes with Harbaugh, who was smiling.
“Your brother gave me that same answer to a question in a conference call,” the reporter said.
“I think he got that from me,” Harbaugh said, laughing.
Ken Whisenhunt is another one of the AFC’s rookie coaches. Previously, he was the head coach in Arizona, where he came within a heartbeat of taking the Cardinals off the list of teams that haven’t won a Super Bowl. Kurt Warner was his quarterback, but then Warner retired and the Cardinals were unable to find a capable replacement, which resulted in Whisenhunt being fired. Yeah, fire the coach for not having a good quarterback. It makes perfect sense.
Whisenhunt is now the head coach in Tennessee, where it is thought he doesn’t have a quarterback with whom he can win.
Coach, is it an exaggeration to say it’s all about the quarterback?
“That’s a good question. It’s an important piece of it,” he said, leaning back in his chair and giving his answer thought.
Rex Ryan of the Jets always draws a crowd. He’s always good for a sound bite.
Coach, are you in favor of expanding the playoffs?
“Absolutely,” he said, raising his voice. “When you look at the fact that there are probably bonuses tied into it, absolutely,” he repeated.
They’re paid to win.
“That’s what we do as coaches. You’re on the hook for it,” Whisenhunt said.
Some of the men in this room on Tuesday will not be in this room on this day next year. Always, it changes. More from the Annual Meeting