1 of 3 | Oakland Raiders and QB Derek Carr are on the upswing and look to be one of the sleeper teams in the upcoming NFL season. Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | License Photo
If you are looking for a team that might be the big surprise of the upcoming NFL season, you could do much worse than concentrate your search on the AFC West, and specifically on the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders.
One part of the reasoning is obvious: they are both on the upswing.
Of their own doing, both those teams have made strides in the last couple of years, the Chiefs from 2-14 in 2012 to three successive winning records and a 31-17 regular-season record, the Raiders from more than a decade of irrelevance to a 7-9 season that included a victory on the road against Super Bowl champion Denver.
But there is an explanation behind those improvements: It's called coaches who have learned.
Kansas City's Andy Reid and Oakland's Jack Del Rio are both, for lack of a better term, "recycled" coaches who were fired from a previous gig. Thirteen of the last 19 Super Bowl winners had coaches with a similar resume, whereas 28 of the previous 31 champions had coaches who were on their first job.
The trend coincides roughly with the introduction of free agency into the NFL, which meant that coaches needed to be more adaptable than in the past. Few things make a coach more adaptable than being fired.
Meanwhile, the path through the AFC West looks a lot wider for the Chiefs and Raiders this year than it has in the recent past. Denver, which won the division title the last five years, has an unsettled situation at quarterback, to put it mildly, following the retirement of Peyton Manning. And San Diego is, well, still San Diego, regularly a big tease.
Kansas City and Oakland have the first ingredient they need to make strides in the NFL - a competent quarterback. Kansas City's Alex Smith is a low-risk player whose percentage of passes that were intercepted trailed only Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers among season-long starters last season. Oakland's Derek Carr ranked third in the AFC in touchdown passes last year and has shown marked improvement throughout his two NFL seasons.
Reid and Del Rio, of course, are hardly the only coaches on at least their second go-round. Ten other NFL coaches have been fired previously including three (Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Gary Kubiak) who have won the Super Bowl with their next team. That group of successful, second-time-around coaches from the recent past also included Mike Shanahan, Dick Vermeil, Jon Gruden, Tony Dungy and Tom Coughlin.
Free agency is not the only plausible explanation for this trend.
Impatient owners and high-velocity media that fire up a fan base factor in, too. Tom Landry and Bill Cowher were on the job for a dozen years before they won a Super Bowl, but today owners rarely give a coach more than two seasons if they aren't sniffing around for the Lombardi Trophy. It's almost inconceivable an owner would employ a coach for a decade without a championship to show for it.
Cincinnati owner Mike Brown is an outlier, since his coach, Marvin Lewis, is about to embark on his 14th season, not only without a championship but without even a single playoff victory. Lewis does hold one distinction, however; his seven playoff defeats are the most in NFL history for a coach without a single playoff victory.
Besides Reid and Del Rio, four among the group of recycled coaches will bear the most watching this season.
Jeff Fisher, taking the Rams back to Los Angeles, is No. 2 in victories among active coaches, behind only Belichick. He is going into his 22nd year as an NFL head coach, with one narrow Super Bowl defeat on his resume when he was coaching the Tennessee Titans. The Rams have been on the upswing lately, but they are not likely to threaten Seattle or Arizona in their division until they straighten themselves out at quarterback.
The always intriguing-to-watch Rex Ryan begins his second year in Buffalo with his twin, Rob Ryan, now by his side. The Bills have gone two straight years without a losing record for the first time since 2000.
Chip Kelly, now in San Francisco, can show what he learned from his three years in Philadelphia, with, if he can revive Colin Kaepernick's career, a quarterback who would seem to be extremely well suited for Kelly's offense. Of course, with Kelly, the issue always seems to come down to his defense, which has to spend more time on the field than any other defense in the league, and he has shown an historical stubbornness to change. Which, of course, is why he now coaches the 49ers instead of the Eagles.
And John Fox embarks on his second season in Chicago. The significance? In previous stops with Carolina and Denver, Fox took his team to the Super Bowl in his second season.
--Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than four decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.