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Friday, January 31
Assistant coaches are turning into stars

By Len Pasquarelli

Having decided Thursday that working toward a Super Bowl repeat in 2003 was preferable to working in a San Francisco 49ers organization that some now view as disjointed, Tampa Bay Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin raised the salary bar for NFL assistant coaches.

Granted, it could be a long time before anyone comes close to the three-year, $5.1 million contract Kiffin got from the Bucs less than an hour before he was to board a flight for a weekend interview with 49ers general manager Terry Donahue.

Monte Kiffin and Jon Gruden
Monte Kiffin, left, was a big part of Jon Gruden's success in his first season with the Bucs.
After all, on a per-year average basis, the Kiffin contract represents a jump of nearly 90 percent over the four-year, $3.6 million deal Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson signed last week. If nothing else, the 49ers are succeeding in making rich men out of coaches who don't want the San Francisco head coaching position, since Donahue had also sought to meet with Johnson about his vacancy.

Certainly the contract awarded Kiffin is a bit of an aberration, and he and agent Jimmy Sexton had plenty of leverage in negotiations. It was, in essence, the convergence of all things good, the NFL equivalent to "the perfect storm," for Kiffin. He had another suitor at the door, his current employer didn't want to lose him, and his credentials merited a unique gambit on the part of the Bucs.

But while it is in a class of its own, and likely to remain so for a while, the Kiffin deal graphically illustrates the upward salary spiral for NFL assistant coaches. It is a trend that some owners abhor, and there are plenty of them privately griping about it, but a reality with which they now must contend.

Simply put, the league has developed assistant coaching superstars, and the owners must pay them significantly higher salaries now. On a whole, in fact, even some nondescript assistants are making more than they ever did before. And with good reason.

"If you believe it's become a 'coach's league,' and it has, you've got to pay the price at the end of the day," said Larry Kennan, executive director of the NFL Coaches Association. "We're starting to see some trickle down now from the head coaches to the assistants."

Before he took the job as Cincinnati Bengals head coach, Marvin Lewis was making between $800,000 and $900,000 per year in Washington, with a bonus structure that could have pushed his income to $1 million. Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is in the $750,000 range. The Eagles did the right thing in awarding Johnson a deal commensurate to his defensive brilliance and reputation around the league.

If you believe it's become a 'coach's league,' and it has, you've got to pay the price at the end of the day. We're starting to see some trickle down now from the head coaches to the assistants.
Larry Kennan, executive director of the NFL Coaches Association

And now Kiffin has blown everything out of the water.

Consider this in relationship to Kiffin's new deal: The five-year contract Lewis signed in Cincinnati is worth only about $1.5 million per year. Jack Del Rio, the new head coach in Jacksonville, has a five-year deal averaging $1.3 million. Minnesota head coach Mike Tice is still being paid less than $1 million annually. Buffalo coach Gregg Williams, Herm Edwards of the Jets and Bill Callahan of Oakland all earn less than will Kiffin under his new deal.

Part of the reason that coordinators such as Kiffin, Johnson and Phillips can be paid so much is that they work for head coaches with large salaries, every one of them more than $3 million annually. So in some ways, there is a ceiling in every city for assistant coaches, and it is in relationship to the contract of the head coach. That ceiling, however, is being raised every offseason.

How much actual hands-on tutoring do most head coaches do? Not much. The bulk of the on-field work is handled by assistants, and so if you buy into the theory that coaching is more important now than ever, it follows that assistants should be paid more than in the past. Only three years ago, the average salary for assistant coaches was in the $150,000-$175,000 range. There are position coaches now pulling in $400,000 or more per season.

In the free agency and salary cap era, which has placed a premium on having assistants who can readily interpret a team's system for newcomers, there is a price tag on good teachers. And the price is definitely rising.

When most candidates interview for head coaching jobs now, one of the elements most important to them is size of their staff and the salary budget available to them for assembling it. "It's one of the first things that I worried about,'' said one man who interviewed over the past month for a head coach position. "How much are you going to pay me and how much can I pay my assistant coaches?"

As coordinators increasingly function as co-head coaches -- how many times do you think Jon Gruden, for instance, pores over the defensive game plan in Tampa Bay -- their salaries are going to continue to skyrocket.

Kiffin will be king of the hill for several more years. But the mountain is full now of assistants trying to reach the summit.

Side Lines
Because the league sages rewarded a disproportionate share of the four fan votes in Super Bowl XXXVII to Tampa Bay free safety Dexter Jackson, defensive end Simeon Rice was blocked from winning the Most Valuable Player award last Sunday night. But there is one more chance for Rice, a guy on a mission, to claim a postseason MVP honor. In the Pro Bowl, look for Rice to continue the reign of terror he has enacted on enemy quarterbacks, although he'll get some solid resistance this time. At least early in the game, Rice, who finished second in the league with 14½ sacks and has added four more in postseason play, figures to go head-to-head with Baltimore Ravens star left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. It's the sixth straight Pro Bowl for Ogden, and he has always played well. He'll need to take things seriously Sunday, because Rice is playing with a fury and he feels a bit cheated by the Super Bowl balloting. The annual all-star game usually isn't worth more than a few minutes of viewing time. So if you're going to invest 30 minutes in front of the big screen, make it in the early going, when Rice and Ogden are still on the field.
The List
The deposed Marty Mornhinweg might want to take his time updating the résumé, because if history is any indication, the former Detroit Lions coach won't need it any time soon. At least if he's seeking another head coach position. None of the 10 head coaches who preceded Mornhinweg moved on to another NFL sideline boss position after departing the Lions. In fact, the last former Detroit coach to earn another shot at a top job in the league was George Wilson, and that was nearly 40 years ago. Wilson left Detroit after the 1964 campaign, having fashioned a 55-46-6 record in eight seasons. He was hired as the first coach of the expansion Miami Dolphins in 1966. And then came the following roll call:
Coach Year(s) Record
Harry Gilmer 1965-66 10-16-2
Joe Schmidt 1967-72 43-35-7
Don McCafferty 1973 6-7-1
Rick Forzano 1974-76 15-17-0
Tommy Hudspeth 1976-77 11-13-0
Monte Clark 1978-84 43-63-1
Darryl Rogers 1985-88 18-40-0
Wayne Fontes 1988-96 67-71-0
Bobby Ross 1997-2000 27-32-0
Gary Moeller 2000 2-14-0
Stat of the Week
When Green Bay right guard Marco Rivera was named to his first Pro Bowl game, coming off a season in which he struggled to maintain consistency because of a torn knee ligament, some people scratched their heads. Well, scratch no more, all you skeptics. The Packers coaching staff has completed its breakdown of pass coverage and, according to the tape, Rivera allowed zero sacks in 2002. Fact is, he was responsible for just one sack in 2001.
Stat of the Weak
The Buffalo safety tandem of Pierson Prioleau (free safety) and Coy Wire (strong safety) combined for 31 starts in 2002. Unfortunately, they also combined for zero interceptions. That's just one reason Buffalo continues to try to lure former Cincinnati head coach Dick LeBeau onto the staff.
The Last Word
Tampa Bay free safety Dexter Jackson, on the importance of some of the lesser-known role players on the league's premier defense: "Let's say you have a car, like a Mercedes Benz or a Cadillac, and the outside is nice and shiny. It's a real luxury ride and everyone can see that when you take it out. But nobody sees the spark plugs and the engine and the stuff that makes the car run. I'm one of the guys that does that and we have a lot of others, too."

Around the league

  • Job was Kiffin's: Make no mistake about this: Although the 49ers are impressed with some of the candidates they have interviewed to date, ESPN.com learned that Kiffin was the man they wanted. The job of succeeding Steve Mariucci was all but his. Unless he absolutely fell on his face in a scheduled weekend interview (and he wouldn't have), Kiffin would have been the man general manager Terry Donahue recommended to director John York for the top job. Beyond incumbent defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr., whose stock was certainly enhanced by Kiffin's bow-out, York has not met with any of the other candidates. That is the next step in a process that figures to be completed next week. ESPN.com also confirmed that even after Kiffin agreed to stay with the Bucs for three more years, San Francisco officials tried to get him to change his mind. As late as Friday morning, Donahue was prepared to fly to Tampa to meet with Kiffin and twist his arm, but there was no way the Bucs coordinator would have reneged on his Thursday night agreement. The withdrawal of Kiffin leaves the known candidates for the San Francisco job at four: Mora, Philadelphia offensive coordinator Brad Childress, Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and New England defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. There were unsubstantiated rumors on Friday that Donahue might approach University of Washington coach Rick Neuheisel, with whom he shares a UCLA pedigree, but those seemed to have no merit. There also continue to be whispers that unless the stadium situation in San Francisco is resolved, the 49ers could put out a "For Sale" sign within three seasons. Those are old rumors, though, and York has said that he doesn't see such a scenario.

  • Negoatiating game: The clock ticks toward Feb. 20, the deadline for teams to place "franchise" and "transition" tags on pending unrestricted free agents, and that means there will be a sudden flurry of key negotiations in the next three weeks. Among the potential free agents who almost certainly will be "tagged" if they don't sign long-term extensions before the deadline: wide receiver David Boston (Arizona); offensive linemen Orlando Pace (St. Louis), Flozell Adams (Dallas), Walter Jones (Seattle) and Luke Petitgout (New York Giants); linebackers Keith Brooking (Atlanta), Takeo Spikes (Cincinnati), Mike Peterson (Indianapolis), and Anthony Simmons (Seattle); cornerback Chris McAlister (Baltimore); punter Todd Sauerbrun (Carolina). Many of these players will reach deals before Feb. 20, because they want to avoid the "franchise" tag and the acrimony that usually accompanies it.

  • Franchise valuations: Most readers know by now that the "franchise" tag basically means a team must commit a one-year tender to a player, at the average of the five highest 2002 cap numbers for that player's position. Once a "franchise" designation is used on a player, the team is charged the salary cap value of the one-year tender at that position, until it negotiates a long-term deal. So here are the new "franchise" cap values for each position: quarterback, $8.305 million; defensive end, $7.169 million; running back, $6.667 million; cornerback, $5.962 million; defensive tackle, $5.942 million; offensive line, $5.734 million; linebacker, $5.614 million; wide receiver, $5.01 million; tight end, $3.05 million; safety, $3.043 million; and kicker/punter, $1.471 million.

  • The secret formula behind the tenacious nature of the Bucs' defensive front four? Film study, of course, but not the kind you might imagine. Sure, the Bucs defensive line spends plenty of time watching videos. But defensive line coach Rod Marinelli often breaks up the film work in a most unusual manner. Sometimes during the week, but more often on the eve of an especially big game, Marinelli breaks out video of animals in the wild demonstrating their most aggressive behavior. Ever seen one of the hokey, Fox-produced "When Animals Attack" shows? The Tampa Bay defensive linemen have seen them all, some a couple of times. Marinelli has also used some National Geographic tapes to motivate the troops. "That's some crazy (stuff) we see on (the tapes), but I'll tell you what, that will sure get you ready to play," said defensive end Simeon Rice, who had 14½ of the 35 sacks recorded by Bucs defensive linemen during the 2002 regular season. "It gets the juices going pretty good. It's real graphic stuff." On the eve of the Dec. 8 NFC South showdown with the Atlanta Falcons, for instance, Marinelli got his hands on the tape of a pack of ravenous gators "snacking" on a deer that had become entangled in marshland.

  • Seahawks getting Rhodes scholar? League officials confirm that Ray Rhodes has been released from the final season of his contract with the Denver Broncos, is free now to sign on with another team and will likely soon join Mike Holmgren's staff in Seattle. Holmgren has been on vacation and so things have slowed in the search for a defensive coordinator and general manager. Holmgren was due back in the office on Friday. There are some in the Seahawks organization who would prefer Holmgren import a younger defensive chief, someone with new and fresh ideas, but the Seahawks need to win in 2003, and Rhodes offers them the best chance for a quick upgrade.

  • Falcons receive some help: The Falcons made a terrific addition in former San Francisco aide George Stewart, who will handle the wide receivers and try to boost a relatively weak position. For years, Stewart was one of the premier special teams coaches in the NFL, then switched to wide receivers. Atlanta lured Stewart, in part, with a healthy salary. But the team also assured Stewart it planned to go hard for a veteran wide receiver in free agency. And the name mentioned to Stewart, to no one's surprise, was Peerless Price of Buffalo. As noted here in the past, some team is going to overpay to get Price, who is coming off a career year but who also benefits from playing the No. 2 slot behind "lead" receiver Eric Moulds. Along with getting plenty of money, however, Price is going to get plenty of pressure because, wherever he signs, he will be expected to put up numbers commensurate to his 2002 statistics.

  • Feeling a draft: The pendulum is always swinging in the NFL. In the wake of terrific 2002 seasons by undersized speed rushers Jason Taylor, Simeon Rice and Dwight Freeney, scouts are now poring over draft evaluations to find defensive ends with superior upfield burst. For the past few years, the emphasis has been on defensive tackles, with 10 prospects at the hard-to-fill position selected in the first round of the past two drafts. Tackles will get plenty of play again in the first round this year, since the pool has at least four first-rounders and 10-12 players capable of contributing as rookies. But teams seeking to improve their pressure on the quarterback are going to take a long look at some of the ends as well. Underclass entry Terrell Suggs of Arizona State, who had an astonishing 24 sacks in 2002, will benefit from the swing back toward the end position. Suggs, in fact, could be the initial defensive player chosen this year. Although he is only about 254 pounds, he has great explosiveness, corners naturally to the quarterback and closes like a heat-seeking missile. Ironically, Suggs will be represented by agent Gary Wichard, who did a great job last year pitching teams on the undersized Freeney, who had 13 sacks as a rookie. Some of the other defensive ends who will be strongly considered: Jerome McDougle (Miami), Cory Redding (Texas), Jimmy Wilkerson (Oklahoma), Michael Haynes (Penn State), Chris Kelsay (Nebraska) and Alonzo Johnson (FSU).

  • No Griese in Miami: Despite media speculation to the contrary, high-ranking Miami Dolphins sources told ESPN.com earlier this week they have no interest in adding quarterback Brian Griese after he is dumped by the Denver Broncos in June. And even the legendary Bob Griese allowed during Super Bowl week that the Miami situation would not be a good one for his son. On the flip side, the Dolphins will take a long look at Kordell Stewart once he is released by Pittsburgh, feeling he can buttress the position and push starter Jay Fiedler. This is a key year for Fiedler, who needs to lift his game and the Dolphins or possibly find himself replaced in 2004.

  • Brunell's future: Forget the rumors, as well, about Jacksonville trying to trade quarterback Mark Brunell. Rookie coach Jack Del Rio is a Brunell guy and doesn't want to begin his first season as a head coach at any level by having to change quarterbacks. Maintaining some semblance of on-field continuity is one of the biggest priorities for the Jaguars, especially in light of all the off-field alterations. Brunell has a salary cap charge of $8.5 million for 2003, and a base salary of $6.5 million, but those are palatable given the alternative of having to break in a new quarterback like David Garrard, who clearly is not ready. In 2004, it could be crunch time for Brunell and the Jags, since the quarterback is due a $2 million roster bonus March 1 of that year. His cap charge also jumps to $10.5 million in '04.

  • Hot commodity: Offensive guards characteristically are the red-headed stepchildren of the unrestricted free agent market, but that won't be the case for Randy Thomas of the Jets, who figures to get plenty of action. Thomas is certainly a Pro Bowl-caliber player, a strong in-line blocker and a guy improving in pass protection. Tampa Bay assistant head coach Bill Muir, who handles the Bucs offensive line and tutored Thomas the first three seasons of his career, desperately wants to lure him south. Bill Parcells was the Jets coach when Thomas was drafted in 1999 and wouldn't mind seeing him in a Dallas uniform. There are three or four other teams, too, who will make big pitches for Thomas.

  • Cavillo heading South? In advance of the release of Kordell Stewart, and the possibility that Charlie Batch will test the free-agent market, the Steelers have begun to explore possibilities for the backup jobs behind Tommy Maddox. Earlier this week, Pittsburgh coaches and personnel officials auditioned CFL star Anthony Calvillo of the Montreal Alouettes. The 30-year-old Calvillo, who played collegiately at Utah State, will become a free agent in mid-February. After nine CFL seasons -- he led his team to the Grey Cup title in 2002 -- Calvillo is anxious to test himself in the NFL and is shopping around for a buyer. Over the past three seasons, Calvillo has thrown for 12,961 yards, with 70 touchdown passes and 24 interceptions. CFL sources say Calvillo is seeking more money than any team in their league can afford right now.

  • Contract news -- Part 1: The breakdown on the new four-year contract that linebacker Chris Draft signed with the Falcons, a deal that keeps him off the unrestricted free agent market: $1.3 million signing bonus and base salaries of $600,000 (for 2003), $1 million (2004), $1.2 million (2005) and $1.3 million (2006). There is a roster bonus of $300,000 for the '06 season. In addition, Draft can increase his base salaries for 2004-06 by as much as $300,000 per year if he plays in 70 percent of the '03 snaps.

  • Contract news -- Part 2: The new five-year contract to which the Seattle Seahawks signed offensive right tackle Chris Terry, claimed off waivers from Carolina late in the 2002 season, includes a $5 million signing bonus. The base salaries are $530,000 (for 2003), $1 million (2004), $3 million (2005), $3 million (2006) and $4 million (2007). There are roster bonuses of $1 million in 2004 and $600,000 for 2006. Terry, a player of great potential whose personal problems led to his demise with the Panthers, can earn a $1 million escalator if he is selected to two Pro Bowl games.

  • Contract news -- Part 3: Finally, in our attempt to catch up on some of the contracts signed in the past week or two, Kansas City wide receiver and return specialist Dante Hall pocketed a $1.5 million signing bonus on the five-year deal he recently signed. The base salaries are $450,000 (for 2003), $535,000 (2004), $750,000 (2005), $875,000 (2006) and $1 million (2007). There are offseason workout bonuses of $25,000 each for 2004-2007.

  • Kicked to the curb? Colts officials insist that kicker Mike Vanderjagt won't be released because of the comments he made concerning quarterback Peyton Manning and coach Tony Dungy this week. But several players to whom we spoke acknowledged it will be difficult for the veteran kicker to return to the team. "A lot of guys might think some of the stuff he said, but no one would ever say it aloud," said one veteran. "Ripping on Peyton has been a no-no around here ever since he arrived."

  • Good genes: If you were watching the Miami-Connecticut basketball game on Jan. 20, you couldn't help but notice Hurricanes star swingman Darius Rice score 43 points, including a game-winning 3-pointer that capped a huge comeback. Darius Rice is the nephew of Oakland Raiders wide receiver and future Hall of Fame member Jerry Rice. Notable is that Jerry Rice watched his nephew's outstanding performance on television, then quickly phoned him after the game. The two speak regularly and the younger Rice said of his famous uncle: "He's an athlete to admire and a person to admire, and I am very lucky that I can listen to him and learn from him."

  • Rough surfaces: The NFL Players Association released its biannual survey of playing surfaces last week and the results were hardly surprising. Of the 1,114 players who responded, 88.8 percent prefer to play on grass and 95.7 percent said they felt artificial surfaces were more likely to contribute to an injury. The five best playing fields, according to the survey: Raymond James Stadium (Tampa Bay), Sun Devil Stadium (Arizona), Seahawks Stadium, Ericsson Stadium (Carolina) and Alltel Stadium (Jacksonville). The five worst: Veterans Stadium (Philadelphia), Giants Stadium, Paul Brown Stadium (Cincinnati), Metrodome (Minnesota) and the Superdome (New Orleans).

  • Fun with math: The Spanos family, which owns the San Diego Chargers, has offered to pay half of the $400 million they claim it will take for a new stadium. But those who have taken a pencil to the offer, and who understand the team's share includes a so-called "G-3 loan" from the league and naming rights to the stadium, say the offer is a hollow one. In actuality, suggest some analysts, the Chargers would pay significantly less than half the cost. The critics contend that the Spanos family is practicing creative bookkeeping.

  • Punts: The San Diego Chargers last week informed free safety Rogers Beckett that he is moving to the strong safety spot in 2003. The three-year veteran doesn't have the speed or range defensive coordinator Dale Lindsey wants at free safety. As noted two weeks ago, incumbent strong safety Rodney Harrison will be released this spring. ... The Chicago Bears gave wide receiver Marcus Robinson permission to arrange a trade, but there does not seem to be much interest in the onetime deep threat. One reason: Teams know the Bears plan to release Robinson anyway, and figure they can get him for free then, without having to give up a draft choice. ... Washington very quietly added a new defensive tackle coach, Ken Clarke, this week. ... Houston continues to dangle the No. 3 overall choice in the draft, hoping to move down, draft an offensive tackle, and gain some extra choices. ... There are rumblings that Atlanta owner Arthur Blank, who figured to maintain the status quo in his front office after a successful season, may now revisit the matter of hiring a general manager. Special "consultant" Bobby Beathard, who is staying on in Atlanta until after the draft, would likely have much clout in the determination of the general manager, if Blank decides to go that way.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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