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Fresh crop of coaching geniuses makes its mark on the NFL

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- Lovie Smith, genius. Jim Johnson, genius. Mike Mularkey, genius.

Boy, that word gets thrown around in the NFL.

At various times this season, all three of those assistant coaches have been identified as geniuses. Yet it is unlikely any of them will be head coaches in the league next season.

Smith, the defensive coordinator in St. Louis, has NFL's most-improved unit. Hired from Tampa Bay, where he worked with the linebackers, helping Derrick Brooks become an All-Pro, he so revitalized the Rams' defense that it set several records in beating the Packers' last weekend.

Johnson, master of the blitz, gets to test his schemes on Sunday against St. Louis' prolific offense in the NFC championship game. The Eagles yielded the second-fewest points in the league, and seven of the 208 allowed came against the offense.

Mularkey has been the guiding force behind the turnaround of Kordell Stewart, who went from uncertainty to the Pro Bowl, leading Pittsburgh to the AFC's best record and a spot in the AFC title game against New England.

Yet, because of league rules barring teams in search of a head coach from contacting candidates still working in the playoffs, Smith, Johnson and Mularkey probably will stay put, just as Baltimore's Marvin Lewis and the Giants' John Fox did in 2001.

''I just go to work each day and do my job,'' Smith said. ''I was asked to be in charge of the linebackers in Tampa, and I coached them and they played well. I was brought here to be in charge of the defense, and we've been successful here.

''If you continue to be successful with what people put you in charge of, eventually they'll give you more. Eventually, my more will come.''

The Rams won the 2000 Super Bowl with an overwhelming offense. If they have a defense to match, they figure to be unbeatable -- exactly what Rams coach Mike Martz had in mind when he hired Smith.

''We were very specific in what we wanted, the structure, and the guy I wanted,'' Martz said. ''It's not an easy thing to get who and what you want. We made some radical changes in staff and personnel with the whole purpose to get the defense to the same level as the offense. I think they are very close, and I think Lovie has them playing and operating under the same standard.''

It's a standard Johnson's defense has reached in Philadelphia. The Eagles didn't surrender more than 21 points in any game this season.

''I think Jim Johnson and (Patriots coach) Bill Belichick do the best job in the league taking away what you do best,'' Martz said. ''He is a brilliant coordinator and it's amazing he has not been a head coach.''

Johnson -- he certainly has the name to be a head coach -- is in his 16th season as an NFL assistant and has been coaching overall since 1959. The only head coaching stint for Johnson, 60, was at Missouri Southern in 1967-68.

''It's not that important,'' the blitz master said. ''If the opportunity comes, that's great. But there are a lot of good coaches out there who have not had a chance to be a head coach.''

Not many coaches are as creative with their defenses as Johnson.

''Jim Johnson is a guy who can think of things you've never seen,'' said Rams running back Marshall Faulk, who will have much responsibility for blitz pickups on Sunday. ''They come out of blitzes and out of the regular scheme. He gets about as creative on defense as Mike does on offense.''

That would be Mike Martz, of course. But Mike Mularkey has found a creative niche in Pittsburgh, where the offense no longer is just a ride on the Bus. Mularkey, the Steelers' tight ends coach who, after two futile tries, finally was promoted to offensive coordinator this season, has put together a scheme that fits the personnel.

Suddenly, Stewart's confidence is revived and he is a Pro Bowl quarterback. Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress are 1,000-yard receivers, and when Bettis missed six games, backups Amos Zereoue and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala played well.

Credit Mularkey, who was passed over for Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride before Steelers coach Bill Cowher promoted him.

''At some point, you've got to give someone an opportunity,'' Cowher said. ''I felt like he earned it this time.''

Wise choice. Mularkey simplified the offense, relying more on individual talent than schemes, and the players, particularly Stewart, bought into it.

''It's not vanilla -- it's simple but it's unpredictable,'' Mularkey said.

More predictable is that, genius or not, he will be back with the Steelers next season, while Smith is in St. Louis and Johnson is in Philly.



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