San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh is a shoo-in for the NFL coach of the year award. What he's done in his first season is miraculous--molding a playoff team out of essentially the same misguided bunch of 49ers that underperformed for Mike Singletary last season.
But should Harbaugh be a slam-dunk winner?
Hardly anybody is noticing, but right across the bay another rookie coach, the Oakland Raiders' Hue Jackson, is also doing a bang-up job. Leading the AFC West by one game, his team is poised to finally make the playoffs for the first time since their 2002 Super Bowl year. Without an overwhelming favorite like Harbaugh in the mix, Jackson might get serious consideration for the Coach of the Year award--assuming the Raiders don't falter that is.
A major Oakland stumble is unlikely, though. Under the guidance of Jackson, who honed his coaching chops in college at Cal and USC, the Raiders have become a solid, consistent team. For the first time since their Super Bowl team back in the last decade, the Raiders look well-coached. Even in their 8-8 season last year, they seemed shaky much of the time.
You can argue that Jackson has had a tougher job than Harbaugh. All he had to do with the Niners was upgrade their mind-set, expose them to some sensible coaching and erase all remnants of Singletary's chaotic, fear-filled regime. But Jackson's path to success has been a veritable minefield.
First of all, he got a job that nobody else wanted. Eager but thoroughly inexperienced as a head coach, he was owner Al Davis' umpteenth choice. Nobody wanted the job because nobody wanted to deal with Davis' notorious meddling. Then Davis did Jackson a big favor. He died on Oct.8, removing what was perhaps Jackson's biggest obstacle.
Jackson started out coping with a coach's worst nightmare--quarterback troubles. The Raiders weren't going anywhere with QB Jason Campbell, who broke his collarbone in their October, 24-17 win over Cleveland. So when the Bengals loosened their grip on veteran QB Carson Palmer's throat, the Raiders pounced. After a rough breaking-in period, Palmer has shaken off the rust and turned into the best QB in the AFC West.
That's not all. Giving Jackson a crash course in being a Raider QB was difficult enough. Jackson has also had to run this offense without its No. 1 weapon. Basically a running team, the Raiders have been operating without their best runner--banged-up Darren McFadden. So far, so good.
One reason Jackson is flying under the radar is because any attention give to the AFC West invariably focuses on the Denver Broncos and their QB Tim Tebow, who's a lousy passer but a savvy runner, an exceptional leader and a magician in clutch, fourth-quarter situations.
Ironically, Tebow is not only keeping the spotlight from Jackson, he's also hogging media attention that belongs to another Bronco--defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.
Tebow may be the star, but he'd be nowhere without Allen, whose unit keeps opponents out of the end zone. Look at November, when the Broncos won four games. That crack defense surrendered only 60 points the entire month. Tebow wouldn't be in a position to orchestrate fourth-quarter heroics if the other team was scoring 25-30 points a game. In low-scoring contests, Tebow, with his limited skills, reigns.
If any other Bronco outside of Tebow gets credit it's head coach Jim Fox. So let's here it for two unsung heroes of the AFC West--Raiders' head coach Hue Jackson and Broncos' defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. They deserve some recognition too.