It has been five years since Mike Sherman last coached in the NFL, but his reentry as Dolphins offensive coordinator has been smooth.
“It’s pretty much like riding a bike, getting back into it with the schedule and how we do things here as opposed to college,” said Sherman, who coached at Texas A&M the previous four years.
“A head coach in college, there’s a lot of issues on a team with 125 kids, academic issues, making sure kids are going to class, making sure kids are going to graduate, family issues that pop up.
“So all of those things you don’t have to worry about as much. You still have to take care of the guys and make sure things are going in the right direction, but you don’t have those off-the-field issues that you have in college.”
It’s a welcome change for a man who still has strong ties to Massachusetts.
Sherman, 57, was born in Norwood and raised on Oak Street in Hyde Park, surrounded by relatives who used to watch him walk down the hill to the Most Precious Blood School. Sherman attended Boston Latin before the family relocated to Northborough after eighth grade. The Algonquin Regional High standout earned a scholarship to Central Connecticut State, then became an English teacher.
While at Worcester Academy, Sherman thought a scrawny student from Longmeadow stood out.
That would be Joe Philbin, whom Sherman hired onto his Packers staff 23 years later and is now his boss with the Dolphins.
“Taught him English class,” Sherman said. “Very good student, very deep thinker, very cerebral, great writer. I don’ t think he got any A’s in my class but I think he got some B’s.
“He was just a quiet guy, but he was a great leader at the same time. People gravitated to him. When he said something, people paid attention. I could see the leadership that he had back then and how it has transferred in his life, whether it be at Green Bay or here. I saw that same leadership back then.”
Sherman has had a curious career. He was actually a very good coach with the Packers, going 57-39 with three division titles in six seasons. His only losing season was his last (4-12 in 2005). His winning percentage of .594 is 37th all-time, just behind Andy Reid (.609) and ahead of active coaches Mike Shanahan (.569), Tom Coughlin and Lovie Smith (.555), and Jeff Fisher (.542).
Sherman’s biggest problem was that he was handed personnel control in 2001 after Ron Wolf retired and then overworked himself, which led to him becoming a bit isolated and somewhat paranoid by the end.
Sherman was put in a no-win situation when team president Bob Harlan brought in Ted Thompson in 2005 to head football operations. Thompson gutted the cap-ravaged veteran team, and Sherman’s lone losing season was unavoidable. Sherman was fired after that season and replaced by Mike McCarthy.
“I feel very good about my work ethic, and I have more regrets about being a father at that time than I do as a coach,” said Sherman, whose work ethic was legendary. “I was absent and I needed to be home more and I was totally invested in my job and the Packers. My regrets are more personal then professional.
“I always wished I could have won a Super Bowl with the Packers. It’s an unbelievable place to coach and to be a part of that fabric, and the expectations are so high and you want to meet those every year. We had success. We won divisions but we never won a Super Bowl. I would have liked that opportunity. I loved every second of my coaching career there.”
Sherman said the title of general manager was something he couldn’t turn down, despite getting it in his just fifth season at the NFL level.
“I made some good decisions, I made some bad decisions as far as personnel goes,” he said. “When they presented it to me, I didn’t shy away from the opportunity to do it because it was a challenge.
“At the time, maybe it was too much on my plate, but I didn’t think about it — that’s in retrospect. I thought at that time, ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.’ I don’t regret that they gave that to me. It was a great learning experience. I learned a lot about football.
“You learn a lot about mistakes you make, too. I think I’m a better coach for it.”
Both Sherman and his quarterback with the Packers, Brett Favre, were fired by Thompson in roundabout ways. Sherman, who was an assistant with the Texans for two seasons after Green Bay, watched the Favre drama from afar.
“I think time will pass and everything will be made right,” Sherman said of the Packers-Favre divorce. “Green Bay has meant too much to him as a player and as a person and he’s been too much for them.
“I know there’s some hard feelings, maybe on both sides, but at the same time I think with time that all dissipates and he’ll be welcomed back with open arms. The dust just has to settle a little bit and the pain of his exit has to heal a little bit and I think he’ll be what he was. He was an icon.
“I know he loved his time in Green Bay and has phenomenal memories. I know that he cherishes every single Sunday that he went out that tunnel to the cheers of those fans. I think eventually that will heal up and be put in the past.”
Sherman and Favre have kept in touch over the years, but haven’t spoken since Sherman landed with the Dolphins. Could we see the Old Gunslinger make an appearance at the Dolphins training facility at some point?
“I’d love to get him down here,” Sherman said. “It’s hard to get him off that tractor. He loves to mow his grass. He has the best grass in America — he should, anyway, with as much time he puts into that grass.”
For now, Sherman will head down to the Cape, where he’ll visit his parents and fish on the Bass River. Then it will be time to take on the AFC East with one of the Dolphins’ three quarterbacks: Matt Moore, David Garrard, or first-round pick Ryan Tannehill, Sherman’s pupil with the Aggies.
“There are definitely challenges, no question,” Sherman said. “It starts right there in my home state with the Patriots and Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and what they present with their defense. I have tremendous respect for coach Belichick and Brady & Co. for what they’ve accomplished. May end up being akin to the Boston Celtics and what they did with Bill Russell and that run they had. They are certainly worthy of the recognition that they get.”
IN AND OUT
Forecasting for playoffs
It’s an unbelievable statistic, really.
At the end of the 2011 NFL season, there were six playoff teams that had not made the postseason in 2010. That’s the 16th consecutive season that at least five new teams have made the playoffs.
Not coincidentally, the streak started in 1996 — two years after the salary cap came to the NFL and leveled the playing field for everybody but the Patriots (they just keep on going as long as No. 12 is upright.)
Four times in the past nine seasons, there have been at least seven new teams. The NFL has 12 total playoff berths, so often there’s a 50 percent turnover.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the top five contenders to get back to the playoffs, and then the five that could be watching in January.
1. Chiefs (7-9): This team lost a lot of good players to injury last season, including running back Jamaal Charles, safety Eric Berry, and tight end Tony Moeaki. They added some solid veterans in right tackle Eric Winston, tight end Kevin Boss, running back Peyton Hillis, and cornerback Stanford Routt. This team should make the playoffs. If it doesn’t, it’s because either Matt Cassel isn’t a franchise quarterback or Romeo Crennel isn’t a head coach. Or a little of both.
2. Chargers (8-8): Yes, I have little faith that Norv Turner can motivate a team out of a paper bag, but San Diego had the second-best offense not to make the playoffs. You can be terrible on defense and make the Super Bowl, but you can’t be terrible on offense. Philip Rivers is too good not to find a way to the playoffs for a third straight season. And maybe Peyton Manning’s presence in the division will make Turner realize that the season doesn’t start in November.
3. Eagles (8-8): The Dream Team rides again. A team that adds a lot of free agents is always better the second time around. The Eagles weren’t that bad the first time, either. Their 68 net points were the highest for any team not to make the postseason. It’s all on the line for Andy Reid. If the Eagles don’t get off to a promising start, he is finished. This team could be derailed by guys like DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy getting fat off their new contracts.
4. Panthers (6-10): We’re putting the fighting Cam Newtons into the dance for very much the same reason as the Chargers: Offense wins in the regular season (the postseason is a little different). We also think that former standout Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly is going to have a huge impact on a bad defense. He and Newton will be like Batman and Robin.
5. Bills (6-10): The AFC East gets the gift of having both the AFC South and the NFC West on the schedule. That is almost always good for two and sometimes three playoff spots (see AFC North last season). So both the Jets and Bills (with the Dolphins a possible dark horse) could join the postseason party. If the Bills can stay healthy on offense, and Dave Wannstedt can make the defense average, this team is going to be a threat.
1. Bengals (9-7): Next to the Tim Tebow-led Broncos, Cincinnati was the worst team to make the playoffs. And it didn’t add Peyton Manning. The Bengals have had a lot of roster turnover. A lot of the moves look good on paper, but that’s too much flux for a team to get on the same page in a tough division.
2. Giants (9-7): Yes, they won the Super Bowl, and Eli Manning looked awesome down the stretch, but remember that they barely made the playoffs to begin with. This division should be loaded this season and it will be a fight to the finish to see who survives. Only one team might go again. The Giants have the league’s toughest schedule on paper.
3. Steelers (12-4): Chances are, either Pittsburgh or Baltimore is not going to make the playoffs, considering how the AFC has more teams on the rise. It’s really a tossup. Both teams are rebuilding their offensive lines and parts of the defense. The Steelers seem further away on defense, and they are going with a change at offensive coordinator to the combustible Todd Haley.
4. Lions (10-6): Loved them as a team on the rise entering last season. The Lions are always one Matthew Stafford injury away from a top five pick. Add in the fact that the organization has become a bit of a circus with off-field troubles, and they seem to be a candidate to take a step back this year.
5. Broncos (8-8): This team shouldn’t have made the playoffs. Its defense was exposed as average and the secondary isn’t much better. Yes, Manning almost always means a playoff berth if he’s healthy — but will that hold true with a new offense and new teammates? We have our doubts for Year 1, with the league’s second-toughest schedule.
Carpenter has useful tools
One player who received a lot of playing time during the offseason practices for the Patriots was former Cowboys, Dolphins, and Lions linebacker Bobby Carpenter. It didn’t hurt his cause that Brandon Spikes has been out since having offseason knee surgery, but they don’t play the same position. Spikes is a middle linebacker for the Patriots, while Carpenter can play both outside spots in a 4-3. Jerod Mayo is the weak-side linebacker, so that means Carpenter is in the mix on the strong side. Expect first-round pick Dont’a Hightower to have a say in that at some point. At the least, Carpenter is going to play a large role in coverage. He’s the only legitimate cover linebacker the Patriots have after Gary Guyton departed. Since Carpenter is destined for a large role with New England, I talked to an AFC personnel executive who knows him well. “His best fit is with a 4-3 scheme,” said the executive. “In a 3-4, he’s a tweener because he’s not an outside backer and he has to be on the weak side on the inside. In a 4-3, he can be a Sam or a Will. He’s really a backup player. Where there’s some value, he can give you a little bit of coverage, he can play on special teams, he can do some of the nickel work for you in terms of coverage. Above-average cover guy. For a big man, he runs pretty good. Above-average speed. Not a pass rusher. Where he’s best is when he’s covered up [behind a defensive lineman] and he doesn’t have to play strategically downhill and thump. When he can play sideline to sideline, that will play a little bit more to his skill set. He is not very physical. He is not very tough. He’s a little bit more of a lateral player. Not bad in space. Solid backup. He certainly looks the part. Good kid. Will work, practice and do all those things you ask.”
Time is now for 49ers
The 49ers were one of the surprise teams in 2011 because most, including this scribe, thought it would be impossible for a new coach with new schemes on both sides of the ball to get things to jell quickly after a lockout. Critics underestimated the ability of coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to take the hand dealt to them and make the best of it. The 49ers went from 6-10 to 13-3 and lost the NFC title game in overtime to the Giants. The approach for 2012 is to take advantage of the opportunity that is in front of them, with all 11 starters back on a terrific defense, and some new weapons on offense. ‘‘The mind-set I’ve kind of been spreading to the guys is, your team isn’t always going to be stacked, we’re not going to be able to keep this team together forever,’’ said All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith. “So let’s go out and try to hammer this thing home. You know, we’re not building, so let’s do it this year. It’s the goal of 31 other teams as well, so it’s going to be a tough one to achieve. But we feel like we’ve got the right team to do it.’’ Tight end Vernon Davis wasn’t afraid to say the 49ers should be considered Super Bowl favorites. ‘‘I don’t want to sound too cocky, but I think we have the potential,’’ Davis said. ‘‘I think we have a lot of potential and I’m not wrong for saying that because of the talent we have. I can’t say that we’re going to win the Super Bowl. All I can say is that I strongly believe that we have the team to get to that point. It makes me excited because I know what we have going forward.’’Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.