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Play-calling head coaches face unique challenges

Mike Holmgren (far right), seen here counseling quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (8), is one of 11 NFL head coaches expected to have primary play-calling duties this season. No other NFC West coach is pulling a similar double duty. Greg Trott/Getty Images

Much has changed for Mike Holmgren since his first days as an NFL head coach 16 years ago.

He has watched four daughters grow into women with families and careers of their own. His jewelry collection has expanded by one Super Bowl ring. He has gone from coach to coach/general manager and back to coach. He has lost loved ones and close associates, from his mother to former assistant Fritz Shurmur to his mentor, Bill Walsh, to the finest defensive lineman he ever coached, Reggie White.

One constant for Holmgren through it all: calling the offensive plays on NFL game days. It's one part of the job Holmgren figures to miss when he walks away from the Seattle Seahawks after the 2008 season.

"I still enjoy calling the games," Holmgren said earlier this year.

Holmgren's scheduled departure from the Seahawks is part of a broader trend in the NFC West. The division that once claimed Walsh, the ultimate head coach as offensive playcaller, could join the AFC East and AFC North as the only divisions without even one head coach filling the high-profile role.

In St. Louis, Rams coach Scott Linehan is handing off play-calling duties to new offensive coordinator Al Saunders after a 2007 season marked by injuries and offensive futility.

In Arizona, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt is following through on a promise to delegate more play-calling responsibilities to coordinator Todd Haley.

Calling the plays on offense won't be an option for Holmgren's successor-in-waiting, Jim Mora, who has a defensive background. The same holds true in San Francisco as long as Mike Nolan remains head coach. New offensive coordinator Mike Martz will call plays for the 49ers in 2008.

Fifteen head coaches have backgrounds on offense. Eleven of them are expected to serve as primary playcallers this season, a number consistent with recent history.
The New York Giants' Tom Coughlin and first-year Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano stand with Linehan and Whisenhunt as exceptions -- offensive-minded head coaches who leave the play calling to others.

Twenty-five of the 32 head coaches worked previously as NFL coordinators. Coughlin and Sparano were not among them. Coughlin is the only current NFL head coach who built his reputation as a Division I college head coach. Sparano coached the offensive line in Dallas, calling plays in 2006, the year Tony Romo became a productive passer.

Head coaches who pull double duty as playcallers face additional challenges.

As playcallers, they must think one or two plays ahead of the action, their minds focused on big-picture strategy. As head coaches, they must retain a strong grasp on game management. Unable to see the field as well as a coordinator might from the booth, they must quickly process information relayed to them through headsets -- without letting the chaos of the sideline impair their judgment.

"I'm an offensive guy, but at the same time, I know that the responsibility from my end needs to be to see the big picture of this football team," Sparano told reporters shortly after his hiring in Miami.

Veteran offensive coordinator Dan Henning will call the plays for Miami this season.
While a conservative approach likely will suit the rebuilding Dolphins best, coordinators generally can afford to be more freewheeling as playcallers because the head coach is ultimately responsible for results. Head coaches serve as filters for coordinators, exercising veto power as they see fit.

The dynamic is different for head coaches who call plays. They lean on coordinators, but other factors weigh heavily on them. It's their job to consider how an aggressive call might affect the defense or special teams.

As the 49ers' offensive coordinator under George Seifert, Holmgren figured he could trust Joe Montana and Jerry Rice to beat anyone, even all-world cornerback Deion Sanders. In one memorable case, the aggressive playcaller in Holmgren should have deferred to the pragmatist who knew better than to take chances unnecessarily.

"As an assistant coach, you're not afraid of anybody," Holmgren later explained. "I was the same way, but I learned a valuable lesson as an assistant coach. Had Deion caught a ball, we would have lost the game. I got too cocky."

One of Holmgren's protégés in Seattle could encounter similar temptations as a first-year playcaller.

Jim Zorn, the Seahawks' longtime quarterbacks coach, plans to call offensive plays as the rookie head coach for the Washington Redskins. A freewheeling scrambler during his playing days as a left-handed passer, Zorn developed a reputation for offensive creativity as a quarterback -- and as an assistant coach.

The transition can be made.

In 1999, Philadelphia's Andy Reid jumped from quarterbacks coach under Holmgren in Green Bay to play-calling head coach for the Eagles.
Minnesota's Brad Childress, Green Bay's Mike McCarthy, New Orleans' Sean Payton and Houston's Gary Kubiak are entering their third seasons as head coaches and offensive playcallers. McCarthy and Payton already have earned widespread acclaim.

Oakland's Lane Kiffin and San Diego's Norv Turner are entering their second seasons on the job (Turner previously called plays as the Redskins' head coach).

Four other offensive head coaches have been calling plays in their current roles for longer than two seasons. Holmgren, Reid, Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden and Denver's Mike Shanahan share something else in common. Each has led his current team to a Super Bowl.

Holmgren will try to do it one more time. His NFC West counterparts will be watching.

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com