In February, when Jeff Fisher chose Norm Chow as his new offensive coordinator, the buzzwords speed, quickness and tempo were often employed when describing what the Tennessee Titans head coach wanted from the successor to Mike Heimerdinger.
Four months into his NFL baptism following a brilliant three-decade college career, Chow seems to have delivered just the combination Fisher sought.
The Titans offense, from all accounts during the offseason program, is quicker out of the huddle. The play count is said to be up. Chow has changed the snap-call from the standard hut to go. (Yeah, we know, it's still one syllable, but a quicker syllable, right?) Maybe most important, it doesn't take nearly as long now for Fisher to introduce his coordinator at civic functions.
Yep, everything about Norm Chow is quick, including his staccato, eight-letter name.
But the speed factor on which Chow will be judged in his maiden NFL campaign is how quickly he can incorporate an offensive design that has produced three Heisman Trophy winners, and statistically ranked in the top 10 of the NCAA in 15 of the last 21 seasons, but is untested at the professional level.
Even in a 2004 season assessed by Fisher as mediocre, the Tennessee offense ranked No. 11 in the league and clicked off more snaps than everyone but the Denver Broncos, and so no one knows precisely what barometer will be used to gauge Chow's impact. Then again, Chow, who had rebuffed previous overtures from NFL teams, is savvy enough to understand that the common denominator at every level of the sport is victories. And in 2004, the Titans, a team that some observers consider in decline, and a franchise that is in the throes of dealing with its salary cap excesses of the past, didn't win often enough.
"This hasn't been a franchise accustomed to losing," said Chow, 58, lured from national champion Southern California with a contract totaling approximately seven figures. "They are a lot more accustomed to being in the playoffs and being a [Super Bowl] contender here. So, hopefully, we can play some part in getting back on that track. I'm certainly excited by the challenge."
His legion of friends are excited for Chow, who has long been regarded as the premier coordinator in the college game, but there are also some skeptics who are curious to see how he designs plays at the highest level of the game. Chow insisted that nothing should be lost in the translation from the college game to the NFL and he makes a salient point. His offense is not gimmick-based, like, say, the Fun-n-Gun scheme that failed Steve Spurrier in his two seasons with the Washington Redskins.
The Chow design is said to be player-friendly, streamlined, relatively facile, and not overly mentally demanding.
Said former NFL quarterback Gifford Nielsen, who played under Chow at Brigham Young: "It's based on the theory that, whatever decision the defense makes, it will be the wrong decision. There's something to counter whatever the defense does."
To this point, the offense has been well received, with Titans quarterback Steve McNair's acknowledging the simplicity of its sophistication, the diversity of the design and the mix of half-rolls and pocket movement that should better keep him out of harm's way in 2005. The basic philosophy that the more plays you run, the more chances you provide yourself to attack the defense, and to locate its vulnerabilities has been embraced by the most veteran Titans players.
But how the offense actually produces in game situations will be the ultimate test and so, not surprisingly, league observers are withholding judgment. Make no mistake, though, on this count: Given his lack of NFL experience, and even with so many friends around the league, Chow will be the most scrutinized assistant coach newcomer in 2005.
To be sure, there might be assistants under more pressure, playing for bigger stakes in 2005. Eric Mangini has been on the New England staff since 2000, and is seen as one of the NFL's most creative secondary coaches, but he must demonstrate this season that he can step into the coordinator's spot with a team that has claimed three Super Bowl titles in four years.
There are a dozen new offensive coordinators for 2005 and seven new coordinators on the defensive side. Of those 19 coordinators, 15 are with new franchises, and four were assistants elevated up the coaching totem. As longtime NFL assistant Jimmy Raye once noted, "The closer you are to running the seven-on-seven drill, the more important you are on a staff," so coordinators will command considerable attention in 2005.
That is especially true on the offensive side, where high-profile coaches such as Heimerdinger (New York Jets), Jim Fassel (Baltimore), Scott Linehan (Miami), Ted Tollner (Detroit), Ron Turner (Chicago) and Carl Smith (Jacksonville), among others, expect to have a profound effect on their units.
Offensive coordinators aren't the only newcomers, though, who will face close scrutiny in 2005. Linehan is key to the Dolphins' success, for sure, but probably won't be able to do much with the Miami offense unless the legendary Hudson Houck can piece together a representative line unit. In Green Bay, defensive coordinator Jim Bates has to develop a pass rush and patch together the secondary. Denver defensive line coach Andre Patterson, who lobbied for the Broncos to collect all the rejects once under his charge in Cleveland, is on the spot to prove his public support of those players wasn't empty rhetoric.
So, while the Titans' newest assistant strives to prove it is Chow Time in Tennessee, and that the cupboard isn't as bare as some have speculated, he isn't the only guy already on the hot seat. Here's a look at some other assistant coaches, all with new franchises in '05, expected to make an impact:
• Hudson Houck, Miami, offensive line: Termed by Dolphins offensive coordinator Linehan, "really the elite [assistant] coach in the NFL," Houck has cobbled together some superb blocking units in his 22 league seasons. He has coached 11 linemen to a total of 43 Pro Bowl appearances and produced six league rushing champions. But Houck clearly has his work cut out for him in Miami, where the Dolphins line was nothing shy of awful in 2004. Noted Houck last week: "I am not a miracle worker." He might have to be.
• Jim Fassel, Baltimore, offensive coordinator: The former New York Giants head coach was a consultant with the Ravens in 2004, so he has the benefit of at least getting a part-time look at quarterback Kyle Boller, arguably the player most critical to the success of the team this season. Fassel has always been regarded as a terrific quarterbacks coach and, in Boller, he is getting a guy who is very much a work in progress. There were flickers with Boller during the second half of the 2004 season and if Fassel can stoke those flames he might get a second chance at a head coach spot.
• Jim Bates, Green Bay, defensive coordinator: One of the NFL's best for several years, Bates did a terrific job as the interim coach in Miami in 2004, and he will bring a level of excitement that will get the players' attention. But jury-rigging the Green Bay defense will be a challenge for Bates, both from a style and personnel standpoint. In Miami, he always had superb outside pass rushers, which meant his blitz-quota was usually low. Outside of Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, there are no proven pass rushers in Green Bay. He's also accustomed to strong, single-cover cornerbacks and the Packers' secondary in general is young and very raw.
• Willy Robinson, New Orleans, senior defensive assistant/secondary: Not all that well known except by league insiders, Robinson boasts a strong background and was the coordinator in San Francisco last season. Could well be the heir apparent in New Orleans if longtime coordinator Rick Venturi retires or is moved into a front office position. He will have a significant input into game-planning but his primary charge is to fix a secondary that has been more porous than a cheaply built Louisiana levee for too many years.
• Mike Heimerdinger, New York Jets, offensive coordinator: Known around the NFL as "The Dinger," his words, strong enough to strip the paint off the walls of a New York tenement, might dent the egos of a few thin-skinned players. But Heimerdinger has really evolved as a coordinator and, much to the delight of Jets head coach Herman Edwards, is a guy who loves to move the ball vertically. There are still some vestiges of the West Coast upbringing that Heimerdinger had earlier in his career, but Chad Pennington will develop into an improved deep thrower under his tutelage.
• Bob Ligashesky, St. Louis, special teams: In a monumental epiphany, it finally dawned on Rams head coach Mike Martz this offseason that, hey, special teams are important. The man charged with upgrading an element of the game too long ignored in St. Louis, but one now provided new emphasis, is Ligashesky. He has just one year of NFL tenure, in Jacksonville last season, but the apprenticeship was served under Pete Rodriguez, one of the top kicking-game coaches in recent NFL history.
• Andre Patterson, Denver, defensive line: He lobbied hard for the Broncos to collect a quartet of castoffs he coached in Cleveland in 2004, when the Browns statistically rated as the NFL's worst defense against the run. And since acquiring Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, Ebenezer Ekuban and Michael Myers, the confident Patterson has been outspoken in his support for this assemblage of underachievers. Patterson has certainly put himself on the line for these guys, and he needs them to respond accordingly.
• Todd Bowles, Dallas, secondary: After an eight-year career as a player, Bowles has developed into an excellent young coach, and Bill Parcells is counting on him to help settle a young Cowboys secondary. Bowles helped recruit free-agent cornerback Anthony Henry, whom he coached in Cleveland, and now has to help Terence Newman regain some of the confidence he lost in 2004 and to groom someone to start at the safety spot opposite Roy Williams.
• Bill Musgrave, Washington, quarterbacks: Run out of Jacksonville, where he was the offensive coordinator and criticized internally for not getting the ball vertically up the field enough, Musgrave quickly landed on his feet on Joe Gibbs' staff. Ironically, he will be expected to modernize a passing game that rarely threw vertically in 2004. Go figure. He does bring some fresh ideas, though, to a stale passing-game mind-set, and quarterback Patrick Ramsey seems to have clicked with him pretty quickly.
• Ted Tollner, Detroit, offensive coordinator: The longtime NFL and college coach, always regarded as a terrific offensive plotter, has plenty of talent with which to work in Detroit. The key, of course, will be what he gets out of quarterback Joey Harrington.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.