The defensive approach to head-coaching hiring this offseason seems to be working.
Four of the 11 teams with winning records have new head coaches, and each improved its defense. The Denver Broncos allow 16 points per game, 6.1 less than last year. Dan Quinn has shaved 4.4 points off an Atlanta Falcons defense that allowed 26 points per game in 2014. Jack Del Rio's Oakland Raiders are allowing 24.7 points per game, 3.5 less than last year. Todd Bowles' blitzing defense is allowing 19.9 points per game, 5.2 less than Rex Ryan's New York Jets defense of 2014.
Six of the seven new coaching hires this offseason have defensive résumés. Even though the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, a quarterback playing for a team with a bad defense can't always win. The Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants and Chicago Bears have good quarterbacks, but they had losing records last year because of defenses that couldn't stop opponents.
It's not out of the question that three first-year head coaches could make the playoffs. The Broncos and Gary Kubiak appear to be a lock with their 7-0 start. An easy schedule and a 6-2 start give Quinn a decent chance of getting the Falcons back into the playoffs. Del Rio is battling Bowles, Ryan now of the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins interim coach Dan Campbell for AFC wild-card spots.
Since 2000, three first-year head coaches have made the playoffs six times (2000, 2002, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2013). Here's how I would rank the performance of this group of coaches in the first half of the season:
1. Gary Kubiak, Denver Broncos, 7-0
Even though he was the only offensive coach hired during the offseason, Kubiak's biggest success has been on defense. He hired Wade Phillips to coach the defense, and Phillips has unleashed a one-gap, 3-4 defense that has more speed than any group he has had in any other stop. The Broncos rank first in seven defensive categories. They have 29 sacks and have forced 15 turnovers. They are the only team that hasn't allowed a point in the first quarter.
Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano compared the Broncos to the dominating 2000 Baltimore Ravens, which won a Super Bowl. Interesting comparison. That Ravens team asked little of starting quarterback Trent Dilfer. The Broncos have future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. Because the defense only allows 16 points a game, less is asked of Manning than any team on which he has played. That's a good thing. Manning's age and diminishing arm strength has been an issue Kubiak has been dealing with all season. His biggest challenge in the second half of the season is fixing the offensive line and making it easier for Manning to succeed in the cold-weather games.
2. Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons, 6-2
Next to the Broncos, the Falcons' opening was considered to be the prime job opening this offseason. You get Matt Ryan, an elite quarterback. You get a quality owner, Arthur Blank. What was needed was a coach who could make this team tougher on the field. A year ago, the Falcons were featured on HBO's "Hard Knocks." Missing was the "hard."
Quinn seemed to be the perfect hire. He brought Pete Carroll's coaching plans to Atlanta. That features hard work in practice but fun in preparation. Quinn has music pumped into practice, and basketball one-on-one competition is featured in team meetings. The team is tougher and better.
One of the keys to Quinn's success was getting Kyle Shanahan as his offensive coordinator. Shanahan has done an amazing job of creating schemes that get wide receiver Julio Jones into open spaces. Jones has 70 catches for 892 yards in eight games. Ryan is having a great season, and the defense is better.
Quinn's biggest challenge is maintaining a pass rush. The Falcons have only 10 sacks in eight games. They will battle the Carolina Panthers for the NFC South crown, but Quinn must get better with the pass rush over four quarters for the Falcons to be a factor in the playoffs.
3. Jack Del Rio, Oakland Raiders, 4-3
Coming out of training camp, I thought the Raiders made dramatic improvements in personnel. They drafted three potential star players over the past two years -- quarterback Derek Carr, wide receiver Amari Cooper and defensive end Khalil Mack. Michael Crabtree was a great addition as a No. 2 receiver. They signed linebacker Aldon Smith after the San Francisco 49ers released him.
What I didn't know is whether that could translate into victories this year because the core of the team was put together over the past two drafts and past two free-agency classes. Del Rio has made it all work. Recent victories over the Chargers and Jets were impressive. By beating Bowles and the Jets, Del Rio not only jumped into the No. 3 position, but he has the Raiders competing for a wild-card spot.
But Del Rio can't let his team get overconfident. Although his defense is giving up fewer points than last year, it is surrendering 385 yards a game and 42.2 percent on opponents' third-down conversions. He has done a good job of keeping his roster healthy, but a rash of injuries could slow down the Raiders' progress. This is a good, young team, but it's not very deep.
4. Todd Bowles, New York Jets, 4-3
A 4-1 start had Bowles pushing for the No. 2 honors behind Kubiak, but the Jets have lost their last two games and have given up 64 points over the past two weeks against the Patriots and Raiders. There's no question Bowles has proven to be the right hire for the Jets. Despite the problems of the past two games, Bowles has established a very good defense that blitzes more than just about anyone else in football. Bowles is old school. If players fight in practice, the team runs gassers as punishment. He and his staff aren't afraid to yell at players who make mistakes but applaud them when they success. Players like him and play for him.
Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey has gotten the most out of veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Bowles has cleaned up a lot of things for the Jets. The have only 43 penalties in seven games. The Jets do a pretty good job protecting the ball on offense.
This could be a good stretch coming up. They have three home games in the next four and a road game against Houston. They could be 8-3 or 7-4 heading into December.
5. Dan Campbell, interim coach, Miami Dolphins, 2-1
Campbell brought toughness and accountability to what had been a soft Dolphins team. He made things simpler on offense and the defense got immediate results. But the NFL is a "Not For Long" league.
Sunday will be a true test of whether the Campbell way of playing football is working. The Dolphins visit the Buffalo Bills, who blew them out in Week 3, 41-14. A loss to the Bills would put him behind Ryan in the ratings and also be a setback to the Dolphins comeback.
Their first six games were actually the easiest part of the schedule. They faced Kirk Cousins, Blake Bortles, Tyrod Taylor, Fitzpatrick, Marcus Mariota and Brian Hoyer in the first six weeks of the season and went 3-3. They needed to be 5-1. Campbell has to fix continued problems along the offensive line, get the most out of Ndamukong Suh and push his players to upgrade their play on the field.
6. Rex Ryan, Buffalo Bills, 3-4
This seemed to be natural fit. Giving one of the best defenses in football to Ryan, a master of running quality defenses. The 3-4 start is puzzling and a disappointment. Defensive linemen complained about dropping into coverage. The same group of defenders who led the league in sacks last year has only 11 in seven games.
Penalties have killed the team. The Bills have 72 penalties marched off in seven games. Ryan warns critics not to count out the Bills, and that should be the case. Taylor should be back at quarterback after missing two games with an MCL injury. The bye week came at the right time because the Bills had too many starters -- particularly on offense -- missing over the past month. What Ryan needs to do is re-establish Buffalo as one of the top defenses in football.
7. John Fox, Chicago Bears, 3-4
Of all the new coaches, Fox took on the biggest challenge. The Bears lacked talent on defense. Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio have done good work. They switched to a 3-4 even though the roster lacked 3-4 personnel. The Bears are giving up 342.3 yards a game, around 25 less than last year. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase seems to be working with quarterback Jay Cutler so well that odds favor the organization staying with Cutler next year instead of unloading him in a trade.
What will be tough is doing better than a 6-10 or 5-11 season. Matt Forte is hurt. The already thin defensive line can't take one more injury. What Fox has to do in the second half of the season is how to add to the roster next year.
8. Jim Tomsula, San Francisco 49ers, 2-6
Did he really have a chance to succeed? Retirements and free agency gutted the roster. The defense lost Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Aldon Smith, just to name a few. What had been a top offensive line collapsed with the retirement of right tackle Anthony Davis and departure of guard Mike Iupati.
The problems are many. The solutions are few. This week, Tomsula benched starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick in favor of Blaine Gabbert, the least successful quarterback of the past four years. The defense gives up 403.8 yards a game. The offense has scored seven points or less in four of the past six games. It's going to be a long year for the 49ers.