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Petrino, Tomlin should succeed

The NFL's new coaching hires who have the best chance of working out are in Atlanta and Pittsburgh.

Bobby Petrino, whom the Falcons plucked from Louisville, has a great offensive mind and his tactical style seems perfectly suited to the NFL, even though he has spent 18 of the last 21 seasons in the college ranks.

Mike Tomlin, taken from the staff of the Minnesota Vikings, was a bold, bold hire by the Steelers, considering owner Dan Rooney passed over strong in-house candidates Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm. Bold doesn't always mean good. But even though Tomlin is just shy of his 35th birthday, he seems to have the background and presence to succeed as a head man.

If anyone can get Michael Vick to blossom as a passer, it's Petrino. And if Vick doesn't mature under Petrino, he probably never will.

The way to move the ball in the NFL these days, to grossly oversimplify, is spread them out and run. This was Petrino's game at Louisville, where his offenses were a thrill to watch the past four years. Petrino calls his offense the Power/Spread. At Louisville he used three-, four- and five-receiver sets about two-thirds of the time and a power-I formation about one-third. His big backs ran plenty out of the passing formations. This works in the NFL. Louisville uses multiple formations, running the same play out of as many as 10 looks. Again, this is an NFL-ready offense.

Petrino also espouses the philosophy of FTS -- feed the studs. Get the ball to the playmakers as much as possible. A bunch of NFL coaches, including ex-Bills coach Mike Mularkey, could go to school on this.

The question is how much patience will the Falcons have in letting Vick learn the system? He has been through a myriad of systems already, which has been part of his problem. Petrino's Louisville QBs over the past four years had completion percentages of 64, 61 and 74. Vick completed just 53 percent last year, and his best figure is 56.4 percent.

But whether it's Vick, backup Matt Schaub or someone else at quarterback, the Falcons' offense should be good, once they add a receiver or two.

Petrino's track record suggests he doesn't have much of a handle on defense. But he made a good choice there, getting Mike Zimmer from Dallas. Zimmer ran the 3-4 with the Cowboys but is more comfortable with the 4-3, which the Falcons run.

College coaches used to having unbounded authority sometimes have trouble adjusting to the NFL -- read: Butch Davis and Steve Spurrier -- so Petrino has a lot to prove. But there's upside with the Falcons, who were an undisciplined team under Jim Mora.

In Pittsburgh, Tomlin is young but has a good pedigree. He's from the Tony Dungy tree, having been hired by the current Colts coach in Tampa. He's a great communicator; he's inspiring. He's someone who actually looks as if he might be a better head coach than assistant coach. Usually it's the other way around. And he did a good job in his first year as coordinator with the Vikes. Despite losses to his lineup, Tomlin's defense improved from 21st in 2005 to eighth in 2006.

Tomlin inspires confidence. Bucs star cornerback Ronde Barber was quoted by the St. Paul, Minn., newspaper earlier this year saying Tomlin did a better job with the Bucs than current Chiefs coach Herman Edwards.

"He definitely improved what Herm left, and that's nothing against Herm," Barber said. "I don't think it's a coincidence that when he came in, I started making Pro Bowls."

"The main thing you think about is when this guy is standing up in front of your team, is he going to get his message across," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "That more than any one thing is what convinced us this was the guy."

Obviously, trying to forecast any new coaching situation is a crapshoot. Who thought Bill Parcells ultimately would fail in Dallas? Nevertheless, here's how this year's other new hires look:

Arizona: Ken Whisenhunt. This is a sensible choice for the Cardinals. The Steelers' former offensive coordinator, 44, brings pretty good credentials. He has been a coordinator for three years. He never has been a head coach. The problem in Arizona is personnel acquisition. Can Whisenhunt get enough help from the football department to get the kind of talent needed to win? The Cards aren't bad on offense, and they play in a weak division. Whisenhunt has a decent shot to succeed.

Oakland: Lane Kiffin. It's easy to criticize this choice, and with good reason. The Raiders can't get top candidates to coach because they don't give the head man enough control. Owner Al Davis too often has insisted on dictating assistant coach choices. Both Petrino and Whisenhunt turned Davis down last year. It was embarrassing when Southern Cal's 32-year-old assistant head coach, Steve Sarkisian, turned down the Raiders' head-coaching offer, then dissed them in a radio interview, saying he had made "a great decision" and the Raiders were "shocked" he jilted them. It's safe to assume Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, only 30, would have rebuffed Oakland feelers (and maybe he did).

So Kiffin, 31, was the default choice. He's the son of brilliant NFL defensive guru Monte Kiffin. He spent the past six years at Southern Cal (he called plays the last two), and his NFL experience is limited to one season, when he worked as defensive quality control coach in Jacksonville. Hall of Famer John Madden was only 32 when he became Raiders coach, but at least he had a big say in the Oakland defense as a Raider aide the previous two years. Norm Chow, the former USC offensive guru and current Titans coordinator, was not impressed by the hire in a Los Angeles radio interview last week. The Raiders have changed coaches seven times in 12 years. This is the toughest job in the league. Chances of it working out: 5 percent.

Miami: Cam Cameron. I still say a committed Nick Saban would have been a more formidable foe for the Bills over the long haul than practically anyone else the Dolphins could find. Nevertheless, Cameron is a sensible choice and brings excellent credentials to the Dolphins. He has head coaching experience at Indiana, he did a good job with great talent in San Diego, and he has the benefit of a superb defensive mind on staff in Dom Capers. The problems for Cameron are his quarterback situation is uncertain, his offensive line is poor and his defense is aging.

Dallas: One thing is clear: After letting Parcells run things for four years, owner Jerry Jones is not going to give up all the control of the team. The Dallas search has started off backward. You don't usually hire an offensive coordinator -- Dallas picked up-and-coming Miami QBs coach Jason Garrett for an unspecified role -- before you pick the head coach. This suggests that Jones will go with either Wade Phillips or Norv Turner. The suspicion here is it will be Phillips, partly because Turner knows Jones too well and may ask him for too much authority to get the job. Phillips could probably work wonders with the 3-4 defensive talent Dallas has on board. I would not like his chances of being able to control Terrell Owens.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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