Bill Belichick and Tom Brady trudged off the field in Denver on Sunday one game shy of the Super Bowl. While their season ended in disappointment, it still must be viewed as a success relative to expectations at the beginning of the season. Playing without their top five receivers from a year ago, an unformed hodge podge of running backs and the league's seventh-worst defense, the Patriots were able to make it all the way to the AFC Championship.
Brady and Belichick's success over the last decade illustrates one of the NFL's core truths: given a great coach and quarterback, any team can succeed. Six franchises have welcomed a new head coach since the end of the regular season (and one more is still searching), and each man's first order of business will be solidifying a franchise quarterback to pair with.
Below are the seven teams that will have new coaches in 2014 and a breakdown of each one's current quarterback situation.
Detroit Lions: Jim Caldwell and Matthew Stafford
Of all the new head coaches, Caldwell inherits the best quarterback situation. Though marred by inconsistency over the last couple of seasons, Stafford is a proven commodity, as illustrated by his monster 5,000-yard, 41-touchdown season in 2011.
That being said, Caldwell, who worked with Peyton Manning during his three-year stint as the Colts head coach, has plenty of work to do in reconstructing Stafford. The former No. 1 overall pick has seen a decline in completion percentage and yards in each of the last two seasons while his interceptions have gone up. During the Lions' four-game losing streak to close the 2013 season, Stafford threw five interceptions and only two touchdowns.
Caldwell told Sports Illustrated's Peter King that the revitalization project would begin with Stafford's footwork.
The great majority of poor throws-people look at the arm, and that's important obviously, but I think footwork is the key. I can pull up any game film and show you how our footwork drills help you. In a nutshell, the feet and eyes work together. If I'm throwing in a particular direction, my footwork is pointing in the same direction -- directly at the target. We'll work on it with Matthew, and he will do them flawlessly.
If Caldwell can get off on the right foot with Stafford, the Lions can expect a quick turnaround in 2014. That being said, how much can we expect from a man that was once fired with Peyton Manning under center?
Washington Redskins: Jay Gruden and Robert Griffin III
RGIII was a shell of his former Rookie of the Year self in 2013, throwing four fewer touchdowns, seven more picks and posting a QBR of 40.1. The optimistic Redskins fan will point to his offseason knee surgery and his rocky relationship with Mike Shanahan as the primary factors in that slide, and hope that a full offseason of workouts and the arrival of Gruden will help turn things around.
Gruden has a track record of developing young quarterback talent, having brought Andy Dalton along during his three seasons as the Bengals offensive coordinator. Playoff struggles aside, Dalton progressed in each year under Gruden, seeing annual increases in completions, yards and touchdowns.
While it was Griffin's proclivity for scrambling that scrapped his knee in the first place, Gruden told King that he doesn't plan on reigning in his franchise quarterback's pocket departures.
When it comes to the quarterback position, my job is to make him comfortable and productive. I'm not going to try to turn RGIII into Andy Dalton or Drew Brees. He isn't them. They're not him. I would be foolish to try to turn RGIII into a pocket passer. It would be foolish. The way he is as a runner, we have to take advantage of that. He strikes fear into defensive coordinators when he runs outside. I'm going to let him be himself.
For a fan base that cringes every time Griffin takes a hit, that may not be what the folks in Washington were hoping to hear.
Tennessee Titans: Ken Whisenhunt and Jake Locker
Locker was off to his best start as a pro before a foot injury once again landed him on injured reserve. Titans brass is reportedly questioning Locker's ability, and they may be poised to grab a replacement with the 11th pick in the draft.
No matter who's taking snaps, Whisenhunt will be out to prove he can develop a quarterback. While Philip Rivers thrived under Whisenhunt in his one season as the Chargers offensive coordinator, Whisenhunt's track record with quarterbacks as a head coach in Arizona has to be concerning for Titans fans.
Following Kurt Warner's retirement in 2009, Whisenhunt repeatedly failed to provide a replacement. A revolving door of mediocrity filed through the desert over the next three years: Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Kevin Kolb and Ryan Lindley.
"The mistake I made when I look back now was changing guys out," Whisenhunt admitted to King. "We went through too many -- and what results from switching them out a lot is you see things that are open, and the new guy misses the read or makes the wrong check. One of the things I've learned is the approach of the quarterback has to be almost the gym-rat kind of approach."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Lovie Smith and Mike Glennon
After Josh Freeman's unceremonious exit from Tampa, Greg Schiano turned to the rookie Glennon, a third-round pick in 2013. The results were mixed, but all-in-all Glennon turned in a solid first year considering the turmoil and lack of talent surrounding him.
Smith praised Glennon's arm strength and decision-making two weeks ago but stopped short of committing to him as the starter. The team could use the No. 7 pick to go in a new direction. Even if they don't, they'll likely take a signal caller at some point later in the draft to provide competition.
Smith not only has a history of succeeding despite mediocre quarterback play. He took the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006 with Rex Grossman throwing passes -- a truly remarkable feat.
Minnesota Vikings: Mike Zimmer
The remaining three teams don't have a starting quarterback listed next to the coach because there likely isn't one on the current roster. The Vikings could be an exception depending on whether Matt Cassel returns.
Cassel was the most consistent of the Vikings' 2013 quarterback trio which also included Freeman and Christian Ponder. The Freeman experiment was a bust and rumors indicate the organization may release Ponder this offseason. Cassel has the option to enter free agency, but could serve as the starter -- at least initially -- while the team grooms the next franchise quarterback that it will certainly select with the eighth pick in the draft.
SB Nation's most recent mock draft has the Vikings taking Derek Carr out of Fresno State, though Central Florida's Blake Bortles and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel are also possibilities if they fall that far.
As a defensive mind that spent the last six seasons as the Bengals' defensive coordinator, Zimmer won't play a major role in the next quarterback's development. That task will instead fall to Norv Turner, who helped bring Rivers along during his time as head coach in San Diego.
Houston Texans: Bill O'Brien
Following Matt Schaub's sudden implosion and the largely unsuccessful try with Case Keenum, the Texans are in the market for a new franchise quarterback. The question is: will they use the No. 1 pick in the draft to take one?
Newly hired Bill O'Brien, who spent time as an assistant with the Patriots, told King that his ideal quarterback will be someone in the mold of Brady who will act as a "partner in the offense." If O'Brien thinks Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, the top-rated quarterback in the draft -- shares that trait, he may grab him. If not, the team could select defensive end Jadeveon Clowney or trade the top pick away and address the quarterback situation in later rounds.
Whoever ends up under center, they'll be walking into perhaps the most talented 2-14 offense in NFL history. With Arian Foster and Andre Johnson anchoring the skill positions, the next quarterback will have the chance at immediate success.
Cleveland Browns, TBD
The Browns still have question marks at quarterback and head coach. The team is rumored to be waiting on Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase to finish his playoff run, but it's far from a certainty he'll accept a head coaching offer. Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and recently fired Titans head coach Mike Munchak are also under consideration for the job.
Any quarterback plans have been put on hold until a coach is hired, but it's certainly a position in dire need of an upgrade. Brandon Weeden is likely getting released and while Brian Hoyer played well before tearing his ACL, he'll turn 29 next season and has had middling success in the league outside of his three-game streak in 2013.
With two first-round picks, the Browns have several options in May. They could use the No. 4 pick to take a top-tier guy like Manziel or Bortles, use the No. 26 pick to take a less-heralded player like Alabama's A.J. McCarron, or trade up in hopes of landing Bridgewater.
SB Nation's latest mock has them choosing the first option and grabbing Manziel, who general manager Mike Lombardi has expressed interest in.