Hot glue
These assistants lead the pack of those who may lead staffs

They are the glue that holds the league together week in and week out, but then glue, as we know, tends to turn invisible once it dries.

When it comes time to take a bow and accept the plaudits for a job well done, assistant coaches in the NFL are seldom anywhere near the spotlight. They do a ton of the work for a fraction of the pay, credit and fame that goes to the players and head coaches. And they do it knowing that for the most part, the star system will never change.

But every once in a while, it's only right to single out a few of the best and the brightest among the assistant coaching ranks. This is not a "hot list'' per se, or an attempt to predict who will be among the next wave of NFL coordinators or head coaches -- although undoubtedly some will be bestowed with such opportunities.

This is just one man's tip of the hat to 10 mostly unsung NFL assistants who are great at their jobs but rarely get singled out for the distinction. To be sure, there are dozens more just like them in the league. But these are among the ones most deserving of our attention, now and in the future:

Mike Solari, Kansas City, offensive line -- Solari's reputation within the league is outstanding. Said one league observer: "He's one of the reasons why the Chiefs go where they go. He drives the machine. He resurrected Willie Roaf's career when New Orleans said he was done. He took [guard] Brian Waters off the street. He turned John Tait into a right tackle. The guy's really good.'' With Will Shields and Casey Wiegmann rounding out the K.C. line, Solari has talent to work with. But he makes every player better, and it's his guys who have cleared the way for Priest Holmes' record-breaking numbers the past three years.

Sean Payton, Dallas, assistant head coach/QBs -- Payton probably got too much credit when he was the offensive coordinator on the Giants' 2000 Super Bowl team, and he got too much blame when New York head coach Jim Fassel took away his play-calling duties in 2002. But Payton's work this season with the enigmatic Quincy Carter is the biggest reason the third-year Cowboys quarterback has emerged as the team's future at the position. Bill Parcells is always smart enough to surround himself with top-notch assistants, and with Payton he's done it again.

Mike Heimerdinger, Tennessee, offensive coordinator -- Here's what stands out about the job being turned in by the Titans' fourth-year coordinator: Under Heimerdinger's guidance, quarterback Steve McNair is playing better than he ever has, and his performance somehow takes a step forward every season. Add that Tennessee in the past two years has effortlessly (or at least it seems) transitioned from an Eddie George-led running offense to a McNair-led pass-happy attack -- without missing a beat -- and it's apparent the Heimerdinger touch is working.

DeWayne Walker, N.Y. Giants, DBs -- If the Giants fire Fassel and his staff after this season, Walker will be one of the hotter commodities in the pool of available assistants. Cerebral, with technician teaching skills, Walker is an NFL defensive coordinator in waiting. He has been described as Tyrone Willingham with a personality, and his work with young Giants cornerbacks Will Allen and William Peterson has drawn plaudits around the NFL. Already in his relatively brief coaching career, Walker has served under Steve Mariucci at Cal, with Pete Carroll at both New England and USC, and with Bill Belichick in New England.

Jim Schwartz, Tennessee, defensive coordinator -- You can't assemble a list of the league's best assistants without including Schwartz, the youngest defensive coordinator in the NFL at 37. Not and still be credible. His intelligence and football savvy draws the respect and admiration of men who have been around the NFL for far longer. After starting off in a tough situation as a first-time coordinator in 2001 -- his head coach, Jeff Fisher, is a former defensive coordinator and his linebackers coach, Gunther Cunningham, is an ex-head coach and defensive coordinator -- Schwartz has grown and learned how to defend his ground. His Titans are tough, resilient and ranked No. 1 in the league in rush defense.

Mike Tomlin, Tampa Bay, DBs -- With the Jets' defense continuing to struggle, some league observers believe head coach Herman Edwards may replace coordinator Ted Cottrell in the offseason with a coach familiar with the Cover 2 defensive scheme as it is taught in Tampa Bay. Edwards' top choice is thought to be Tomlin, who succeeded him as the Bucs' secondary coach in 2001. Though the entire Tampa Bay defense has taken a step backward in 2002, the Bucs last season ranked first in the NFL in pass defense and were tops overall in interceptions. Tomlin is considered one of the brightest, young coaching prospects.

Rex Ryan, Baltimore, defensive line, and Rob Ryan, New England, outside LBs -- The twin sons of former NFL head coach and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan have been around the league a while now, and it's high time they start getting recognition in their own right. Both are exceptional and respected defensive coaches who work with teams that bounce seamlessly and effectively between 3-4 and 4-3 formations.

Despite the state of flux that the Ravens went through after their Super Bowl season, Rex Ryan keeps developing good players on Baltimore's defensive line, such such as second-year end Tony Weaver, nose tackle Kelly Gregg and linebacker-end Adalius Thomas. Rob Ryan's best work has been on display this year, as the Patriots have kept winning despite the loss of outside linebackers Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel to injury for long periods. Plugging in play-making reserves like Matt Chatham, Ryan has kept the train rolling.

Mike McCarthy, New Orleans, offensive coordinator -- Though quarterback Aaron Brooks' streaky play has had a negative impact on McCarthy's status on the league's "hot'' assistant list, it probably shouldn't. His reputation within the NFL remains solid. He's a very good coach saddled with an inconsistent quarterback, a tough situation for anyone to manage. McCarthy deserves high marks for having a positive influence on quarterbacks wherever he's been: Rich Gannon in Kansas City, Brooks in Green Bay and Jake Delhomme in New Orleans. Despite not really having much of an offensive identity or proven system, the Saints have set offensive team records since McCarthy arrived three years ago.

Jeff Jagodzinski, Green Bay, TEs -- Following in the footsteps of former Packers tight ends coaches Andy Reid and Mike Sherman, Jagodzinski has helped develop 2000 first-round pick Bubba Franks into a two-time Pro Bowl selection. In his fifth season with Green Bay, the former Boston College offensive coordinator and Wisconsin native also gets credit for the discovery and successful conversion of collegiate receiver David Martin, one of the Packers' reserve tight ends.


Don Banks covers pro football for SI.com.