By firing head coach Leslie Frazier, the Vikings signaled their intention to aggressively pursue a new coach for the 2014 season, who presumably will retain some of the coaches currently on the roster while bringing in many of his own assistants.
It's not uncommon for a coaching search to take a significant amount of time, although in order to hire the best possible assistants, it's better to grab the new job earlier rather than later. That said, the Vikings will want to do their due diligence and have already compiled a massive list of potential head coach candidates.
Spielman told players he's got 13 traits he looks for in a head coach. Translation, as I see it: This could take a while.— Ben Goessling (@GoesslingESPN) December 30, 2013
I can't speak to all of the traits, although we can begin to parse them later if we want. But I do know that there are a few qualities in head coaches that I feel either do not get discussed enough or get emphasized the wrong way.
Below is a clickable table of contents, and at the end of each section is the ability to "jump to the top," which mostly means being able to jump back to this table of contents.
One thing that comes up when talking about potential college head coaches is the importance of recruitment ability to their success. Obviously, good recruiters are not discounted off-hand, because they very well could have a number of qualities in addition to attracting high-quality players to their program that made them successful (after all, an ideal college coach would be a recruitment savant, a tactical genius and a political mastermind), but if the skills profile of a college coach is imbalanced and tilts too strongly towards "recruitment," they tend to get dismissed.
I'm not sure that's entirely wise. We discount "recruiting" as a strength of a head coach, but a lot of the job of an NFL head coach includes transferable skills that come from a strong recruitment background.
This wouldn't just include the ability to sell a program (or a team) to people thinking about joining-in the fashion of pulling out all the stops to sign a free agent-but maintaining trust and relating to players, establishing a culture of group confidence. A lot of coaching involves getting players to believe in you.
More importantly, recruitment doesn't just come from personal charm or persuasive skill but a high level of logistical prowess, time management and intelligent heuristics for prioritizing. It involves staying abreast of all relevant information and keeping a catalogue of what works and what doesn't.
There's a different kind of accountability that comes from that background, but I don't think it's easy to brush off. Denny Green built a powerful Stanford program with excellent recruiting, and Jim Harbaugh did the same, albeit in one of the most interesting ways possible. He was heavily involved in coordinating recruitment efforts at San Diego, and nearly recruited Robert Griffin III to pair up with Andrew Luck at Stanford. He was an unpaid recruiter for his dad to Western Kentucky, as well. It was a passion of his. In fact, James Franklin is known for his excellent recruiting, and he took a page or two out of Harbaugh's book.
I don't have to drive home the point with Pete Carroll, as it's fairly common knowledge that one of his biggest strengths was selling the program at USC. But a link here or there could help. ESPN called Carroll the best recruiting closer in the nation. Recruitment ability is the first item in his list for "success," and he's well known to give his coordinators leeway.
I think there are transferrable skills in terms of recruitment and it would be a mistake to brush it off entirely.
Related to that, there are a lot of skills that good coordinators have that do not provide a lot of additional value at the head coaching position. In many ways, the NFL embodies the "Peter Principle," a concept in management that refers to the idea that organizations will promote individuals past their level of competency.
Or more succinctly: Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence
People are promoted so long as they show competency at their job and then stay where they are when they no longer do that.
The issue in the NFL is that the hierarchy of jobs does not include a smooth transition of skills from one level of the hierarchy to the other. Being a really good groundskeeper does not make a person a great quality control assistant. And being phenomenal at identifying player jersey numbers, down and distance and personnel through hours of tape does not make that person qualified to start teaching individual positional skills.
And of course, teaching players techniques is far different than organizing a scheme.
All these things happen, and the failure rate for these jobs would be considered astonishingly high in traditional businesses, but is in fact surprisingly low considering the process (and the arbitrarily enforced limited talent pool, but that's a different issue).
Either way, the fact that there are six to eight new coaching jobs every year in a small way attests to the flawed approach of teams-although perhaps the larger reason is that the NFL is one of the few businesses that are truly zero-sum. In order to win, someone has to lose, so there will always be a crop of coaches who did poorly.
It also happens to defy the odds, however, that most of the coaches who are fired are coaches that showed sustained incompetence, and are not simply the coaches with the worst records at the time. In that sense, that number is still high. If coaching were equally good, we'd expect fewer firings every year because it wouldn't be the same coaches at the bottom of the pile.
So the fact that a coach was or is an offensive genius or defensive mastermind is overblown. It's not irrelevant by any means, but for every Bill Walsh there's more than one Buddy Ryan. An interesting effect of the Peter Principle is that it often implies that promoting randomly from a mixed pool of candidates who are the worst and the best at their current job is the optimal strategy.
The danger here is that it could very well lead to the Dilbert Principle, where employees are promoted simply so they can stop being bad at their current job (although the problem arises with a more conventional management structure that relies on a degree of competency over things being supervised).
Looking at the 2013 playoff teams reveal mixed results in terms of the purported tactical ability of head coaches:
The Denver Broncos made the playoffs solely on the back of Peyton Manning, and the offensive genius behind putting together successful squads with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow is now the coach of the Chargers-who made the playoffs on the slimmest of odds and with another quarterback specialist in tow. John Fox is probably a very good NFL coach, but it would be difficult to credit him for an offense that Manning has run since 1998.
The New England Patriots clearly have a tactical genius in Bill Belichick, but it's odd that he came in as a defensive specialist with revolutionary ideas on how to fix the Patriots in stopping the ball, while the Patriots have been known for some time as an offensive team. Belichick clearly knows quite a bit about offensive football-he was their offensive coordinator in 2005 after Charlie Weis left for Notre Dame. But that was a big dip, as the offense went from 4th in points to 10th, and the defense went from 2nd in points allowed to 17th.
After promoting Josh McDaniels to OC, the offense bounced right back, just in time for McDaniels to be the coordinator on one of the best seasons in NFL history. The Patriots defense, of course, has consistently been underrated and have only ranked below 10th in points allowed twice in the past ten years, have ranked in the top three on three occasions and in the top five on two others.
Marvin Lewis looks to be getting his coordinators taken out from under him, although he was a spectacular defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. That Bengals team does not have the same defensive structure, by any means, of the ones he ran, but it does throw another piece of data into the curve.
Chuck Pagano did an excellent job with the Ravens as a defensive coordinator as well, even though the team he's coaching right now isn't really known for their defense. Andy Reid notably brought his offense with him to Kansas City, although they too are built on the opposite side of the ball as his background.
In the NFC, it's clear that both New Orleans and Philadelphia are led by masterful offensive playcallers and designers. On the other hand, Green Bay is led by Mike McCarthy, who right before joining the Packers coordinated the worst offense in the NFL in terms of yardage and 30th-ranked offense in points scored. He was never inspiring at New Orleans, either.
Jim Harbaugh was a great recruiter, but was never known for designing particularly interesting offenses despite his somewhat successful stint as a quarterback (although he did lead the way for Peyton Manning by not being good at his job by the end). Greg Roman has been his offensive coordinator since 2009 (along with co-offensive coordinator David Shaw).
Ron Rivera had been a good defensive coordinator for two years (2005 and 2006) in terms of points scored, but was hired in 2011. In fairness, he did lead the 2010 San Diego defense to be first in yards allowed, but that was largely the result of having to defend short fields because of historically abysmal special teams play.
They ranked 10th in points allowed, which would be an unfair measure for the same reason. DVOA and Drive Success Rate both control for field position and ranked 7th in DVOA and 4th in Drive Success rate. On average, his defenses have been in the top 30th percentile, which isn't amazing.
We've already covered Pete Carroll and his strengths, although it should be maintained that he was no defensive slouch. On average, his record as a defensive coordinator is the same as Rivera's (top ten), but there's a marked difference. His first three years as a defensive coordinator were mediocre (17th, 10th, 18th), but his next three years were great-6th, 2nd, 4th. That's a significantly different trend pattern than Rivera, who was fairly random.
In all, that looks like a mixed bag of coaches who were tactically amazing as coordinators. Importantly, it should be noted that last year's Super Bowl winner was a special teams coach, with only positional coaching experience otherwise. Last year's playoffs had even fewer geniuses (Frazier and Harbaugh), and importantly it looks like those who were successful as coordinators or have a particular reputation for genius often found success on the other side of the ball.
I don't think this means we should discount tactical ability when finding coaches. The most recent playoff contenders happen to contain a high percentage of coaches with a good history of solid Xs and Os—but so too do the pretenders.
I think there's generally a positive to be had with strategically sound coaches, but for the most part I think it's similar to recruiting—there are transferrable skills there that are important. Wade Phillips, the Ryan family, Gary Kubiak, Steve Spurrier etc. prove that it's likely the transferrable skills you want and not the ability to draw up a play.
It looks like Rick Spielman will be searching for coaches from every conceivable background, and expanding the available pool of talent to draw from can only be a good thing. Aside from raising the bar on maximum talent, it allows the Vikings to take advantage of inefficiencies in the coaching market, just like the Bears did last year when they hired Marc Trestman.
That doesn't necessarily mean hiring an accomplished Madden player or an arbitrary football fan. Thinking outside the box doesn't mean going off the reservation. But merely looking at good coordinators, or coordinators on good teams, is severely limiting.
Instead, figuring out what the transferable skills are from the examples above can be useful in identifying those who have those skills but do not fit the mold.
This doesn't just mean potentially hiring CFL or UFL coaches, or even special teams coaches like John Harbaugh (although it could), but coordinators on bad teams who show the skill it takes to be a head coach, even if they don't show excellent coordinating.
It could also mean hiring a position coach instead of simply looking at coordinators. Aside from the obvious candidates with previous head coaching experience (like Hue Jackson or Tom Cable), there are potentially worthy ones around the league.
Moving from merely skilled coordinators to all coordinators expands the pool by 75% or so, and special teams coaches do it 33% once more. This pool will in all likelihood contain much less talent on average, but it will increase the likelihood of finding the single best candidate—which is all a team needs from expanding the pool.
Chase Stuart could have put it best in his piece on hiring special teams coordinators:
There are good reasons for owners and general managers to prefer a special teams coach over a similarly-qualified coach with an offensive or defensive background. Many times, the "whiz kid" coordinators struggle to shake that habit once they are promoted - see Rex Ryan, Mike Martz - and often ignore the other side of the ball. In Dallas, Jason Garrett kept his role as play-caller even after being promoted to head coach. That led, in my opinion, to Garrett becoming overwhelmed on gameday, as the Cowboys have constantly mismanaged end-of-half and end-of-game situations. Now, Jerry Jones has removed that role from Garrett (Bill Callahan will be calling the plays in 2013), which should relieve some of the burden on his plate, and in my opinion, make him a better coach. While many great coaches have called their own plays, being a head coach is about much more than calling plays, and Garrett needs to transition to that role if he wants to succeed.
There's another reason why I like the idea of hiring a special teams coach as your head coach: I suspect it is easier to attract the best candidates for OC and DC when those coaches know that they will be running the show. Mike Tomlin was fortunate enough to inherit Dick LeBeau, but in general, it's probably harder for defensive head coaches to hire the promising young DC who wants to make a name for himself. Similarly, Harbaugh probably has an advantage when it comes to hiring his OC, too, because that man knows he will get all the credit. Lovie Smith was the linebackers coach on a team coached by Tony Dungy on a defense run by Monte Kiffin; if he wanted to make a name for himself, he needed to go to a team where he would be the face of the defense, and that was to St. Louis' benefit. The brothers Gruden both sought out their first OC job under defensive-minded head coaches (Ray Rhodes for Jon and Marvin Lewis for Jay). A special teams coach has the benefit of being able to attract the best offensive coordinators and best defensive coordinators.
Being a head coach is more about managing a team, creating a vision for the roster, hiring talented people, and being a leader more than it is about play-calling. I wonder if the success of Harbaugh will bring about a new wave of special team coaches in the NFL.
From a different article that looked at the history of NFL coaches, he came up with this nifty chart, too:
I encourage you to read the article that it's from, it's an interesting read.
There is a vocal contingent of folks who want to hire coaches who have won Super Bowls and therefore have a winning formula (or at least credibility) when coaching the Vikings (or any other team).
Of the 54 coaches who have won an NFL championship, only one has repeated with a ring (unless you count player-coaches like Guy Chamberlin and Jimmy Conzelman, who won championships as player-coaches with one team, then as coaches of another team)—Weeb Ewbank won two championships with the Baltimore Colts in 1958 and 1959, then won Super Bowl III with Joe Namath in 1968.
No coach has won two Super Bowls, and five have appeared in the title game with two different teams (1. Don Shula lost Super Bowl III with the Colts and won with the Dolphins, 2. Bill Parcells lost Super Bowl XXXI with the Patriots after winning two with New York, 3. Mike Holmgren won Super Bowl XXXI with the Packers and then got robbed against the Steelers in Super Bowl XL, where he coached the Seahawks 4. Dan Reeves lost all three Super Bowls he appeared as a coach in, for the Atlanta Falcons and the Denver Broncos. 5. Dick Vermeil lost Super Bowl XV with the Eagles and won XXXIV with the Rams).
This is a long way of saying that these past wins are becoming far too much a criteria for some.
What we could be missing is the very real effect of aging on mental faculties and coaching ability. Ditka at 53 was not Ditka at 46. Landry at 64 was a shell of Landry at 47. Joe Gibbs was a fantastic coach for Washington when he was 51. When he unretired, he was 64.
This even works at the coordinator level. In 1985, Buddy Ryan coached history's (second)-best defense at the age of 51. He did very well for Philadelphia as a head coach until he was 56. One could say he put together an effective defense for Houston, but they didn't change all that much in points per game from Jim Eddy. And his time at Arizona experience a significant dropoff.
From the book Game Plan: A Radical Approach to Decision Making in the National Football League, there's a largely generalized graph one can use to look at aging of coaches in the NFL.
There are of course exceptions like Howard Mudd and Tom Coughlin, but knowing that these Super Bowl winning coaches that have retired are ten years or more away from their most recent ring is a little daunting. That chart is shockingly smooth for how low the sample size should be, and I wouldn't be surprised if the mean-squares regression is friendlier than you'd have thought going in.
Popular coaching candidate Jon Gruden is only 51 this year, so he's not someone to dismiss using the aging criteria, but I would hesitate to choose an offensive coach for winning a Super Bowl on the back of one of the five best NFL defenses of all time. More on Gruden later.
How a coach puts together a program and the standard of behavior (ethical, professional, social, etc) are much more important than some people think, although probably less important than what many others think. It's true that the coach sets the tone for the team, but in the NFL, players are adults that should act like professionals and execute.
It's obviously never that simple and the complex arrangement of social networks and chemistry in the locker room play a big part in how teams handle the beginning of the season, adversity and pressure. I've mentioned the impact of organizational philosophy before and it's worth mentioning again.
Building a solid team culture that finds other areas to motivate oneself is critical. There are probably very few players in the NFL that aren't motivated to do well on Sundays (although Eddie Lacy may be one of those few), but finding players with internal motivation at the end of July is probably a lot harder than it sounds.
Most people who work find fairly immediate results (not in productivity or pay, but in established goals or success metrics) and this short-term reward-be it at the end of the day or week-makes grinding through a work day easier. NFL players (at least those relatively sure of making a roster) don't have that payoff for months and have subjective measures of performance to work with until the stats pile up in September.
When we get shots of a locker room or even a corporate office, we see some signs and posters that tell players or employees to "keep that chin up" or to "hang in there." Pointless, right? Who gets motivated by a poster or a pithy saying? Does that John Wooden quote really force people to kick it into an extra gear or suck it up and run that 40th play in summer weather at the end of the day?
What's interesting is that there's good evidence that this sort of thing does matter. Not in the sense that someone having a bad day will look up and see a picture of a cat hanging from a thread and turn themselves around, but it contributes to a cultural and framing effect that positively changes outcomes. A review of literature on corporate culture reveals that defining expectations and appropriate reactions to information is a critical part of organizational success.
The claim that organizational culture is linked to performance is founded on the perceived role that culture can play in generating competitive advantage (see Scholz, 1987). Krefting and Frost (1985) suggest that the way in which organizational culture may create competitive advantage is by defining the boundaries of the organization in a manner which facilitates individual interaction and/or by limiting the scope of information processing to appropriate levels. Similarly, it is argued that widely shared and strongly held values enable management to predict employee reactions to certain strategic options thereby minimizing the scope for undesired consequences (Ogbonna, 1993).
A lot of it has to do with hiring the right people. Leadership is important as well. But small things like posters and motivational speeches are important signifiers of the culture because of their subconscious effects on attitudes and expectations.
A lot of this may be linked to the neurological process (and psychological concept) of framing. It's a relatively popular if somewhat new (and more difficult to prove than many hard science concepts) notion that simply argues that all of our information is mediated by frames that we can relate to. George Lakoff has advocated it since the 1970s and made a name for himself when he applied it politically to describe the strategic failures of the 2004 Kerry campaign.
The fundamental argument he makes is that our brains are hardwired to accept information within the context of the frame, or larger metaphor, theme or value, and apply that information in that context. People will make different decisions upon the same information, which was demonstrated by the Asian Disease Problem, where respondents selected different programs to combat a hypothetical disease based not on outcomes, but how the outcomes were described.
That's why it's important that Leslie Frazier talk to Greg Jennings about keeping within the core values of the team. Focus inwardly on execution instead of outwardly on perceived slights or flaws of others. One of the key components of framing is unity of message. In order to propose a core ideal under which everything is done, then everything must be accountable to that ideal.
Creating motivation and getting players to operate out of one core value is an important part of making sure that the team can operate without clear rewards or markers of progress. Football in September and November is often won in August. Organizing around the concept of simple, clean and effectively executed football is how the Vikings have chosen to run their training camp. Others, like the Seahawks, Eagles or Dolphins have chosen to treat their camps like competitions, experiments or extensions of the season. Some methods are effective and some are not.
There's an understandable desire to grab a coach with experience running an organization runs strong across fanbases, doubly so if they were successful as NFL head coaches. Sometimes, they didn't have to be successful—people just want someone with organizational experience.
It's easy to gather rough data with a generous filter—identifying any coach that has had a degree of success, like a conference championship appearance and working backwards allows you to produce the following table from the 2013 season (all new coaches were graded as "successes" based on common media interpretation):
|Success as an NFL head coach||4||1||5|
|Failure as an NFL head coach||2||0||2|
|Success as a football head coach||8||3||11|
|Failure as a football head coach||1||1||2|
|No head coaching experience||10||9||19|
This list is very generous in that it mostly counts any success with the team in question as a success. So, while Coughlin was a failure in 2013, he was a success for the Giants as a hire. It does not account for the reasoning behind the success—Shanahan is often cited as an example of a coach who owed John Elway for his ring, but I counted him as a success for Denver (and therefore the only "previously successful head coach" to fail with their new organization).
Another way to look at it is to focus exclusively on success and find the backgrounds from there. Looking at the past 20 Super Bowls and grading each participant as a success (but with no overlaps—so no quintuple counting Belichick, for example) can produce a decent background.
Below is a table of the 29 head coaches who have participated in a Super Bowl. It has criteria for whether or not they made it to a Super Bowl with another team, whether or not they were "successful," per the previous chart's criteria, and whether or not they were failures. To clarify, any success will count as not a failure and as a success, so if a coach had previously had multiple stops and failed in one, but succeeded in another, it would count as one previous success and no previous failures.
|Super Bowl Participating HCs||Previous SBs||Previous Successes||
|Previous NFL Head Coaching Experience||5||7||2|
|Previous Team Head Coaching Experience||5||12||5|
Of the 29 coaches who have participated in a Super Bowl, only five had done so with another team before. Seven had successes in the NFL before that, and two were failures as head coaches in the NFL before they were hired by their team.
There were seventeen coaches who had success with an organization before joining the team that allowed them to be added to this list. Nine of those coaches counted an NFL team as that organization and eight counted either the CFL (Marv Levy) or a college team. Of those eight, two had failed with the other team and six were successful.
From those two types of data, it looks like (given very small sample size) that previous experience as someone who's run an organization before is not predictive at all (the Super Bowl appearances had 17 with experience, 12 without. The 2013 successes had 13 with experience and 19 without). But it looks like if they were previously a had coach, there is weak but potentially not significant predictive value in their previous success (17 SB participants had previous experience and 12 of them were successful in that experience. The 2013 successes have 13 with experience and 11 were successful).
For those with previous NFL experience specifically, their NFL head coaching success was also predictive (the previous Super Bowl participants had 9 former NFL head coaches, 7 of whom were successful. The 2013 successes had 6 former NFL head coaches, 4 of whom were successful. The one NFL head coach with previous experience who was a failure was successful in his previous endeavor), but small sample size would have me caution reading too much into it.
For what it's worth, Tony Dungy (or more likely his PR department, given the third person nature of the message) were rather salty on the topic of re-treads:
Here's a rundown on some of the names that may cross your feed, in no particular order (as a note, I'll keep updating this over time as I get new info—it's definitively not complete yet, particularly given the lack of any ink [or pixels] for the "NFL Coaches" section):
- Buyout: minimal
- Record: 23-15 (season before he arrived: 2-10)
- Bowl appearances: 3 (1-1 pending this season's bowl game)
- Penalty Rate in 2013: 0.95% (53rd)
Nearest I could tell, his buyout is small, and most reports of his buyout are actually in reference to his time in Maryland, where he had a $1 million buyout if he didn't become a head coach by 2012 (not triggered, because he took the Vanderbilt job in 2011).
James Franklin has only had one year as a coach in the NFL (wide receivers coach for the Packers in 2005), but he's been in coaching circles since 1995. From 2000-2004, he was the receivers coach at Maryland and between 2006-2007, was the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Kansas State underneath Ron Prince.
That means he was Josh Freeman's quarterbacks coach for two years before he moved onto Maryland. Before he arrived at Kansas State, their offensive efficiency ranked 78th, according to Football Outsider's Fremeau Efficiency Index. In his two years, they ranked 82nd, then 50th.
Maryland, in 2007, ranked 42nd. After he took OC duties, they ranked 46th, 95th, then 60th before moving on to Vanderbilt as the head coach.
The sense seems to be that his coordinating was limited by recruiting classes, but I think a lot of what's happening is that he's a better coach than coordinator.
I contacted the SBNation blog for Vanderbilt, Anchor of Gold, a few months ago to ask about James Franklin. They had quite a few things to say:
Franklin's successes at the college level have been primarily through changing the culture at Vanderbilt and luring big recruits to Nashville. While he has some limited NFL experience (coaching WRs for the Packers back in 2005), I'm not sure his current success would translate to the NFL. His playcalling is inconsistent, and his most notable calls at Vandy have been a combination of trick plays, bubble screens, and other choices that work well on a smaller scale but don't necessarily work against professional defenses. That's not a great sign from an offense-oriented coach, and his defenses at Vandy have been...underwhelming.
However, part of that could be a personnel issue. Franklin's been coaxing big wins out of two and three-star recruits that came to Nashville under Bobby Johnson (and kinda/sorta Robbie Caldwell, the interim coach/turkey inseminator from 2010). Zac Stacy developed from a platoon guy into a NFL tailback under Franklin, and the coach made sure to feed him the ball to drive this offense to 15 wins over two years (for reference, 15 wins at Vandy is the equivalent of 36,000 wins at Alabama). Jordan Matthews is following a similar path. Franklin has also had success in developing players like Josh Freeman and Danny O'Brien, though the bloom has fallen off those roses in recent years.
Franklin's recruits are just starting to make an impact, so we'll see how this team does with a new class of football players in coming years. How they perform would be a better testament to his abilities as an Xs and Os coach.
In terms of control, Franklin brought his own guys in from Maryland when he came to Vanderbilt, retaining only offensive line coach/Food Network favorite Herb Hand. Hand is a rising star, so that call made sense, but the coach has made it a point to retain his staff over the years. Part of the team's efforts to keep him in Nashville have included making sure his staff was made whole and that the school's athletic facilities were upgraded to SEC standards. I'd imagine that he'd have similar requests in the NFL - although the Vikings wouldn't have a thing to worry about with their new stadium on the way to replace the 1970s airport terminal that you currently play in (I say this with love).
So, strengths: recruiting, building a culture, relating to players
Weaknesses: playcalling, lack of professional experience, penchant for getting in fights with Georgia's defensive coordinator after games.
I think Franklin would rate out as a Pete Carroll type coach right now, and Carroll obviously needed some time to find the right fit in order to be a successful head coach. That might be a stretch, but it's tough to project a guy who has been a college coach for less than three full seasons.
That matches my intuition. I don't mind the fighting thing.
So long as he stays away from Xs and Os (Vanderbilt dropped in offensive efficiency after he left), he could be a very good hire. He'll have a staff in mind and his organizational prowess will matter a lot more than his tactical ability, so long as he brings in someone who can run an NFL system.
Minnesota personnel wouldn't have to adapt much to a new system, as it's fundamentally an Erhardt-Perkins system with similar terminology. The biggest change would be for the offensive linemen, where offensive line coach Jeff Davidson had a lot of free reign to design the running schemes relatively system-independent.
Luckily, that meant playing in basically every running scheme that exists in the NFL, so the change wouldn't be too much.
There are a few red flags here as a coach, but being a head coach is a lot less about being a tactical genius and more about managing an organization with clear goals in mind.
- Buyout: $6.48 million (recently reduced)
- Record: 15-9 (Record before he arrived: 9-4)
- Bowl Appearances: Barred from bowl games
- Penalty Rate in 2013: 1.42% (115th)
UPDATE: Bill O'Brien has agreed to terms with the Houston Texans
The structure on that buyout matters a lot, and it looks like he could owe millions in taxes if he chooses the buyout route.
When I contacted Black Shoe Diaries with the same questions a few months back, I didn't get much of a response:
Save your time. He's not going to Minnesota.
At any rate, he was more of a target for Houston than Minnesota, which would make BSD correct, although I'm not confident they would be correct in spirit should that play out. He was contacted by NFL teams (namely the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cleveland Browns) the year before and chose to stay in Happy Valley.
"I'm not a one-and-done guy. I made a commitment to these players at Penn State and that's what I am going to do. I'm not gonna cut and run after one year, that's for sure."
-Bill O'Brien on his decision to stay at Penn State
Naturally the "record before he arrived" is irrelevant and what's significantly more important is the fact that he kept the ship upright at Penn State after losing bowl eligibility and a host of players following the massive scandal that rocked the campus.
He's seen as a quarterbacks guru and is a big fan of Ryan Mallett, with the New England Patriots, whom he worked with since New England drafted him. He's also worked with Matt McGloin, who outperformed expectations at Penn State and is currently a quarterback with the Oakland Raiders, as well as Christian Hackenberg, who is frankly having an insanely good season for a true freshman.
It was O'Brien who had to convince Hackenberg to stay with the program after he was originally recruited by Joe Paterno's regime. ESPN ranked him as the best pro-style quarterback high school prospect, while Rivals called him the second-best such prospect (behind Max Browne, now at USC). Keeping Hackenberg was a big coup.
O'Brien has strong Georgia Tech roots, as he worked there from 1995 to 2002, moving from a graduate assistant to a combined role as the assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. After that, he spent two years as the running backs coach for Maryland before moving onto Duke, where he accepted an offer to be the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach.
FEI rankings don't exist for 2004, but Duke ranked 87th in College Football References' strength-of-schedule adjusted ratings on offense before he arrived, and ranked 98th both years afterwards.
He then took a job as an offensive assistant for New England right before their historic 2007 season and accepted a job as the wide receivers coach in 2008. After McDaniels left, he became the quarterbacks coach and also called the plays for New England and became their offensive coordinator before the 2011 season, after which he accepted the Penn State job.
O'Brien started the season off with a quarterback competition that McGloin ended up winning and he also took control of the offensive playcalling.
He, like Bill Musgrave and James Franklin, runs an Erhardt-Perkins offense, although one quite a bit different and more complicated than the one the Vikings ran. There's an emphasis on versatility in the offense. For example, he often ran two-tight end sets and had a fullback when with the Patriots and Penn State, but doesn't necessarily have a history of sticking with that personnel set.
While all coaches will tell you that they are "committed to the running game," and while O'Brien is no different in words, his actions imply that he's fairly committed to whatever's working.
In 2012, with Zach Zwinak and Matt McGloin, they ran the ball 466 times (college statisticians count quarterback sacks as runs) and passed it 446 times. In 2013, with young gun Christian Hackenberg and returning running back Zach Zwinak, they rushed the ball 501 times and passed it 409 times. The 2011 Patriots passed 612 times and ran 438 times.
A quick view of his offense will tell you that there's a balanced view of "success rate" and explosive plays, without necessarily a heavy emphasis on either (short passing and runs on "running downs" are good indicators of an emphasis on success, while deep passing and a heavy emphasis on play-action on "running downs" are the opposite).
Two quick examples can illustrate one of the differences between O'Brien's emphasis on success/explosion balance, against McDaniels' preference for explosive plays: 1) Tom Brady's average depth of target rose with McDaniels (9.1 yards) and was league average (8.6) with O'Brien. 2) play-action passing comprised 24% of Tom Brady's passes with McDaniels, but only 16% with O'Brien.
O'Brien established six principles for Penn State that should provide a small glimpse into his organizational attitude when running a team:
BILL O'BRIEN'S 6 PRINCIPLES OF THE PROGRAM
1. Football should be fun and fulfilling for the student athlete involved.
2. Football must be part of the educational experience at Penn State.
3. Football should be played to win. We will never accept losing at Penn State.
4. No individual in the program is ever bigger than the team/program.
5. We will promote a team/family atmosphere through loyalty and communication.
6. We will have a standard of performance for the players on and off the field.
I've talked quite a bit about organizational philosophy in the past, and I think it's more important than simply words on a poster, and what I reference above (in the link and in the breakdown) should encompass why it's important.
Here, there's nothing that particularly stands out as unique among coaches, but the priority of the philosophical principles will likely matter when compared to other coaches. O'Brien is definitely committed to building, but it's clear that he doesn't accept mediocrity from a program expected to fail, either. Take from it what you will.
At the very least, O'Brien's background in academia should help, as he studied organizational management at Brown. That should give him a small leg up on what matters for head coaches, and he knows how to surround himself with talent, as well. Having a clear philosophy, principles and outlined goal can go a long way, and I don't think that it's easy to dismiss his academic background as irrelevant—too many times we see coaches enter with values but no plan to fulfill or execute those values within the context of their organization (see: Greg Schiano). Having someone trained in that specific effort can only help.
Small but likely insignificant red flags have been leaking about O'Brien's time at Penn State, namely that he grew "weary" of the "Paterno people" at Penn State, and was sick of the politics of the job.
"€œYou can print this: You can print that I don'€™t really give a (expletive) what the 'Paterno people'€™ think about what I do with this program. I'€™ve done everything I can to show respect to coach Paterno. Everything in my power. So I could really care less about what the Paterno faction of people, or whatever you call them, think about what I do with the program. I'€™m tired of it. €œFor any '€˜Paterno person'€™ to have any objection to what I'€™m doing, it makes me wanna put my fist through this windshield right now."€Ě
-Bill O'Brien to pennlive.com, printed 1/1/14
O'Brien's personality has been described generously as "passionate," although some would call it "controlling," and he's prone to occasional outbursts, although rarely expressing anger at a specific person. Much of his frustration at Penn State evidently came from both the lack of control he had over things he (rightly) should have had control of and what he perceived to be a lack of leadership at the top. He's not a fan of being a figurehead or a spokesperson (another minor flag).
That said, O'Brien made pretty clear that it isn't that he's necessarily picking up an NFL job to move away from Penn State—he could have had offers last year to do what he wanted—but chose a specific situation that was right for him, along with the added benefit of not having to deal with college football politics.
Penn State had no business playing with a winning record, much less after one season. The work that O'Brien did should speak for itself, but I'll let Penn State PR play him out:
"To call Bill O'Brien's first year as a head coach 'great' would be a vast understatement. A thesaurus is unable to contain all the superlatives that could be used to describe the overall efforts by O'Brien, his staff and the Nittany Lion squad members during his thrilling, challenging and memorable first season as head coach at Penn State."
- Buyout: $5 million (just agreed to a new deal with Baylor in November, 10 years/$45 million)
- Record: 44-31 (Record before he arrived: 3-9)
- Bowl Games: 4 (2-2)
- Penalty Rate in 2013: 0.95% (52nd)
UPDATE: Art Briles said he wasn't interested in the NFL in a way that makes him seem really, really interested in the NFL.
UPDATE: Art Briles evidently reaffirmed his commitment to stay at Baylor, although that was in reference to the Texas job.
Having just signed an extension in November, Art Briles is an unlikely (though still possible) candidate for a head coaching job. A guy who leaves after signing an extension might not be your top candidate for the coach, but the new deal extended him three years beyond the seven-year contract he was already in, so it could be more about job security than commitment.
Baylor finished off the season (before bowl games) ranked third in the country, which is a massive change from where they were before he arrived, unranked entirely. Briles turned the Baylor program around and has groomed two successful quarterbacks in Robert Griffin III and Bryce Petty.
In addition to that, the receivers he's produced just recently include Terrance Williams, who has had a very promising rookie year with Dallas; Kendall Wright, who might be the most underrated wide receiver outside of Antonio Brown; and Josh Gordon, who had the single-best receiving performance in the NFL this year.
Before Briles arrived at Baylor, they ranked 110th in offensive efficiency according to FEI (out of 119 teams). This year, they rank second.
Chip Kelly's success in Philadelphia really gives credit to the idea that spread-style tempo-heavy offenses can translate into the NFL, and Briles has been arguably better at constructing an adaptable college offense, especially knowing that Baylor's offensive concepts were folded into the successful Washington offensive concepts last year.
There's quite a bit written about the Baylor offense, in large part because of Washington's success in Robert Griffin III's rookie year, but there's some interesting wrinkles to take a look at. This is one of my favorites. It's a pass-first offense with underrated complexity and a keen understanding of the space afforded football offenses.
Even though it has a strong passing identity, it does have an explosive running game (used more as a constraint than the primary ball-mover) and features Lache Seastrunk, a running back prospect with a second-round grade from CBS Sports and is Mocking The Draft's top running back prospect.
It would naturally change as a result of massive differences in NFL talent, rules and football dimensions, but it's not a difficult change—especially because the offense doesn't need a running threat at quarterback to be successful. The biggest concepts (horizontal geometry and packaged plays) have been extraordinarily successful in the NFL this year for a variety of teams.
Art Briles isn't just his offense. He's shown a remarkable ability to be adaptable. As a high school coach, he originally ran the wishbone before adapting to multiple styles, then getting into the spread offensive concepts he's famous for now.
After that, he joined Mike Leach at Texas Tech, where he recruited Wes Welker. Then he became the head coach at Houston (who had gone 0-11 two years before him, then 4-7) where he immediately led them to a 7-5 record and a bowl berth (they lost the Hawai'i bowl, making them 7-6). They ended up 34-29 with him with a bad sophomore season dragging it down. He lost all four bowl games with Houston.
I didn't get any feedback from Our Daily Bears, the Baylor SBNation site, but more has been written about Briles than nearly any other college coach (Chip Kelly being the former titleholder in that category).
With that Grantland piece, you could take a look at these:
- Here's an earlier Grantland writeup on the Washington version of the offense.
- If you don't want as much Xs and Os, here's a great article on the philosophical concepts behind Briles' approach.
- And on a different note, an interesting Q and A with him on his offense here.
- Hogs Haven breaks down the No Huddle concepts in Washington. Part one is here with part two here.
- You can also look at their specific play-action passing concepts from the same author.
- Here's a general breakdown on the running game with a specific series (Bounce) here.
- Personnel groupings here, here, here and here.
- Not Baylor related, but here's a good breakdown at Hogs Haven on packaged plays in the Philadelphia offense.
- Buyout: Unknown, but likely small given the limited salary and years left on his contract (2 more years/$2 million)
- Record: 31-43 (Record before he arrived: 1-11)
- Bowl Games: 2 (1-1)
- 2013 Penalty Rate: 0.41% (4th)
Cutcliffe honestly should have been on my radar before because of the amazing work he's done, but it slipped my mind until the exciting Chik-fil-A bowl.
Coach David Cutcliffe is most well-known for being the mentor behind the development of both Mannings, as he was Peyton Manning's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Tennessee, which is where he got his start as a viable college coaching candidate.
He got his start as a high school coach, and he credits much of his development as a coach to his upbringing in Birmingham, Alabama which was often referred to as the "most segregated city in the South" in the 1960s, when he grew up.
He played in the first integrated high school football game in Alabama, and was also subject to persecution as a (deeply faithful) Catholic living in a city known for its Klan presence—an experience that saw Cutcliffe and his family as an unusually tolerant bunch for their time.
At Banks High School, he played nearly everywhere, as a tight end, wide receiver, quarterback, safety and linebacker.
After graduating high school, he attended Alabama, where he joined Bear Bryant's staff as a student assistant. He watched film with Ken Donahue and Jack Rutledge (who gave him the job after he injured his knee in the summer before playing for Alabama), although he never coached. Of interest, he took extensive notes of Bear Bryant's management strategies and refers to it often in his time with Duke—most importantly the mantras of staying up to date and how to interact with players, with a particular emphasis on discipline.
Once he graduated (he says with a "degree in Player Psychology," although nominally it is a bachelor of science degree in health, physical education and recreation), he returned to Banks, this time as an assistant coach (mostly on the offense). He was an assistant for four years before becoming the head coach. In those four years, Banks went 29-11 and appeared in the playoffs twice, going 1-2.
His inaugural season as a head coach started off slow (0-3-1) but finished strong (6-0) with a playoff berth, going 1-1. The next year, they went undefeated in the regular season (10-0) and lost in the first round of the playoffs. From there, he became a part-time assistant coach at Tennessee, and in 1983 was made the tight ends coach (and assistant offensive line coach).
In 1989, he was given the running backs job, a year the team went 11-1 and finished #5 in the country, a year they expected to rely on Reggie Cobb. A suspension to Cobb gave redshirt freshman Chuck Webb to emerge, and when Cobb came back from the suspension before the season, they decided to go with a dual-threat offense at running back (dubbed "Cobb-Webb"), and Cobb was once again suspended midway through the season.
Despite missing Cobb, Tennessee ranked sixth in the nation in rushing average despite playing the 14th-most difficult points-adjusted schedule (ahead of them were Houston, who only had 119 attempts that year, Nebraska, Colorado, Air Force, and Cal State Fullerton)—making them arguably the third-best running attack in the country behind Colorado and Nebraska.
He became the quarterbacks coach in 1990. In 1991, they also gave him the title of "passing game coordinator" for two years. Before the 1993 season, he was named the offensive coordinator and assistant head coach, but retained his quarterback coaching duties.
Preceding the 1995 season, he was also given Assistant Head Coach duties in addition to his offensive coordination and quarterback coaching, which is where he stayed until 1998.
Between 1991 and 1998, the Tennessee offense in strength-of-schedule adjusted points ranked 9th, 12th, 8th, 19th, 8th, 16th, 1st and 13th. Between 1991 and 1998, the offense' adjusted points ranked fourth, just behind Florida, Florida State and Nebraska. If limited to just his years as an offensive coordinator, Tennessee still ranks fourth.
His quarterback resume at Tennessee is pretty stunning. Aside from Peyton Manning, he also coached Tee Martin, Heath Shuler and Andy Kelly. In 1998, he won the Broyles award, given to the best assistant coach in college football.
After that, he was hired by Ole Miss in 1999 and took over for Tommy Tuberville, and immediately coached the team in the Independence Bowl. Tuberville went 7-5 that year, and Cutcliffe functionally followed suit, going 8-4, 7-5, 7-4, 7-6, 10-3, then 4-7 before they fired him and went with Ed Orgeron (who went a combined 10-25 in three seasons). In those first two years, Cutcliffe coached Romaro Miller and ranked 6th and 27th in offense.
The next three years, he had Eli Manning as his starting quarterback, with whom he achieved the offensive ranking of 5th, 75th and 12th. He was the only coach in that school's history to start off a program with five wins, and in that final year with Eli Manning, produced the first 10+ win season in 30 years. They were the only school in the SEC West to be bowl-eligible for seven straight years.
In 2004, his final year with the program, he started the season off with Micheal Spurlock as the starting quarterback, but switched in the middle of second game to Ethan Flatt. Midway through the season, he kept up a three-quarterback rotation with redshirt freshman Robert Lane throwing for them on occasion.
Unsurprisingly, they ended up 83rd in offense and ended up going 4-7, though importantly losing all of those games by a touchdown or less.
The defense didn't often keep up, and overall their point differential, after adjusting for opponents, would net 47th in his time with Ole Miss. He did consistently make bowl games, and went 4-1 in those games. The perception in his final year at Ole Miss was that he was unable to recruit a new quarterback to replace Eli Manning, and that played a somewhat significant role in his dismissal.
At the end of that season, athletic director Pete Boone asked Cutcliffe to submit a written plan to fix the problems at Ole Miss and specifically cited the defense (which ranked 58th in opponent adjusted points over his tenure and ranked only above Vanderbilt and Kentucky, Mississippi State and Arkansas in the SEC in his last two years).
He was also asked to fire his assistant coaches before submitting the plan. He refused to fire any assistants or submit a plan and said that the urge to fire his assistants was motivated by panic on the AD's end.
Given that his defense over the course of his tenure—beyond the 03-04 seasons—ranked above Tennessee, Mississippi State, LSU, Arkansas and Auburn in the SEC, it makes some sense that he thought the administration was being too hasty at condemning his season.
As a result, the Ole Miss staff fired him, which in hindsight was both the correct and incorrect move.
"It's essential that the football program be competitive. It's not now-and-then competitive. It's every-year competitive. We expect our program to be outstanding, to be moving forward. We will not accept ... mediocrity."
-Chancellor Robert Khayat, quoted in ESPNon 12/1/04
After they fired, him the Ole Miss Rebels went in the opposite direction philosophically, and hired Ed Orgeron in order to improve their recruiting capability. It worked, and Mississippi put together incredible recruiting classes. Unfortunately, they went 10-25 with him. They hired Houston Nutt after that, and he went 9-4 with Orgeron's classes twice and then went 2-10.
That is not to say they would have been better with Cutcliffe. Aside from the fact that it is fallacious to project alternate histories, Cutcliffe was only briefly able to fulfill his responsibilities as an assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Charlie Weis at Notre Dame in 2005 because of health issues.
He suffered from chest pains in March of 2005 during spring practices and went to his doctor in Mississippi. The next day, he successfully underwent triple-bypass surgery to correct a 99 percent blocked artery and suffered from weakness for the rest of the year.
In 2006, he came back to the Vols to revive an offense that ranked 87th in the FBS in opponent-adjusted scoring the previous year. With him as the offensive coordinator, Tennessee and junior quarterback Erik Ainge quickly established a dominant offense (ranked 11th) to go 9-3 before losing to Penn State in the Outback Bowl. The next year, they ranked 11th once more and went 9-3 again, but won the SEC East. They lost the Championship game against Les Miles' LSU squad, but won the Outback Bowl on their return trip, this time against Wisconsin.
With that body of work, he took on the head coaching job at Duke, who that year ranked 100th in opponent-adjusted point differential, an improvement on their 2006 point differential rank of 112th. Over the course of their previous two coaches, they ranked 104th out of 120 schools.
That means they were beat out by schools like Middle Tennessee State, Western Michigan, and Alabama-Birmingham. Duke was arguably the worst team in the FBS, and ESPN ranked the program 115th in Division I-A football. Under the previous coach, Duke went 4-42. Combined with the coach before that, they went 13-90, including a winless streak of 23 games (and the wins on either side of the streak were themselves bookended by losses). Since their last bowl game, they had gone 22-125.
His first season with Duke saw him match the win total of the previous four seasons combined, and they went 4-8 (and with three of those losses within a score) against what Jeff Sagarin concluded was the sixth-toughest schedule in the nation . This immediately earned Cutcliffe a contract extension through 2015.
Some of the numbers he improved upon were fairly shocking, decreasing the sacks allowed on the season by 23 and improving the field goal kicking percentage from 31.8 percent to 72. percent. Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, receiver Eron Riley, defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase and linebacker Michael Tauiliili all earned All-ACC honors. In that first year alone, they decreased the amount of points allowed by 11 a game and held three opponents to fewer than 10 points for the first time since 1976.
Of note, Tennessee's offense dropped to 94th the season after Cutcliffe left, climbing up to 28th the year afterwards. They dropped to 69th after that and didn't recover until last year, ranking 6th that year (but not before a painful 2011 where their offense ranked 80th). Head coach Derek Dooley was fired that season anyway, having had gone 4-7.
While the period before this impressive 10-3 showing was a bit more painful than people would have wanted (improved to 5-7, then 3-9, 3-9 before a bowl-eligible season of 6-6, losing in the Belk Bowl), it's clear he's improved.
There are a lot of interesting stories about "Duke's rise" under Cutcliffe that are cute but potentially irrelevant in a coaching search. For example, much was made about his challenge to the players to collectively lose 1000 pounds (although as a motivational tactic with a big board of updated counts in a training room, I'm sure it was fairly effective) in order to close out games—he had diagnosed that their late-game collapses were due to endurance problems.
It can be said that fitness has been a key principle in his coaching, as there are references littered throughout his pressers and notes before his arrival in Duke, but it seems unlikely that that would be much of an issue for most NFL players. His goal here was not necessarily to make the team lighter so much as to use weight loss as a measure for doing the types of workouts he wanted to have done; Duke was the lightest team in the ACC when he arrived, and they had only one offensive lineman above 300 pounds.
He also learned how to be a recruiter (or surround himself with assistants who could recruit). The 2007 recruiting class ranked 79th in Rivals.com's rankings and lost out to teams like Akron, Toledo and East Carolina. The 2008 class ranked 65th and the 2009 class ranked 51st. There was reason for concern, as the next two classes dipped back down and ranked in the 70s, but he was back to 51 in 2012.
This year, going 10-3, he posted the highest win total in Duke history and the best winning percentage since 1960.
Philosophically, it's no surprise that he draws from a lot of what Bear Bryant did at Alabama. Not only is it important for him to remain up to date on what teams are doing, he constantly updates his offenses to match his personnel and new concepts. Late in his Tennessee career, there was a lot of I-formation running with power concepts and a passing game predicated on play action. This last year at Duke, the offense has been a zone-read option spread attack.
And those two offenses are different than the ones that he brought with him early on into Tennessee, where he was more of a West Coast coordinator.
The Duke offense hadn't fully committed to a spread-style Air Raid in 2013, however. There's a lot of drop-back passing, variable formations and all kinds of personnel, with jokers, H-backs, fullbacks, slotbacks and jumbo packages. The primary personnel grouping was a three receiver set with a hybrid tight end/fullback and a running back and they would work out of the pistol, I-formation, shotgun, etc.
"He used to always talk about, ‘On first-and-10 there's a completion out there somewhere, there's a completion out there somewhere. I still write that down on my notes and I still go into a game on a play-call on first-and-10 and second down saying, ‘Hey, there's a completion out here somewhere, let's find it.'"
-Peyton Manning in the NY Daily News, 9/14/13
There's also a heavy emphasis on team discipline. Out of the 125 FBS schools, Duke ranks as having the 4th-best penalty rate at a paltry 0.41 percent of plays. The challenge to "lose 1,000" was much more likely a way to establish a different team culture than it was a specific weight-loss goal, and Duke has played some disciplined football under his watchful eye.
Of course, a school like Duke will always have a coach be vocal about a commitment to academics, so mentioning it probably isn't worth much, but it has been a core focus of his approach and places a big emphasis on character. Organizationally, Cutcliffe seems to have his ducks in a row, and far better at it than he had been in previous stints (although his organizational talent is underrated).
Should a team hire Cutcliffe, he'll likely reach out to Florida's new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who has been with him since 1996 in Tennessee. It seems unlikely that Cutcliffe would be able to grab Roper simply because he just signed, but having someone who has worked with you for 17 years is no joke and fairly significant.
At any rate, there's a good chance that either Scottie Montgomery or John Latina would go with Cutcliffe to the NFL, as they are the passing game coordinator and running game coordinator respectively. Montgomery was mostly the receivers coach and went to Duke after his NFL career was over (playing briefly for the Broncos, Panthers and Raiders).
Three years after that, he was hired by the Steelers after a wealth of their coaches were dismissed or left. He worked under Arians until 2012, where he took the co-coordinator job at Duke with Cutcliffe.
John Latina was originally an offensive lineman at Virginia Tech and became a graduate assistant for one year after he graduated in 1980. He signed on to the coaching staff at Pitt as a tight ends coach in 1982 and Temple from 1983 to 1988 as the line coach. After that, he spent five seasons with Bill Snyder to begin Snyder's tenure at Kansas State in 1989 as an offensive line coach (the same position he had at Temple and Pitt). After that, he joined Tommy West and Clyde Christensen at Clemson as the offensive line coach.
In 1999, he joined Cutcliffe's staff at Ole Miss as the OL coach underneath Roper and stayed with Cutcliffe throughout his tenure at Mississippi. After Cutcliffe was hired at Notre Dame, Latina followed and stayed on staff after Cutcliffe declined and recovered.
After 2008, when Notre Dame lost much of its staff, Latina became the offensive coordinator Akron for two years before rejoining Cutcliffe at Duke in 2012 as the OL coach and then the assistant coach at 2013.
If Cutcliffe chooses one of those two, it'll be a clue on how he intends to move the offense—Latina has been a run game enthusiast with a heavy emphasis on offensive line schemes (having run multiple blocking schemes), while Montgomery has not only worked mostly on the passing game, but has been with offensive coordinators who are particularly pass-happy.
Regardless, whatever Cutcliffe chooses to do will be interesting, now that longtime assistant Roper is gone.
- Buyout: $3 million ($500,000 for every year left in the contract)
- Record: 12-1 (Record before he arrived: 3-9)
- Bowl Games: 2 (1-0 pending results of the BCS National Championship)
- Penalty Rate in 2013: 0.77% (22nd)
Gus Malzahn was originally in my draft list for coaches, but I took him off the list after he agreed to a six-year extension for $3.85 million a month ago. The Browns have reportedly expressed an interest in Gus, which I suppose makes him viable.
Malzahn's introduction to football was as a receiver at Fort Smith Christian High School, then as a receiver at Arkansas, where he joined a as a walk-on in 1984. After the 1985 season he transferred to Division II Henderson State because "he realized he wasn't good enough" to play at Arkansas and played both as a receiver and punter.
He graduated in 1990 with a degree in physical education and sent resumes to at least 40 schools, but one interviewed with one—West Memphis. He didn't get the job, but they contacted a school of 1500 people, Hughes high school to set up a job for him.
He was hired on to become the defensive coordinator in 1991. A year later, they made him the head coach. In 1994, he led the team to an improbable run at the state championship and lost on the last play of the game.
History was not on Hughes' side - the program rarely made the playoffs -- and they needed to beat Brinkley by 14 points and Rivercrest by seven.
They blew out Brinkley and beat Rivercrest by seven on a goal-line stand, then ran through the playoffs with a win over state powerhouse Pine Bluff Dollarway to set up a meeting with Lonoke for the Class AAA state championship.
The Blue Devils made plenty of mistakes. Troup remembers his receiver ran a hot route, a play they had run hundreds of times that year in practice. The ball was placed perfectly, but it went through the receiver's hands.
"Maybe it was being on the big stage," Troup said. "He dropped it for some reason. If he had caught it, he'd have turned it up field and maybe would have scored. If we played them again, we would have won by 40."
Hughes fell 11 yards short of the win in the final seconds, losing 16-13.
Malzahn wasn't sure he would ever return to War Memorial Stadium as a coach. He would, of course, but not with Hughes. He left Hughes one year later to accept the coaching job at Shiloh Christian, a private school in Springdale on the opposite side of the state. He later led Shiloh Christian and Springdale High to state titles before coaching the University of Arkansas' offense in a pair of games in Little Rock.
"I felt like I lost my best friend the day he left," Patrick said.
The Blue Devils never went that far again. Seventeen years later, Hughes High disbanded the football program following the 2011 season because of a lack of participation.
In 1996, he signed on to become the head coach at Shiloh Christian high school in Springdale, Arkansas. There, he implemented the wide-open passing attack he's become known for, and installed a hurry-up offense partway through the 1996 season.
In that offseason, he took the team through 7-on-7s well before those leagues were common. The investment paid off in 1997, but it wasn't until 1998 that things really started rolling. The school won their first state championship then and their quarterback finished with 5,521 passing yards and 66 touchdowns.
Malzahn openly drew upon Steve Spurrier for inspiration when he was crafting his high school offenses and favored complexity and unpredictability, and when he coached at Shiloh, they were the first team to run a no-huddle offense in the state.
Shiloh broke state and national records with the offense, and were even inhibited by other high schools, who refused to play them because of an unfair advantage of awarding scholarships to students (the Arkansas Activities Association found no wrongdoing). Shiloh was a good program, but had never advanced past the third round of the playoffs before Malzahn arrived.
With Malzahn, Shiloh won two state championships, including an undefeated run spanning three seasons. After five seasons with Shiloh, Malzan moved to Springdale high school, where he led the team to become one of the best teams in Arkansas high school history.
Before he arrived, Springdale could generously be described as "run-first." In fact, they were run-only.
"At Springdale for years they had the mentality that only two things can happen when you throw a pass: an interception or incomplete pass. The only thing we ran close to a forward pass was a toss sweep."
-Don Streubing, former Springdale offensive line coach, in al.com published in 7/14/13
His initial team in 2001 wasn't very good, and it's a credit to him that they were able to even put together a 7-4 record the next year. The fact that they made it to the state championship game is somewhat extraordinary. They returned to the playoffs in 2004, but a broken arm to the starting quarterback (Arkansas legend Mitch Mustain, one of the most decorated high school quarterbacks in history and Rivals.com #2 QB in the country behind Matt Stafford) in the semifinals on the first play made that too difficult a proposition.
In 2005, Springdale ended up ranked as the 5-7th best team in the country by various national outlets. They went undefeated that year and won the state championship 54-20, which was the closest margin of victory they had since the first game of the season (35-7).
Springdale didn't make it to a state championship game again, after Malzahn accepted a position as an offensive coordinator with Arkansas. The year before he joined, Arkansas' offense ranked 57th according to Football Outsiders' S&P+ and 59th in opponent-adjusted points. In 2006, they ranked 17th in S&P+ and 14th in opponent-adjusted points.
The problem is that Houston Nutt, the head coach, forced Malzahn to rein in the offense after a bad first showing (to the best team in the country at the time, USC). One might argue that giving up 50 points was a bigger problem than scoring 14, but three interceptions from USC didn't help matters.
Tension grew between Malzahn and Nutt, even though Malzahn ran the offense and provided fruitful and sometimes shocking results. Malzahn's time with Arkansas was over, because the no-huddle flavor that he was asked to bring was junked. Shortly after Rivals.com named him the offensive coordinator of the year, he left for Tulsa as an assistant head coach and co-offensive coordinator.
Evidently, Mitch Mustain committed to Arkansas because of Malzahn (who originally decommitted to Arkansas in 2005 in favor of Notre Dame after Cutcliffe recruited, but switched back to Arkansas after Malzahn signed on) and transferred to USC as a result of Arkansas losing Malzahn.
At any rate, Tulsa was able to grab Malzahn after ranking 44th in offense in S&P+ and 58rd in opponent-adjusted points, they advanced to 19th in offensive S&P+ and 17th in opponent-adjusted points. In his short time there, Tulsa became the first team in NCAA history to have a 5000 yard passer, three 1000 yard receivers and a 1000 yard running back in the same season. In total yardage, Malzahn's offenses ranked first in consecutive seasons at Tulsa.
For all the grief that Malzahn was getting early in his career for being "too pass-happy," his offenses were remarkably balanced at times and most times ranked higher in total rushing yardage than in total passing yardage.
After his success at Tulsa, Malzahn was hired by Gene Chizik, new head coach at Auburn, to be the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. The 2008 F/+ offensive ranking for Auburn was 94th and the opponent-adjusted offensive points ranked 104th. At the end of Malzahn's first year as a coordinator, Auburn ranked 29th and 6th in those respective systems.
In 2010, Auburn ranked first offensively in both systems.
Interestingly, with Chris Todd in at quarterback and the combination of Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb in at running back, Auburn chose to run it (keeping in mind that NCAA statisticians track sacks as tackles-for-loss and runs) 545 times and pass it 363 times. At Tulsa, they decided to run 632 times and pass 421 times.
With Cam Newton, Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb in 2010, they ran 645 times but passed a scant 295 times. This wasn't because Newton decided to scramble, but because the play design itself would take advantage of Newton's unique physical capabilities. Cam Newton ranks fourth all-time in combined rushing and passing touchdowns (50), behind Tim Tebow of Florida in 2007, Chase Clement in 2008 at Rice and Paul Smith in 2007 at... Tulsa.
Losing Cam Newton was a big blow to the program, and the quarterback combination of Clint Moseley and Barrett Trotter wasn't working out, while highly-touted freshman recruit Kiehl Frazier (a Shiloh graduate) wasn't impressing either (he was converted to safety this year). They ranked 38th in opponent-adjusted points and 42nd in F/+. The bigger problem with the program overall was the defense, but the offense wasn't performing to its previous standards, either.
Either way, Malzahn made the strange decision to turn down Vanderbilt and Maryland to remain at Auburn as the offensive coordinator before making the more puzzling move of becoming the head coach of Arkansas State, a marginal competitor that did well against it's competition (10-3) and in its division (8-0), but didn't really have a dazzling resume, given that they were merely Sun Belt competitors.
At the time, there was speculation of tension growing between Chizik and Malzahn as it seemed like Chizik was becoming more and more involved with the offense. Malzahn had his own reasons for choosing Arkansas State for more established competitors out of state, although a viral video from his wife could have changed his calculations.
"When you take your first head college job, you need to know you can win, or you won't get to do it for very long. It was a place I knew I could recruit. I was very familiar with it because I knew all the high school coaches. A lot of them were my best friends. I planned on being there for two, three, four years at the very least."
-Gus Malzahn to ESPN in an article dated 1/4/14
He didn't stay there for long, but in 2012 he moved a team that had been ranked 63rd in F/+ and 60th in opponent-adjusted point differential to 53rd in F/+ and 48th in opponent-adjusted point differential. Meanwhile, Auburn had dropped from 65th and 46th in those metrics to 105th and 70th.
Despite not improving the record (they stayed at 10-3, but this time won their bowl game, an improvement on last year), Auburn was reeling from their 3-9 showing under Chizik and promptly let him go. They came calling.
While it did seem like Chizik genuinely wanted to stay at Arkansas State for a few years, Auburn was "too big" to pass up. While he lost some recruits, he restored the program. Aside from the fact that they're not far from competing in the national championship, Malzahn took a team unranked in the preseason polls (or through Week 8 of the college season) to the cusp of the title. Auburn is currently ranked 6th in opponent-adjusted point differential, 4th in F/+ and 2nd in the national polls.
Over his early time in the high school ranks to the beginning of his college career, Malzahn's offenses moved from painstakingly complex to concisely simple, while still maintaining their cutting effectiveness and unpredictability. The height of this was put on display when Malzahn was hired by Auburn in order to make Cam Newton go.
As has become the mantra of Air Raid offenses over the years, Malzahn has come to embrace the philosophy, "if you're thinking, you're not playing."
All offenses had become simple, with no extra verbiage. It's easy to say that having Cam Newton made his job easy, but his earlier track record of success is hard to deny. Moreover, Cam may have been a phenomenal physical talent, but he had just come from Blinn College (and arrived there from a simple offense in Florida) and was now tasked with running a high-tempo offense where he would have to make a lot of calls at the line. There are very few, if any, college quarterbacks that can do that without a simplified system.
There is a good chance that if Malzahn is hired, he'll bring in Rhett Lashlee, his current offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Lashlee was coached by Malzahn in Shiloh Christian and under Malzahn's system still holds a number of Arkansas high school records, some of which are national high school marks as well. Lashlee had been an assistant at Springdale High School under Malzahn and was brought as a graduate assistant when Malzahn moved to Arkansas.
When Malzahn moved to Tulsa, Lashlee decided that Tulsa wasn't for him (he wanted a stable life after just getting married) and started working for a high school sports magazine with his brother-in-law. He organized events, interviewed college recruits and generally did everything a magazine of that nature needed from him.
When Malzahn became the offensive coordinator at Auburn, Lashlee rejoined him as a graduate assistant. When Malzahn became the head coach at Arkansas State, Lashlee decided to spend a year as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Southern Methodist before connecting back up with Malzahn at Arkansas State as the OC and QB coach. He followed Malzahn back to Auburn.
The offenses that Lashlee and Malzahn have run combine run blocking concepts, much like the Vikings and the 49ers do now, in order to maximize what they're doing in the running game. For example, Cam was an asset running both zone-read options as well as "veer options," which use power blocking concepts.
Malzahn's greatest asset as an offensive mind is the ability to adapt and fold in new concepts as he sees it. The initial offense at Shiloh was the Delaware Wing-T, while the spread attack at Tulsa looked very little like the spread attack at Auburn. In order to make things easier, he even took concepts players were familiar with from other systems and made them concepts that fit into the system he was installing.
Above, he converts the Buck Sweep play that many at Arkansas State knew and turned it into a spread-style play. You can see how, at the end, he refers to the versatility the play offers, with naked bootlegs and read-option concepts begging to be added.
He's another guy who preaches "discipline," although that hardly seems unique at this point. He removed quarterback contact rules as head coach at Auburn in order to beef them back up, and he implemented some fairly harsh if somewhat traditional measures, like forcing every player to re-run sprints if one jogged over the line.
There are two great reads on Malzahn worth checking out:
There are a few other reads that are pretty good as well
- Buyout: $5 million
- Record: 19-6 (Record before he arrived: 7-6)
- Bowl Games: 2 (2-0)
- Penalty Rate in 2013: 0.88% (42nd)
After Art Briles left Houston, Kevin Sumlin was tasked with sustaining or improving the Houston program, which he did. They went 8-5, 10-4, 5-7, then 13-1 with Sumlin and made three bowl appearances (two wins) in his four years before heading to Texas A&M, where may be best known as the architect of the offense that used Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and an incredible set of offensive linemen to pull off dazzling wins.
He was originally a linebacker at Purdue between 1983 and 1986, and played alongside Jim Everett, Rod Woodson, Mel Gray, Cris Dishman and Fred Strickland.
He was initially a graduate assistant at Washington State (under retired spread offense guru Mike Price, with Ryan Leaf and one year with Dennis Erickson), then spent two years in Wyoming as a receivers coach. Between 1993 and 1996, he was the receivers coach for Minnesota and then became the quarterbacks coach.
Returning to his alma mater briefly in 1998, he was the receivers coach again, this time between 1998 and 2000.
Texas A&M offered him his first coordinating position in 2001, where he also was the assistant head coach. He then spent some time with Bob Stoops at Oklahoma as a special teams and tight end coach until he was promoted to co-offensive coordinator (and receivers coach) in 2006. In 2008, he took over the Houston program.
If you want a history of the specific style of spread run by Mike Leach and adapted by Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin, take a look at this long history by Smart Football on the Air Raid.
A benefit of Sumlin is not just his commitment to simple offensive principles, but his ability to invigorate and connect to players. He runs high-energy practices, and many have compared the energy throughout practice to Chip Kelly's ability, and this is evidently one of his strengths.
Evidently he rides them pretty hard
UPDATE: Charlie Strong has just interviewed with Texas Athletic Director Steven Patterson
UPDATE: Charlie Strong has accepted the Texas head coaching job.
Two consecutive years of 7-6 records were followed by a 23-3 run inspired by a massive recruiting run on Miami, Florida after Randy Shannon was fired from the University of Miami (Florida) program. 25 of the Louisville players in the Russell Athletic Bowl were from the Miami area and many were Miami commits before switching to Louisville. The biggest name among them is now the largely agreed-upon top quarterback in the draft, Teddy Bridgewater.
Charlie Strong is largely a defensive coach, although he's been on both sides of the ball. He was a graduate assistant with Florida and Texas A&M and took his first true coaching job as a wide receivers coach for Southern Illinois in 1986. In 1988, Florida hired him as an outside linebackers coach under defensive coordinator Gary Darnell, who is currently the associate executive director of the American Football Coaches Association.
He spent a year at Ole Miss in 1990 as the receivers coach, then returned once more to Florida as the assistant head coach and defensive tackles coach for three years. In 1995, he was the defensive line coach for Notre Dame, then was the defensive coordinator for South Carolina between 1999 and 2001. It should be noted that he served under Bob Davie at Notre Dame, who was revolutionary in his own way.
Before he joined, South Carolina ranked 84th of 112 schools in CFB-Ref's point and SoS-adjusted rankings. In his years at SC, they ranked 32nd, 5th and 10th—a massive improvement.
In 2002, Florida hired him to be the defensive coordinator after Jon Hoke was hired to be the defensive backs coach of the expansion Houston Texans. That's a fairly difficult ask, given that the Florida defense under Hoke were 19th, 25th and then 2nd in the country.
Following that, Strong's defenses ranked 23rd, 23rd, 34th, 19th, 1st, 43rd, 2nd and 2nd in his tenure. His time there must have been well respected, because he was the only assistant retained by Urban Meyer when he was hired in 2005. Incidentally, Strong was the interim head coach for one game in 2005 because head coach Ron Zook was fired midway through the season (although he continued to coach everything but the bowl game).
One controversy he has been a part of was an interview in 2009, where he identified race as a big reason he was not offered the head coaching job at Florida, and in particular his interracial marriage allegedly made his interviewers "uncomfortable".
Urban Meyer went on to win two national championships with Florida.
Charlie Strong is perhaps best known for his pioneering of the 3-3-5 Stack defense at South Carolina (invented by Joe Lee Dunn at Memphis). They shifted to the 3-3-5 after their first season was a disappointment (in 1999, the defense ranked 32nd in opponent-adjusted points given up, but they went 0-11 in their first season after replacing a coaching staff that went 1-10 the previous year).
In this defense, there were three down linemen (almost always one-gap), three linebackers ("stacked" behind the line), two safeties who served as hybrid outside linebackers and three more traditional defensive backs. This arose from his time with Bob Davie, who many credit with stopping the run-and-shoot in college.
That scheme relied on adaptive blitzing from the 3-4 that took advantage of specific offensive concepts used in the 'shoot. He was basically college's Dick LeBeau, as the use of zone concepts with the blitz ruined most hot reads.
Strong took this and hid his relatively weak linebackers and invested in defensive backs in order to make it happen, and was one of the first great answers to the spread.
His defensive philosophy has always been to focus on controlling the tempo by prioritizing disruption above all else. The zone blitzes were heavily flavored with an exotic mix of stunts and rushing linebacker, sometimes showing blitz but only rushing four—but leaving a rusher free by the way they attacked the protection scheme.
At Florida, the 3-3-5 was an occasional package as they were almost exclusively 4-3. The same thing has held true at Louisville.
Despite the fact that Louisville is now largely known for its offense (ranked 19th in the nation by FO's F/+ formula) than its defense, it's a surprisingly strong defense outside of a well-published key set of moments against Blake Bortles and Central Florida (the defense ranks 22nd in F/+).
Strong is a sharp defensive mind, who can adapt to changing conditions and seems to understand the organizational challenges that come with running a program. He lived up to expectations this year, and perhaps even exceeded them.
- Buyout: Unknown, but "cost-prohibitive" or "costly," according to NU's athletic director.
- Record: 55-46 (Record before he arrived 7-5)
- Bowl Games: 5 (1-4)
- Penalty Rate in 2013: 0.53% (6th)
Apologies for not having the buyout information. I tapped a few of my resources from people who would know, but they didn't. Neither did the internet have any information I could find.
"We were going to make it costly for him to leave and as well for anybody that would be interested in his services. And that's not his intention. I don't think you sign a 10-year deal and then, in a year from now, put the periscope up to see what else is out there."
-Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips
It seems unlikely that Pat Fitzgerald would leave Northwestern, even for an NFL team given his passionate devotion to Northwestern University and the Chicago area.
An alum of the Chicago (er... Evanston) school, he was a linebacker for four years who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a player and was twice named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He was also a two-time Consensus All-American. He won both the Nagurski Trophy and the Chuck Bednarik Award in 1995 and 1996.
He was on the Dallas Cowboys roster, but never played a down for them.
In 1998, he was the linebackers coach for Maryland (under Ron Vanderlinden, a Northwestern legend as a defensive coordinator) and was a significant part of their massive defensive improvement that year. The next year, he went to Colorado to work under Gary Barnett, who coached him at Northwestern (who was later suspended as a result of his terrible handling of a sexual assault allegation from the NCAA Division-I's first female point scorer, among other issues dogging the program). There, he worked under co-defensive coordinators Tom McMahon and Vince Okruch.
In 2000, Fitzgerald took an on a position coaching job at Idaho, again as a linebackers coach, and followed former offensive coordinator of the Buffaloes, Tom Cable (current offensive line coach at Seattle and former Raiders head coach), to Idaho.
Again just a year after, he joined Randy Walker's staff to return to Northwestern as a linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator the year after they exploded onto the college football scene with an exciting spread offense. In 2006, Randy Walker unexpectedly died of a heart attack, and Pat Fitzgerald was named the head coach.
I asked the SBNation site, SippinOnPurple what could be had from Fitzgerald as a possible hire:
Pat Fitzgerald is a great coach for Northwestern. He loves the school because the school loves him: once upon a time, he was an unrecruited linebacker who only had an offer from NU. He repaid their faith in him as a 17-year-old with a pair of Big Ten championships as a player and with a fire and passion as a coach nobody has ever really matched.
However, I'm not sure that will translate to other schools, and especially not to the NFL. He's not a tactician. He's great at what he does because he can sell 17-year-olds on attending Northwestern and making something of themselves, both as a football player and as a not-football player. They believe him because he's done it, and want to run through walls. Fans, too, want to run through walls, but we aren't good enough at football so we just show up to the games in record numbers.
Fitz really, really, really likes where he's at right now. He's under contract through 2020. He likes living in Chicago with his family and watching the Bears as a fan. And having turned down Michigan and Notre Dame in past, he seems to be freakishly devoted to Northwestern in ways even us fans don't fully comprehend. I don't see the NFL coming calling for him, and I don't see him taking the call if it comes.
It's true that the innovation and excellence that had been at Northwestern just a year ago (although not in 2013, evidently) have been driven by surprisingly good recruiting. Sports Illustrated highlighted this earlier this year:
Northwestern crossed the threshold somewhere along the way. The school's ability to compete for, and land, prized prospects became normal.
. . .
Much like the situation surrounding David Shaw and Stanford, it's simpler: Northwestern has been to a bowl game each of the last five seasons and has a coach who, by all accounts, plans to stay with the program for a very long time. That, plus academics, makes for a compelling recruiting package.
. . .
Four-star quarterback Clayton Thorson committed to Northwestern over Iowa, Illinois, Penn State and Ole Miss in March. Four-star athlete Dareian Watkins pledged the Wildcats over Penn State, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Louisville, among others, in May. Heralded running back Justin Jackson picked Northwestern out of a group of more than a dozen major-conference offers and fellow back Auston Anderson, a Plano, Texas, native, chose Northwestern over hometown Texas, TCU, Baylor and Texas Tech.
. . .
"We used to get plenty of high-level football players, but now we feel like our recruiting classes from top to bottom are very, very talented," said Adam Cushing, Northwestern's current offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator from 2008-11. "... Probably our entire class is made up of our top targets."
Looking back, MacPherson thinks the change dates to the 2010 Outback Bowl, when the Wildcats lost a 38-35 heartbreaker to Auburn. That defeat still stings in Northwestern circles -- costly kicking errors prompted the team's second consecutive overtime bowl loss -- but the close performance spread the team's brand. It put Northwestern football on the map -- quite literally, in some prospects' minds.
"I think that was kind of the beginning of it," said MacPherson. "That's a team that the next year went on to win the national championship. So for people to see us compete with them, take them to the brink -- and we really should've won that game -- I think that was really kind of the beginning of the awareness level."
MacPherson continued: "We're a great academic institution. One of the best in the country. But it doesn't matter where you are, athletics is the front porch of your university. And in most programs, that's the football program. I think with the success we've had -- six straight years of bowl eligibility, five straight bowl games, 10-win season -- I think that raises your profile not only in the Midwest but across the country."
The process of changing a program's recruiting culture is a lot like trying to lose weight: The lasting solutions aren't built on shortcuts, quick fixes or empty promises. Real change takes time, and time requires patience.
I'm not sure there isn't something to be said about Mick McCall, the offensive coordinator and quarterback's coach, in terms of programmatic improvement and I'll reiterate my generic argument that while you don't necessarily need a good recruiter, but you could very easily use a good recruiter's skills.
- Buyout: Unknown, but thought to be relatively low given his contract ($2.5 million a year)
- Record: 37-15 (Record before he arrived: 6-6)
- Bowls: 4 (2-2)
- Penalty Rate in 2013: 1.30% (104th)
It would be criminal not to include a Notre Dame head coach if Rick Spielman has any say in who gets hired, and Kelly has done an excellent job, leading the Fighting Irish to a national championship game shortly after the program was struggling to maintain competitive relevance before he arrived.
Brian Kelly played linebacker at Assumption College and was a four-year letter-winner. Immediately afterwards, he joined the Assumption coaching staff and starting out as a position coach (linebackers) before moving to defensive coordinator. In that time, he also happened to be their softball coach.
In 1987, he became a graduate assistant under head coach Tom Beck at Grand Valley State, known mostly for its explosive offenses. That team was a Division II wrecking ball, as it continuously found itself in the playoffs and even posted an undefeated season.
There, he moved up the ranks to defensive coordinator, and then became a head coach shortly after Tom Beck left for Notre Dame as the offensive coordinator under Lou Holtz in 1991. In order to get that job, Kelly beat out three other candidates at the age of 28, and he started off by taking down the national champions, North Dakota State in Fargo—who just came off an undefeated season and a 25 home game winning streak.
Kelly stayed at Grand Valley State for 13 years. Early on, the Grand Valley State Lakers would continuously make the playoffs before exiting in the first round, but in 1998 took a turn for the better.
Not long after quarterback Curt Anes turned down rival Ferris State because he didn't want to play in Division II, Kellyrecruited Anes to play for Grand Valley State. Reportedly, Anes told friends, "Here's another D-II guy. I'm going to lay him down softly." After the meeting was over, Anes changed his tune: "It was almost like he prophesied over me."
Over the course of Anes' scholarship, Kelly implemented new offensive changes, and eventually built a spread system despite his defensive background. In 2001, the offense averaged 600 yards and 58.6 points a game despite starters rarely playing in the second half. After Anes injured himself in the first round of the playoffs that year, Kelly installed a wishbone offense for the next week, and they advanced to the championship game.
They didn't grab the title, but they went undefeated the next year and rostered 11 all-Americans, including Anes who won the Harlon Hill Trophy (the Division II Heisman equivalent, an award Danny Woodhead has won twice, and a trophy Joique Bell earned once as well).
He won two national championships with Grand Valley State, and when he left for Central Michigan, his former assistant Chuck Martin, took over the program and won two more. Chuck Martin is now the Miami of Ohio head coach and accepted that position after four years of working under Brian Kelly once more at Notre Dame, as a defensive backs coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
At Central Michigan, Kelly replaced a struggling Mike DeBord, who posted a 12-34 record in his four seasons there. Kelly improved the squad to 19-16. What's worrisome is that he was evidently not very well liked at CMU, but that could be the case for many successful coaches.
There is a scandal involving Kelly at CMU, where at least four of his players (three months before the season opener) evidently beat a man to death. Two former players pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter and two pleaded no contest to attempted assault with a dangerous weapon.
Kelly's response to the team didn't draw much ire, but his response to why CMU players may have perjured themselves in testimony when asked by the Detroit Free Press embroiled him in controversy:
"For example, a number of them were African-Americans that had been in that culture of violence, and they're taught to look away. You don't want anything to do with it. Get out of there. You don't say anything to anybody.
"That is a culture that they are immersed in. When they come here, their first reaction is to react the way they've been taught to react in their culture and in their environment. That's difficult."
-Brian Kelly in the Detroit Free Press on 9/22/05
Later, he was appointed head coach at Cincinnati and immediately was asked to coach the Bearcats in their bowl game right after Mark Dantonio left for Michigan State (on the heels of an 8-5 record). They won that bowl game (against Central Michigan rival Western Michigan, interestingly), and Kelly led Cincinnati to 10, then 11, then 12-win season, where he went undefeated in 2009.
The 10-win season was Cincinnati's first since 1949, and following it with one more win (and its first ever Big East title, with the program's first ever wins over WVU and Pitt) and then an undefeated season is huge. He left before that team played in the Sugar Bowl against Florida (ranked #3 before the game), so he ended up with an impressive 34-6 record.
He has a reputation as an obnoxious "climber," although I'm not really sure that's entirely a bad thing, although it did rub players the wrong way from time to time. When he left Cincinnati, a lot of people covering him were shocked that he left abruptly and after lying to his players, the administration and the media. Honestly, it feels like these people have never covered football.
Brian Kelly's time at Notre Dame are an improvement over Charlie Weis', but I do think his success is being overstated. He had one phenomenal season, to go with two 8-win seasons and a 9-win season this year. Nevertheless, it's not as easy to win at Notre Dame as it used to be, and it's clear he's thrust the program back into the national spotlight.
Partway through the season when I asked One Foot Down, the Notre Dame SBNation partner site, they had a lot to say.
Prior to the end of last season I think the consensus was that Kelly was a college coach through and through and it would be unlikely that he'd want to move on to the NFL. After the contact with the Eagles back in January that belief may have taken a hit---and it certainly has done so for some Irish fans who think our coach should believe South Bend is the pinnacle of the coaching universe and even entertaining any NFL offers is outright treason. Yeah, some of our fans can be ridiculous.
10 months later it's still difficult to understand what Kelly's intentions were but I really don't think he's dying to coach in the NFL and his talks with the Eagles (where it's rumored he was never made an offer, by the way) were either curiosity having never been seriously considered for such an opening or a crafty negotiating tactic with Notre Dame.
Honestly, it's hard not to look back and see how blown out of proportion the Eagles dalliance was for Irish fans. He was contacted by Philly prior to the national title game, he directed them to his agent, the Irish AD was made aware of the contact, etc. Basically, things exploded because Notre Dame got crushed in the title game and Kelly went MIA for about 2 days after the game when he was on vacation with his family and the Eagles rumors broke.
Since then, he's negotiated a new deal with Notre Dame through (I think) the 2017 season, although you might want to double check that date. Some people are still worried because Kelly's been viewed as a "climber" in his profession but with this new extension I doubt he leaves South Bend any time soon. The negotiations took months and despite the talk from the school that it was no big deal most believe Kelly was fighting hard to get some more power within the University and to help him run the football program---no easy task at Notre Dame. I just don't think he'd go through all this trouble just to jet to the NFL this off-season.
I also think he's seeing what's happening to Chip Kelly now and that example is probably hitting home for him to stay in college. Brian Kelly's specialty is building college programs and motivating 18 to 22-year olds. I think there's a chance that at some point down the road---maybe after he gets frustrated by Notre Dame's standards and/or meddling Administration or he can't get over the hump as it were---I could see him trying the NFL out. I just don't think it's going to happen this off-season. Maybe in 3 to 5 years.
Again, I do think that some of these skills are more transferable than a lot of folks think, but I certainly can't speak to Kelly's mindset. He did sign that extension, which presumably means something (although not a lot). I also asked One Foot In about his strengths and weaknesses:
I think he has a lot of strengths. From a college perspective he's very much the picture-perfect CEO-type coach but at the same time he's involved enough as a teacher that he's not merely letting his assistants run the show. In this way he strikes a perfect balance of managing macro-level issues within the program while also addressing micro-level problems.
I'm trying to be as unbiased as possible but I do think he's a very likable personality, although some of the crotchety Irish fans would like to tell you otherwise. He's definitely a people person as the son of a politician who also himself worked in politics after college. He handles the media really well and has done a great job increasing exposure to Notre Dame, which isn't easy because we already have a lot of exposure.
He does a really good job of getting his players to respect him and his process and I'd be interested to see how this might translate to the next level should he make the jump. I don't know if Chip Kelly really has the personality to excel in the NFL he's always seemed like a 'system' guy who might not be able to hand adversity all that well and isn't inherently likable. I don't doubt that Brian Kelly could walk into a NFL locker room and win over the team pretty quickly. Not that this portends any long-term success in the NFL but it's a key to the puzzle that might help him.
His other strength is that he has a set of goals that he's able to stress on a consistent basis and get his players to work towards. I know this kind of sounds flaky but he's done a really good job in a number of areas (bouncing back from losses, getting better as the year goes on, staying strong late in games, etc.) that it's obvious how much he stresses the little things in his program. Notre Dame was really talented before Kelly arrived but damn near horrible in many areas that make up a successful college program. Kelly has been able to do a 180 in South Bend relatively quickly and that's been no small feat.
As far as weaknesses I think from a NFL perspective he's not some offensive genius, although he incorrectly gets labeled this because he had some high flying offenses while at Cincinnati. He's far and away more of a player motivation type coach than a win with superior scheme kind of coach.
So I guess that could either be a positive or negative depending on your perspective. To that point, he's done a good job fitting his personnel and making tweaks to his offense in order to be successful as a team. But the downside to that is the offense can be grab-baggy at times and really hasn't been able to master a specific system over his 4 years at Notre Dame. His first year at ND he featured a very normal 4-wide spread offense not that dissimilar from his Cincy days and we threw the ball a lot. He dabbled in the up-tempo that first year and then the second year dialed that back. In year three he incorporated a bunch of 2 tight end sets and became more of a power spread team that ran the ball a lot. This year we've kind of become a mixture of both systems but we're back to throwing the ball more often.
A lot of this has to do with Kelly trying to get the best out of a crappy QB situation (5-star upperclassman gets hurt and basically has a nervous breakdown thereafter, promising rising star suspended for this semester, 5-star recruit transfers) and it really hasn't allowed him to stick with the same guy for more than a year.
Overall, I think Kelly might be a good NFL coach but I wouldn't bet much money on it. I think that's just the nature of the difficulty coaching in the NFL more than anything. He has a lot of skills that would serve him well at the next level but they are very much more tuned to the college game than the pro game.
Brian Kelly has worked on both sides of the ball and clearly has much more organizational talent than anything else. He's adaptive and flexible and deals more with people than with tactics.
- Buyout: $2 million
- Record: 34-6 (Record before he arrived: 12-1)
- Bowl Games: 3 (1-2)
- Penalty Rate in 2013: 0.97% (58th)
David Shaw has drawn some notoriety as the coach who has now taken out Oregon for two consecutive seasons and is another hot name in head coaching circles and was profiled as one of the gurus that coaches sought out to stop the option offenses that were (re)taking over college football.
That's fairly interesting, given that he's an offensive mind with only one year (1995) dabbling on the defense.
After graduating from Stanford as a wide receiver in 1994, where he played under both Dennis Green and Bill Walsh, he began coaching as the linebackers coach at NAIA Division II school Western Washington in a bizarre season where top-ranked Western Washington Vikings had to beat Jon Kitna (yes, that Jon Kitna) and Central Washington twice in order to play for the national title game.
While they won their regular season matchup, they lost in the playoffs to the CWU Wildcats, who would go on to tie in the championship game in the 5th and most recent tie in NAIA Division II playoff history (which started in 1956, with a 0-0 tie).
In 1996, Shaw became the tight ends coach, and then started following Jon Gruden around the country, first as his quality control coach in Philadelphia while he was an offensive coordinator and then in Oakland, where he reprised that role until he became Rich Gannon's quarterbacks coach the year before Gannon won the league MVP and appeared in a Super Bowl.
He joined Brian Billicks' Ravens staff in 2002 as a combined quarterbacks/wide receivers coach until offensive coordinator Jim Fassel arrived in 2005 (to replace Matt Cavanaugh, current QB coach in Chicago), whereupon Shaw simply became the receivers coach as Rick Neuheisel (currently the head coach of rival UCLA) became the quarterbacks coach.
Jim Harbaugh offered him a job at San Diego in 2006 following a successful 11-1 campaign the year before, and as the receivers and quarterbacks coach, Shaw became part of an offense that led the FCS in passing yardage, total yardage and points scored.
Harbaugh brought Shaw with him to Stanford as the offensive coordinator and receivers coach the next year and in 2010, Shaw switched from coaching receivers to coaching running backs (as they looked to find ways to replicate Toby Gerhart's production) while still retaining coordinating duties. After Harbaugh left for the NFL, Shaw took over the program in 2011.
Stanford is well-known for having an old-school program on both sides of the ball, and runs a similar 3-4 system on defense to the one Vic Fangio runs in San Francisco (which means more one-gap concepts). On offense, the Stanford Cardinal are a power-running football team that prioritizes play-action passing.
Their adjustments to the Oregon option attack were very old-school, and they reverted to deeper drops and a functional 4-3 look.
Shaw's philosophy embodies simplicity:
"[Gruden] would say it every single day: ‘What you want to do on offense is present the illusion of sophistication but all in all remain very simple and basic.' So very often we'll throw a whole bunch of different stuff at them, but we're going to run a basic day-one installation play. Something we've run thousands of times. Something very, very simple. But for the defense, it looks very complicated. So we want to present these illusions, then run a regular play that we just want to execute right."
-David Shaw to Peter King in the MMQB, published 9/17/2013
The diversity in form but simplicity in function is interestingly a core principle of Air Raid offenses and a big part of the hurry-up drills that New England installs. In that MMQB piece quoted above, Stanford ran nine distinct-looking formations.
Shaw is much more of a hands-on tactician who carries with him a specific football philosophy that permeates the organizational structure he has set up. It doesn't eschew changes in football—he adapts to them remarkably well and is willing to adopt new concepts (like the one- and two-back pistol, for example), but keeps them all in line with a unifying philosophy of simplicity.
- Buyout: $2 million (or $2,5 million if they don't wait until the end of bowl season to announce it)
- Record: 18-8 (Record before he arrived: 6-8, because they were somehow bowl-eligible)
- Bowl Games: 2 (0-1, pending result of Sun Bowl)
- Penalty Rate in 2013: 1.20% (89th)
No, it's not that Jim Mora, although they are related ("L" is the son of "E"). He was a hybrid safety/linebacker at the University of Washington as a walk-on and immediately became a graduate assistant under Washington legend Don James after graduating. Don James would end up with a 153-57-2 record at Washington, win six conference titles and a national championship.
In 1985, he would join the San Diego Chargers under Don Coryell (himself a Washington alum) and Ernie Zampese, but worked for co-defensive coordinators Dave Adolph and Tom Bass as a defensive quality control assistant. In 1986, Don Coryell was fired for starting off 0-13, and subsequently retired (later that year, he was inducted into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame).
Wide receivers coach Al Saunders was promoted to head coach (Zampese would become the offensive coordinator for the LA Rams, and Adolph left in 1985 to be the Cleveland Browns' defensive coordinator. Tom Bass retired after Coryell was fired). He lasted until 1988, where he was fired partway through the season.
Dan Henning became the head coach in 1989, and Mora was promoted to defensive backs coach. But when Henning was fired after a tense 1991 season, Mora found himself out of a job. He moved to New Orleans to become the defensive backs coach for his father and underneath defensive coordinator Steve Sidwell.
1992 turned out to be Jim E. Mora's best non-strike season year (12-4) and the best year the New Orleans defense would have under Sidwell or Mora (ranking first in points and second in yards), although that was largely credited to a linebacker corps nicknamed the Dome Patrol, who had a combined 20 Pro Bowl selections between the four of them and a Hall of Fame berth. In 1992, they all made the Pro Bowl.
The defensive backs did however have 17 interceptions between them (although this was a step down from the absurd 1991 total of 23 from DBs alone).
Mora stayed with his father until he stepped down voluntarily midway through what would become a 3-13 season. With Mike Ditka coming in, Mora moved to join the San Francisco 49ers as a defensive backs coach as they hired Steve Mariucci out of Cal to replace an outgoing George Seifert.
John Marshall was hired to be the defensive coordinator (and defensive line and linebackers coach), and the 49ers improved from 4th to 3rd in points allowed. Unfortunately, they dropped to 13th in points allowed in 1998, but still maintained their 12-4 record. When George Seifert unretired to coach the Carolina Panthers, Marshall followed him.
Mora was promoted to defensive coordinator, and the defense plummeted. In those two years, the 49ers ranked 30th and 28th in points scored the next two years. After that, the defense improved to 9th in 2000, but then couldn't maintain a top-half standing in points allowed. The 49ers went 6-10 that year, a modest improvement on the 4-12 a year ago.
Mariucci retained his job to follow that with a 12-4 season only to lose in the wild card round, then followed that by going 10-6 and losing in the divisional round after posting the second-biggest comeback playoff victory in NFL history against the New York Giants.
Regardless, they lost out to the eventual champion Buccaneers and Mariucci was fired reportedly due to a power struggle with the general manager. Mora stayed on for another year with new head coach Dennis Erickson and the 49ers ended up ranked 21st in points allowed in a 7-9 season.
That was enough for Mora to accept a head coaching job with the Atlanta Falcons, and benefited from Michael Vick's stunning 2004 (a year he would likely have been in the lead for MVP voting had Peyton Manning not had the best regular season in NFL history the same year—Michael Vick grabbed one vote and shouldn't have even had that) to go 11-5, grab a first-round bye into the playoffs and beat the St. Louis Rams n the divisional round.
They lost to Donovan McNabb's Eagles in the NFC Championship game, and Mora could not replicate his success, despite two more electric years from Michael Vick, going 8-8, then 7-9. In all likelihood, Mora was a victim of his own early performance, as they still were better than the 5-11 season that Dan Reeves and Wade Phillips put together before Mora arrived.
A blessing in disguise, Mora was fired right before the season Michael Vick's dog-fighting ring was discovered. Jim Mora became a broadcaster for a short time, but was then hired by the Seattle Seahawks to be the assistant head coach and defensive backs coach. After the 2007 season, Washington offered him a job that he declined, and instead was promised to succeed Mike Holmgren after the 2008 season.
After the 4-12 2008 season that Mike Holmgren retired from, Jim Mora went 5-11 before he got fired in his sole season as a head coach, although this was likely more because general manager/vice president of football operations Tim Ruskell resigned in 2009, and a new front office would demand a new coach (although it was a singularly backwards moment, where Pete Carroll was hired before John Schneider).
After his time with the Seahawks, he became a commentator with the NFL Network. In 2010, he joined Fox Sports as a color analyst for the 2010 season and teamed up with Dick Stockton and Charles Davis to call games. He was also part of NFL Network's Thursday Night Kickoff show.
In late 2011, UCLA hired him to replace Rick Neuheisel, who had been with UCLA for four years and posted a 20-28 record in his time there (going 6-6 in the final season, but losing to bowl-ineligible USC 50-0). He actually took over the program in December and criticized what was evidently a tradition for seniors to ditch practice as they were preparing for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (which they lost).
As seems to be normal for a new coach, Mora instituted a "tough practice schedule" in order to "instill discipline." A very energetic set of spring practices gained local media attention and some nice fluff pieces to boot. Of course, there could be something to it. Beat writers refer to it as hearkening back to the difficult and aggressive practice days of Terry Donahue in the 80's and early 90's, an era which included several Rose Bowl appearances (and wins).
Rolling in with a theme of "accountability and discipline," Mora evidently instilled a new culture of toughness at UCLA and that had been his message for the entire inaugural offseason.
"The perception of UCLA football to those of who were not involved with UCLA football,was that UCLA football had become soft."
"When you're trying to change the culture, you probably want someone from outside that culture to change it. I despise the words, 'We do it that way because that's the way we've always done it.' I think that's a loser's mentality."
-Jim Mora, quoted in CBSSports.com, 7/13/12
Mora was the first defensive coach in 35 years at UCLA and the first non-alum since 1949 and embraces his outsider role enthusiastically, although wisely. He hired a top-notch recruiting assistants, like Eric Yarver, Adrian Klemm, Steve Broussard, and Demetrice Martin. They immediately improved the Rivals.com recruiting rank from 45th in 2011 to 13th in the country in 2012, including 5-star recruit Ellis McCarthy, who ranked 4th in the country among defensive tackles.
He was also aggressive in hiring an offensive coordinator, eliminating their read-option pistol offense in favor of hiring Noel Mazzone and installing their one-back spread offense with pro-style concepts folded in—essentially an '80s offense designed to retain the benefits of drop-back passing and downhill (as opposed to lateral) running with zone concepts and a base set without a fullback but a slot receiver.
Functionally, it's a "spread" offense that defensive-minded coaches can get behind because it doesn't rely on finesse so much as ball-control, and looks to either force nickel defenses to run against or wide linebackers out of place and in poor matchups. There are also a wider variety of constraint plays in this Dennis Erickson-style spread than in the Air Raid or pistol spread offenses, which means more screens, sweeps and tosses to use to keep defenses honest, often used in conjunction with a quick tempo, like the "no-huddle."
There aren't many plays in it, but they're built off of each other and are designed to be simple. That's great, because on offense and defense, Mora puts more emphasis on versatility of players than pure position-fit and hired Sal Alosi, the famous New York Jets strength and conditioning coach, to be UCLA's first football-only strength and conditioning staff.
Some of the local beat displayed some college football arrogance in assuming that an "NFL lifer" would have difficult adjusting to the wide variety of college offenses in the PAC-12 and in college football in general, but they did have a point—the diversity of offenses demands a diversity of approach.
Hiring Lou Spanos, a former linebackers coach for the Washington Redskins, didn't really assuage concerns, but UCLA moved up defensively in opponent-adjusted points-allowed from 60th to 43rd in 2012, and then up to 13th in 2013.
Spanos and Mora installed a very, very traditional 3-4 defense that relied on big bodies to two-gap and for linebackers to make plays—a callback to Jim Mora's time with the Saints. It's a relatively rare defense in football, but you wouldn't know it, given how the number of programs who run it generally are concentrated at the top.
It's a very similar defense to the one he ran in Seattle and somewhat similar to the defenses that Spanos was a part of with the Steelers as a defensive assistant under Dick Lebeau. The emphasis on speed around the rest of the defense was a big part of the reason Mora decided to hire an independent conditioning coach for the football team, and is why players like Anthony Barr are considered top-tier draft prospects.
The idea of a tradeoff between a linebacker and a defensive tackle to put more speed on the field to combat the spread is actually a fairly old one, but not one many saw in college because of the difficult finding appropriate personnel up front (which is why Ellis McCarty was so important).
There are zone blitz concepts in the defense, which Lebeau refers to more than once as a way to get "safe pressure" on the quarterback, as well as some creative blitzing designed to overload protection schemes. The run game is a little easier to manage with linebackers reading the offensive line and their own defensive tackles in order to react and shoot through gaps, although an NFL-style 3-4 has heavier linebackers in order to take on guards.
In particular, the rise of zone-running in college and the NFL can be attacked differently with a two-gap front, so long as there are skilled linemen, because it artificially creates gap discipline by keeping players stacked on blockers instead of in gaps.
It is difficult to research Mora without finding constant references to the importance of toughness, discipline and accountability, and Los Angeles writers have been eating it up. But it's a reputation he's carried with him for some time. There are also a number of instances of players going out of their way to praise Mora who call him relatable and open, although his media demeanor is much more intense and closed up.
Unlike most college coaches, Mora has significant NFL experience as well as head coaching experience (he liked to point out before last year to recruits in the Atlanta/Georgia area that he was the last Atlanta head coach to win a playoff game). His NFL defenses never matched the accomplishments that his UCLA defense seems to be able to get to, but Mora's record in the NFL isn't actually bad for a person who was fired twice, especially considering the teams he took over (31-33, taking over teams that went 5-11 and 4-7).
Mora's greatest strength seems to be surrounding himself with talent and smart minds, and using his staff to his advantage. In addition to that, he seems to be the mythical combination of disciplinarian and "player's coach" that so often creates debates. While it's probably true that most of the reports of his emphasis on "toughness" as well as his ability to connect to players are fluff, there's a good chance that there's something there worth valuing.
- Buyout: $0 (He has a high "stay bonus" paid out to him at the end of his contract in 2016 or if he's fired, for $3 million)
- Record: 160-39 (Record before he arrived: 5-6)
- Bowl Games: 15 (8-7)
- Penalty Rate in 2013: 1.02% (66th)
Bob Stoops' name has been quietly floating around NFL circles for a bit, in part because of his impressive success at Oklahoma and in part because he would be readily available, given that there is no buyout in his contract.
He was originally a high school star in Youngstown, Ohio, a city that has had an outsized impact on the world of football for it's population—bearing personalities like Ron Jaworski, Jim Tressel and Bo Pelini. He enrolled at Iowa and played there for four years as a defensive back (and earning recognition as an All-Big Ten selection honoree) before joining the team as a graduate assistant in 1983.
He stayed on staff at Iowa for another three years as a volunteer assistant before becoming an assistant at Kent State. That team went 5-6 under Dick Crum and Stoops left before the program got uglier (they went 2-20 for the rest of Crum's tenure).
When former Iowa offensive coordinator Bill Snyder left for Kansas State in 1989, he was able to take Stoops with him and made him a defensive backs coach. Labeled as "Futility U" but Sports Illustrated, many thought that Kansas State was the worst team in the FBS, a reasonable argument given their 0-11 record and the worst point differential of all no-win teams.
They didn't do much better next year (one win), but improved the program steadily after that. Right before 1992, he and Jim Leavitt (a graduate assitant at Iowa in 1989) were named co-defensive coordinators. That year, Kansas State gave up 21.2 points a game, a significant improvement from when they joined, where the Wildcats gave up 40.7 points a game.
In 1993, Kansas State was recognized in the BCS Standings as a Top 25 team, having finished 20th with a 9-2 record and a bowl win. He stayed there until 1995 (where they only gave up 13.8 points a game, second-best in the country) before Florida an Steve Spurrier came calling.
The year before, Bob Pruett replaced Ron Zook, and both ran effective defenses. Pruett, that year, led Florida to the 11th-best defense in the country, according to opposition-adusted points metrics.
Stoops' arrival didn't immediately change Florida's defense, as it ranked almost exactly where it was before, and Kansas State wasn't missing Stoops too much, and had marginally gotten better in 1996. But the next year, Florida rocketed to having nearly the top defense in college football and stayed in the top ten the next year.
From there, Oklahoma asked Stoops to turn around a program that had lost its way, and he did so immediately. In 1999, the program went 7-5. The next year, Oklahoma won the national championship.
For the next four years, Oklahoma maintained a competitive program that found itself ranked in the top five every year but one, where they went 11-2 and finished 6th.
A dip in 2005 (moving from Heisman-award winner Jason White to Rhett Bomar was jarring) was followed by two more strong years with Adrian Peterson and top ten finishes. Oklahoma disappointed once more in 2009, but then bounced back for a 12-win season in 2010, followed by three consecutive 10-win seasons.
There have been some inconsistencies, but mostly they've been solid. Stoops carries Snyder's organizational DNA with him, and a lot of his staff at the Oklahoma came from Bill Snyder, which is good because Snyder literally wrote the book on "Building and Sustaining a Division I Program," which is the name of the chapter the American Football Coaches Association asked him to write in their Football Coaching Bible.
While David Shaw might prefer simplicity, Stoops implements complex defensive schemes built to highlight speed at every position and involve unique blitz packages to complement their zone-style defensive orientation.
The fulcrum of the defense is usually oriented around the opposing team's best wide receiver, and the schemes blossom from there. While the Xs and Os are originally diagrammed to stop the run before anything else but orient themselves around getting rid of the best passing option.
There are a lot of Cover-3 concepts in the defense, and which functionally means a lot of man-coverage concepts on the outside with zone coverage concepts on the inside. The Cover-3 is the primary defensive coverage for the Seattle Seahawks, while the Vikings continued to use more Cover-3 looks as the season went on. The Carolina Panthers use it to great effect as well.
Given its emphasis on speed and confusion, it really doesn't much resemble the Seattle defense much despite a similar pass coverage concept, although the run responsibilities are the same. Putting pressure on the quarterback in confusing ways is critical, and creating opportunities for takeaways is more important for OU than it is for other zone blitzing defenses—keeping a 4/3 coverage shell up top on some stunts to keep the number of coverage zones the same, but attack from odd angles is a common tactic.
Most of the coverage concepts are fit for press coverage corners who continuously rout receivers to the outside in order to protect the seam and allow the free safety to roam more. As with Seattle, the free safety needs to be a fast, aggressive player with lots of football IQ. Unlike Seattle, the corners need to be much more agile because of the increased emphasis on putting receivers outside instead of staying on top (although losing leverage and allowing the receiver to get hip-to-hip is considered a failure).
Stoops has shown signs of making sure the defense adapts, although he's generally been late to the party. He switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 front after consultation with Alabama and Kirby Smart. He has since folded a lot of Alabama's concepts in—although Alabama prefers size over speed making the flavor of the defense always different.
This will be interesting to see when the Sugar Bowl comes around, but ultimately irrelevant if Stoops is a serious coaching candidate.
I'll fill in more information on these potential hires as the day goes on and constantly updating the page.
- Unit DVOA Rank: 1
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 1
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 1
- Years as NFL Coord: 1
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 0
The Vikings have been linked to Gase, the new offensive coordinator for the hottest offense in the league (NFL history?) and it certainly surprises quite a few folks.
Gase attended Michigan State University from 1996 to 1999, and in that time worked for Dean Pees (current DC of the Ravens) as a defensive assistant.
Nick Saban was the head coach there at the time, and Gase followed Saban to Louisiana State University as a graduate assistant working on the defense in 2000. From 2001-2002, he was a recruiting intern before joining the Detroit Lions as a scouting intern in 2003 under general manager Matt Millen and head coach Steve Mariucci.
Mariucci brought him on as an offensive assistant in 2005, where he would work under offensive coordinator Greg Olson. Mariucci was fired after a blowout loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Thanksgiving (Losing 27-7), but Gase stayed on with the new head coach, Rod Marinelli this time as an offensive quality control assistant with offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
In 2007, the Lions made Gase a quarterbacks coach for Jon Kitna's second season with the Lions, and 11th in the NFL, where Kitna showed little change from the year before in performance.
After Martz was fired and offensive line coach Jim Colletto and receivers coach Kippy Brown were functionally made co-coordinators (Brown as the passing game coordinator and Colletto as the playcaller and titular offensive coordinator), Gase joined the 49ers in 2008 as an offensive assistant once again under Mike Martz.
When Martz was fired again after Singletary was named the head coach, Gase moved to the Denver Broncos, where he started off as the receivers coach under Josh McDaniels and Mike McCoy. He worked with Brandon Marshall, Brandon Lloyd, Brandon Stokely, Jabar Gaffney, Eddie Royal and Matthew Willis. He was the initial position coach for Eric Decker and DeMaryius Thomas, too.
He stayed as the receivers coach until 2011, when he was made the quarterbacks coach, the same year Tebow went off. He remained the quarterbacks coach for Manning's return to the NFL as Manning posted near-career highs in passing yardage, passer rating and yards per attempt.
After that, he was promoted to offensive coordinator in light of Mike McCoy's move to San Diego to become the head coach. In his time as a quarterbacks coach, McCoy gave him playcalling duties late into the 2012 season for a few series for the purpose of changing tendencies and throwing defenses (and scouting departments) off balance.
There is a good likelihood that most of Gase' offensive philosophies are influenced by Mike Martz, although to say he would be unaffected by Peyton's years in Denver would be shortsighted.
Mike Martz comes from the Sid Gillman/Don Coryell school of passing offense, although he favors a deeper, more aggressive style, often with seven-step drops and running back leaks to protect the quarterback, instead of keeping in players to block. Those five-man protections were aided at times by a tight end, but Martz much prefers four or five receivers and a running back in to "keep teams honest."
There are no fullbacks in Martz' offense, and the Tom Moore offense that Peyton Manning uses doesn't have one either. In fact, while McCoy and McDaniels have rostered fullbacks, they are used rarely. There's a good bet that fullbacks wouldn't be part of the Gase offense, but there is room for move tight ends like Rhett Ellison, unless Gase takes too much from Martz and eschews that in favor of receiver-heavy sets.
Gase would do well to pick up on the lessons of Manning and Moore, and in some ways Mike McCoy.
"There are lots of systems, there are tons of systems. But the trick is no systems, the trick is players and making sure you take something that the players can do and not get into, ‘Well, this is mine and this is what we're going to do.' It's what's best for the players."
-Tom Moore in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, published 2/3/10
After Don Coryell eventually gets into the Hall of Fame, Moore might end up being the most underappreciated offensive mind in football.
Tom Moore tends to keep things simple. Not much complexity, very few plays—usually one of the smallest and always the simplest. In fact, it's so simple that Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne each kept to one side of the formation their entire careers, in the Bill Walsh tradition of insisting there's "no magic rule that you have to run all plays to the right and the left."
Moore tends to be more flexible than most offensive coordinators, and ran a two-back offense with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Right now, he's a consultant for the Arizona Cardinals, who run a deeper passing offense than one Moore ever ran, despite the fact that Bruce Arians is a Moore disciple.
In contrast, Mike Martz is famously inflexible, and has been a bit too caught up in his success with the "Greatest Show on Turf" offense, refusing to adapt to the talent he had with the Lions, Bears and 49ers. In particular, with the Bears and 49ers, he would rarely use the talented tight ends they had or take into account the offensive line problems they had—critical for five-man protection schemes that rely on 7-step drop passing.
It's an odd combination, having Martz for most of his offensive life, and then McCoy and Manning as potential influences for a short time later on.
For what it's worth, Adam Gase has been a more aggressive playcaller than Mike McCoy was for Peyton, although it's obviously true that Manning has had his famous latitude to change the play—and he'll change the play to any play in the playbook; he doesn't get a few plays to choose from like many quarterbacks sometimes do.
Mike McCoy evidently tried to implement his own offense with Peyton Manning and backed off early on in the process, making it three separate offenses for McCoy while Gase worked underneath him (one with Orton, Tebow and Manning). That type of flexibility is probably a good thing.
Gase has been tapped by more than one as a rising star in the coaching community, but his contributions to on-field play are difficult to dissect. He's reportedly been an opinionated and strong voice in team meetings and has been outspoken about making sure he and his staff don't fall victim to groupthink. He certainly is active as a gameplanner, and it's telling that Denver went with McCoy as an OC instead of either Whisenhunt (who McCoy ended up hiring in San Diego) or Pat Shurmur, who's currently the "offensive coordinator" at Philadelphia.
There's little evidence of Gase's organizational talent, one way or the other, although his ability to impress Nick Saban, Dean Pees and Mike McCoy—who all well known to be extremely detailed and hard workers—might be weakly indicative of something.
From what we can gather, he has some experience on the defensive side of the ball, some experience with talent evaluation and quite a bit of offensive experience. He's aggressive and reportedly flexible, though preferring to play uptempo and with explosive plays.
The more I read about Gase, the less concerned I'd be about him as a hire. Given the fact that adaptability and organizational talent are more important than specific tactical ability, the fact that he might not be responsible for Peyton Manning's offense doesn't matter much—especially because Manning just happened to turn in the two of the three best seasons of his career in Denver.
- Unit DVOA Rank: 15
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 19
- Unit Drive Succes Rate Rank: 17
- Years as NFL Coord: 3
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 9 (interim: 1)
There is a bit of nostalgia with Jack Del Rio, who was a solid linebacker in the NFL (and a stunning one in college). He was initially drafted by the New Orleans Saints and was a backup to the nascent "Dome Patrol". It was pretty clear he wasn't going to see time on the field with those Hall of Fame candidates, so moved to Kansas City and played as a 3-4 outside linebacker, seeing only seven starts in ten games of the strike-shortened 1987 season. The next year, he started 10 of 15 games.
He joined Jimmy Johnson's 1989 Dallas team as the Cowboys switched to the "Miami 4-3" with an emphasis on quick players. It was a rough, rough year for Dallas (1-15) and Del Rio started in 12 of their games as a 4-3 outside linebacker. The next year, he started all 16 games and recorded his first 100+ tackle season as the team improved to 7-9, moving from the 21st-ranked defense in opponent-adjusted points and the 25th-ranked defense in DVOA to 13th in opponent-adjusted points and 10th in DVOA.
He stayed on for another year as a starting linebacker, this time moving to the middle, and grabbed 26 more tackles to net 130. The defense stayed at 13th in opponent-adjusted points allowed but dropped back down to 14 in DVOA. After that, Del Rio signed on with the Vikings and started at middle linebacker for the 1992 season.
Del Rio added 153 tackles to his growing career total that year and helped turn the defense around from the 23rd-ranked defense in DVOA into the 4th-ranked defense, although switching from Monte Kiffin to Tony Dungy at defensive coordinator was likely a bigger part of that.
In 1993, he had a career year, missing out on the Pro Bowl, but tackling the ballcarrier 169 times and adding four interceptions to his total. Minnesota ranked 3rd in defensive DVOA that year. In 1994, he made the Pro Bowl as Minnesota finished 10-6 and with a defensive DVOA ranked 6th in the NFL. He stayed with the team one more year and only started nine more games before moving to the Dolphins as a reserve, then retiring as a player.
He tried hacking it as a financial consultant and was largely successful, but preferred a life in football and accepted a nearly 90% salary cut to work for Mike Ditka as an assistant strength and conditioning coach in 1997. Shortly after, in 1999, he accepted a job with Brian Billick's Ravens as a linebackers coach, making him Ray Lewis' position coach for the first year Lewis went All-Pro (1999) and the year he won the Super Bowl MVP, along with the defensive player of the year award. Also on that squad was Pro Bowl linebacker Peter Boulware.
Del Rio worked alongside Rex Ryan (the defensive line coach) and under Marvin Lewis as the Ravens ran a 4-3 defense until 2002, where he was hired as the defensive coordinator under John Fox and improved the defense from 21st to 3rd in DVOA (drafting Julius Peppers and enjoying his 12-sack season certainly helped).
Immediately after that, he was offered the head coaching position with the Jacksonville Jaguars, which was probably the second-least attractive coaching job after the Houston Texans. Jacksonville was coming off of a 6-10 season and ranked 18th in DVOA (and 18th in opponent-adjusted point differential) but had a number of roster concerns.
Their best player (and perhaps one of history's most underrated receivers), Jimmy Smith, had clearly begun to decline despite a Pro Bowl appearance and running back Fred Taylor was beginning to show serious signs of injury worry (he had only started 56% of possible games up to that point).
The team was juggling between Mark Brunnell, David Garrard and Byron Leftwich as the starting quarterback, and they were playing behind a line that not only lost Pro Bowl left tackle Tony Boselli a year prior, but three other starting offensive linemen that year. They did, however, make significant upgrades along the defensive line and linebacker corps.
He took the team from 19th in overall DVOA to 18th, then 17th, then 13th in 2004. Soon after, they took off and ranked 11th, 6th, then 3rd. The year they went third in DVOA, they improved from an 8-8 record to 11-5 and made the divisional round of the playoffs before losing to the juggernaut Patriots, who were in the final stages of their historic tear through record books.
Prior to 2007, Del Rio made significant changes to the staff and the roster, letting go of offensive coordinator Carl Smith, quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson, receivers coach Steve Walters and special teams assistant Mark Michaels. He added Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator, Todd Monken as the receivers coach, Robert Prince as the receivers assistant coach, Mike Shula as the quarterbacks coach and Joe DeCamillis as the special teams coordinator. He also installed assistant head coach Mike Tice as the tight ends positional coach.
They never matched that 2007 run, and Del Rio's time with the Jaguars has been extremely inconsistent. His win total started at 5, then followed an odd path: 9, 12, 8, 11, 5, 7, 8. In a season where the Jaguars started off with a win, then rattled off five straight losses, Del Rio was put on the hot seat. Two more wins couldn't save him, and he was kicked out after a 3-8 record forced the team to let him go. It doesn't help that the team went 2-3 without him.
After that, he became the defensive coordinator at Denver and took a defense ranked 30th in DVOA in 2010 to 18th in 2011, followed by placing 5th in 2012. Some problems have plagued the Denver defense this year, but the defense has been far better than people have been implying, ranking 15th in DVOA this year, and 10th when weighted for recency.
Part of the problem with evaluating the Denver defense this year has been the fact that the Broncos have been too quick to score to limit possessions, and therefore opportunities for opponents to score. Denver has had the second-most drives against in the NFL, and therefore gives up more points. But because drives are zero-sum (the offense has more drives, too), it doesn't hurt the team and shouldn't hurt the evaluation of the defense. Functionally, because of the way the offense plays, the defense is forced to defend 1.5 more possessions than average.
He is by far the best defensive coordinator Denver has seen in years, and was the first returning DC since 2004.
Before his stint in Denver, Del Rio's preferred defensive schemes were aggressive, although the tally of defensive coordinators he used at Jacksonville ranged from reckless (Gregg Williams) to nearly passive (Mel Tucker). Throughout his time in the league, he's worked with 4-3 defenses, even as rumors of a switch to a 3-4 dogged the end of his tenure at Jacksonville.
The former linebacker has made sure to make the most of his time as a player int he league to inform his coaching and scheming, often allowing wiggle room to his players in order for them to make plays. That doesn't mean freelancing, but an emphasis on field awareness when making adjustments in real time.
To use an analogy from another sport, this matches some of the philosophical underpinnings of Johann Cruyff's "Total Football" when playing for the Dutch National team (in soccer, the other football), which inspired the current World Cup Champions, the Spanish (and current powerhouse, FC Barcelona):
"Total Football" is the label given to an influential tactical theory of football in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team. It was pioneered by Dutch football club Ajax from 1969 to 1973, and further used by the Netherlands National Football Team in the 1974 FIFA World Cup. It was invented by Rinus Michels, a famous Dutch football trainer/coach (who was the coach of both Ajax and the Netherlands national team at the time).
In Total Football, a player who moves out of his position is replaced by another from his team, thus retaining the team's intended organisational structure. In this fluid system, no outfield player is fixed in a nominal role; anyone can be successively an attacker, a midfielder and a defender. The only player fixed in a nominal position is the goalkeeper.
Total Football's tactical success depends largely on the adaptability of each footballer within the team, in particular the ability to quickly switch positions depending on the on-field situation. The theory requires players to be comfortable in multiple positions; hence, it places high technical and physical demands on them.
The defense at Denver is not nearly so freewheeling as the legendary Dutch and Spanish squads, but the theories are often similar—players who see unique opportunities to attack are encouraged to, with the other players adjust their positions in order to maintain discipline but make sure that all assignments are on point. Inversely, if a defender is coming up short, the other defenders need to adapt to cover for that issue.
To him, the realities of being a player mean that adjustments need to be made, and plays rarely work out as drawn up. The 4-3 scheme that Denver uses combines one-gap and two-gap principles, although it is largely a one-gap scheme. It relies on pass-rushers that Denver didn't happen to have for much of the season, but also puts a big emphasis on linebackers more than anyone else to make big plays, both in pass coverage and run defense. He favors fast linebackers, and defensive linemen who are difficult to move, but still have the ability to perform a variety of stunts and can drop in coverage on zone blitzes.
The Del Rio defense in Denver is diverse, if a little weak in the secondary (in many ways due to age, although that is being resolved) but schematically sound and potentially deadly. It requires a bit more talent than most defenses, but is fairly forgiving at nose tackle and cornerback. In many ways it's designed to be completely unpredictable to opposing offenses, but intuitive to its own players, a difficult line to walk, but one he's done successfully in Denver.
They've used seven defensive backs at times, and at other times have used a 4-4 front.
Del Rio is known around the NFL as a tireless worker among a league of tireless workers, and incredibly detail-oriented. He's also been quicker to change than most coaches. Not only has he fired underperforming coordinators, but he's changed his decisionmaking on Sunday as well.
Del Rio was quick to go to David Garrard over Byron Leftwich despite the heavy investment that the Jaguars paid to get him (the eighth overall pick), and demoted starting players in order to motivate them or find better personnel. His fourth-down decisionmaking has become gradually more aggressive as a head coach as it was too conservative too early in his career.
In fact, Jacksonville went for it on fourth-and-short (1-2 yards) in opposing territory the third-most in the NFL under Del Rio's tenure. When adjusting for game situation, like time remaining and score, Del Rio ranked 18th in 4th down aggressiveness, but 6th out of every coach since 1991 (84 qualified) in fourth-and-one.
Unfortunately, he doesn't seem that popular with former players, like Fred Taylor, who felt that Del Rio's inconsistency in approach confused the organization's direction, players' relationship to coaches and inability to make a consistent decision hurt the team.
Taylor has a significant point on the last bit—getting rid of Leftwich in favor of Garrard isn't itself a terrible decision (especially with the perspective of hindsight), but doing it days before the season isn't helpful (or considerate). He did the same thing a year later to Garrard.
This could naturally be a player who was bitter about being cut, but it's well worth consideration. More than that, there's potentially a good argument that he relied far too much on delegation when it came to decisions in his purview but outside his comfort zone, deferring to the offensive coordinator in clock management. I don't find that last bit particularly damning, but many do.
Offensively, Del Rio has preferred a ball control offense and hired Bill Musgrave as his offensive coordinator specifically for that reason. Both used the term "west coast offense" when describing the philosophy behind it, but it executed similar to an Erhardt-Perkins offense. It was a good fit for having a new quarterback, but Del Rio moved from Musgrave to Carl Smith (currently QB coach for the Seahawks) after two years (the second stop as an OC for Musgrave but his first genuine failure, given the oddities of his situation with the Panthers).
Carl Smith's offense was more aggressive and diverse than Musgrave's, but neither tried to sacrifice ball control concepts and put a heavy emphasis on the offensive line. They gave Smith a few chances after his first year was disappointing (dropping from 8th in DVOA to 15th), but he wasn't doing well—they dropped to 18th in his second year. They replaced him with Dirk Koetter, for an even more aggressive downfield attack.
I would also be remiss not to mention the "Keep Chopping Wood," bit. Del Rio seems to be a big fan of clichés, and he introduced the slogan "keep chopping wood" to the team after an 0-3 start, and put a wooden stump with an axe in it in the Jaguars locker room to complete the theme.
Pro Bowl punter Chris Hanson was having another fantastic season, but followed his teammate's lead and also took a swing at the wood and lost control of the axe, deeply gashing his non-kicking leg. He was rushed to the hospital, where he had emergency surgery and was later put on IR. Luckily, Hanson returned to form in 2004.
It was a weirdly avoidable, foreseeable mistake from both parties, although I doubt Del Rio (or Hanson) does something that stupid again.
Del Rio not only has clearly matured as a coach, but is an adaptable one, both at a tactical and organizational level. But his red flags are large and the benefit of experience could come the burden of the unfortunately familiar.
Bob Sutton, Defensive Coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs
- Unit DVOA Rank: 9
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 5
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 5
- Years as NFL Coord: 4
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 9
Dave Toub, Special Teams Coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs
- Unit DVOA Rank: 1
- Years as NFL Coord: 14
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 0
Ken Whisenhunt, Offensive Coordinator, San Diego Chargers
- Unit DVOA Rank: 3
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 2
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 2
- Years as NFL Coord: 4
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 6
Greg Olson, Offensive Coordinator, Oakland Raiders
- Unit DVOA Rank: 28
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 23
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 26
- Years as NFL Coord: 9
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 0
Jay Gruden, Offensive Coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals
- Unit DVOA Rank: 17
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 13
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 12
- Years as NFL Coord: 3
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 10
- Unit DVOA Rank: 5
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 3
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 1
- Years as NFL Coord: 14
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 0
UPDATE: The Vikings are interviewing Mike Zimmer as a candidate
Mike Zimmer has recently become a hot name in coaching searches, and it's easy to see why: even with a defense missing its two best players (Geno Atkins and Leon Hall), Cincinnati had a top five defense and entered the playoffs despite spotty quarterback play.
Mike Zimmer started out as a multi-sport athlete in high school, with all-conference honors in football, baseball and wrestling (165-pound class). Coached by his father in wrestling and football, Zimmer had a bit of an advantage—especially given that his father was a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, though didn't take any snaps. Even in baseball he was an excellent player, and set the school record for triples (eight) as a left-handed hitter.
A highly touted instate quarterback (he was a "dual threat" QB who played a lot of option football for Lockport high school). He was recruited to Illinois State, but broke his thumb and had to switch to linebacker as a sophomore. As a junior and a senior, he continued to play linebacker, but was also a catcher (his high school position) for the Illinois State baseball team.
In 1979, he accepted a position as an assistant with Missouri for two years, then joined Weber State after the Tigers' offensive coordinator Mike Price left to coach there. In 1982, he was promoted to defensive coordinator and stayed on staff with Price until Price moved to Washington State in 1989, taking Zimmer with him.
The team was not particularly adept at defense in those years, and the team's performance against opponents at a similar level was somewhat lacking, but Price was able to move up regardless. Zimmer took a Washington State team that ranked 63rd in opponent-adjusted points allowed to 61st, a modest improvement. The year afterwards, they took a significant dive (to 91st of 107 FBS schools). In 1991, they crawled up to 81st. They moved up to 49th in 1992, and Zimmer finished his time at Washington State ranked 40th in opponent-adjusted points allowed.
That was enough for the Dallas Cowboys to hire him as the defensive backs coach in 1994, where the pass defense went from 6th to 1st in net yards per attempt. They dropped to 15th in 1995, then 9th, 2nd, 21st and 16th. In 2000, he was promoted to defensive coordinator.
In his first year as DC, the Dallas defense dropped from 13th in DVOA to 22nd. From there it went to 20th and 13th, then peaked at 5th in 2003. Unfortunately, in 2004 it dropped to 25th. In his last two years there, he ranked 12th and 14th in defensive DVOA.
When Bobby Petrino was hired in Atlanta, he hired Mike Zimmer to be the defensive coordinator after Parcells retired in Dallas (losing to the Seahawks in the playoffs on a botched hold by ... Tony Romo). Of course, that year was terrible for the Falcons for reasons well outside of Zimmer's control, including the bizarre Petrino resignation and the Michael Vick arrest, and the Falcons dropped from 18th in defensive DVOA to 28th. In fairness, Petrino resigned after the 13th game of the season, so it's not as if that was a significant part of the defensive quality of the team.
"I was never even there. As far as I am concerned. I never even was there. When a coach quits in the middle of the year and ruins a bunch of people's families and doesn't' have enough guts to at least finish out the year. I am not a part of that. He is a coward. Put that in quotes. He ruined a bunch of people's lives, a bunch of people's families, kids, because he didn't have enough nuts to stay there and finish the job. That's the truth."
"He's a gutless bastard. Quote that. I don't give a shit."
When told that the paper may not be able to say "bastard," he responded:
"How about this, gutless motherfucker. You can use that."
-Mike Zimmer on Bobby Petrino, quoted in Cincinnati.com, 10/20/10
Marvin Lewis hired him to be a member of the Bengals coaching staff in 2008. In that year, the team's defensive DVOA improved to 15th from 27th, and tracked about as well in the following years (10th, 17th, 17th) but then made significant strides to 10th and 5th this
Zimmer's teams have been marked by an ability to recognize talent no matter the source and putting them in positions to perform, from first-round draft picks like Leon Hall, to undrafted free agents like Vontaze Burfict—both of whom are at the top of their position. Players like Vincent Rey (UDFA), Geno Atkins (4th-round pick) and others from nearly every round have made key contributions for Zimmer over the years.
The belief that Zimmer is an excellent defensive coordinator is very true, although I think overstated (I would put more stock in Wade Phillips or Rob Ryan, for example). Zimmer is considered a 4-3 specialist, but that probably pigeonholes him.
This year, he's used more players in the same base formation to do different things. It would be correct to call Zimmer vanilla in his personnel deployments (the Bengals barely, if at all, used personnel outside of 4-3-4 or 4-2-5) but incorrect to say he doesn't use situational players, rotate or find creative uses of his personnel. Interestingly, he was forced to run a 3-4 with the Cowboys, and that likely influenced how exactly he runs his defense.
He's found ways to take advantage of offensive line calls, protection imbalances and confusing fronts, as well as ways to combine man coverage and zone coverage concepts on a number of plays. He's most well-known for creating multiple types of pressure and pass-rushing threats on nearly every play
Zimmer's defense isn't your grandmother's 4-3. It's constantly evolving based on the personnel, and constantly trying to amp up pressure by creating mismatches with an array of stunts and bluffs. The unit set a franchise record with 51 sacks last season-40 of which came from a still-emerging line that features ends Carlos Dunlap (24 years old) and Michael Johnson (26), and tackle Geno Atkins (25).
Constantly evaluating the roster and maximizing talent (or searching out and finding massively underrated players) has been a theme for the Bengals ever since Mike Brown hamstrung the team with his wallet, and a talent that Zimmer can bring with him to Cincinnati. The Bengals notably have the most shortstaffed front office in the league, and Zimmer's ability to squeeze blood from a stone shouldn't go underappreciated.
The former linebacker is also well-known for specific gameplanning, and pre-game adjustments to the scheme to match the weaknesses of the opponent, rather than relying on a base scheme. There are significant drawbacks to this approach (which is why the league-leading Seahawks defense prefers to stick with the scheme instead of changing much for specific game plans), but it has its adherents (Bill Belichick being the most famous—though defensive mavens like Rex Ryan do this as well. It is also the approach of Todd Bowles, the DC of the second-best defense in the league in Arizona).
The position that Zimmer prefers to be deepest seems to be cornerback, although he's made sure the roster has had competition at a number of levels. Also interestingly, he has a tendency both to stick with and quickly move on from players. The best example of this odd paradox is Rey Maualuga, second-round pick for the Bengals in 2009. Rey was a solid-to-good strongside linebacker that did well for two years before switching to the middle.
Vikings fans can guess the rest of the story, as Maualuga severely underperformed as a middle linebacker in 2011 and got worse in 2012 (beating out Jasper Brinkley and two others to be PFF's worst-graded inside linebacker). There was a lot of speculation that Burfict would replace free agent Maualuga in the middle, especially with the signing of linebacker James Harrison, but Zimmer advocated for resigning Maualuga and allowing him to compete for the middle.
He took a lot of snaps at MLB to start the season but gradually started losing snaps to Vincent Rey over the season. Maualuga didn't end up losing his starting job entirely (although Vincent started a few games because of an MCL tear), but he saw time on the field to prove he was the more capable MLB—and the understanding is that Vincent will likely (and fairly) win the Mike job from Maualuga.
The commitment to seeing talent and allowing itself to play, but not being afraid to pull the trigger, can actually be pretty harmful if the timing is off or if better reserve players know that it's taking too long to get their shot, but for the moment it seems like Zimmer can balance the two demands with some degree of elegance.
Zimmer is probably best known for his hardnose, "no-nonsense" style of coaching that has endeared him to Bengals fans and seems to follow the tradition of Bill Parcells, berating players blue in order to get them fired up. Applied with intelligence, it also seems to have gotten the players' loyalty. He's even used it as an asset in his free agency recruiting, arguing that his ability to get results is better for players than what others can offer. It also means that players know where they stand with him, which can be invaluable.
Reportedly, Mike Zimmer would peg Paul Guenther, the Bengals' linebacker coach, as the DC and Hue Jackson, the Bengals' running backs coach, as the OC. Guenther has had an interesting career. He was a linebacker for Division III Ursinas (the appropriately named "Grizzly Bears") college from 1990 to 1993, where set a school record for career tackles (355).
After that, he became an assistant coach for McDaniel College (at the time called Western Maryland) after graduating before heading back to Ursinas as an assistant in 1996. After that, he was hired to be the defensive coordinator for FCS school Jacksonville University (the Dolphins). Notably, Jacksonville University did not field a team until a year later, in 1998.
Also in 1997, he became the head coach at Ursinas after their coach, Steve Gilbert, went to Jacksonville University to jumpstart their program. Guenther went from 9-2 under Gilbert (starting the season off on a 7-2 run) to 4-6 and 3-7. Then, they went 10-2 in 1999, 8-4 in 2000 and 6-4 in 2001. He joined the Washington Redskins in 2002 alongside Marvin Lewis and Hue Jackson as an offensive assistant coach, largely working with running backs.
In 2004, he joined the Bengals as an advance scout (one year after Marvin Lewis arrived) to produce reports on upcoming teams on the schedule and joined the coaching staff proper in 2005 as a staff assistant working on the defensive side of the ball.
Between 2006 and 2010, he was the assistant linebackers coach before briefly (just 2011) assisting Kevin Coyle, the defensive backs coach. In 2012, he became the linebackers coach, where he coached UDFAs Vontaze Burfict, Vincent Rey, and Jayson Dimanche, as well as veterans Rey Maualuga and James Harrison.
UPDATE: Hue Jackson was made the offensive coordinator for the Bengals
Hue Jackson has been an OC several times throughout his career—in 1996 for Cal, in 1997 through 2000 for USC, in 2003 for the Redskins (under Steve Spurrier, but with playcalling authority), in 2007 for the Falcons (with Mike Zimmer) and in 2010 for the Raiders (under Tom Cable). Cal improved from 71st in opponent-adjusted points scored to 9th. USC moved from 47th to 52nd in his first year, but then went to 36th, 40th and 34th.
Washington moved to 18th from 25th in the same metric and to 20th from 25th in DVOA. His time in Atlanta was poisoned by Vick's arrest and Petrino's departure, but their ranking changed from 23rd in opponent-adjusted points and 16th in DVOA to 29th and 27th. The Raiders were 30th in DVOA and 31st opponent-adjusted points the year before he joined and 23rd and 10th in those metrics afterward.
Jackson is a pass-oriented coach, happy to mix in multi-level concepts and take advantage of speed on the field. But it wouldn't be entirely accurate to say he's "unbalanced" as a coordinator, and likes to install a diverse run game with multiple concepts.
Like Zimmer, Jackson is a bombastic coach who emphasizes discipline—not a "player's coach" but a "disciplinarian" that gets more out of yelling than telling, in the spirit of Jon Gruden and John Harbaugh. That isn't to say players dislike him—consistency in approach and proven results often endear players to coaches more than anything else, and Jackson is nothing else if not consistent and reportedly went after veterans just as hard as he did rookies.
Mike Zimmer has been made a head coach candidate for years, and as a consistently high-level defensive coordinator, seems to be a natural fit for at least one shot. Word is that he didn't fit in Miami after interviewing because he was "too blunt" with Dolphins ownership (the same ownership that hired—and evidently recently just fired—Jeff Ireland).
Zimmer has had quite a few interviews but no offers as a head coach, a process that has frustrated him as it did Leslie Frazier and Tony Dungy. THere is talk around the league that many feel Zimmer has "hit his ceiling," though I'm not sure why that is or what it means. He's been a defensive coordinator since 2000, giving him the longest consecutive stretch at that post in the NFL.
Bill Parcells is a fan, if that means anything—and he anointed Bill Belichick as his successor in New York. Zimmer also likes to hunt, which should basically seal the deal.
Hue Jackson, Running Backs Coach, Cincinnati Bengals
- Years as NFL Coord: 2
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 1
Dean Pees, Defensive Coordinator, Baltimore Ravens
- Unit DVOA Rank: 7
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 7
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 2
- Years as NFL Coord: 4
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 6
Jerry Rosburg, Special Teams Coordinator and Assistant Head Coach, Baltimore Ravens
- Unit DVOA Rank: 3
- Years as NFL Coord: 14
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 0
Ray Horton, Defensive Coordinator, Cleveland Browns
- Unit DVOA Rank: 24
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 20
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 16
- Years as NFL Coord: 3
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 0
Josh McDaniels, Offensive Coordinator, New England Patriots
- Unit DVOA Rank: 4
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 6
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 6
- Years as NFL Coord: 6
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 2
Mike Pettine, Defensive Coordinator, Buffalo Bills
- Unit DVOA Rank: 4
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 11
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 4
- Years as NFL Coord: 5
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 0
Aaron Kromer, Offensive Coordinator, Chicago Bears
- Unit DVOA Rank: 6
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 5
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 4
- Years as NFL Coord: 1
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 0
Mike Priefer, Special Teams Coordinator, Minnesota Vikings
UPDATE: This isn't happening
Pete Carmichael, Offensive Coordinator, New Orleans Saints
- Unit DVOA Rank: 5
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 3
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 3
- Years as NFL Coord: 5
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 0
Rob Ryan, Defensive Coordinator, New Orleans Saints
- Unit DVOA Rank: 5
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 3
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 1
- Years as NFL Coord: 10
- Years as Head Coach (any level): 0
Sean McDermott, Defensive Coordinator, Carolina Panthers
- Unit DVOA Rank: 3
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 2
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 8
- Years as NFL Coord: 5
- Years as Head Coach (at any level): 0
Dirk Koetter, Offensive Coordinator, Atlanta Falcons
- Unit DVOA Rank: 14
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 18
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 11
- Years as NFL Coord: 7
- Years as Head Coach: 9
Mike Nolan, Defensive Coordinator, Atlanta Falcons
- Unit DVOA Rank: 29
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 32
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 29
- Years as NFL Coord: 16
- Years as Head Coach (at any level): 4
Keith Armstrong, Special Teams Coordinator, Atlanta Falcons
- Unit DVOA Rank: 18
- Years as NFL Coord: 17
- Years as Head Coach (at any level): 0
John Fassel, Special Teams Coordinator, St. Louis Rams
- Unit DVOA Rank: 4
- Years as NFL Coord: 6
- Years as Head Coach (at any level): 2
Dave McGinnis, Assistant Head Coach, St. Louis Rams
Tim Walton, Defensive Coordinator, St. Louis Rams
- Unit DVOA Rank: 12
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 16
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 23
- Years as NFL Coord: 2
- Years as Head Coach (at any level): 0
Dan Quinn, Defensive Coordinator, Seattle Seahawks
- Unit DVOA Rank: 1
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 1
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 3
- Years as NFL Coord: 1
- Years as Head Coach (at any level): 0
Tom Cable, Offensive Line Coach, Seattle Seahawks
- Years as Coord: 4
- Years as Head Coach (at any level): 6 (1 interim)
Greg Roman, Offensive Coordinator, San Francisco 49ers
- Unit DVOA Rank: 8
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 12
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 21
- Years as NFL Coord: 3
- Years as Head Coach (at any level): 0
Vic Fangio, Defensive Coordinator, San Francisco 49ers
- Unit DVOA Rank: 5
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 3
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 1
- Years as NFL Coord: 14
- Years as Head Coach (at any level): 0
Brad Seely, Special Teams Coordinator and Assistant Head Coach, San Francisco 49ers
- Unit DVOA Rank: 7
- Years as NFL Coord: 25
- Years as Head Coach (at any level): 0
- Unit DVOA Rank: 5
- Unit Points Per Drive Rank: 3
- Unit Drive Success Rate Rank: 1
- Years as NFL Coord: 14
- Years as Head Coach (at any level): 0 (1 interim)
Currently the defensive coordinator for one of the league's top defenses, Todd Bowles is quickly gaining buzz among fans and within coaching circles as a potential head coach and like few candidates was actually a fairly fine player in the NFL. The Cardinals are doing well with Bowles for now, but it's unlikely that they'll be able to keep him for long.
Bowles began his career as a defensive back at Elizabeth High School in New Jersey. He didn't receive any offers for a scholarship at any football powerhouses, but walked on at Temple University to play as a safety. There, he did very well but an injury his senior year (a dislocated wrist) force him to fall off the draft boards of every team.
It turns out that Bowles needed to compete with two defensive backs drafted by Washington that year (in rounds three and nine) as well as a roster whose safeties totaled ten interceptions the year before.
He had signed up to compete at a fairly set position, with reporters being told outright that year before camp, "I think they understand that they are not going to play much on defense unless we get a lot of injuries."
Like any undrafted free agent, Bowles skated by on cuts on the thinnest of margins only to be forced into play later that year. Interestingly, he didn't just play free safety his rookie year, but strong safety and linebacker as well—called an avant-garde decision by the Washington Post, and an evolution of the innovation of the situational nickel defense developed twenty years earlier. In fact, the newspapers were pretty enamored with it:
These rookies, hardly household names, are Alvin Walton, Todd Bowles and Tim Morrison, and they all might start again Sunday at St. Louis if the Redskins (10-2) decide to go with their fancy new pass defense against the Cardinals (3-9).
-Washington Post on 11/28/1986
Just past the midpoint of this season, the Washington Redskins asked rookie free safety Todd Bowles if he would try moving to linebacker. Not for the rest of the season, or even for one game. Just for eight or nine plays a week.
When he said he would do it, Bowles instantly became the personification of the situation substitution, something the Redskins use with more fervor and frequency than most teams in the National Football League.
Bowles played a part as a sixth defensive back masquerading as a 6-foot-2, 203-pound linebacker, and actually started in Washington's avant-garde pass defense in emotional victories against San Francisco and Dallas.
-Washington Post on 12/12/1986
The former Temple Owl's first big play of the year was an interception on a Hail Mary at the end of the fourth quarter against Dave Krieg and the Seahawks, but made his big break when intercepting Two-Minute Tommy with 36-seconds left in a tie game to force overtime (a game where Washington would end up winning in overtime against Minnesota).
Bowles outcompeted the other rookies at the position, all of whom had more snaps than him earlier in the season (though all of them seemed to have snaps every game), to be the starting free safety by the end of the year.
He started in 1987 at free safety but was forced into an emergency cornerback role as Darrell Green's injury (and many others) ravaged Washington. But it was a bad start to the year for him, even as he returned to his FS role and was benched for too many missed tackles. He later recovered and grabbed four interceptions on the year on his way to a ring with the rest of the Redskins (though in a strike-shortened season that most people don't think counted—Bowles didn't cross the lines for at least three of four scab games).
In 1988, he had another excellent season with fewer interceptions and followed that with two more good seasons, but a bad performance against San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs allowed Joe Montana to seal the game in the fourth quarter.
Bowles was the victim (or beneficiary) of Plan B free agency, and he was left "unprotected" by Washington, who could only prevent 37 players from entering free agency (rumor was that he would be 38th or 39th). Several other players (including Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, college football analyst Mark May, former Cardinals QB coach Jeff Rutledge, Hall of Famer and former offensive line coach Russ Grimm and Arkansas-Pine Bluff head coach Monte Coleman) would leave as a result.
His year with San Francisco was not particularly great and he was waived by the 49ers after losing his job in training camp the next year (and was evidently asked to take a pay cut of 25%, which he refused). The Redskins picked him up and made him a reserve. He played in Washington for the next two years before hanging up his cleats at the age of 30.
Throughout his career, Bowles was commended for being a cerebral player who had an ability to see plays before they develop. More importantly, he had a gift for transmitting what he knew into functional intelligence for other players. He was the "defensive quarterback" for the Washington defense—one of the most complex defenses in the NFL at the time, and multiple players (including Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green) referred to Bowles as a "coach on the field" on more than one occasion.
For two years, Bowles joined the Green Bay Packers as a member of their player personnel staff before signing with the Morehouse Maroon Tigers (Division II) as a defensive coordinator for a year, underneath Doug Williams, former teammate and Super Bowl MVP (in one of the most exciting Super Bowls of the modern era).
Despite a strong start, going 2-0 in the first games, Morehouse finished the season 3-8. For what it's worth, Morehouse still put together one of its strongest defensive performances in years, hitting rare marks for yards per carry allowed and points allowed.
After a year of controversy at a different college seemingly settled by Williams accepting a job at Morehouse, Eddie Robinson was finally forced out of Grambling State and Doug Williams tapped to take his place. He did, and took Bowles with him (and brought along former Viking Sammie White).
Grambling State is another historically black college but play in the FCS. Like Morehouse, they finished 3-8 that season. With Williams under the helm, they improved to 5-6 but under Bowles they increased the points allowed per game from 22.4 in SWAC and bowl games to 29.1.
In 1999, Grambling improved their record even more to 7-4, and improved the points allowed to 21.4 per qualifying game.
After that, Bowles was hired to be the defensive backs coach under new Jets head coach, Al Groh (who was the Jets' linebackers coach before being promoted to the position in 2000—this was the Bill Belichick debacle). That year was a crazy year for the Jets—they had four first-round picks to play with as a result of the Belichick controversy and a trade to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two first-round picks in exchange for a player who was threatening to hold out (sound familiar? In this case, it was Keyshawn Johnson).
The Jets started off strong and even had some spectacular comebacks (one dubbed uncreatively as the "Miracle on Monday Night" after they came back from a 30-7 deficit to the Miami Dolphins to start out the fourth quarter) to start off 6-1 before falling flat and finishing 9-7 to miss the playoffs.
Groh resigned in order to coach at Virginia, his alma mater, and that meant Bowles was also let go. Interestingly, with Bowles, the New York Jets massively improved their pass defense from 24th in the NFL to 6th in net yards per attempt. The year after Bowles was there, the Jets passing defense fell back to 24th.
For the 2001 season, Bowles was hired by the Browns and Butch Davis to be the "Nickel Package Coordinator" (he was hired in a package with a number of Jets staff) and retained that position until the 2004 season, where he was promoted to secondary coach.
At that point, the Browns' pass defense was already strong (allowing the 5th-lowest net yards per attempt), but dropped to 11th in that metric with Bowles as the secondary coach. Butch Davis was forced to resign after a poor start (3-8). As a result, Bowles had to find somewhere else to work.
The Dallas Cowboys picked him up as their secondary coach in 2005, which meant that Bowles worked underneath Mike Zimmer for his final two years in Dallas. The 2004 Dallas pass defense ranked 25th and improved to 16th in Bowles' first year, but dropped back down to 23rd the year after. Under new head coach Wade Phillips and defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, Bowles brought the pass defense back to 6th in the league.
He was then made the assistant head coach at the Miami Dolphins in 2008 after Bill Parcells was made the executive vice president of football operations, and also had primary coaching duties for the defensive backs. He joined Tony Sparano and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni as members of the new coaching staff, and they were accompanied by new general manager Jeff Ireland.
Miami was a bad team before Sparano installed the wildcat to go 11-5 in 2008, but the defense was abysmal before the new coaching staff, too—ranking 31st in net yards per attempt allowed in 2007. In one scant year, they moved up to 17th. They fell back to 28th the next year and tracked back to 21st in 2010.
2011 was a bad year for the Dolphins, but not for the passing defense, as they only allowed 6.3 net yards per attempt to rank 15th. They started off the season 0-7 before finally going on a run of wins. They ended up going 4-9 before Sparano was fired and Bowles installed as the interim head coach. The final three games of the year were divisional games, and the Dolphins went 2-1 with a combined point differential of +6, losing to the Patriots by three.
After that debacle of a season, he was hired to be the defensive backs coach for the 2012 Eagles under defensive coordinator Juan Castillo. Another fiasco season, the Eagles went 3-3 before firing Castillo despite only allowing 20.3 points a game and ranking 8th in defensive DVOA.
In those six weeks, the passing defense allowed 5.2 net passing yards per attempt, which was the second-best in the league. But when they replaced Castillo with Bowles as the defensive coordinator, the Eagles' defensive DVOA dropped to 26th, and the passing defense ended up ranked 21st.
It's easy to dismiss that season, given that Bowles was functionally given a mandate to change from the scheme and playcalling of Castillo without the opportunity outside of a bye week to install anything of the sort. Nevertheless, it's a critical part of his history that needs to be resolve before he can seriously be considered a head coach.
In particular, the Eagles famously had difficulty using their talent in the best possible way, and couldn't extract production from talent. While it seems clear now that a player like Nnamdi Asomugha may have been hidden at Oakland, it's also clear that using him in the wrong system for years also limited anything he could provide for years to come.
Specifically, the issue of playing Nnamdi in the slot-a decision that presumably (though not certainly) Bowles was a part of-created enormous problems; his instincts may have been well-suited for nickel play, but his talents were not.
After that, Bowles was hired to be the defensive coordinator at Arizona to replace the talented Ray Horton after Ken Whisenhunt was fired (he left not because Arians didn't want him, but because he felt he deserved consideration). A daunting task with high standards, the Cardinals defense ranked 6th in DVOA and 12th in opponent-adjusted points allowed.
This year, the Cardinals defense is one of the best in the league, and ranks second in DVOA and 5th in opponent-adjusted points allowed, in no small part due to Bowles.
The Bowles defense has been the most aggressive in the NFL, exchanging the zone-blitz and two-gap schemes for one-gap attacking pressure from defensive linemen and more pure blitzes from every level—safeties, linebackers and cornerbacks all finding ways into the backfield.
Not only have the blitzes come often, they are generally hard to predict and require a great degree of unpredictability, attacking protection schemes more than linemen and overloading different parts of the offensive line—relying on math and aggression to win, instead of "matchups"—a luxury afforded Bowles by the high level of talent across the line.
This will often mean stunts and twists to identify man and slide protection, and using that ID to attack holes in the protection call. Bowles will often dial up blitzes that have multiple players attack the same gap, a difficult blitz to pick up.
Once again, it's easy to argue that with the talent that Bowles has to work with—Dansby, Mathieu, Dockett, Campbell, Peterson, Washington, etc.—that his success doesn't speak as well to what his true value as a coordinator has been. That's not entirely fair, but a relevant consideration. With the talent that he's had, one would expect a top-tier defense, but the sheer dominance of the Cardinals defense cannot just be a product of talent alone; Bowles has been masterful in using that talent.
Greg Cosell (my single favorite analyst) is a fan:
You have to start with the fact that they have some very good players. I know that's clichéd, but they've got certain things that you need to have a good defense, if you're just looking at talent. They've got a big-time, man-on-man cornerback in Patrick Peterson, which is critical in today's NFL. They have two defensive linemen in Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell who are really good players. Since Daryl Washington has been back [from his four-game suspension to open the season], they have two inside linebackers in Washington and Karlos Dansby who are both very athletic. Dansby's long and athletic, and he's playing very well. So, if you just look at the parts needed to have a good defense, they've got those kinds of players. Now, you could argue that they don't have a pure pass-rusher, but this is where Bowles comes in. This team blitzes more than any team in the NFL, and they blitz more on first down than any team in the NFL, and they're creative with their pressures. They're also very good with disguise.
I would argue that Bowles is even more creative with his pressures than Horton. Because Horton, while he was very good, he was out of that Dick LeBeau/Dom Capers school. Not that it's not creative, but there are certain blitz concepts that all those guys use. Bowles is great with triple A-gap pressure, and that's almost impossible to pick up.
-Greg Cosell to Sports Illustrated on 11/27/13
Bowles is not particularly married to a specific type of front, whether 3-4 or 4-3 and has operated in multiple types of defenses with different gap concepts, from one-gap, to hybrids, to pure two-gap defenses. He's shown a slight preference for tight man coverage, though focuses less on using the coverage to disrupt timing and more on finding ways to prevent outlet passes from appearing for opposing offenses.
This is in part due to the small amount of data that people have about the types of schemes he prefers—he hasn't been a DC recently for very long.
From what seems evident, Bowles strives to create situations favorable to the player instead of maintaining scheme integrity, but doesn't fully embrace the "adapt the scheme to the talent" mantra that has been so popular for fans and sportswriters (notably, neither did the other top DVOA defenses this year: Seattle, Carolina, Buffalo and Cincinnati), in that he prefers schematic soundness to maximizing success for every individual player.
There's little doubt, however, that Bowles prefers to be aggressive more than anything else and seems to employ more one-gap principles than two-gap principles in his defenses.
As for how he relates to players interpersonally, there's been a lot of good things said about how the players like him and how they will go to bat for him. Just as Zimmer has been a big part of player recruitment in Cincinnati, Bowles seems to be good at getting new free agents to buy into his system and what it means for them.
That said, there simply hasn't been a lot of information about how players relate to him or whether or not he can resolve interpersonal conflicts. Without reports of conflict or schisms in Arizona, we can only assume that it's good. There has been significant mention of the success he's had selling the system to the team, though, and that will be an even bigger asset as a head coach than as a defensive coordinator.
Organizationally, he's had experience running a team and was closely involved as the assistant head coach at Miami, although the success there left a lot to be desired. Miami was organizationally a mess, and while that can correctly be an issue with the ownership and front office structure, some of the issues can filter down to some of the assistants and how they planned and organized.
Bowles reportedly interviews incredibly well, which at the very least implies that he's done an excellent job outlining his preferred organizational philosophy to owners and general managers, though that doesn't mean much—any coach who earns a job will have done that at least once in theory.
As a teacher—which is not as big an issue for the head coach as it is for the assistants and position coaches—Bowles has a strong reputation. His intelligence shouldn't be ignored—his capacity to teach multiple systems and adapt to different staffs and players speaks well to him. In Dallas, he was commended for bringing together a cohesive plan to exploit the many talents of the Cowboys secondary and was best known for making people feel comfortable in their roles (something Darnell Dockett can well attest to).
Unlike coaches like Gruden, Zimmer, Parcells or Harbaugh, Bowles seeks to create a more comfortable atmosphere for players and doesn't really yell at them to get things done (though has been known to "get fiery" if something wasn't being executed).
Some other reads:
- Sports Illustrated Breaks Down the Cardinals Defense
- Revenge of the Birds on multiple defensive concepts
Lovie Smith, former Head Coach, Chicago Bears
UPDATE: Lovie Smith has signed with Tampa Bay
Jon Gruden, former Head Coach, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders
Rob Chudzinski, former Head Coach, Cleveland Browns
Gary Kubiak, former Head Coach, Houston Texans
Like I said, I'll be updating this throughout the coaching search in order to maintain accuracy and expand the potential coaching pool as we know more.