As playoffs, coaching carousel show, it's golden age for defensive coaches

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It may be way past time to update the adage that defense wins championships in the NFL. I would suggest amending it to defensive-minded coaches win championships in the NFL. We’re in something of a golden age when it comes to that.   

The results are likely to again bear that out as we prepare for the NFL’s version of the Final Four with Sunday’s AFC and NFC Championship Games. In what has become standard operating procedure in the league, three of the last four teams remaining alive in the postseason are led by coaches with a defensive pedigree: Bill Belichick in New England, Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis, and Pete Carroll in Seattle, with only Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy bucking that trend.   

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It has been the same story in each of the past two postseasons, and three out of the past four. In 2013, the four teams playing in the conference title games were coached by Denver’s John Fox, Belichick, and Carroll (all defensive backgrounds), while the exception was San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh, who has now returned to college football.   

In 2012, the final foursome on the coaching front was Atlanta’s Mike Smith (defense) and Jim Harbaugh in the NFC, and Belichick and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh (defense/special teams) in the AFC. The 2011 postseason was the last time we had even two coaches with offensive backgrounds make it this far, with the Giants’ Tom Coughlin and Jim Harbaugh squaring off in the NFC, while Belichick and John Harbaugh did battle in the AFC. In 2010, the ratio again was 3 to 1 in favor of defensive coaches, with Rex Ryan’s Jets and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin in the AFC, while Lovie Smith’s Bears and McCarthy’s Packers settled matters in the NFC.  

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You have to go back to the 2009 playoffs to find the last time the majority of coaches working in the conference title games came from offensive backgrounds: New Orleans’ Sean Payton and Minnesota’s Brad Childress in the NFC; with Indianapolis’ Jim Caldwell in the AFC against the lone exception in the group, the Jets’ Ryan. If anybody but Green Bay goes on to claim the Super Bowl trophy this season, it’ll mark the third straight year the league’s champion will be led by a coach with at least in part a defensive pedigree. That’s the NFL’s longest such run since 2003-06, when Belichick’s Patriots won their back-to-back crowns, with Pittsburgh’s Bill Cowher and the Colts’ Tony Dungy following suit the next two years.  

The strength of the conclusion you can draw from all this data is subjective, but you can’t help but think league owners and general managers are taking notice of the trend in what is considered a pass-happy NFL era. A check of the movement thus far on the coaching carousel portends an overwhelming tilt toward defensive-minded coaches. That being the flavor du jour was buttressed, no doubt, by six of the eight teams qualifying for the NFL’s divisional round being led by coaches with defensive backgrounds, with only McCarthy’s Packers and Jason Garrett’s Cowboys representing the opposing side of the ball.   

Sources within the league theorize that the trend toward defensive-minded head coaches is traceable to the dearth of top-notch quarterbacking talent, prompting team decision-makers to opt for the quicker path to playoff contention: building a team around a defense that can keep games close and less dependent on a high-scoring offense led by an elite quarterback. 

There simply aren’t enough franchise quarterbacks to go around, and teams that have been searching for years for their savior at the game’s most pivotal position (Oakland, Cleveland, Buffalo, Tampa Bay and the Jets immediately come to mind) are trying to offset that deficiency by hiring coaches who can hopefully supply upgrades on defense, compensating for the lack of a long-term answer at quarterback.  

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In recent days, Buffalo replaced Doug Marrone (offensive background) with Rex Ryan. San Francisco elevated its long-time defensive line coach, Jim Tomsula, to replace the departed Jim Harbaugh. In Oakland, the Raiders chose Jack Del Rio, the former Broncos defensive coordinator to take over for interim Tony Sparano (offense), who took over for Dennis Allen (defense) at midseason. The Jets, as is largely their tradition, stayed on the defensive side of things by hiring Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to succeed Ryan.   

And before hiring season is over, three more teams could add strength to those numbers, if Atlanta or Denver lands Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Chicago opts to replace the fired Marc Trestman (offense) with former Broncos head coach John Fox (defense), or Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin lands with any of those teams (he has been linked to all three). Another reasonably popular candidate this hiring season was Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who was scheduled to interview for the Jets job this week before that meeting was canceled in the wake of New York hiring Bowles.    

Juxtapose that against the pool of candidates with offensive coordinator backgrounds like Denver’s Adam Gase, Indianapolis’ Pep Hamilton, Seattle’s Darrell Bevell, New England’s Josh McDaniels, Cincinnati’s Hue Jackson, Philadelphia’s Pat Shurmur, Cleveland’s Kyle Shanahan and San Diego’s Frank Reich, all of whom failed to generate the same level of interest as their defensive-minded counterparts and didn’t land head coaching gigs.   

And you might have also noticed that no one jumped to hire Super Bowl-winning offensive gurus like Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren either, though both made it known they were open to a return to the sidelines this year.   

In fact, unless Denver coaxes former Houston head coach and current Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak out of Baltimore, or elevates Gase to the top job, all seven of this year’s head coaching openings might be filled by choices that were trained on the defensive side of the ball. That’s a stunning development in a league that worships at the altar of offense, especially since just three of last year’s seven coaching hires were defensive-minded (Cleveland’s Mike Pettine, Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer, and Tampa Bay’s Smith), and just one coach with a defensive pedigree was hired among the eight openings in 2013 (Jacksonville’s Gus Bradley).    

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There may also be something to the idea that coaches with a defensive background make for the best long-term fits with franchise quarterbacks, though this is a veritable chicken-or-the-egg type of question. Elite quarterbacks make every coach look smarter and tend to boost their level of job security, no matter what side of the ball the coaches were trained on. So the success stories go hand in hand. 

Still, I’ve had personnel men in the league point out that many of the best coaching-QB relationships of recent vintage fit this mold:

- Belichick-Tom Brady in New England
- Bill Cowher/Mike Tomlin-Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh
- John Harbaugh-Joe Flacco in Baltimore
- Marvin Lewis-Andy Dalton in Cincinnati
- Pete Carroll-Russell Wilson in Seattle
- Mike Smith-Matt Ryan in Atlanta
- Tony Dungy-Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, further back

(Not that Mike McCarthy-Aaron Rodgers, Sean Payton-Drew Brees, and Tom Coughlin-Eli Manning are to be overlooked.)  

However relevant you view recent trends, defensive-minded coaches are having their day in the NFL playoffs of late, and in this year’s hiring season. In a league that loves to see its offenses soar, the coaches who can stop (or at least slow down) the parade of yards and points have rarely been more valuable.