The NFL’s search for head coaches is over. But instead of going back to ignoring most assistant coaches who aren’t considered part of this year’s up-and-comer group, let’s expand and put more of them on the radar. Assistants, after all, are the ones handling the nuts and bolts of day-to-day football operations. Besides the players themselves, they’re the ones most responsible for player development.
So much of coaching occurs behind the scenes, and so many unseen variables shape our impressions of coaches (the players’ talents, health and temperaments; a team’s in-house bureaucracy, etc.) It’s impossible to truly know the good coaches from the average ones. But we can at least get a strong indicator based on the performance of the men they teach. Ultimately, a coach’s success is measured by his players’ success.
Here are 11 of the league’s best assistant coaches from 2015, selected largely on the strength of their players’ performance as seen on film study
Ken Zampese — Bengals quarterbacks coach
The son of longtime NFL coordinator Ernie Zampese was recently promoted to offensive coordinator, filing the void left after Hue Jackson’s departure to take the head job in Cleveland. Announcing the move, head coach Marvin Lewis made a simple yet important point about Zampese: “He has been Andy Dalton’s position coach, and Andy has just kept getting better, so we’ve obviously got some good continuity working there.”
Indeed, Dalton had the best season of his five-year career. Under Zampese, Dalton’s mechanics have solidified (especially his deep-ball); his presnap awareness is amongst the league’s best and his post-snap decision-making has, at least in the past year, stabilized.
Dalton wasn’t the only feather in Zampese’s cap. When Dalton’s broken thumb forced A.J. McCarron into the lineup, the Bengals did not have to significantly modify their approach. The 25-year-old McCarron looked poised and prepared in his first NFL action.
Zampese, who has been with the organization since 2003, likes to think about football from a broad perspective, stretching for views beyond just those from under center. With system continuity having been so crucial to Cincy’s success, expect the first-time coordinator to keep ushering this offense down the same path philosophically as Jackson and, before that, Jay Gruden.
Darryl Drake — Cardinals wide receivers coach
As Peter King pointed out following The MMQB 2015 awards, Richard Sherman’s vote for the 12-year-veteran NFL receivers coach as one of the league’s top five assistants speaks volumes. Drake, who joined Arizona in 2013 after a nine-year stint in Chicago, saw his Cardinals receivers post 3,510 yards and 25 touchdowns this season playing in a complex system that relies on intertwined route combinations and option patterns. Very few receivers inherently understand these nuances; Arizona’s passing game is predicated on principles that must be specifically taught, learned and drilled.
Drake has had the good fortune of teaching Larry Fitzgerald, one of those rare receivers who seems to inherently understand the nuances and who, without question, is one of most fundamentally sound players in the history of his position. But let’s not forget, Fitzgerald has assumed an entirely new position in Bruce Arians’s scheme. As a long-time X-receiver, he spent the first half of his career on the line of scrimmage, operating in space on the weak side of the formation, where isolation routes are prevalent and coverages are plainer to read. Under Arians, Fitzgerald has played the Z-receiver, aligning off the line, tighter to the formation and sometimes going in motion.
The X-receiver in Arizona is now Michael Floyd (though in Arizona’s scheme, like many in the NFL, receivers must be prepared to play every role). Floyd, a first-round pick in 2012, had a somewhat slow start to his career, but has fulfilled his potential running posts and dig routes under Drake’s tutelage. And then there are the speedy youngsters: John Brown and Jaron Brown, plus fifth-round rookie J.J. Nelson. All have thrived in meaningful roles. And, tellingly, all play with eerily similar body mechanics and timing. That’s the first sign of a group that gets good day-to-day coaching.
Mike Munchak — Steelers offensive line coach
You know Munchak from his head coaching days with the Titans and, depending on your age, his Hall of Fame playing days with the Oilers. Two years ago he took over and finally stabilized what had been an up-and-down Steelers O-line. Under Munchak, the Steelers have allowed an average of 33 sacks a season. In the six years prior to that, the average was 44 sacks.
Yes, the nature of coordinator Todd Haley’s quicker-strike passing attack has helped. But it’s not like the Steelers are the Patriots; with Ben Roethlisberger, there are still plenty of deep drops and improvised plays. The men protecting Roethlisberger have performed decidedly better.
More impressive, two of those men in 2015 were backups forced into critical fulltime roles: undrafted 27-year-old Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle, and 2008 fourth-rounder Cody Wallace at center. And before Villanueva, Munchak had helped develop 2012 seventh-rounder Kelvin Beachum into a quality starter. Also under Munchak, Pittsburgh’s run blocking, particularly with gap-scheme plays involving pull-blockers, has become proficient. At the forefront of this is right guard David DeCastro, who finally looked like a full-fledged former first-rounder last season and earned his first All-Pro honors this season.
John DeFilippo — Browns offensive coordinator
DeFilippo, like many quality assistants in recent years, did not survive a coaching regime change in Cleveland and is now the new quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia. Before his one year in Cleveland, he was the quarterbacks coach in Oakland, where he ushered Derek Carr into the league.
The Browns, despite a talented O-line, did not post great numbers in 2015, particularly on the ground. But part of that was because they had no weapons in the passing game. Defenses could be proactive against them. But watching Cleveland’s film, the passing attack was nowhere close to inept, even though its resources said it should have been. This despite DeFilippo’s being saddled with the worst quarterbacking situation in the league. He had a respectable bridge veteran in Josh McCown, but the man ownership was pressuring the staff to play, Johnny Manziel, was immature, unrefined and constricted by limited size and arm strength.
DeFilippo did a tremendous job building and calling plays that worked to Manziel’s strengths while hiding his shortcomings. And Manziel, to his credit, showed marked improvement in his second season, his only one under DeFilippo. To fans only familiar with Cleveland’s record and offensive numbers, it must have been surprising to see DeFilippo’s name come up on the fringes of San Francisco’s head coaching search. But to people inside of football, it wasn’t.
Mike Bajakian — Buccaneers quarterbacks coach
Dirk Koetter has gotten almost all of the credit for Jameis Winston’s rookie success, and understandably so. Koetter was outstanding with his week-to-week game plans and play calls, featuring a smashmouth rushing attack and a vertical passing assault—old-school approaches that fit Winston perfectly. But Koetter, now the Bucs’ head coach, will tell you that much of his quarterback’s prosperity should be attributed to his position coach, Mike Bajakian.
Head coaches often trumpet their little-known assistants, and sometimes the praise can be the hollow workings of politics. Not here. Winston, who can be a bit methodical in his footwork and delivery, showed sounder mechanics as the season progressed. And the turnover problems that everyone feared his propensity for throwing into tight coverage would bring? Didn’t happen. In Weeks 5-14 Winston had just four interceptions.
Sean McVay — Washington offensive coordinator
Most Washington observers (including yours truly) spent this season referring to “Jay Gruden’s” system, which is one of the craftiest in the league. Gruden deserves applause, but it can’t go solely to him. This year McVay, 30, was the one calling plays and running the skill-position meetings.
McVay was able to assume the responsibilities because Washington brought in an experienced veteran, Matt Cavanaugh, to handle McVay’s old duties of working directly with the quarterbacks in all facets as the O.C. last year. Revered O-line instructor Bill Callahan was also brought aboard to handle key aspects of the running game. Such divisions of age among hands-on assistant coaches can be a recipe for strife in NFL coaching rooms, and a source of intimidation for a young up-and-coming coach. But inside Washington’s building, you hear nothing but praise for McVay and his humility.
Of course, it’s easier to praise a coordinator whose offense overachieved. Kirk Cousins, who at best offers middle-tier physical attributes, threw for 276.5 yards a game with 19 touchdowns and two interceptions in the second half of the season. Cousins clearly got more comfortable in a scheme that shrewdly clarifies a quarterback’s reads through subtleties in formations and route combinations. Working from this menu, McVay did a tremendous job at calling plays that built off one another. And let’s not forget, for a six-game stretch, Washington was mostly without receiver DeSean Jackson—the offense’s only source of veritable speed. With defenses able to now play shallow, McVay had to be even more innovative. During Jackson’s absence, Washington went 3-3 to stay above water and be in position to claim the NFC East, which they did after Jackson’s return, going 4-0 to finish the regular season.
Adam Zimmer — Vikings linebackers coach
The son of head coach Mike Zimmer oversaw a position group that featured a lot of talent, including 2014 first-round pick Anthony Barr and 2015 second-rounder Eric Kendricks, but it was raw talent. In Minnesota’s scheme, linebackers have several responsibilities on passing downs. They must audible into late blitzes, rush the quarterback, attack blockers in ways that set up others to rush and, more often than not, show blitz only to drop into zone coverage. This all takes considerable awareness.
Entering the league, neither Barr nor Kendricks was revered for their football IQ. They weren’t dumb, just young. But by late in 2015, both showed flashes of veteran awareness. Kendricks, in particular, was heady in coverage.
Josh Boyer — Patriots cornerbacks coach
Brian Flores — Patriots safeties coach
When Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner exited New England in free agency, the expectation was the Patriots would have to amend their man-to-man-based scheme. They didn’t have the cornerbacking talent to simply line up and out-execute opponents.
Turns out that thinking was wrong. Sort of. Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan proved to be more talented than expected. But watching their technique and fundamentals, it’s apparent they were also extremely well-trained. Keep in mind, Butler was undrafted just a year ago. Ryan had been wildly up-and-down his first two seasons. One week he would start, the next he wouldn’t even be active.
As this season progressed, Ryan played stronger and stronger matching up against opponents’ largest receivers. Butler, who took the opponent’s quickest receiver, also held up despite offenses seeing more of his film as the year progressed. They weren’t the only Patriots defensive backs who thrived.
At safety, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung continued to be versatile. Chung has evolved into an above average man-to-man defender in the slot—something no one who saw him early in his career or during his brief stint in Philadelphia would have predicted. And off the bench, third-year safety Duron Harmon was solid as a centerfielder in dime package. Plus, the usual array of bottom-of-the-depth-chart Patriots pieces—such as fringe veteran Leonard Johnson and first-year contributors Justin Coleman and Jordan Richards—all had bright moments and few dark spots. Not only did New England’s reconfigured secondary avoid taking a step back in 2015, it actually took a step forward. Sturdy fundamental discipline was at the heart of it.
Nick Rapone — Cardinals defensive backs coach
While the Patriots did it with sound technique, the Cardinals prospered with scheme. Often it looks like Arizona’s defensive backs are playing straight man coverage, but aside from Patrick Peterson (who shadows the opponents’ No. 1 receiver), most of them are playing a form of matchup zone. The zone’s principles require route recognition and on-the-fly adjustments, particularly by safeties aligned between the field numbers. The Cardinals have two good young ones here. One, of course, is Tyrann Mathieu, who also played the slot and blitzes. He’s a highly educated student of the game. The other is Tony Jefferson, who played in Arizona’s predominant dime package and, with Mathieu out (ACL), became increasingly versatile in third down packages. Jefferson has gone from being a liability in coverage early last season to a relatively reliable blanket against tight ends.
Rapone’s first NFL season was in 2013, when he left the University of Delaware to join Arians’ staff. Rapone is fond of simple, sound zone coverages, with an emphasis on playing fast. Arians expects his defensive backs to play fast but also handle a mentally taxing scheme. (New D coordinator James Bettcher has picked up where predecessor Todd Bowles left off.) Credit Rapone for venturing outside his comfort zone to get his players prepared.
Mike Shula — Panthers offensive coordinator
Shula doesn’t quite fit this list because most fans have come to know and appreciate him. But he’s included anyway because he’s not appreciated enough. It’s perplexing that he wasn’t more prominently noted as a head-coaching candidate. With Ron Rivera being a defensive-minded coach, Shula has near autonomy over Carolina’s offense. It’s an offense that lost its only playmaking wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, to a preseason ACL injury and had mostly midlevel prospects and retreads along the line. And yet, it ranked first in scoring, second in rushing and was highly proficient when it went to the air. Credit Shula’s multipronged scheme and smart sequential play calling.
Shula also deserves a lot of credit for Cam Newton’s quantum leap into the NFL’s top echelon of quarterbacks. Shula built the league’s most complex and diverse rushing attack around Newton’s unusual mobility, and he concocted an aggressive downfield aerial game that plays off that rushing attack through play-action and max protections out of heavier personnel sets. Newton, in turn, discovered newfound patience and mechanics as a pocket passer. He still has room to grow here. But where that fact was once discouraging, it’s now a positive that’s downright scary. No quarterback has made greater strides within his system—and Shula has been overseeing those efforts.
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