It’s hard to identify the greatest defensive coaches in NFL history.
Offense is easy. Practically every football fan knows Sid Gillman, Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs. They revolutionized offenses far more than anyone else, plus they won championships, plus they were head coaches, meaning they were both creators and leaders.
Defense is tricky. The most innovative defensive coaches often were just coordinators, not head coaches, because coordinators are idea-men. They’re Spock, as opposed to the head coach who’s Captain Kirk.
Also, the most innovative defensive coaches weren’t necessarily the most successful ones. Buddy Ryan might be the best defensive coach ever -- he was the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, who won the 1985 Super Bowl with a phenomenal “46” defense, a structure Ryan created. The “46” dominated practically every offense in the ‘80s. But no one uses it anymore. It’s a relic of a bygone time. Offenses adjusted, and as a head coach, Ryan was no big deal.
The following four defensive coaches all had a bigger impact on modern football than Ryan.
Here are the NFL’s four most influential defensive coaches of all time.
1. Jerry Williams.
Jerry Williams? Who the heck is he?
Well, try this on for size -- he created modern defense.
Williams was the Eagles defensive backs coach from 1957 to 1963. And during that time, offenses opened up and started passing more. So defenses needed to find new ways to stop the passing game.
And in the 1960 NFL Championship, Williams and the Eagles needed to find a way to beat the great Vince Lombardi and the Packers. So Williams invented the nickel defense -- five defensive backs instead of four. Yes, that’s when the nickel began. This alignment worked. The Eagles won the Championship 17-13.
In the past, analysts believed modern defense began with the invention of the 4-3 or the 3-4 -- the two classic defensive structures. But today, the nickel defense is the base defense in the NFL -- teams use it 70 percent of the time.
So Williams modernized the structure of defense.
In 1969, the Eagles made Williams their head coach, then fired him three seasons later. Thank you, Jerry, and not get lost.
2. Bud Carson.
Carson modernized pass coverages.
Before him, teams used four coverages: Man to man, man to man with a blitz, strong zone and weak zone. That was it. The only difference between the zone coverages was which side the strong safety was on. Both zones had three deep defenders and four underneath. Not particularly sophisticated, because the NFL was a ground-and-pound running game until the ‘60s.
From 1967 to 1971, Carson was the head coach at Georgia Tech, where he invented Cover 2 -- Two deep safeties, and five underneath defenders, which meant three linebackers and two cornerbacks. Carson invented this to stop the option, which is a popular running play in college.
The Steelers hired Carson in 1972, and he brought Cover 2 to the NFL. And it worked against the NFL passing game, too, because the two cornerbacks jammed the wide receivers at the line of scrimmage and disrupted the timing of their routes.
In 1974, with Carson as the defensive coordinator, the Steelers defense gave up just 13.5 points per game and beat the Vikings 16-6 in the Super Bowl. The Steelers defense owned the ‘70s. And Carson’s invention led to the creation of all kinds of zone coverages.
In 1989, the Browns made Carson their head coach, then fired him two seasons later. Bill Walsh privately told friends Carson was “not cutting edge.” That’s because Walsh had figured him out. But Carson was cutting edge in the history of defenses.
3. Dick LeBeau.
LeBeau modernized blitzes.
Before him, when defenses blitzed, they played man-to-man coverage. And Walsh knew how to beat those basic blitzes. He used “hot routes,” meaning one receiver changed his route to a shorter one so the quarterback would have a quick outlet to beat the blitz. And that short throw often led to a long gain against man-to-man coverage, because that wide receiver had to beat just one guy.
LeBeau invented the zone blitz to counter the hot route. He anticipated where the hot route would be if he blitzed, then dropped defensive linemen into the area where the hot route would go, which negated the hot route entirely. No defense had done this blitz before, and it gave the West Coast Offense fits.
Ironically, LeBeau created the zone blitz in the ‘80s when he was the defensive coordinator for the Bengals, whose head coach was Sam Wyche, who had been Walsh’s offensive coordinator on the 49ers. Walsh often said Wyche was the most creative and forward-thinking coach he ever worked with.
No wonder Wyche hired LeBeau, the anti-Walsh.
In 2000, the Bengals made LeBeau their head coach, then fired him three years later.
4. Bill Belichick.
Belichick could have been like the other three coaches on this list -- a brilliant man who flopped as a head coach. The Browns canned him after five seasons, then he had to wait another five seasons just to get a second head-coaching job.
And then he became arguably the greatest coach ever with the Patriots.
But before Belichick went to New England or Cleveland, he revolutionized defensive game planning.
Belichick didn’t try to invent the perfect coverage or the perfect blitz. He was not interested in generalizations or systems. He tried to build the perfect game plan to stop his particular opponent that week. And he built a new scheme every game.
Belichick wanted to do whatever was necessary to shut down an offense’s best weapon. To make the offense run through second and third bananas.
In 1986, the Giants faced the 49ers in the playoffs. Belichick ran the Giants defense and limited Jerry Rice to just three catches. The Giants won 49-3. One week later, Belichick’s defense shut out Joe Gibbs’ Washington offense in the NFC Championship. Then the Giants beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl.
That was almost 35 years ago. Since then, Belichick has won eight Super Bowls and been fired only once.
His face proudly stares down from our Mt. Rushmore along with three lesser-known innovators.