Gray Brings Experience to Secondary in Quest for Title

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine had never coached with the man he’d ultimately hire to lead his defensive backs.

“I had never worked with Jerry directly before but it was a lot of one and two degrees of separation, guys that had worked with him and just raved about him, about his work ethic, his demeanor with the players,” Pettine said recently.

When Jason Simmons joined Matt Rhule’s fledgling staff in Carolina, Pettine said Gray – a veteran of nine NFL seasons as a player and more than 20 years as an NFL coach – was the first name on his radar.

“I happened to be down in Florida and found out he was at the Pro Bowl (in Orlando), so I drove up and we were able to spend a couple hours together, and I knew within minutes that he was the right guy for the position,” Pettine said.

The 57-year-old Gray, who had served as a defensive coordinator in Buffalo and Tennessee before spending the past six seasons as Minnesota’s defensive backs coach, also sensed an immediate fit.

“We sat in the lobby and maybe talked about 2 ½ hours,” Gray said in a Zoom call with Packers beat writers on Thursday. “I asked him, ‘What did they do? How does he like to call the game? What does he expect out of his coaches?’ From being a coordinator and being a position coach, you want to know what the coordinator expects from you before you actually take a job. And he reminds me a lot of guys that I worked with before. He lets you go out and coach, and that was one of the biggest selling points for me is it gives me a chance to coach technique football. I don’t have to worry about calling a game or anything like that. I basically just coach the technique of the players. And he’s not going to sit there and micromanage you and look over your shoulder and say, ‘Well, that’s not the right technique.’ He’s going to let you do your job and that was probably the most appealing thing.”

In 1985, Gray was a first-round pick by the Rams. By 1986, he made the first of four consecutive Pro Bowls. As a College Football Hall of Fame player and veteran coach, Gray has seen it all. From that perspective, his wealth of experience is a big difference compared to Simmons, who was an NFL defensive back for 10 seasons but had little experience as a coach when Matt LaFleur retained him on the staff and named him defensive backs coach.

Experience is great, but what matters is being able to impart that experience in a useful manner.

“The one thing I learned when I first started coaching,” Gray recalled, “I talked with Blaine Bishop, who was an All-Pro safety for me in Tennessee, and I asked him, ‘What can I do to help you guys?’ And he basically told me, ‘Coach, you got that advantage right now. You were a player but if we’re not getting any better, we’ll turn you off.’ And it’s true. My job is to make sure you guys are getting better and seeing the success on the football field that they want to see and they’ll keep listening.”

With the addition of Gray, Pettine joked that he’s happy to no longer be the oldest member of the coaching staff. The 53-year-old Pettine was the only fiftysomething on last year’s staff and was eight years older than any other defensive coach. “He’s seen a lot of huddles broken both as a player and as a coach,” Pettine said.

While Gray has broken huddles, he hasn’t cleared all the hurdles. In a combined 31 seasons as an NFL player and assistant, he still hasn’t grasped the Lombardi Trophy. With the ninth-ranked scoring defense, game-changing defenders like Za’Darius Smith and an accomplished quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, Gray is hopeful the Packers will give him a shot at a championship ring.

“I’ve been to three NFC championship games, and it’s still not fun when you lose,” he said. “When you’ve got really good personnel, got a good quarterback in this league, that gives you a chance. But you still have to go out and perform on defense, you have to block for him, have to catch for him. Just being in the NFL, there’s not a lot of guys that you can say, ‘This guy can walk out on a football field and change a game.’ This is probably my third time ever coaching to say you’ve got a quarterback that can actually do that. I was on the team with Steve McNair when we did lose to the Rams (in the Super Bowl), and then Drew Bledsoe was really good, just to name a couple of other guys. But when you look at guys that can actually say, ‘Hey, Coach, put it on my back,’ it’s far and few between, and going against Aaron Rodgers for the last six years, the guy is going to provide a lot of stuff for you, you have to prepare for. You know he’s going to show up every week, and that’s the good thing. Now I’m on the same team as he is.”

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