(EDITOR'S NOTE: During this offseason, we frequently ask guest columnists to contribute. One of the most familiar is NFL historian John Turney, who today asks why the Pro Football Writers of America seems to have forgotten about two of the most influential assistants in NFL history.)
Starting in 2014 the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) began honoring long-time assistant coaches with the Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman Award -- a lifetime achievement honor named after the New York Post and Sports Illustrated writer.
In my view, it’s the Hall-of-Fame of assistant coaches, with Fritz Shurmur, Ernie Zampese, Dick LeBeau, Bud Carson, Joe Bugel, Emmitt Thomas and Bill Arnsparger among the past winners. Rod Marinelli and Bobby Turner are this year’s honorees, and, no question, both are worthy of what Raiders’ coach Jon Gruden called “a prestigious-ass award.”
But what about Bobb McKittrick and Floyd Peters?
Again, nothing wrong with Marinelli and Turner. They have the necessary credentials. But consider that they both entered the NFL in the 1990s and are still active.
Now consider McKittrick and Peters.
McKittrick entered the NFL in 1971 and coached until his death in 2000. After a 10-year college coaching career, he began with the Rams before moving on to San Diego, where he coached the Chargers’ offensive line from 1974-78 when players like Russ Washington and Doug Wilkerson showed tremendous improvement.
In 1979 he began his 21-year run with the 49ers, where he was a major part of the 49ers dynasty.
“Bobb gave distinguished service to the organization since our renaissance in 1979,” said Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Walsh. “He was a vital factor in five Super Bowl championships, the evolution of a dynasty and in the production of some of the finest offensive linemen in football.”
When someone writes the history of the best offensive line coaches in history, McKittrick will be on the short list of the best.
As for Peters, his road to the NFL sidelines began on the field. He played 12 years, beginning in 1959 with the Browns who, from 1959-60, had Peters, Willie Davis, and Jim Marshall on the roster … and let them all go.
After his playing career was over, Peters was hired by Don Shula hired as a scout who taught techniques to the Dolphins’ defensive linemen under line coach Mike Scarry. In 1974 he was called the “leading candidate” to replace defensive coordinator Arnsparger, who took the Giants’ head coaching job.
Except Peters followed him to become New York’s defensive coordinator.
Whatever Peters’ title was in Miami, we know that Bill Stanfill had a career-year in 1973 with 18½ sacks, and, two years later, Jack Gregory had a comeback year with 14 sacks.
In 1976 Peters took the 49ers’ defensive coordinator’s job and turned a line that had been playing a flex defense for eight years into an up-the-field rush group in the George Allen-like mold -- playing the run on the way to the pass. Result: The 49ers “Gold Rush” sacked the quarterback 61 times, including dumping James Harris 10 times on national TV on Monday Night football.
It’s a 49ers’ franchise record that still stands.
His next stop was the Lions, where he guided the “Silver Rush” to a team-record 55 sacks (which still stands) in 1978. In his five years with Detroit, the Lions were fourth in the NFL in getting to the quarterback.
Peters got a chance to be a defensive coordinator in St. Louis for the Cardinals’ Jim Hanifan in 1982, and the “Big Red Rush” sacked the quarterback 59 times, setting a team record that still stands (see a pattern?). Bubba Baker, acquired by the Cards, was a big part of the total. So was Curtis Greer, who had 16 sacks in 1983 and 14 in 1984. Greer was the patented blind-side guy who was featured in Peters’ lines.
In 1986 Peters became defensive coordinator for the Vikings and was instrumental in moving Chris Doleman from strong-side linebacker to defensive end and Keith Millard from a 3-4 end to a three-technique. Peters once explained to us, "Every time we’re in nickel, this big, tall, strong kid (Doleman) was standing next to me. So, to get him on the field, we moved him to end.”
The setup served the Vikings well, as they were one of the best defenses in the league. In 1989 Millard was the Defensive Player of the Year, while Doleman led the NFL with 21 sacks as the Vikings had a league-high 71 sacks—one short of the NFL record. Once again, a record that stands to this day.
In his last two jobs with the Bucs and Raiders, Peters didn’t set records, but his teams did show improvement. He converted the Bucs to a 4-3 defense, after having been a 3-4 team since 1977, and tried to convert Keith McCants into the Chris Doleman role. But McCants’ knees were having none of it.
In 1995, with the Raiders, he converted rush backer Pat Swilling to right defensive end into the Doleman role, and he responded with 13 sacks – this after a couple of sub-par years in Detroit where Swilling landed as a free agent after a stellar career in New Orleans.
Peters retired after the 1996 season.
So, essentially, the careers of both Peters and McKittrick were over when Marinelli and Turner’s NFL tenures began, and that is a salient point here. If the credentials are there for all concerned -- and they are -- put the guys waiting longest in first.
PFWA members, especially the youngest, should broaden their depth of knowledge and look farther back in their studies to make sure a backlog for this award doesn’t happen as it has with finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.