Inside the AFC South: Coaches Making a Name

Not every team has had a great year but the Titans, Jaguars, Texans and Colts have staff members who have distinguished themselves.
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Every Saturday, reporters covering the AFC South teams for SI.com’s NFL community will weigh in on one aspect of the division as it relates to each of the franchises, the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans.

This week’s topic: Coaches who have made a name for themselves during the current season.

TENNESSEE TITANS

It has not taken Arthur Smith long to go from first-time offensive coordinator to head coach candidate.

The 38-year-old is in just his second season as the man in charge of the Titans’ attack, but his players, opponents and plenty of analysts already have raved about his scheme. And his body of work speaks volumes.

Derrick Henry led the league in rushing last season and is in position to become the first back-to-back rushing champion since Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006-07. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s completion percentage (67.4), yards-per-attempt average (8.6) and passer rating (111.7) with Tennessee – as well as other statistics – easily exceed his career numbers. Wide receiver A.J. Brown, a second-round pick in 2019, has quickly become one of the game’s better big-play threats.

It is not just that Smith takes advantage of his stars, however. He makes good use of the entire roster to find and exploit matchups on a week-to-week basis. Through the first 12 weeks of this season, Tennessee is the only team to have three different players with at least eight touchdowns and the only one to score 42 or more points in three games.

Smith is not a guy who maniacally has pursued upward moves. Instead, he has been a part of the Titans’ staff since 2011 and has worked under four different head coaches. The last three retained him when they got the job, and three of the four promoted him at some point during their respective tenures.

Look at just about any list of 2021 head coach candidates and Smith’s name will be on it, which means that before long he might actually go to work for another franchise – and have nowhere to go but down.

-- David Boclair, AllTitans

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

It's hard to argue that most coaches in Jacksonville's organization have helped advance their careers during their tenure with the team. The Jaguars are made up of mostly veteran coaches like George Warhop, Ron Middleton, Terry Robiskie, and more.

With that said, Jacksonville has two assistants who have stood out this year: wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell and safeties coach Joe Danna. Both have helped their position groups thrive in an otherwise tough year for the Jaguars.

McCardell is known by many for his illustrious playing career, but the former receiver has helped the Jaguars develop several young receivers. DJ Chark, Keelan Cole, Laviska Shenault, and Collin Johnson have all impressed. McCardell is known as one of Jacksonville's best coaches in terms of being able to take a young player and help them improve, a skill not every coach has.

Meanwhile, the safety position has been Jacksonville's most consistent defensive unit this year. Danna has developed Jarrod Wilson from an undrafted special teams player to a reliable secondary presence. Meanwhile, Andrew Wingard and Daniel Thomas are two young safeties who have impressed with limited snaps.

Jacksonville is in the middle of an ugly season that has been defined by close losses and inconsistent play, but they still have a pair of coaches who have stood out. No matter what happens to this Jaguars staff, these two coaches deserve continued looks in the NFL.

-- John Shipley, Jaguar Report

HOUSTON TEXANS

Given that the Houston Texans have gone from 10-6 and AFC South champions to 4-7 with no head coach or general manager in less than a year, it’s hard to imagine there are many coaches worth raving about. However, situations like these can provide opportunities for players and coaches alike to stand out from the crowd, and that has been the case for Anthony Weaver.

Houston’s first year defensive coordinator has overseen a steady improvement in his unit. Given the shorter preseason, loss of 2019 starters like D.J. Reader and Gareon Conley, and lack of depth he has to work with, Weaver’s defense has come on leaps and bounds, and he deserves a great deal of credit. In the last four games Houston have allowed 80 points with four turnovers, improved from 126 and zero between Weeks 1-4.

After seven years playing in the NFL, Weaver moved into coaching and quickly rose through the ranks. Starting as a graduate assistant at Florida in 2010, he was the Buffalo Bills defensive line coach by 2013.

A former defensive end for the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans, Weaver brings a relatability to the locker room as well as a passion and fight that was clear to see when speaking to the press following their 10-7 loss to the Cleveland Browns: "This narrative that’s being painted like my guys aren’t disciplined and running around blocks, quite frankly and to put it bluntly, is bullsh*t.”

But his biggest influence has come in getting the most out of his guys, surely the best indicator of a quality coach. Rookies Ross Blacklock and Jonathan Greenard have both improved as the season has worn on, with Weaver easing them in slowly. Meanwhile, veteran defensive linemen Carlos Watkins and Brandon Dunn are both arguably having career years, while the decision to move Lonnie Johnson from cornerback to safety alongside Justin Reid is looking like a partnership that should last the next few years.

Then look at linebacker Tyrell Adams. Thrust in to the starting role in Week 5 after a season ending injury to Benardrick McKinney, Adams has gone from a perennial backup and practice squad member, to a bonafide NFL starter under Weaver.

Weaver's first season as a coordinator may not have gone to plan, but his ability to continually improve his defense and get the best out of his players shows he should have a big future in the league.

-- Anthony Wood – Texans Daily

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

In his third season since he was hired before Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich then retained, defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has received praise for elevating a unit that prior to his arrival was middle-of-the-pack at best in most seasons.

The Colts held the No. 1 ranking in total defense at times this season, and although they dropped to No. 5 this past week due to a disastrous home meltdown in a 45-26 home loss to the Titans, Eberflus has been mentioned as a potential NFL head coaching candidate. The division rival Texans are listed as a possible next step.

Eberflus, 50, started out in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, as a Rockets assistant before an eight-year stint at Missouri. He entered the NFL as the Cleveland Browns coach in 2009-10 before joining the Dallas Cowboys from 2011 to 2017, the latter two seasons as linebackers coach/passing game coordinator.

When the Colts hired him as defensive coordinator in 2018, he was thought to be working with head coach Josh McDaniels, who had second thoughts and backed out of the job to stay with the Patriots. The Colts stuck by Eberflus when Reich was hired. And Reich has been continually effusive in his praise of the defensive coordinator and believes in the assistant’s 4-3 scheme.

It took some time for Eberflus to be given the necessary parts to make his system work. He had an All-Pro linebacker in Darius Leonard and a standout playmaker in nickel cornerback Kenny Moore II. When general manager Chris Ballard traded for All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, Eberflus was ecstatic because he had three key players that formed a triangle core for his scheme. Buckner plays the all-important three technique on the defensive line. Success starts with Buckner. His absence due to being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list was telling when the Colts got run over by the Titans and NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry.

Perhaps it’s too soon for Eberflus to be hired as a head coach — the Colts job was the most responsibility in which he’s been entrusted and his three years of experience in Indianapolis might be deemed as an insufficient sample size for a GM to be convinced he’s head-coaching material. But if the Colts continue to be a top-five defense in the next year or two, Eberflus’ stock will also rise.

-- Phillip B. Wilson, AllColts