Sometimes collaboration works. Other times it does not.
The Tennessee Titans surely hope that the latter does not become a reality as it has in the past.
Coach Mike Vrabel has made it clear that Shane Bowen will be the defensive coordinator this season. Bowen, who spent three seasons as outside linebackers coach, effectively had that role last season despite not having the official title.
But roughly two months after that promotion, the Titans made a notable addition to their defensive staff.
A well-regarded defensive mind and long-time coordinator in his own right, Jim Schwartz will be a senior defensive assistant. That means he will work closely with Bowen, with whom he has no prior experience.
No doubt, Schwartz’s know-how can be a benefit to Bowen, who oversaw a defense that struggled mightily last season in multiple areas. But the pressure is on for those two to make the relationship work.
Two previous Titans coaches tried this same format with coaches that had prior experience working together. And both times, the experiments failed and led to consequences.
The most costly of those trials occurred in 2013 when then-coach Mike Munchak brought in the well-traveled Gregg Williams to be senior defensive assistant and work with third-year coordinator Jerry Gray.
The Titans hired Williams in part because Gray’s defense struggled the previous season. That unit finished near the bottom of the league in total defense, against the pass and against the run. Things improved slightly when the two worked together in 2013, but not by an overwhelming amount. Tennessee finished 7-9, and Munchak, Gray, Williams and everyone else except Arthur Smith, who spent nine years with organization, including the last two as offensive coordinator, were fired.
Ken Whisenhunt replaced Munchak as head coach, and he attempted to do the same thing with his staff in 2015. He hired Dick LeBeau, a highly successful defensive mind, as head coach/defense and work with coordinator Ray Horton, who was entering his second season in that role.
Horton’s first season leading the Titans defense in 2014 yielded underwhelming results. His unit finished sixth from the bottom in total defense and finished second from the bottom against the run. Much like in 2013, Tennessee’s defense under Gray and LeBeau improved slightly. The unit finished at No. 18 overall and gave up the sixth most points, still surrendered well more than 100 rushing yards per-game and allowed the third most passing touchdowns.
The Titans got off to a 1-6 start to that season, which promoted team officials to fire Whisenhunt. Horton left after the season, and LeBeau spent the next two seasons as defensive coordinator.
In both cases, the thinking was that the pairings could easily co-exist because of familiarity.
Williams earned his first NFL head coaching job with the Buffalo Bills (2001-03) and hired Gray to be his defensive coordinator after the two had worked together for years under Jeff Fisher with the Titans. When the two met again in Tennessee, Williams -- not Gray – effectively ended up running the defense that season.
LeBeau spent 10 seasons as defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers (2004-2014) and helped the franchise win two Super Bowls. For six of those seasons (2004-2010), Horton was the secondary coach. In Tennessee, they had more of a balanced division of labor compared to Williams and Gray, but LeBeau still had a heavy presence in meetings and on the practice field.
In this case, Schwartz and Bowen have not worked together, and they will have to figure out how to do so. They also must work out who does what and when.
Bowen oversaw a defense last season that was historically bad. The unit allowed 439 points, an average of 27.4 per game and 108 points more than it allowed in 2019. It was also more than opponents scored in 2014 (438) and 2015 (423), when the Titans tied for the NFL’s worst record in consecutive seasons. On third down, Tennessee allowed opponents to convert 51.9 percent of the time (one of the worst percentages in league history).
Schwartz could be the steady hand and mentor Bowen needs to get the defense headed in a positive direction. The 54-year-old brings plenty of experience and success to the job, including with the Titans. His first career stint as a defensive coordinator came in Tennessee (2001-08). His final two Titans’ defenses finished among the NFL’s top 10 in points allowed, takeaways, and yards allowed.
He was head coach of the Detroit Lions for five seasons before spending each of the last six as a defensive coordinator, first with the Bills (2014), then with the Eagles (2015-2020).
The Bills recorded an NFL-best 54 sacks under Schwartz.
He had even more success in Philadelphia. Overall, during his five seasons there, his defense ranked third in third down defense, sixth in red zone defense, third in rushing defense (and seventh in sacks. He was a part of a Super Bowl victory in 2017, and that defense was the league’s best against the run, the third best third-down defense and had the fourth most takeaways.
While Vrabel and the current Titans staff have nothing to do with what happened in the past, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this same idea has failed the franchise before – twice. If things unfold the same way again, you just have to wonder who will suffer the consequences for it.