As the Washington Redskins prepared to face the New York Giants last week, Barry Cofield studied tape of the first meeting between the two teams. It was the season opener and also Cofield’s first game lining up at nose tackle.
“I didn’t even recognize myself,” Cofield said of the game film, just three months old.
But now, with two games remaining in his first season anchoring Washington’s defensive line, Cofield looks like a different player. In a 3-4 defense, the nose tackle position is considered the toughest to fill. Coaches had to teach Cofield how to play nose in less-than-ideal crash-course fashion, but they’re more than happy with the results.
“The guy is going to be, I think, one of the best noses in the league when he comes back” next season, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said.
Said Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan: “He’s going to make a great nose tackle for years to come.”
After last year's failed experiments with Albert Haynesworth and Ma’ake Kemoeatu, the Redskins knew nose tackle was a pressing need, but they had to step outside the box to identify Cofield as the best solution. Cofield had always played as a tackle in a 4-3 defense. Lining up over the center might only be a foot or two away on the line, but the assignments, techniques and responsibilities can be worlds apart.
“We didn’t know if he could actually do it, per se,” Haslett said. “We thought he could, based off the film we looked at for four years in a four-man line. You’re not really sure because it’s totally different from what he was doing.”
It might not have been a huge gamble, but the Redskins bet big, giving Cofield a six-year contract that included $9 million in bonuses. If it didn’t work at nose tackle, coaches figured they’d at least have an above-average defensive end.
“When he was playing the three-technique, you kind of watched his technique over the guards,” Shanahan said. “Then you heard how unselfish the guy was, how he played more plays than anybody else, how he ran sideline to sideline, just a team-oriented guy. . . . To put that same person over the center position, there’s really no difference except there’s a lot of different blocking combinations.”
Shanahan said getting an understanding of Cofield’s work ethic and study habits particularly sold him. He remembered watching Cofield when the big tackle came out of Northwestern in 2006, and when it comes to intelligence, Shanahan said Cofield is “off the charts.”
“When you interviewed him in college, he was the same way,” Shanahan said. “He’s a pro. It doesn’t take you long to figure out when you talk to him why he's been successful.”
The learning curve in Washington was hampered by the lack of offseason workouts and the fact that free agents had to sit out the first several days of training camp due to the labor dispute. Cofield, 27, can identify the moment he finally began to feel comfortable in the middle of Washington’s line: midway through the Week 3 game at Dallas.
“It was sort of a football epiphany,” Cofield said. “A certain amount of plays, certain amount of work under your belt and things just started to click. I was able to turn a corner.”
Though tackles aren’t considered an official statistic by the NFL, according to the league's numbers, Cofield has 23 of them through 14 games, a sharp drop-off from his 54 last season with the Giants. (According to stats kept by the team, though, Cofield has 59 tackles.) He knew the nose tackle position isn’t designed to produce big numbers, but it was still an mental adjustment.
“It was shocking to me after nine or 10 games to look at my numbers,” he said. “I wasn’t really paying attention enough to realize how few tackles I’ve had compared with what I’m used to. It's definitely a transition and you have to come to terms with that. You have to find your self-worth in other ways — it’s not just measured in tackles and sacks. So seeing London [Fletcher] lead the league in tackles, that makes me happy.”
In fact, if Cofield is doing his job occupying bodies in the middle, the team’s linebackers should have more room to make big plays. According to the league’s numbers, Fletcher has an NFL-high 146 tackles, 11 shy of his career best.
“I have been free to be able to make plays,” Fletcher said. “His presence has definitely made a difference.”
Cofield also has 21 / 2 sacks, 17 quarterback pressures and five tackles for a loss. Perhaps most impressive, Cofield has been credited with nine passes defended; only cornerbacks Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall have more.
While Cofield has found a new home at nose tackle, he’s eager to see what his future will hold in Washington. He’s finally comfortable with his new position, which should give coaches some flexibility next season, in Year 3 of Haslett’s scheme.
“Our scheme has been relatively vanilla, based on what I know Coach Haz has in his bag of tricks,” Cofield said. “We didn’t have the time with all the new faces. There will be some new things that we’ll be able to do.
“I’m happy with my maturation process, but there’s still things I have to learn. A full offseason, training camp — I think I’ll be even more comfortable.”