“That was a big deal a couple years ago when Sean first did it,” said Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ executive vice president of football operations. “Now it is nearly commonplace.”
In the two years since, McVay has morphed from novelty to prototype. As franchises have sought to hire young, innovative, offensive play-calling head coaches such as McVay, who led the Rams to last season’s Super Bowl, one side effect has been the shifting demographics and responsibilities of NFL defensive coordinators. It has created a swell of experienced, overqualified defensive assistants hired to help their baby-faced bosses find their way.
This season, 14 teams employ a defensive coordinator who used to be a head coach, and 10 of them work under head coaches who call offensive plays. Many of those assistants wear the official label of defensive coordinator, but their duties are better described with an unofficial title infiltrating the NFL’s lexicon: head coach of the defense. It is a job equal parts defensive play-caller, mentor and shepherd of half the roster.
“That’s the best way to go and get the most out of your entire staff,” said Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who works under first-year coach and play-caller Kliff Kingsbury. “He can’t focus on both sides of the ball and be the head coach and call the plays on offense. … It’s too much in a job to do all three things. It’s a natural fit.”
Choosing a defensive coordinator who has done his boss’s job has become an oft-copied template. McVay and Phillips, who at 39 years apart could pass for father and son, popularized the arrangement. Demoff credited the Philadelphia Eagles, considered one of the league’s most forward-thinking franchises, with being first.
In 2016, the Eagles hired Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson to be their head coach and call his own offensive plays. They paired him with Jim Schwartz, who spent a year out of football after being the Detroit Lions’ head coach. Shortly after hiring Schwartz, Pederson called him “the head coach on defense.”
“I wouldn't expect him to come over on the offensive side and make suggestions, whether it be on personnel or plays or the calling or any of that,” Pederson said then. “So I kind of leave [the defense] up to him.”
In the past two hiring cycles, only five of 14 new head coaches had defensive backgrounds, which has helped create a surplus of available and highly qualified defensive coordinators. Their experience makes them a perfect match for offensive-minded head coaches who want to focus on calling plays and managing the games. They can be trusted to handle defense, and they can impart wisdom gained from sitting in the head coach’s chair.
Kingsbury, who came to the NFL from Texas Tech, had no interest in taking on sweeping responsibilities. The Cardinals hired him to bring his offense and call plays, and to devote full focus to that, Kingsbury sought an experienced hand for the other side of the ball.
“I wanted somebody who was a head coach for the defense,” Kingsbury said.
At practices, Kingsbury tends to hover around his quarterbacks. In the office, Kingsbury leaves the defensive game plan to Joseph, which leaves him more time to plan and install the offense each week. Kingsbury is still Joseph’s boss, but they work in partnership.
“I think that’s why guys hire guys who had previous head coaching experience,” Joseph said. “He knows that guy who’s been a head coach is going to cover every base without him having to look over your shoulder. Especially if you’re a guy calling your own plays, that’s tough to find two or three hours to talk game plan with a defensive guy.”
Matt Nagy, in his second season with the Bears, hired former Colts coach Chuck Pagano to run his defense this past offseason after veteran coordinator, Vic Fangio, was hired to be the Denver Broncos’ head coach. He said hiring a former head coach wasn’t a necessity, but it was a priority. He casts himself as only an assistant to Pagano in defensive planning, which underscores another part of the shift. NFL head coaches have long been control freaks, considered CEOs of their teams, but the new breed of offensive-minded coaches are willing to cede responsibility.
“You have a guy that has been there, done that,” Nagy said. “They can really take that side of the ball and run with it. … I’m just kind of there to oversee it and help out in any way.”
Experienced defensive coordinators double as valuable resources for new coaches. Green Bay Coach Matt LaFleur, a former McVay assistant, retained Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, formerly the head coach of the Browns. “The good thing is what I bring from my experience in Cleveland,” Pettine joked during training camp. “I have a thick book on what not to do, so I can steer him clear of some of the pitfalls of being a first-time head coach.”
The partnerships have the potential for awkwardness. The coordinators have done their younger boss’s job and probably would like to do it again. The head coach is fully aware former head coaches make for easy interim head coaches. McVay’s self-assurance allowed him to hire Phillips.
“Some young coaches are afraid to hire those guys,” said former Washington coach Mike Shanahan, who hired McVay as an assistant in Washington. “Sean is not.”
“To me, it’s all about what kind of confidence you have in yourself as a coach,” Nagy said. “If I don’t have better coaches than me on a staff, then I’m not a good coach. You need to surround yourself with better coaches than what you are. They go ahead and strengthen my weaknesses and I strengthen their weaknesses, and that’s just how you roll.”
The right personality can erase tension. Early in their partnership, Joseph told Kingsbury, “Listen, bro. It’s your turn.” He wanted Kingsbury to ask him any question he wanted — and Kingsbury picked his brain on how to maximize practice time and how leadership is different in the NFL compared to college — but Joseph was wary of pushing advice on him.
“You have to as a young coach grow into the job and feel your way through it,” Joseph said. “You don’t want someone constantly telling you what you should be feeling or what you should be doing.”
Even if a team favors a defensive candidate at head coach, it faces two unwanted likelihoods for the future of its offensive coordinator: Either he will fail and the team will lose, or he will succeed and another team will poach him. The first outcome is undesirable for obvious reasons. The second outcome is barely more tenable.
NFL teams are fearful of breaking up a thriving quarterback-coach relationship. Hiring an up-and-coming offensive assistant as a coordinator sounds appealing until he bolts for a head coaching job after a season or two. If your head coach already calls plays, you don’t have to worry about losing the play caller your quarterback found rapport with.
“If you have a good offensive mind, he’s going to get hired out of here in two seconds,” Bears General Manager Ryan Pace said. “Now you’re starting over on offense.”
Atlanta Coach Dan Quinn, a former defensive coordinator, took the Falcons to the Super Bowl, but he immediately lost offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who became head coach of the 49ers. In the three seasons since, Quinn has cycled through two offensive coordinators without approaching the production his offense had under Shanahan. After the Vikings went to the NFC championship game two years ago, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur left for the New York Giants. His replacement, John DeFilippo, didn’t even last an entire season, and the Vikings missed the playoffs.
“That’s the toughest part for a defensive guy,” Joseph said. “God willing I get another chance to do it, I have to figure out who’s going to be the offensive coordinator. That’s a big push to me in the interview process. You may be qualified as a defensive guy. … But if I don’t bring the right offensive guy to the table, I won’t get the job. You have to figure out a way to be innovative on offense.”
If Joseph receives a future head coaching interview, he would come prepared not only with an offensive coordinator but a list of younger staffers who could replace that coordinator if he leaves. Joseph cited Mike Tomlin and Marvin Lewis as long-tenured defensive-minded head coaches who lasted despite frequent staff turnover on offense.
“If a guy can coach the quarterback and he’s calling plays, he’s going to be a hot commodity,” Joseph said. “You have to build your staff that way, knowing that if this guy is a good coach, he’s going to probably move on in two years.”
As everybody who works in the NFL is quick to say of almost every trend, the NFL is cyclical. And there is evidence defensive coaches can work. Of the six active head coaches who have won Super Bowls, four of them — Bill Belichick, Tomlin, John Harbaugh and Pete Carroll — have defensive backgrounds.
“Until people start looking for a larger subset of head coaching candidates … pairing up defensive coordinators with offensive minds will be a trend that continues,” Demoff said.
The current atmosphere makes it hard to imagine Joseph and his defensive brethren receiving head coaching jobs. But they can take solace in what else that means: The number of head coaches of the defense will only keep growing.
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