When Pete Carroll returned to the NFL seven years ago, he didn’t just want to prove he could win in a league that had fired him twice. The Seattle Seahawks coach had grander thoughts, and at the top of his list was the desire to turn a lifetime of defensive knowledge into a sustainable championship system.
To accomplish this, he needed a defensive coordinator to help him develop, translate and teach all these loose thoughts.
He found that coordinator nervously waiting in limbo as power transitioned from fired coach Jim Mora to Carroll: Gus Bradley.
The first thing you need to understand about Bradley, who interviewed Wednesday to run the Washington Redskins’ defense, is that he was the most important lieutenant in engineering the most influential defensive creation in this pass-centric era of the NFL. And Bradley did it while learning Carroll’s mismatched concepts on the fly.
“He’s the best teacher I’ve ever been around,” Carroll once told me about Bradley. “He’s so thorough, so thoughtful, and he’ll go to such lengths to find ways to make sense of the information so the guys can understand it in practical ways. It doesn’t matter how good we teach. It’s how well they learn. I think that connection is really clear with Gus. He’s great at it.”
This is why Bradley is a good fit to overhaul Washington’s defense. And with the Chargers hiring Anthony Lynn as their new coach, Washington had better more quickly before a rumored Lynn/Bradley package deal happens.
As I have written before, the franchise needs a coordinator who has the creativity and coaching acumen to build a competitive defense on a team spending the majority of its resources on offense. Although Bradley has adopted from Carroll what seems like a simple system — more on that later — it’s his flexibility and experience with making a defense fit its personnel that matters most.
He also has connections with Coach Jay Gruden and President Bruce Allen from his time as an assistant coach in Tampa Bay and with General Manager Scot McCloughan from their days in Seattle. The collaboration of Carroll and Seattle personnel chief John Schneider made the Seahawks a Super Bowl champion and perennial contender, but there was a time when Bradley and McCloughan were key figures in acquiring and developing the players who gave life to Carroll’s vision. McCloughan knows how to draft and sign players to fit this system. And Bradley understands the importance of scouting/coaching synergy in helping a player succeed.
As a head coach, Bradley failed over four seasons in Jacksonville, which is a very difficult job. He compiled a miserable 14-48 record, and his defense didn’t finish with a top-10 ranking until this season, when it ranked sixth in yards allowed and third in yards per play, after years of stockpiling top-level talent. But there’s a difference between running an entire team and mastering one aspect of it. Bradley, 50, knows defense. He can give the weakest part of Washington’s rebuilding effort a lift.
Perhaps you must meet Bradley to comprehend what he brings. He’s an upbeat, energetic coach who commands respect without screaming and cursing. Seahawks players used to compare his manner to Tony Dungy, only he can be much more spirited. Fired coordinator Joe Barry acted similarly, and his exuberance helped elevate the defense’s effort to an acceptable level. But Bradley combines his personality with better play-calling and teaching.
His system is interesting. As a pro coach, Bradley was raised in Monte Kiffin’s Tampa-two system, the same as Carroll. But when Bradley became Carroll’s coordinator, they went for something different, and Bradley brought many of those concepts with him to Jacksonville. It’s a 4-3 defensive front, not the 3-4 that Washington uses, but there are a lot of 3-4 concepts employed.
People get caught up in 4-3 vs. 3-4, but here’s the deal: The Washington defense is so bad that scheme continuity is irrelevant. Many of the pieces were going to change, regardless of coordinator or scheme. And the players who absolutely should be retained on the defense — cornerback Josh Norman and outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan being the stars among them — are versatile enough to play in any scheme.
On the surface, everything Bradley wants to do, everything Seattle still does, is simple. The unit plays a lot of cover-three, meaning the two outside cornerbacks and free safety play zone by splitting the field into thirds and four other defenders cover everything underneath.
There’s little deception to this defense. The cover-three is so basic that many high school teams teach it. Bradley would be the first to admit that he’s not going to fool you with schemes. What’s innovative is the way the personnel is used to tweak a rudimentary defense to the special skills of the athletes. Some critics say that the defense only works with extraordinary talent. But if you consider how few players have succeeded after leaving Seattle, you can counter that talent looks extraordinary in the system because the coaches spend so much time melding it to the athletes’ specifications.
When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl three years ago, they dismantled Peyton Manning’s record-setting Denver offense, 43-8. And they did it with only two defensive starters who were first-round draft picks. They had three undrafted starters and five others who were taken in rounds four through seven. They’re appreciated now as one of the league’s most talented defenses, but they consider themselves a bunch of misfits who stumbled into the ideal situation.
When Bradley was running the defense, the Seahawks had much success with cornerbacks Richard Sherman, a fifth-round pick, and Brandon Browner, a Canadian Football League castoff. They were taught the step-kick technique, which involves disciplined and patient footwork, to cover receivers and limit big plays.
But for as much as secondary play — the vaunted “Legion of Boom” — defines the Seahawks, it’s what they do up front that deserves more appreciation. When Carroll was the defensive coordinator in San Francisco in 1995-96, he learned from well-regarded guru Bill McPherson about mixing one-gap and two-gap football. That’s a reference to the defensive line’s philosophies. Historically, 3-4 defenses use a significant amount of two-gapping, meaning linemen have to make a read and defend space on either side of the man blocking them. And in 4-3 defenses, linemen are responsible for only one gap. When he got with Carroll, Bradley learned how to blend the two.
Usually, that would mean having the nose tackle and a big, run-stopping defensive end responsible for two gaps while the other tackle and a pass-rushing end focused on penetrating one gap and getting up the field. But on any given play, the responsibilities can change. That’s where the deception in a simple defense comes into play.
Bradley isn’t the super-aggressive, blitzing, gambling coordinator that some fans want. He provides something better: a principled, detailed system that helps players compete freely in a defense that can be adjusted for them.
If McCloughan aims to build a defense mostly through the draft and with underrated veterans, Bradley is the coordinator best suited to translate that vision.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.