Two years after choosing Joe Barry’s hunger and energy over the more extensive experience of other defensive coordinator candidates, Washington Redskins Coach Jay Gruden handed Barry his walking papers Thursday.
Three assistants — defensive line coach Robb Akey, defensive backs coach Perry Fewell and strength coach Mike Clark — also were dismissed.
The Redskins, who finished 8-7-1 , giving the organization winning records in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1997, missed the playoffs after losing, 19-10, to the New York Giants in Sunday’s season finale. Though the offense sputtered in that game and another costly loss to Carolina two weeks earlier, the defense’s struggles crippled the team throughout the season.
The unit ranked 28th in total yards allowed, 24th in rushing yards, 25th in passing yards, 19th in points, 32nd on third downs, 17th in takeaways and 26th in red-zone touchdowns. These performances followed a 28th-place overall finish in Barry’s first season as coordinator.
Given those showings, Barry’s dismissal came as considerably less of a surprise than his hiring did two years ago.
After being rebuffed by then-San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and interviewing longtime defensive guru Wade Phillips, Gruden came away more impressed from his meeting with Barry, a former fellow assistant in Tampa Bay, despite his lesser credentials.
In Barry’s only two seasons as an NFL defensive coordinator before being hired by Gruden, the Detroit Lions finished 32nd in the NFL in total yards allowed in 2007 and 2008.
In Washington, he inherited a unit with real talent deficiencies. Outside of Chris Baker, the defensive linemen were rotational players more than full-time difference-makers. The unit needed more speed and versatility at inside linebacker, and the Redskins also lacked proven safeties. Most league insiders, former players and executives polled on Washington’s unit agreed that outside of Baker, Ryan Kerrigan, Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland, Washington’s defensive players would have had trouble earning starting jobs on other winning teams.
Nonetheless, over the past two seasons, the Redskins took a conservative approach to revamping the unit in the draft and free agency, mostly acquiring stopgap solutions rather than investing in long-term dependability. According to people familiar with the deliberations, team management plans to invest more aggressively in the defense this offseason.
Relative talent notwithstanding, Barry’s decision-making was under scrutiny for much of the past season.
His reluctance to assign Norman to line up opposite the opponent’s top wide receiver, his use of Su’a Cravens as a situational inside linebacker rather than a full-time player (either at linebacker or safety), and his late-game strategies all raised doubts within the organization.
Players also questioned Barry’s philosophies privately and publicly. Barry gave players the freedom to speak their minds and offer input, but the second-guessing extended to postgame interviews.
In Week 3 against the Giants, Baker berated his coach on the sideline, and the two had to be separated after one failed goal-line stand during which the Redskins surrendered an easy rushing touchdown when Barry deployed more players in pass coverage.
Players respected that Barry never made excuses. From the podium for his weekly news conferences, he always took the blame for the shortcomings of his unit.
And even after the season ended, he had supporters within the locker room, even if some of them thought his philosophies needed modifying. Veterans such as Kerrigan, Will Compton and DeAngelo Hall said their jobs were to make the decisions work, regardless of what they were.
“For me, Joe Barry is not the problem,” Hall said Monday. “It’s the guys in this locker room, and we need to try and figure out what works, what doesn’t work and what kind of combination of guys and what attitudes and demeanors, things like that, that we can get out of these guys to win games, stop runs, rush the passer, get interceptions and tackle guys — things like that. Joe B. is not out there missing tackles. We are.”
Now Gruden, team President Bruce Allen and General Manager Scot McCloughan must find a candidate who can develop the existing talent on the roster and blend it with new additions to give Washington a unit that can better support an offense that ranks among the NFL’s best.
Some league insiders believe Phillips again could receive interest from the Redskins. He remains in limbo following Gary Kubiak’s departure in Denver. The Broncos will leave their assistants’ futures up to their next head coach, but Phillips tweeted that he’s unemployed.
Former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley, who worked with McCloughan in Seattle, serving four seasons as defensive coordinator of the Seahawks, is another potential candidate. Bradley also worked in Tampa under Jon Gruden when Allen was general manager there and Jay Gruden was an offensive assistant.
Paul Guenther, the Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive coordinator, ranks among Jay Gruden’s good friends, and when Gruden took the head coaching job with the Redskins, he tried to bring Guenther — then a linebackers coach with Cincinnati — with him to work alongside Jim Haslett. However, the Bengals ended up promoting Guenther to defensive coordinator, and they might not allow him to interview for a lateral move.
Gregg Williams, Washington’s defensive coordinator during Joe Gibbs’s second tenure and now the defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams, also could draw interest.
A possible in-house candidate is outside linebackers coach Greg Manusky, who served as San Francisco’s defensive coordinator when McCloughan was general manager there and who joined Washington’s coaching staff this season after leading Indianapolis’s defense for four years.
One lesser-known candidate could be Steve Wilks, assistant head coach and defensive backs coach of the Carolina Panthers, who has a strong track record as a position coach and helped Norman develop into a star.
Liz Clarke and Master Tesfatsion contributed to this report.