Defense is the best sense for new NFL head coaches
By PAT RALPH
College Contributor Network
Since the conclusion of the regular season, seven head coaching opportunities have opened up across the NFL. While some of these jobs require a complete restructure of the franchise's culture, others offer the new head coach a chance to contend immediately for a playoff spot. Of the seven available jobs, six have already been filled. But what may be most intriguing about the six jobs already filled is that five of these newly hired head coaches are of the defensive mindset.
The first coaching job to go was one that was not expected to open up, as the Buffalo Bills hired former Jets' head coach Rex Ryan. Despite Buffalo going 9-7 and barely missing the playoffs, former head coach Doug Marrone opted out of his contract and unexpectedly left the franchise. As a result, the Bills went with the energetic defensive-minded Ryan as their new head coach to lead Buffalo back to the playoffs. (I already wrote a whole piece on the significance of Ryan joining the Bills, so feel free to go here to check that out from last week.)
As for Ryan's former team, the Jets went with former Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles as their next head coach. Unlike Ryan, Bowles will bring a much more laid-back and calming personality to a city where those characteristics are not common. It is unlikely that Bowles will step up to the microphone on the first day of training camp and declare New York a Super Bowl contender, but Bowles should command the same amount of respect from his players that Ryan did in the Jets' locker room.
Needless to say, the Jets should continue to be a defensive juggernaut under Bowles. However, the criticism of hiring Bowles comes from the fact that New York's primary struggles lie on the offensive side of the ball where Bowles has never played or coached a snap to this point. The most important decision Bowles will need to make as head coach is who will be the starting quarterback of this team. But before he makes that decision, Bowles' offensive coordinator selection is just as crucial as it will set the tone for his tenure as head coach of the Jets. With the dominant New England Patriots and vastly improved Bills in the same division, the playoffs may be a stretch for the Jets next season.
Just as Buffalo is the second head coaching stop for Ryan, the Oakland Raiders will serve in that same capacity for former Broncos' defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. Before his time with the Broncos, Del Rio was the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2003-2011 where he led the Jags to two playoff appearances. While Del Rio will no doubt bring to Oakland a rejuvenated focus on defense, there will be a lot more than just defensive improvements needed to change the Raiders. For a franchise hiring and firing coaches more often than the seasons change, a complete renovation of the team's culture on and off the field is necessary.
Del Rio and the Raiders' front office will need to pioneer a complete rebuild of this team on both sides of the ball. Del Rio and his defensive coaches should immediately bring a positive impact to the defense, but improvements to the offense (including the recent hiring of Bill Musgrave as offensive coordinator) are just as crucial if the Raiders wish to go back to the playoffs and win a playoff game for the first time since 2002.
Del Rio's former boss in Denver, John Fox, is now in control of the coaching reins in the Windy City. After surprisingly parting ways with the Broncos after four very successful seasons, Fox became the head coach of the Chicago Bears and is tasked with the job of improving one of the uncharacteristically worst defenses in the league this past season. Known for his defensive expertise, Fox should be able to re-establish the Bears' as a strong defensive team and mold that defense into a force as he did similarly as head coach of the Carolina Panthers and Broncos.
Fox has already started off on the right foot with the hiring of former San Francisco 49ers' defensive coordinator Vic Fangio for the same position. Most importantly, Fox will need to get franchise quarterback Jay Cutler to play up to the expectations of his big-time contract which he did not do this past season. Fortunately for Fox, an improved defense and Cutler could get the Bears back to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
The one new head coach who came just about out of nowhere was Jim Tomsula being promoted from defensive line coach to head coach of the Niners. After making the NFC Championship for three straight seasons and one Super Bowl appearance, the 49ers failed to reach the playoffs this past season and parted ways with head coach Jim Harbaugh. It was believed by many that the departure of Harbaugh had to do with a difference in philosophy with the 49ers' front office. The belief in that theory was only strengthened when the 49ers promoted the loyal Tomsula after serving in the defensive line coach position since 2007.
While the 49ers had one of the best defenses in the NFL this past season despite a plethora of injuries and suspensions, San Francisco's offense struggled to consistently score points. With offensive coordinator Greg Roman gone and now serving in the same capacity with the Bills, Tomsula must find an offensive coordinator who can help quarterback Colin Kaepernick further develop into a franchise quarterback. Most importantly, the hiring of Tomsula showed the football world the value of allegiance with the 49ers' ownership and front office.
The only non-defensive head coach hired has been former Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who was hired to replace Fox as head coach of the Broncos. While the Broncos are already strong on both sides of the football, Kubiak's hire is more about his familiarity with the franchise and his strong relationship with general manager John Elway. For Kubiak's entire NFL career, he was Elway's backup quarterback and then served as Denver's offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach when the Broncos captured back-to-back Super Bowl titles in the twilight of Elway's Hall of Fame career. Kubiak also had plenty of success as head coach of the Houston Texans from 2006-2013, leading Houston to back-to-back division titles and first-round playoff wins in 2011 and 2012.
While Kubiak will luckily inherit a strong team, that could change if he is unable to convince former AFC South nemesis and quarterback Peyton Manning to return for another season and push off retirement for the time being. There is a growing belief Manning could hang up the cleats for good, so Kubiak will need to sell himself and his coaching staff strongly to the future Hall of Famer. If Manning does not return, the Broncos must find a starting quarterback who can keep this team as a contender.
The lone job yet to be claimed is the Atlanta Falcons' head coaching position, but it is believed by many that the Falcons are waiting for Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to become available after the Super Bowl next weekend. Quinn has arguably been the most popular head coaching candidate out there because of his terrific work leading Seattle's league-best defense. The Falcons already have a strong offensive attack and Quinn would be the ideal hire to help improve one of the worst defenses in the league this past season. If the Falcons could improve defensively, Atlanta could definitely contend for the NFC South title next season.
As one can tell from the high number of defensive-minded coaches hired this offseason, the league is recognizing as a whole that winning a championship starts and ends with defense before all else. Offense may be sexy, but defense gets the job done. Look at several of the recent Super Bowl-winning head coaches: Pete Carroll, Bill Belichick, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Tony Dungy, John Harbaugh. All of these head coaches and many more come from a defensive background and have led their respective franchises to Super Bowl titles. Outside of the New York Giants' two Super Bowl titles in 2007 and 2011, the Green Bay Packers' 2010 Super Bowl title, the New Orleans Saints' 2009 championship, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2002 championship, every Super Bowl champion coach since 2001 has been from a defensive background.
Ironically, many of the head coaches who lost jobs this offseason were of an offensive mindset. Harbaugh went back to the college level at his alma mater Michigan for a position where the head coach has more power than at the pro level. Marrone did not do well in head coaching interviews and interest in him waned as a result, but he was able to become the assistant head coach and offensive line coach in Jacksonville. Oakland never seemed to seriously consider interim head coach Tony Sparano as a permanent solution, despite being admired by the players. Lastly, former Bears head coach Mark Trestman was picked to replace Kubiak as the Ravens' offensive coordinator. But as we all know, defense ultimately wins championships and it is those coaches who are winning it at the end of the day for the head coaching opportunities.
Pat Ralph is a junior at Villanova University. He has a passion for Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies and Eagles, as well as Villanova Basketball and the New York Knicks. Follow him on Twitter @Pat_Ralph