NFL 100 – Defensive Coaches

23 Oct

Our topic today for the NFL 100 post is a look at highly successful defensive coaches, or coordinators as they’ve come to be known today, who never quite succeeded when given their opportunity to become head coaches. Some of the greatest defensive minds went on to make it big as head men, including Tom Landry, Don Shula, Chuck Noll, George Allen and arguably the greatest of all time, Bill Belichick. “The Hoodie” almost made the list of failures after his brief tenure in Cleveland ended disastrously, but he was put in a bad situation there with owner Art Modell announcing he was moving the team to Baltimore. Belichick landed on his feet in New England and to this day is a highly successful head coach. So what coaches who had Hall of Fame worthy careers as defensive assistants never quite made the leap to success as top men? The list is long. We’ll start with Joel Collier. He was a bespectacled, mild mannered assistant under Lou Saban with the AFL’s Buffalo Bills in the 1960s and later guided the Denver Broncos “Orange Crush” defense to a Super Bowl. The Bills won back-to-back AFL titles in 1964 and ’65, mostly on the strength of their defense, the best in the AFL’s 10 year existence. He got a shot at the top job in Buffalo after Saban abruptly quit but failed miserably. When Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins were dominating the NFL in the early 1970s, one of the main components of their success was the play of their “No Name” defense, which suffocated opponents and got its’ nickname due to the fact that there were no star players on the unit. The man who coached that stifling defense was Bill Arnsparger. His success earned him the opportunity to be the head coach of the New York Giants, but in three years at the helm there, his teams posted a dismal 7-28 record and after being fired he returned to the Dolphins to work under Shula. He spent the next eight years there overseeing a defense that acquired another nickname, the “Killer B’s” due to many members of that unit having names that began with the letter B.



Bill Arnsparger and The Killer B’s

When the Pittsburgh Steelers were dominating the NFL in the 1970s, winning 4 Super Bowls, the one constant that drove that team was it’s defense, aptly known as “The Steel Curtain”. Even though their head coach, Noll, came from a defensive background, it was widely accepted that the man who orchestrated that unit was defensive coordinator Bud Carson. He was the coordinator for the team’s defense for the first 2 of the championships, then moved on to become D-coordinator for the Rams, Colts, Chiefs and Jets, all while waiting patiently for a shot at a top job. His chance finally came when Modell hired him to coach the Browns in 1989. He did well his first year as the Browns advanced to the AFC Championship game, only to lose to the John Elway-led Denver Broncos. Modell didn’t show him any patience, however. Carson was fired midway through the next season after the Browns started out 2-7. Although his overall coaching mark for the year and a half he got was slightly under .500, it’s tough to say that Carson was a failure. Unlike Belichick in the 1990s, he never got the chance to prove himself in another job. We’ll treat our next subject on this topic as a tandem. It’s the father/son duo of Buddy and Rex Ryan. Buddy was the coordinator of one of the most prolific defenses in NFL history, the 1985 Chicago Bears. The success of his “46 defense” got him a job as head man in Philadelphia, where he lasted five seasons. Rex Ryan was coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens defense that was dominant for years and helped win the Super Bowl following the 2000 season. Rex eventually parlayed his performance into head coaching jobs with the Jets and Bills. Unfortunately, neither of the Ryans was ever able to raise his teams above the level of mediocrity when given the chance to run the whole show.


Buddy Ryan was well loved by his Bears’ defensive unit

There is one coach who was recently elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame mainly for his work as a long-time defensive coordinator – Dick LeBeau. Actually, he deserved Hall consideration for his playing career alone, as he played 14 seasons and was a top cornerback. His story is a little different than the men we previously featured. He was defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2000 but was thrust into the job of interim head coach when Bruce Coslet resigned. He held the job until 2002 but a paltry 12-33 record got him axed. He returned to being a D-coordinator, for the Steelers, and went on to have tremendous success. He never got another shot at being a head coach, but he may have been content to “stay in his lane” as a successful assistant. One name that shouldn’t really be mentioned here is Wade Phillips. He has followed the same path as the others on the list, having “failed” as a head coach but having great success as a defensive coordinator, to this day in fact, as he is currently guiding the Los Angeles Rams’ defense. He has been the head man for 5 different teams in interim and permanent status, but in my mind never really was shown much patience by any of the owners he worked for. His overall record as a head coach is 83-69, a pretty healthy winning percentage. Dom Capers has been a highly successful defensive coach over the years, but hasn’t had success when given a chance to be the head coach. Part of the reason for that is that his only two opportunities came with expansion franchises. Others who have not taken advantage of head coaching opportunities but who excelled as defensive assistants are Romeo Crennel, a Belichick disciple, Rod Marinelli, Jim Schwartz and Gregg Williams. The art of hiring a top head coach is something NFL owners over the years have failed at many times, and in some ways the NFL over 100 years was bound to have more failure than success among its’ teams. The men mentioned in this article, for certain, should be remembered more for the innovation and success they have brought to the game rather than their failure, which is really more of a failure on their owners’ part than theirs.


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