By Sal Capaccio
By the time you read this, Mike Pettine may already be touring the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
Or he may already know he's staying in Buffalo and working on next year's defense with Doug Marrone.
Or he may be getting ready for a third interview with the Browns.
Despite a lot of reports, no one really knows what's going on and it's a waiting game. But as we all know all too well here in Buffalo, that wait can take a lot longer than anticipated or suddenly turn into action at a moment's notice.
So, maybe what you are about to read will be completely useless in the end. Or even by the time I'm done writing it. Either way, here are some thoughts on the Pettine situation as it relates to the Bills…..
--Can we stop with the, "the Bills should just offer him more money to stay," or "….offer him the Assistant Head Coach position," or "why would he want to leave something so good he has going?" stuff? Coaching is a career like anything else. The ultimate goal for almost anyone who gets into the business and makes it their life's work, is to be a head coach either at the college or NFL level. And usually the NFL. Pettine is no different. He's a coach from a family of coaches. He's been working his whole life to be a head coach. He specifically left the Jets to be able to run his own unit to show what he can do and prove he's worthy of a top spot. And those spots don't come along very often. Ask Dick LeBeau, who didn't get a head coaching job until he was 63 years old. Or Mike Zimmer, who's finally getting his first chance at the age of 57. Pettine is 47 right now. With limited coaching vacancies each year, new coordinators always emerging as candidates, and fired coaches with head coaching experience looking for work, there are no guarantees another job will be offered to him again anytime soon - or ever.
--Losing Pettine would be a big loss for the Bills. But it's not fatal. He's a very good defensive coordinator. Yes, there was talent on the Bills when he arrived. But, that same talent (for the most part) was abysmal last year. And several of those same players have been here for the last 3-4 years. Also, abysmal. And they had three different coordinators running the unit over that span. So, he found a way to take much of the same talent and do a lot better with it than anyone else was unable to. He took a group that was 22nd in interceptions and 18th in sacks to 2nd in both categories - in one season. He can coach.
That said, he's also laid a foundation for the group and there are a lot of really good, talented coaches out there who can also keep the unit near the top of those categories. Successful teams lose good coaches off their staffs every year, and many of them survive just fine. Successful coordinators are hired as head coaches and the groups they leave behind are often just as good, and sometimes even better. It doesn't have to be fatal. And it shouldn't be with the right person taking over (more on that in a moment).
For example, Ray Horton (a Bills head coach candidate in 2013) did a very nice job with the Cardinals defense in 2012. He left for Cleveland. The Cards had no drop-off this year, and in fact, got better in some areas. They went from 12th to 6th in yards allowed, had only two less interceptions, and increased their sacks total by nine.
Gus Bradley was the Seahawks DC a year ago. His unit allowed the fewest points in the league. He left to be the head coach in Jacksonville. Under his replacement, Dan Quinn, Seattle was not only once again #1 in the league in points allowed, but also went from 4th to 1st in yards allowed, had eight more sacks, and ten more interceptions! Of course there are plenty of examples of coordinators leaving and units regressing, but the point is, it's very possible to maintain a high standard and even get better if the right replacement is hired.
--So who is the right replacement? That's the challenge for Doug Marrone if Pettine bolts. A lot will depend upon who Pettine takes with him from the Bills staff, if he gets the gig. If they try to promote from within to keep the continuity, the favorite is probably Donnie Henderson. Remember, Henderson didn't come with Pettine to Buffalo. He came with Marrone. Henderson was a coach on Marrone's staff at Syracuse and also has coordinator experience at the NFL level, although with mixed results. As DC of the Jets in 2004 and 2005 his units ranked 4th and then 23rd in points allowed, and 7th and then 12th in yards allowed over his two seasons, respectively. As DC in Detroit in 2006, the Lions defense ranked 30th in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed. Henderson did a very good job with a patched-up secondary for much of the 2013 Bills season. From many I've talked to, he is very well respected by the players of that group.
Linebackers coach Jim O'Neil is a candidate, but he may also go to Cleveland with Pettine. Unlike Henderson, O'Neil did come to Buffalo with Pettine. Also, given how late in the process it is, Pettine doesn't have as many candidates to draw from to hire a DC of his own. He could be in line for that spot with the Browns, or simply want to remain working with Pettine in some capacity.
If Marrone is to look outside the organization, I'm all for trying to lure Wade Phillips back to Western New York. Yes, I know there was a falling out with Ralph Wilson when he was fired as the team's head coach, and I know he sued the owner for salary. I also know that was fourteen years ago. The wounds may cut so deep he, nor Wilson, may never even consider it. But time has a way of heeling a lot of scars, especially when the organization is essentially being run by someone else now (Russ Brandon) and Wade is out of work and still wants to coach. He does. And he put his resume out there for the world to know it:
Disappointed not even an interview after 7 straight full seasons of top 10 D with 3 different teams. Last 5 times as D C= playoffs1st yr
— Wade Phillips (@sonofbum) January 15, 2014
Yes, the scheme would change. But Phillips has a terrific track record as a coordinator at the highest level. He's been very consistent throughout his career, no matter the situation or talent. And former players (including former Bills) always say how much they loved playing for him.
I've heard people say Marrone could (should?) go and get his former DC at Syracuse, Scott Shafer. Shafer is currently the head coach of the Orange, taking over after Marrone left. His team went 7-6, including a victory over Minnesota in the Texas Bowl. Some wonder why Marrone would do that. I say, "why would Shafer do that?" He's the head coach at a school in a major conference in college football. Off the top of my head, I can't remember a coach ever volunteering to leave a (formerly) BCS conference school to be a coordinator in the NFL. Maybe it's happened, but if so, it's very rare. Heck, coaches don't leave head jobs at mid-major schools to take coordinator positions in the NFL. It's not impossible, but I'd be stunned if this happened. The Bills aren't about to break the bank for a coordinator, so the salary would be (at best) comparable; he's his own boss in college, and there isn't a ton of pressure at Syracuse to win, and there's actually more job security as the head man at Syracuse than as a coordinator in the NFL.
Finally, a name that has emerged just today. Patriots linebackers coach Pepper Johnson has left the organization. And according to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, it's because he wants to be "more than a position coach" (in other words, a defensive coordinator and maybe even a head coach) and was passed over for that spot last year. Johnson has been with the Pats for 14 years. He knows the AFC East very well, especially, of course, the guy he had to see every day at practice, Tom Brady. Losing Johnson hurts New England's staff. Marrone already grabbed one former AFC East defensive coach to run his unit a year ago and it worked out well. He might prefer to take that route again.
Has Pettine left for Cleveland yet?
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