AFC East: Henry Ellard

Hey, playa! Can you coach?

March, 30, 2011
3/30/11
10:39
AM ET
SparanoSam Greenwood/Getty ImagesDolphins coach Tony Sparano felt it was necessary to add former players to his coaching staff.
Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall scoffed in September that broadcast analyst Sterling Sharpe had no right to judge him. Marshall claimed Sharpe didn't do enough on the field to earn the privilege.

Imagine, then, how much disdain Marshall would harbor for criticism from those who didn't play in the NFL at all.

When you consider Marshall's logic and the sort of position coaches he has worked with, you get a sense of how unstable a situation can be.

As a rookie, he learned from former Pro Bowl receiver Steve Watson. But since 2007, Marshall's coaches have been Jeremy Bates, Jedd Fish and Adam Gase with Denver and Karl Dorrell last year with Miami. None of them played in the NFL. Neither Fisch nor Gase played in college.

Probably not the kinds of guys you'd expect to make a connection.

Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano rearranged his coaching staff after last season. He moved Dorrell into the quarterbacks vacancy and promoted Steve Bush from a quality-control role -- usually considered entry-level -- to receivers coach. Bush hasn't been an NFL position coach before. In 2008, the Dolphins hired the one-time Syracuse assistant away from West Genesee High in upstate New York.

Some help was in order, and not just for Bush.

Sparano made it a point to add former players to his coaching staff because he identified a deficiency. He needed more voices to reach his players.

Although the Dolphins parted ways with running backs coach James Saxon, they hired Ike Hilliard to assist Bush and Bryan Cox to coach pass rushing and promoted Dan Campbell from intern to tight ends coach.

"I feel good about the way we were able to put the staff together with the infusion of ex-players onto the staff," Sparano said last week at the NFL owners meeting in New Orleans.

"A little bit of that flavor and that knowledge on your coaching staff helps a lot. Sometimes, as coaches, we can get tunnel vision and forget about what the players' needs are. When you get an ex-player on your staff -- somebody that's really not far removed -- it helps you a lot."

A breakdown of AFC East coaching staffs shows there are multiple philosophies on former NFL players as assistants.

The Dolphins went into last season with two position coaches who played in the NFL: assistant head coach and secondary assistant Todd Bowles and Saxon. They now have four assistants with a combined 557 games.

Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey has one former NFL player on his staff, but none coaching a position. Former defensive back Adrian White, a veteran of seven seasons, handles quality control.

New England Patriots defensive line coach Pepper Johnson is the lone member of Bill Belichick's crew to have experienced NFL action. Johnson played linebacker for four teams over 13 years.

Then there's Rex Ryan's staff, populated by six former NFL players with 62 seasons and 829 games. Matt Cavanaugh coaches quarterbacks, Anthony Lynn running backs, Henry Ellard receivers, Mike Devlin tight ends, Mark Carrier defensive line and Dennis Thurman defensive backs.

I reached out to three former coaches who played in the NFL -- Tom Flores, Herm Edwards and Ted Cottrell -- to get their opinions on the significance of having on-field experience on staff.

"It's always been a thing with the players," said Cottrell, an Atlanta Falcons linebacker and successful defensive coordinator for the Bills, Jets, Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers, "where they think in the backs of their minds, 'Well, you haven't played this game. You don't know what we're going through. You haven't done this, Coach.' But if you have some playing experience on your staff, it helps offset that."

As valuable as those players-turned-coaches are, they're difficult to find. The best players don't necessarily make the best coaches because what came to them naturally can't always be conveyed through instruction.

[+] EnlargePepper Johnson
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaPatriots defensive line coach Pepper Johnson is the only member of Bill Belichick's staff with NFL playing experience.
Flores found a way to make it work. He and Mike Ditka are the only two in NFL history to win a Super Bowl ring as a player, assistant coach and head coach. Flores played quarterback for the Bills, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs before guiding the Raiders to pair of Super Bowl titles.

"Some of the young kids coming out have no idea," Flores said. "They think they invented the game. Sometimes you have to bring them back to reality.

"But you also don't want somebody who keeps saying, 'Well, when I played ... When I played ... When I played ...' The player thinks, 'I don't give a damn when you played. We're playing now.'"

The transition from player to coach is difficult. Many players focus so much on their specific jobs when they're active that they don't become students of the overall game or learn how their roles fit into the overall puzzle. Others find it difficult to stop acting like a player when their careers are over.

Still, the ex-player element can be crucial in various instances.

"Sometimes you need a bridge with a former player," said Edwards, who played cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles and was head coach for the Jets and Chiefs. "His voice is going to speak volumes, especially during the rough times because he's done it; he's been through it. He can give them, 'OK, this is what we gotta do' speech.

"He's going to respect because he played, but can he teach? That's the whole key. Players will figure that out."

Not all coaches are comfortable hiring former players, particularly those fresh off the field. Cottrell claimed there's a fear of subversion, that the former player will relate better to the locker room than the man in charge.

"Who do you think the players on the roster will gravitate towards more?" Cottrell asked. "The guy who played in the NFL and is young, or the older guy who didn't play?"

The former player, I responded.

"Damn right they would," Cottrell said. "That's why some coaches are intimidated to hire them. That's the truth. They don't want that guy around."

Added Edwards: "I've seen that happen. There's no doubt about that. That's when you're paranoid, but there are coaches like that."

Even so, Edwards conceded insurrections aren't an unfounded conspiracy theory.

"If you've got a former player in his positional meeting room, saying, 'Man, the coach doesn't know what he's talking about,' then you've got no shot as a head coach," Edwards said. "That's why you've got to be particular on who you hire."

The Patriots have a more institutional coaching staff. Their message is easy to deliver when players consider Belichick has won three Super Bowls and four conference championships in the past decade.

Rather than rely on former players, Belichick has core assistants such as offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia (28th season with New England) and running backs coach Ivan Fears (15th season).

Belichick grooms assistants from gophers into coordinators and even head coaches. A steady stream of his acolytes -- Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, Brian Daboll, Bill O'Brien, Matt Patricia -- got their NFL starts under Belichick with no pro playing experience.

New England's cyclical process protects organizational doctrine from outside influences. Johnson, the lone ex-player on the staff, played 10 of his 13 seasons under Belichick.

"Belichick has a certain philosophy, and you want everybody to be on the same page," Flores said. "Sometimes, when you bring in guys that have been too many other places, they're not going to be on your page because they've been trained someplace else.

"If you bring up assistants through the ranks, then they'll be trained the way you want them to be. Everybody has to buy into the same program."

At the other end of the spectrum are the Jets.

Ryan obviously values former players. Their presence on the staff contributes to the Jets being an attractive destination for free agents, and Cottrell surmises the Dolphins have noticed.

"From a coaching standpoint, he looks at the Jets and wants to catch them in the division," Cottrell said. "He thinks, 'Rex has six guys that have played the game who are coaching. Uh oh. Rex has got an advantage on me.'

"That's got to be in the back of his mind. You've got to win your division to get into the playoffs, and when you look at your coaching staff, you see you don't matchup in that area."

Or, in the case of adding Hilliard at least, maybe it was as simple as noticing the Dolphins didn't match up with Marshall.

Camp Confidential: New York Jets

August, 18, 2010
8/18/10
1:30
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 7

CORTLAND, N.Y. -- There's a healthy chance you're already sick of the New York Jets.

You're sick of their loudmouth coach, sick of their hotshot quarterback, sick of their trash-talking defense, sick of their wheeler-dealer general manager, sick of hearing about their HBO series, sick of their delirious fans.

Get used to it all. They're not going away.

Every team wants to kiss the Lombardi Trophy, but the Jets have drawn the disdain of 31 other teams and their fans by being so cocksure about their plans.

Whether the Jets win a championship or crash and burn on their approach, they'll remain the NFL's most fascinating team in 2010. Win or lose, they're going to be a season-long story.

"That's our own expectations," Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez said on the first day of training camp at SUNY Cortland. "That's why we feed off of it. It's our own mentality, that Super Bowl-champion mentality. That's what we want, and that's what we're striving for. ... Now, we need to do it every day and prove it."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireThe Jets are hoping Mark Sanchez has matured as a quarterback heading into his second season.
1. Can Sanchez handle the pressure? There's a lot of skepticism surrounding the man at the controls. Sanchez threw 20 interceptions last year as a rookie. He fumbled 10 times and lost three of them. He was so befuddled at one point, the Jets had to give him a color-coded wristband to help him comprehend the plays.

The Jets hope he matured considerably over the offseason. To help him along as a passer, they added receivers Santonio Holmes and Laveranues Coles and out-of-the-backfield target LaDainian Tomlinson.

Sanchez still has to make the right calls and decisions. Coaches and teammates note his indefatigable work ethic.

And there's no disputing how impressive he appeared down the 2009 homestretch. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer corralled him in time to salvage the season. Although Sanchez had more than 20 attempts in only three games after Thanksgiving, the Jets won six of those eight outings, two of them on the road in the playoffs.

Sanchez will need to shoulder much more responsibility this year. How he handles being the leading man of a Super Bowl contender will determine the Jets' fate.

2. How will Darrelle Revis' holdout affect the season? There's a belief among the Jets their defense will take care of itself. As nose tackle Kris Jenkins pointed out before training camp began, fans swooned when he suffered a season-ending knee injury six games into last season, but the Jets still finished with the NFL's top-rated total defense, scoring defense and pass defense.

Revis, of course, played an integral part. Maybe the most integral part.

All he did was establish himself as the preeminent shutdown cornerback. Revis was so good at shutting down the other team's top receivers, the Jets never had to worry about double-covering. That, in effect, gave them an extra defender to use however they wanted.

The Jets have cornerback depth to help them cope if Revis holds out into the season. They traded for cornerback Antonio Cromartie, a sensational cover corner (though not nearly the run defender Revis is). Dwight Lowery and first-round draft pick Kyle Wilson are capable.

But none of them are as good as Revis is. His return would provide invaluable peace of mind.

[+] EnlargeSantonio Holmes
AP Photo/Bill KostrounSantonio Holmes was just one of the Jets' high-profile offseason acquisitions.
3. Did the Jets ruin a good thing with too many roster moves? The Jets came within a half of the Super Bowl, taking a lead into the third quarter against the Indianapolis Colts -- in Lucas Oil Stadium, no less. It was a young team on the make, the type of roster you'd like to keep as intact as possible.

Or so you would think. Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum got rid of a few starters with big voices in the locker room. Gone were the lead running back on the NFL's top ground attack (Thomas Jones), a perennial Pro Bowl left guard (Alan Faneca), a starting safety (Kerry Rhodes) and a respected kicker (Jay Feely).

The Jets made some high-profile acquisitions, too. But perhaps the two biggest moves, Holmes and Cromartie, were poaching other teams' misfits. They also signed Tomlinson and outside linebacker Jason Taylor, classy veterans but with question marks about what they have left.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Other than references to his nickname, not much was written or said about Kentucky fullback John Conner when the Jets drafted him in the fifth round. The Jets had re-signed Tony Richardson for a 17th season, and they wouldn't bring him back if he wasn't going to keep his job, right?

Richardson might be on the bubble. Ryan has been diplomatic in speaking about Richardson's value to the Jets as a locker-room leader, but there's no doubt Ryan loves The Terminator. Conner has been a thumper in camp. Conner will make the team, and keeping two fullbacks is a luxury.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Revis' holdout is a shame on multiple levels. Both sides are standing by principles that are fully understandable. Revis is the NFL's best defender and wants to be paid as such. The Jets, meanwhile, have a signed contract that lasts three more years and refuse to consider as any kind of standard the Oakland Raiders' ridiculous deal with Nnamdi Asomugha, the league's highest-paid cornerback.

Unless they can reach a compromise or the Jets win the Super Bowl without him, both sides will forever regret this dispute. The Jets have a chance to win their first championship in four decades, and Revis might never get this kind of shot to win a title regardless of where he finishes his career.

OBSERVATION DECK
Vernon Gholston
William Perlman/The Star Ledger/US PresswireNew York is comfortable with Vernon Gholston at defensive end in passing situations.

  • An overlooked roster maneuver that could prove significant is the decision not to bring back trusty long-snapper James Dearth. The Jets brought in youngster Tanner Purdum, who has been inconsistent. Jets kicker Nick Folk doesn't need his rhythm disrupted.
  • I'm not saying Braylon Edwards' problems with drops have been solved, but he displayed great hands in the practices I saw. Maybe receivers coach Henry Ellard has helped him figure it out.
  • Undrafted rookie tight end Jeff Cumberland looks like the total package at times. He's 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds at his Illinois pro day. He does make an occasional mental error, but he popped out in team drills.
  • Shonn Greene will have to catch a few passes to keep defenses honest. Greene has terrible hands, something he and Ryan have joked about. But if he's going to be the featured back, he'll need to grab one here or there.
  • I'm hesitant to believe Ryan's glowing comments on Vernon Gholston two training camps in a row, but I will say Gholston seems to have a role he can handle as a defensive end on passing downs. He can just chase the quarterbacks. But after two years at outside linebacker, he is versatile enough to drop into coverage if the Jets want to get tricky.
  • It's fun to listen to backup quarterback Mark Brunell bark out the signals. He's a master of the hard count, a skill Sanchez is trying to learn. When Brunell walks to the line of scrimmage, there's a good chance the equipment managers will commit a false start.
  • Overheard from a fan along the rail at SUNY Cortland: "Check out No. 58 in his sweatpants. You know Shonn Greene's going to run him over. Guy's got no shot." Sweatpants in the sweltering heat aside, Jets fans need to remember No. 58 is starting outside linebacker Bryan Thomas. He swapped out of his usual No. 99 for Taylor.
  • I predict the second-most important defensive acquisition -- behind Cromartie -- won't be Taylor, but safety Brodney Pool. The free-agent pickup from Cleveland is dangerous on a blitz and will get his hands on some passes.
  • The New England Patriots didn't make a mistake when they dumped quarterback Kevin O'Connell last year, 16 months after drafting him in the third round. The Detroit Lions claimed him on waivers and traded him to the Jets. They kept him on the roster as their fourth quarterback. He would appear to be in line for a promotion to third string, but O'Connell has looked no better this summer than he did when he was fresh out of San Diego State.

Ryan's staff continues to take shape

February, 9, 2009
2/09/09
8:11
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

New York Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan is placing the final touches on his staff.

The club on Monday announced the expected hire of quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh and assistant quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo.

The Jets also promoted Ben Kotwica from defensive quality control coach to assistant special teams coach and switched Brian Smith from offensive quality control to defensive.

There aren't any major openings left to fill. Ryan retained offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and previously hired Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator. Ryan brought Mike Westhoff back to run special teams.

Cavanaugh spent the past four seasons as offensive coordinator for the University of Pittsburgh. He has been offensive coordinator for the Ravens (1999-2004) and Chicago Bears (1997-98). He played 14 seasons as a quarterback for the New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants.

DeFilippo spent the past two seasons as quarterbacks coach of the Oakland Raiders. He was offensive quality control assistant for the Giants two years before that.

Jets Staff: Who's In, Who's Out?
Position Who's in? Where from? Who's out? Where to?
Quarterbacks Matt Cavanaugh Pitt
Brian Daboll Browns
Asst. quarterbacks
John DeFilippo Raiders -- --
Special teams
Ben Kotwica
Jets
Kevin O'Dea
Unattached
Running backs Anthony Lynn Browns Jimmy Raye 49ers
Receivers Henry Ellard Rams Noel Mazzone Unattached
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine Ravens Bob Sutton Jets
Defensive line Kerry Locklin
Fresno State
Dan Quinn Seahawks
Asst. D-line --
-- Bryan Cox Browns
Linebackers Bob Sutton Jets Jim Hermann Giants
Secondary Dennis Thurman Ravens Jerome Henderson Browns
Asst. secondary Doug Plank Falcons -- --
Defensive quality Jim O'Neil E. Michigan Andy Dickerson Browns
Defensive asst. Jeff Weeks Raiders -- --

Jets coaching staff coming together

January, 28, 2009
1/28/09
8:16
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan's maiden staff continued to take shape Wednesday. As expected, four assistants were officially announced and last season's defensive coordinator, Bob Sutton, was retained, but demoted to linebackers coach.

The new confirmed staffers were receivers coach Henry Ellard, running backs coach Anthony Lynn, secondary coach Dennis Thurman and assistant secondary coach Doug Plank.

Quarterbacks and defensive line are Ryan's most significant vacancies. He retained offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, offensive line coach Bill Callahan and special teams coach Mike Westhoff.

Jets Staff: Who's In, Who's Out?
Position Who's in? Where from? Who's out? Where to?
Quarterbacks Open --
Brian Daboll Browns
Running backs Anthony Lynn Browns Jimmy Raye 49ers
Receivers Henry Ellard Rams Noel Mazzone Unattached
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine Ravens Bob Sutton Jets
Defensive line Open -- Dan Quinn Seahawks
Assistant D-line Open -- Bryan Cox Browns
Linebackers Bob Sutton Jets Jim Hermann Giants
Secondary Dennis Thurman Ravens Jerome Henderson Browns
Assistant secondary Doug Plank Falcons -- --
Defensive quality Jim O'Neil E. Michigan Andy Dickerson Browns
Defensive assistant Jeff Weeks Raiders -- --

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