NFC North: Joe Barry
Assuming they follow through on their reported plans to hire Bob Slowik as defensive backs coach, the Detroit Lions will be well on their way to establishing a credible defensive staff in the wake of their disastrous performances in 2007 and 2008.
The Lions ranked last in total defense during each of former coordinator Joe Barry's two seasons. You don't reverse that trend overnight, but the Lions are moving in the right direction. The combination of coach Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham and Slowik would give the Lions three respected defensive minds who have all experienced success in the NFL.
Slowik, whose NFC North tenure also has included stints in Chicago (1993-98) and Green Bay (2001-04), hasn't fared well as a coordinator during his NFL career. But Slowik is well-respected both as a defensive backs coach and a teacher. His arrival would give the Lions a good chance to improve their pass coverage.
This is not to say I'm convinced the Lions will have a much-improved defense in 2009. Players are the most important element, and it's a lot quicker to overturn a coaching staff than it is to weed through a roster of 53 players. But at this early point in the offseason, it's fair to say the Lions have taken some credible steps.
Minnesota special-teams coordinator Paul Ferraro has officially left the Vikings and joined St. Louis, according to Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune. But he's not leaving to be the Rams' special-teams coach.
Ferraro will be the Rams' linebackers coach under new head coach Steve Spagnuolo, a college teammate and longtime friend. The move actually puts Ferraro in a position more commensurate with his expertise. Prior to joining the Vikings in 2006, Ferraro had spent only one season as a special-teams coach at any level. For most of his career, he had been a college-level defensive coach.
The Vikings did some good things on special teams in 2008 but ultimately will be remembered for giving up an NFL-record seven touchdowns. Assistant special-teams coach Brian Murphy is one candidate to take over the group.
Thursday's news extends a tumultuous run of turnover for NFC North coordinators. Nearly half of the 12 men who finished the 2008 season as an offensive, defensive or special-teams coordinator are no longer in the same job. Here's the tally:
- Detroit defensive coordinator Joe Barry
- Green Bay defensive coordinator Bob Sanders
- Minnesota special-teams coordinator Paul Ferraro
- Green Bay special-teams coordinator Mike Stock
- Chicago defensive coordinator Bob Babich*
- Detroit offensive coordinator Jim Colletto+
- Detroit special-teams coordinator Stan Kwan
* Retained his title but will also coach linebackers and won't call defensive signals during games.
+ Reassigned to offensive line coach.
If nothing else, new Detroit defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham brings a new level of credibility to the Lions' defense along with an experienced hand to help guide rookie coach Jim Schwartz.
Cunningham's defense in Kansas City was dreadful last season, giving up the fourth-most points in the NFL and the second-most yards. But you can hardly pin full blame on him considering the Chiefs' roster overhaul last offseason. In 2007, Cunningham fielded the league's No. 13 overall defense and in 2006 it was ranked No. 16.
The Lions' roster isn't exactly fortified with future superstars, but Cunningham is the right kind of hire in this situation. His fiery personality will help wipe clean the dim morale and low standards set by previous coordinator Joe Barry. And his 40-year résumé as a defensive strategist will also give players an established leader to trust and one that shares the same values with Schwartz.
Schwartz has been careful to avoid locking himself into a specific scheme, but Cunningham's arrival almost certainly means the Lions won't be playing the Tampa-2 defense they utilized for the past three seasons. When they worked together in Tennessee from 2001-03, Cunningham and Schwartz were known for building the scheme around the players they were given.
Mike Nolan, the former San Francisco head coach who is also a four-time defensive coordinator, is the "clear front-runner" to be Green Bay's new defensive coordinator, according to Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy served as Nolan's offensive coordinator with the 49ers in 2005 and the two have maintained a close relationship. Nolan would replace Bob Sanders, who was fired over the weekend.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Nolan's candidacy is that he has, at times, run a 3-4 defense. He began his tenure in San Francisco using a 4-3 but gradually made the transition to a 3-4. Although his personal relationship with McCarthy is important, you have to assume there would be some level of 3-4 discussion in Green Bay if Nolan is in fact the next coordinator.
Meanwhile, Tom Silverstein and Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report that former defensive quality control coach Joe Whitt Jr. is likely to become the Packers' next secondary coach.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Packers president Mark Murphy speaks to the Journal Sentinel about the Packers' coaching overhaul: "The way I viewed it, it's a pretty strong message that we want to win here. That's the priority."
- Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times reports the Bears have not yet made a formal offer to former Detroit coach Rod Marinelli.
- Former Lions defensive coordinator Joe Barry is actively campaigning to join the Bears' coaching staff, possibly as the replacement for fired linebackers coach Lloyd Lee. "If I had an opportunity to work for Lovie Smith, I would cherish it," Barry told Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.
- Although it was originally reported that Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett took his name out of the running for Detroit's head coaching job, the Lions have in fact interviewed him. Adam Schefter of NFL.com reports.
- Miami assistant head coach Todd Bowles is scheduled to interview Wednesday with Lions officials, according to Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
- Minnesota backup quarterback Gus Frerotte wants some clarity before agreeing to return to the Vikings next season, writes Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- The unwillingness of Minnesota coach Brad Childress to admit mistakes is reminiscent of former coach Dennis Green, writes Patrick Reusse of the Star Tribune.
Six coaches are out in Green Bay, including the defensive coordinator. The Chicago Bears have paraded a long-time coaching friend through their facility. The Lions are looking for someone to lift them from the NFL's defensive dungeon. Minnesota will be searching for its eighth new coordinator in 11 years if their current defensive leader moves on.
It's clear that we Black and Bluers are in for a defensive overhaul in 2009. The Packers and Lions will each have new defensive coordinators, and possibly new schemes as well. The Bears desperately want former Lions coach Rod Marinelli to join their defensive staff as a trusted advisor, possibly as their new coordinator. And the Vikings could lose defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who will interview for at least two head coaching jobs this week.
Altering the makeup of a coaching staff is an annual rite of the NFL offseason, but this year's intensity is unusual for one division -- especially when only one team has fired its head coach. But 2008 was an especially dreary year for three of your NFC North defenses, and so it's not surprising to learn that no one is standing pat.
We're already getting a pretty good glimpse at Detroit's plans for 2009 and beyond on Day 1 of the offseason. If you're a Lions fan hoping for a complete overhaul following an 0-16 season, you're going to be deeply disappointed.
Although they fired coach Rod Marinelli, the Lions announced the departures of only four assistant coaches. By my count, that means 14 of Marinelli's assistants at least temporarily have jobs. That includes offensive coordinator Jim Colletto, who was re-assigned to offensive line coach, and special teams coordinator Stan Kwan. Two of the fired assistant coaches are directly related to Marinelli: Defensive coordinator Joe Barry, who is Marinelli's son-in-law, and assistant offensive line coach Mike Barry, who is Joe Barry's father.
Owner William Clay Ford also followed through with plans to retain chief operating officer Tom Lewand and interim general manager Martin Mayhew. Lewand was promoted to team president, while Mayhew was given the permanent general manager title. So while Ford said last week that he will add a front-office executive, you have to assume that person's role will be subordinate to Mayhew and thus only marginally impactful. (The firing of Dave Boller, assistant director of pro personnel, provides a clue as to the type of hire the Lions are looking to make.)
A few points can be safely extrapolated from these moves in advance of a late-morning news conference in Detroit:
- It's customary for teams to retain the rights to some assistant coaches immediately following the departure of a head coach. Sometimes the assistants are asked to perform final personnel evaluations for the front office. Occasionally they are interviewed for the head coaching position, and often teams try to protect valued assistants in the event that the new head coach wants to retain them. But to fire only four of 18 assistants, and to re-assign Colletto, makes you wonder whether the Lions will ask the new head coach to take on at least some of them. If that's the case, good luck hiring a dynamic head coach.
- Although Lewand deals mostly with the salary cap and contract issues, it's well known that he has the ear of owners William Clay Ford and Bill Ford Jr. As team president, you can expect Lewand to be intricately involved in every aspect of the Lions' operation. But Lewand faces an inherent paradox: Either he'll have to repudiate everything the Lions have done this decade, of which he played a significant role, or the Lions won't be adopting a new way of doing business.
- Mayhew is a complete unknown as it relates to running football operations. What type of team does he value? How does he evaluate talent? How will he change the way the Lions scout and rank players to avoid their annual draft problems? And what role did Mayhew himself play in those mistakes as the assistant to former general manager Matt Millen? Why would the Lions want any continuity from that era?
- From the outside, I continue to wonder what role cash flow is playing in these moves. The Fords' personal stake in the struggling automobile industry is well-known, as are the Lions' problems in selling out Ford Field this season. Are these moves the best for the organization? Or are they simply the most affordable? Promoting two long-standing members of the front office after the worst eight-year run in NFL history, along with retaining 14 assistant coaches, suggests the latter.
A couple of notable personnel moves already have taken place Tuesday in the NFC North.
In Chicago, the Bears signed receiver Devin Aromashodu off Washington's practice squad and placed defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek on injured reserve. The move, coming during a short practice week, suggests the Bears don't think they'll have receiver Marty Booker for Thursday night's game against New Orleans.
Meanwhile, Detroit cut ties with cornerback Brian Kelly, whom they once hoped to pair with Leigh Bodden as a formidable cornerback duo. But the Lions' failure to utilize Kelly this season -- he was held out of two games for which he was dressed and active -- is but one illustration of the flat-out chaos that has characterized their defense.
In the first game Kelly sat out, Oct. 5 against Chicago, Lions defensive coordinator Joe Barry said he never intended to keep him on the bench for the entire game. After the second instance, Sunday against Minnesota, Lions coach Rod Marinelli attributed it to the use of a three-safety scheme designed to stop Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson.
But as Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press points out, the Lions used Bodden and Travis Fisher as their top two cornerbacks in passing situations. Kelly reportedly was disgruntled with his situation, hastening the move. Can you blame him?
We're not even at the midway point of the season, and already two NFC North coaches are facing questions about the job security of individuals on their coaching staffs.
In Detroit, coach Rod Marinelli was asked Monday if he would consider changing coordinators after an 0-6 start. Marinelli assumed the question pertained to offensive coordinator Jim Colletto (even though defensive coordinator Joe Barry's group has given up more yards than any other NFL team) and said he was not considering a change:
"No -- they have great communication in that room. We go in as an offensive staff and everyone is communicating, and everyone is talking, and all their ideas are left out on the table. So it is a full group working together, and I'll assure you that. We're just not getting it done yet. If I didn't feel it I would, but I think we're all on the same page, and we've just got to coach better, and the players have to play a little bit better."
Later, Marinelli said making an in-season change is "just not me." He added:
"It's just not me. I just feel were doing things right, and when we get that first win, I think we're going to take off. We just got to fight; find a way to get the first win."
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, coach Brad Childress defended special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro, whose group has given up five touchdowns in seven games this season. Two of them came in Sunday's 48-41 loss at Chicago.
Asked if he holds Ferraro accountable for the Vikings' sloppy special teams play, Childress said:
"It all comes back to me. I'm not going to pin it on a coach or a player. It all comes back to me. That's what it is. I'm the guy who has the wins and losses by my record. It's not the special teams guy. It will always all come back to me with wins and losses."
The last time Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson visited Soldier Field, he blew up for 224 yards and three touchdowns. In his return Sunday, however, an entirely different dynamic will be at play.
Peterson enters this game with a case of fumble-itis. He lost a pair of fumbles in last Sunday's 12-10 victory over Detroit and has already matched his 2007 season total by losing three this season. The only NFL tailback with more is Cincinnati's Chris Perry with five.
The Bears, of course, are one of the league's best teams at stripping the ball and their five forced fumbles in 2008 ties them for sixth in the NFL.
Speaking this week to Minnesota reporters, Peterson said he has been "careless" with the ball and knows the Bears will test him to see if he is paying more attention.
"Sometimes you kind of hit yourself upside the head, realize that you need to stop being careless with the ball," Peterson said, according to Kelsie Smith of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "It was kind of like a little wakeup call."
Overall, Peterson has three 100-yard games this season and ranks third in the NFL with 563 yards.
Continuing around the NFC North this morning:
- Bears linebacker Lance Briggs isn't sure what the Bears did to slow down Peterson in the teams' 2007 rematch at the Metrodome, other than to play disciplined defense. In that game, Peterson managed 78 yards on 20 carries. Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times has details.
- The Vikings' two leading receivers are both ex-Bears, as John Mullin of the Chicago Tribune points out. Bobby Wade and Bernard Berrian have combined for 47 receptions.
- One of the first people to recruit linebacker Napoleon Harris to Minnesota was E.J. Henderson, who replaced Harris as the team's middle linebacker after the 2006 season but will miss the rest of this season because of two dislocated toes. Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune recounts the story.
- Green Bay safety Atari Bigby hasn't had any setbacks in his return this week from a hamstring injury, and the Packers haven't given up hope that he could play in some capacity Sunday against Indianapolis. Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette lays out the scenario.
- Packers linebacker Brandon Chillar, the team's only free-agent pickup during the offseason, has cultivated a role as a matchup player against opposing tight ends. Greg A. Bedard of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel spells out Chillar's unique contributions.
- Detroit defensive coordinator Joe Barry said he considers the team's defensive performance at the Metrodome last Sunday to be a "standard" for the way it should play the rest of the season. But as Dave Birkett of the Oakland Press points out, not all players agree. Safety Dwight Smith: "You get caught up being 0-4, 0-5, you look for any ray of light. But I don't live that way. We definitely can build from that game, but by no means do I feel like that should be the standard. That should be the floor. That should be the lowest we can play, what we played last week."
- Lions first-round draft pick Gosder Cherilus on getting benched this week, according to Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com: "I don't know that for sure, but the one thing I know is that I went out there and gave it my best and played very, very hard. I don't have anything to be ashamed about."
That would be a mildly interesting turn of events for the Lions, but I read something much more enlightening in an interview transcript with defensive coordinator Joe Barry. It turns out that veteran cornerback Brian Kelly didn't play last Sunday against Chicago because of a mistake.
As the Lions were giving up a career day to Bears quarterback Kyle Orton, Kelly stood on the sideline in full uniform. Leigh Bodden, Travis Fisher and Kevin Smith manned the cornerback and nickel positions.
Kelly hadn't been officially demoted. Apparently, he just wasn't noticed. Here's how Barry described the situation:
"[W]e wanted to get Keith Smith playing a little bit. We didn't have a plan or a game plan or a scheme that we were going to go in and say, 'Hey, Brian Kelly's not playing.' Unfortunately for Brian, it worked out that way in the sense that he didn't play a down. That was not planned out, it just kind of happened."
Kelly is expected to play against the Vikings. Barry is to be applauded for his honesty, but the admission -- and omission -- isn't a great reflection of a defense that has appeared pretty unorganized. It's also a good way to lose the attention of veteran players, and it's worth noting what Kelly told Dave Birkett of the Oakland Press:
"Obviously I was unhappy with it. I'm suited up to play. If I'm standing there with my T-shirt on and sweats and a Lions cap I know I'm not playing. But I was suited up to play and it didn't work out that way."
Kelly isn't considered a top-flight cornerback anymore, but the Lions signed him in part to set an example for how to play in the Tampa-2 defense. Regardless of the degree to which he has slipped, you don't want to give up 334 passing yards while one of your better coverage men stands on the sideline.
David Haugh's column today on Chicago offensive coordinator Ron Turner got us thinking. (Very dangerous thing, especially early on a Saturday morning, but we digress.)
Bears fans, of course, were ready to run Turner out of town after last season's offensive debacle. But as Haugh points out in the Chicago Tribune, Turner didn't do much differently Sunday night at Indianapolis on the way to 319 offensive yards and 20 points (the defense accounted for nine). Turner did benefit from some players, quarterback Kyle Orton and tailback Matt Forte among them, who might be better fits for his system than their predecessors.
Turner isn't the only NFC North coordinator under the spotlight this season. Here is a look at a few others:
Detroit offensive coordinator Jim Colletto: Last season's offensive line coach, Colletto has been charged with transitioning the team to a more balanced offense this season. It's a tough task on many levels. First, Colletto must teach his lineman and running backs how to function in a zone-blocking scheme that can be jarring for a newcomer. Second, he can't ignore his two biggest weapons -- receivers Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson -- while doing so.
Detroit defensive coordinator Joe Barry: Colletto has gotten plenty of attention because of the Lions' offensive changes, but Barry probably faces more pressure: He must improve the Lions' defense without the benefit of a scheme change. Yes, coach Rod Marinelli brought the "Tampa-2" scheme to Detroit, but Barry has day-to-day responsibilities for a group that allowed 318 rushing yards in the opener. If the defense doesn't make significant improvement, it will be interesting to see whether Lions fans and media hold Barry responsible or direct the blame toward Marinelli.
Packers defensive coordinator Bob Sanders: You don't hear much about Sanders, a 32-year coaching veteran, but he has an important and specific task this year: Improving a pass rush and overall pass defense that struggled in the NFC championship game. There was plenty of offseason discussion about increased blitzes and more creative employment of coverages, but the frequency of both remains to be seen.
Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier: He maintained the NFL's top rushing defense last season, but Frazier fell short in attempts to reverse the Vikings' long-standing deficiencies against the pass. As with Turner and the Bears, the Vikings are hoping personnel -- defensive end Jared Allen, safety Madieu Williams -- can improve results. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers managed a 115.5 rating against them in Week 1, but it's a long season.
Elsewhere around the NFC North:
- Forte on his late addition to the Bears' injury report: "I'll be ready."
- Packers tailback Ryan Grant participated in all of practice Friday and is hopeful of playing a significant role Sunday at Detroit, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press offers some suggestions for getting the ball more often to Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson: Employing him as a kickoff returner, splitting him out as a receiver and directing more passes his way out of the backfield.
- Three of Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield's 18 career interceptions have come against Indianapolis' Peyton Manning, according to Chip Scoggins and Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune. Winfield will have a chance for a fourth Sunday at the Metrodome.
- Lions running back Rudi Johnson likely is expected to play a bigger role Sunday against the Packers than he did last week against Atlanta.
- Lions quarterback Jon Kitna was miffed that the Falcons were throwing the ball at the end of the first half last week. Kitna considered it a show of disrespect to the Lions offense, believing it meant the Falcons weren't concerned about leaving the Lions some time to mount a 2-minute drill if their own drive failed.