Ray Horton gleans lessons from the sky

September, 3, 2014
9/03/14
12:25
PM ET
Ray HortonCourtesy of Matt LehtiFlight instructor Matt Lehti (left) teaches Ray Horton how to fly a single-engine plane in 2011.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- From the coaching box looking down over the Tennessee Titans' defense, coordinator Ray Horton can see it all.

That all-22 view of a football game unfolding is important to him as he relays signals to his defense.

It's nothing, however, compared to a view from 3,500 feet he enjoys a couple times a week in the offseason when he can.

Horton is a licensed pilot, who has taken a lot from how he was taught to fly in 2011, and in turn used it as he's taught the Titans a new 3-4 scheme based on principles of long-time Steelers coordinator and Pro Football Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau.

"Everything is simple if you understand it," said Horton, who figured it's going to take the Titans' defense until about Week 4 to have a full grasp of what he's asking. "Flying a plane? Are you kidding me? I know how it works, but way back when I just knew it was up in the air. I didn't know how it was. But I learned to fly. It was complicated to me, but it's simple to me now.

"If you're a doctor doing brain surgery. That would be tough for me. But I think if I learned it, I could probably do it. It's simple if you understand it. And that's our job, to get them to understand it."

Horton set out to learn to fly a single engine plan at Chandler Municipal Airport about 20 miles southeast of Phoenix in the offseason of 2011, during the NFL's lockout.

He struck up a friendship with his instructor, Matt Lehti.

The coach was really impressed by Lehti's ability to make something as complicated as flying so digestible. Horton compliments Lehti's teaching style and has used learning to fly as an example in the classroom in front of the Cardinals in 2011, the Browns in 2013 and the Titans this summer.

Horton was a good student, Lehti remembers.

Chandler is a busy airport, so students have to juggle the mechanics of flying with a lot of communication with the control tower. Everyone struggles with that early on, Lehti said, and Horton was no different. Once he got the hang of it, he was then "off to the races."

The idea that Horton might refer to Lehti as the Titans talk defense is gratifying to a guy who's been teaching flying for about 10 years.

"I've heard him say it before, that I made him a better coach; I don't know if that's true or not," said Lehti, who pointed out that his team, the Packers, beat Horton's Steelers in the Super Bowl the year before they met. "It's very flattering to me. I've got a lot of respect for Ray, I've got a lot of respect for everybody in the NFL. I'm a huge NFL fan.

[+] EnlargeRay Horton
Courtesy Matt LehtiDefensive coordinator Ray Horton often draws comparisons to the complexities of learning to fly and learning an NFL playbook for his players.
"To know that he is kind of invoking my name, as you put it, I'm proud of that, absolutely. That's something that's really cool."

Players respect that Horton, who was an NFL cornerback, has been in their position recently. More recently, he was a student learning something complex.

"As a pilot, there are different situations that are going to arise in the cockpit," veteran safety George Wilson said. "And there is a playbook or a manual that that pilot has to be mindful of or has to know what protocols to follow in order to make sure the situation has a favorable outcome.

"For us, it's the same thing on the football field. There are situations that are going to arise, we have a playbook, we have a manual, that we have to refer to. We have to be mindful of the things that we covered and talked about in the meeting room, on the practice field. So that when those situations arise, we know the protocols to follow so that that situation ends in a favorable outcome for us.

"There are a lot of parallels."

Horton has a more balanced life than a lot of football coaches. He's got a lot of outside interests. He's big on time management.

During the season, he's focused on the offenses he's trying to slow down. Most defensive coordinators simply concede they just don't have time to see what other defenses in the league are doing.

Horton found a small easy way to check in at least a little.

During offensive periods at practice, rather than sitting back, he runs the scout team defense. That gives him a look at the defense the Titans are about to face. It's regarded as menial work by many in his position. But Horton gets in the defensive scout team huddle and holds up the card from which players learn what to do before a play.

He's not currently flying a plane, as he's not certified to do so in Tennessee and the team is in season.

Still, the Titans know he's seen things from a vastly different perspective, and believe in his view of the big picture.

"I trust Ray," Wilson said. "I trust his leadership, I trust everything that he says. I would be just as comfortable up in his airplane as I would getting on a Delta flight."

Paul Kuharsky | email

ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter

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