Warning: This job hazardous to career

February, 9, 2011
2/09/11
3:17
PM ET
Mike Martz, Todd Haley and Josh McDaniels US PresswireThe NFC West's recent coordinator turnover has included Mike Martz, Todd Haley and Josh McDaniels.
Those over-the-counter drug commercials filled with hope, sunshine and a long list of potentially disastrous side effects come to mind when NFC West teams hire coordinators these days.

Ray Horton, fresh off a Super Bowl appearance and a successful run as the Pittsburgh Steelers' secondary coach, should be thrilled to have emerged as a favorite to run the Arizona Cardinals' defense.

Becoming a coordinator for the first time stands as a career achievement, particularly for someone such as Horton, who has invested more than 25 years as an NFL player and position coach.

But if the NFC West were living under the same guidelines pharmaceutical companies must follow, the Cardinals would punctuate their interview with Horton by listing the primary side effect associated with the job: quick unemployment.

High rate of turnover

NFC West teams have employed 22 coordinators since 2008. Horton would make it 23.

Only four NFC West coordinators are returning from last season.

Two -- Russ Grimm and Mike Miller in Arizona -- divide responsibilities for the running and passing games, respectively. They work under an offensive-minded head coach, Ken Whisenhunt, who has frequently handled the play calling. The division's two other returning coordinators -- St. Louis' Ken Flajole and Seattle's Gus Bradley -- are defensive coordinators under defensive-minded head coaches.

Since 2008, NFC West teams have fired six coordinators. They have decided against retaining five left over from previous staffs. They have lost two to head coaching jobs and allowed another, Greg Manusky in San Francisco, to make a lateral move while the new head coach, Jim Harbaugh, pursued others for his staff.

Four NFC West coordinators are heading into their first season on the job, with Horton potentially becoming the fifth.

The situation in Arizona

Whisenhunt has sought to transfer the Pittsburgh model to Arizona since leaving the Steelers to become the Cardinals' head coach before the 2007 season. Grimm, who coaches the offensive line and running game while serving as assistant head coach, came along with him from Pittsburgh.

[+] EnlargeKen Whisenhunt
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireCardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt is searching for another defensive coordinator.
The Cardinals have twice tried and failed to land Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler as their defensive coordinator. They interviewed Todd Bowles, the assistant head coach and secondary coach for the Miami Dolphins, before the Super Bowl. They reportedly reached out to Green Bay Packers assistant head coach and linebackers coach Winston Moss.

But it's the Pittsburgh model they want to establish in Arizona.

Whisenhunt's background on offense makes him ideally suited to oversee that side of the ball. That offensive background also makes him more reliant on his defensive coordinator to run the defense. Hiring the right defensive coordinator can be critical for an offensive-minded head coach. That is the case here.

Don't forget the players

Horton's immediate boss in Pittsburgh, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, likes to dispel the notion that he's some sort of defensive guru devising novel schemes to outwit less resourceful opponents.

LeBeau provided one of my favorite quotes from Super Bowl week when a reporter asked how he manages to disguise his defenses.

"That’s easy," LeBeau said. "You just get Troy Polamalu in your backfield and he’ll move around and disguise anything you want to do. Usually it works when he’s doing it."

The Steelers have dynamic players at outside linebacker, a position critical to making a 3-4 defense succeed. The Cardinals have gotten old at the position without developing suitable replacements, one reason Bill Davis lasted only two seasons as coordinator.

"The bottom line is always going to be who is playing for you and how good are they," LeBeau said, "because they are the ones, in the final analysis, who are going to go out there and make your defense successful."

Horton's credentials

Whisenhunt and Grimm can tap into their own playing careers when relating to players. I've always sensed that Whisenhunt valued that part of the coaching equation.

Neither of the Cardinals' previous two coordinators under Whisenhunt played in the NFL. Horton, a second-round draft choice in 1983, played six seasons for Cincinnati and four for Dallas, transitioning from cornerback to free safety. Being a former player isn't enough by itself, obviously, but Horton's playing career could make him more credible initially.

And for the first time, Whisenhunt would have a defensive coordinator versed in the Steelers' scheme and mindset.

Horton's background coaching the secondary, as opposed to linebackers, further distinguishes him from his immediate predecessor. It also distinguishes him from most coordinators running a 3-4 scheme under offensive-minded head coaches, a distinction I find relevant because defensive-minded head coaches tend to oversee that side of the ball.

Arizona was among eight NFL teams that went into the 2010 season with an offensive-minded head coach and a defensive coordinator running a 3-4 scheme. Six of the eight defensive coordinators had backgrounds coaching linebackers. One, Romeo Crennel in Cleveland, traced his coaching roots to the defensive line. The Packers' Dom Capers was the only one with a background in the secondary, although he had been a head coach twice before joining Green Bay.

Three-four schemes rely heavily on blitz combinations featuring linebackers. Horton's background coaching the secondary wouldn't preclude him from knowing the ins and outs of linebacker blitzes. At the least, he might approach the defense a little differently than a former linebackers coach might.

"He’s been around the game a lot and he’s won a Super Bowl as a coach and as a player," Polamalu said of Horton. "He’s had so much to do with the success that we’ve had as a secondary."

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