Assistant Coach of the Year? Robert Saleh tops competitive field


Each week between now and Super Bowl LIV, Marc Sessler will scan the NFL landscape for people, places and things -- events both evil and just, noble and impure, delightful and inglorious, filled with wise men and anti-heroes -- that burn bright on his radar.

Here's this week's briefing:

Good morning from Los Angeles, where the fog of Week 7 gives way to a cloudless horizon of possibilities for the latter half of this NFL campaign.

One team will be crowned king -- and one player MVP -- but from where I sit and tap out this communiqué on my company-issued laptop, no greater honor exists than the ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR award.

You might disagree, but the accolade itself doubles as a crystal ball for future league business. Since the award was launched in 2014 (about 80 years too late IMHO) four of the five winners went on to become head coaches, with the only exception being Wade Phillips, a three-time lead man who, at age 72, appears surface-level content to spin chaos as a coordinator.

This year's race for ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR honors is thick with challengers. A few of these entries are bound to melt away as teams fall apart, while new names will emerge. As of this writing, here's my nonscientific pecking order:

Cream-of-the-crop, wind-beneath-my-wings clubhouse leaders for the vaunted ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR (ACOY) trophy:

1) Robert Saleh, defensive coordinator, San Francisco 49ers: San Francisco's defensive play-caller is living the reality all assistants dream of: In the course of a game, Saleh's name is mentioned roughly 20 to 25 times by the likes of Troy Aikman, Tony Romo or fill-in-the-blank broadcaster crooning over his handiwork. The praise is just, as Saleh has the Niners whirling into weekly action as a star-flushed cadre that sucks the life out of enemies. His stock was down a year ago when the 49ers set an ugly league record with just seven takeaways all season, but the switch has flipped in 2019, with Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Nick Bosa and offseason trade acquisition Dee Ford joining Pro Bowler DeForest Buckner and breakout disrupter Arik Armstead to comprise a ferocious front.

Riding a high that's seen the Niners allow seven or fewer points in three straight tilts and just 98 passing yards over the past two games combined, Saleh's glistening dome and sideline fist-pumping act have become a centerpiece of televised Sunday action. He's got three more months TOPS in chilled-out NorCal before another club swoops in and makes him The Guy. Saleh is your easy leader in the clubhouse to see the ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR golden wreath placed upon his brow.

2) Dennis Allen, defensive coordinator, New Orleans Saints: It feels like eons ago when a befuddled Allen wandered up and down the Raiders sideline guiding Oakland to an 8-28 record over three seasons. The jettisoned head coach landed on his feet in New Orleans in 2015 and deserves more attention for his work with a Saints defense currently operating as the neighborhood bully. Pro Bowler Cam Jordan fronts a line allowing a measly 58 yards rushing per tilt over the past month and just 17 to the Bears in Sunday's knockout punch of Chicago. Allen's defense flat-out embarrasses opponents. When his crew shut down the Cowboys in Week 4, Dallas talk radio lit up with questions over the real-life prowess of heavily celebrated coordinator Kellen Moore. The Saints also forced mustachioed icon Gardner Minshew into his quietest performance of the year before leaving Chicago a tattered mess on Sunday amid questions over the future of low-ceiling flinger Mitchell Trubisky.

After years of the Saints operating as a Drew Brees-led points machine forced to tug the defense along for the ride, Allen has helped alter the identity of the franchise. To get past New Orleans in 2019, you're being asked to win a middle-of-the-night alley brawl with a gang of behemoths dressed in black, white and old gold.

3) Mike Pettine, defensive coordinator, Green Bay Packers: Pettine is another example of the coordinator role serving as a proven comeback trail for former head coaches who tumbled out of sight. I interviewed Pettine in 2016, when he was jobless and wondering about his future after a failed head-coaching stint with the Browns. Instead of grabbing any role he could, Pettine took the equivalent of a sabbatical year to reconnect with family, build a log cabin from scratch in the Ohio wilds (for real) and watch the NFL from a distance.

"There's kind of that fear of the unknown of, 'Wow, if I step away from football for a year, is that going to hurt my chances to get back in?' " Pettine acknowledged at the time.

That exodus, though, also provided a "30,000-foot view of the league," with Pettine saying he was "exposed to more ideas and what's working and what's not working. And you also get a better sense of the personnel around the league."

Perhaps more coaches should consider a sabbatical after seeing the results. Pettine has returned to the NFL and brought life to a Packers defense that desperately needed a jolt after a thousand Januarys ended with network cameras cutting away to show ex-coordinator Dom Capers staring into the void high above a Green Bay playoff collapse. Prior to this season, Pettine's second on the job, the Packers' front office helped by adding free-agent, pass-rushing home runs Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith and drafting a plug-and-play Pro Bowl talent in safety Darnell Savage. Jaire Alexander, meanwhile, is the kind of cover man Pettine dreams about.

These awards are narrative-driven. While Pettine deserves every bit of praise he garners, it helps that whenever first-year head coach Matt LaFleur's name arises, the conversation quickly turns to his defensive coordinator. The Packers are rolling through the schedule with balance on both sides of the ball. That's a new feeling in Green Bay, and Pettine has made all the difference.

4) Leslie Frazier, defensive coordinator, Buffalo Bills: Frazier fizzled out as head coach of the Vikings, but his Bills defense is all the rage. Sunday's 31-21 win over the out-to-lunch Fins actually marked the first time a Buffalo opponent has cleared 17 points this season. The Bills have stymied challengers with a sticky secondary led by Tre'Davious White, Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. Edge rusher Jerry Hughes is off to another strong campaign, while rookie lineman Ed Oliver fits right into a scheme dreamt up by Frazier and head coach Sean McDermott.

I'm placing Frazier a notch below Pettine because of McDermott's presence in Buffalo. A defensive coordinator thriving under a defensive-minded coach raises the question: Who actually spins the magic here?

Also in the running for ACOY prizes and glory:

5) Greg Roman, offensive coordinator, Baltimore Ravens: Baltimore's offense is a weekly must-watch because of how Roman deploys uber-athletic signal-caller Lamar Jackson. While not shying away from the pass, Roman isn't afraid to unleash his quarterback against cowed defenses to the tune of 576 ground yards on the year, the most by any passer over seven outings since 1950. Jackson's 116 yards rushing against Seattle on Sunday marked the third time he's single-handedly outgained an opponent on the ground this season.

Roman's black-and-blue attack has churned out 309 more rushing yards than the next-closest club and sits on pace to finish at 200-plus yards per game on the ground. This is the same play-caller who unleashed Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, an era that comes to mind when Baltimore blisters teams with an array of heavy sets, shifts and formations that feel spun from another age. Roman makes football fun to watch and isn't afraid to zig when the league is zagging toward pass-happy netherworlds.

6) Kellen Moore, offensive coordinator, Dallas Cowboys: Moore would have been a lock for prestigious ACOY honors if the season had ended after Week 3. A whopping 97 points scored during a 3-0 romp to start the campaign had the 31-year-old play-caller strutting across the NFL landscape as a child genius laying waste to the old boys club. A swarm of injuries amid three straight losses -- including a 10-point bust against the Saints' defense in Week 4 -- shoved Moore's name into the background. He's back in business, though, after Dallas dropped a 37-10 bomb on the Eagles in front of a national audience. The brainy son of a coach, Moore's story is ultra-compelling. If the offense stays hot, he climbs this list in a hurry.

7) Chuck Pagano, defensive coordinator, Chicago Bears: Pagano deserves credit for keeping Chicago's defense chugging after the departure of Vic Fangio. It was always a tall order to expect this year's incarnation to dial up turnovers and defensive touchdowns at the same rate we witnessed in 2018. Giving up a combined 58 points and 800-plus yards in back-to-back flops against the Raiders and Saints doesn't help -- and neither does a paint-by-numbers Bears offense that resembled the helpless subject of a CIA mind-control project in Sunday's meltdown against Sean Payton and friends.

Honorable mention: Eric Washington, DC, Carolina Panthers; Dean Pees, DC, Tennessee Titans; Eric Bieniemy, OC, Kansas City Chiefs; Kevin Stefanski, OC, Minnesota Vikings; Josh McDaniels, OC, New England Patriots; John DeFilippo, OC, Jacksonville Jaguars; Norv Turner, OC, Carolina Panthers.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSessler.

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