|Brian Garfinkel / Associated Press|
|If the Eagles are to make the playoffs again this season, coordinator Sean McDermott and his defense will be key.|
This time of the year, everyone from owners to fans places the burden of winning on players raising their level of play.
For example a popular refrain might be, if 49ers quarterback Alex Smith does well, then San Francisco will be a playoff team. In another case, if QB Chad Henne improves, the Dolphins will be a contender.
Yet in reality, the burden doesn't just lay with the players. The coaches share in the responsibility to get the most out of the roster.
One of my favorite quotes about the impact of coaching comes from veteran receiver Laveranues Coles during his first stint with the Jets.
"They basically use us as chess pieces. How they position us to play this game, that's the main thing now. Whoever can make the adjustments the best and the fastest will probably have the edge."
Coles gets it. He realizes it's vital that players perform, but perhaps it's more critical that the coaches coach well.
Football today is a chess game, a long enduring one that requires precise adjustments throughout, but especially at halftime and the end of the game. When I watch tape, it often becomes apparent that some coaches, not all, are playing what I call "Battleship Football" -- a nickname which originates from the game Battleship, where each participant has ships that must be hidden along the board and the opponent must guess their location. A correct guess hits the ship, and the more direct hits ultimately will sink the ship, thus winning the game. There is no strategy involved -- just guessing -- hoping to hit a target once and follow that path. This style is similar to calling a game for some coaches (offense and defense) -- hence the nickname.
Chess requires strategy, preparation, anticipation and execution, which are all crucial to every coach. However, in football, it has to happen on three levels -- offense, defense and the kicking game. Most everyone focuses on offensive play-calling, but what about the defensive side? Doesn't that count? No announcer will ever say, "the defensive coordinator has to call a great game today." They focus on offense and figure the defense is guessing. Play-calling, adjustments and thinking quickly during the heat of battle are essential to winning, particularly for the defensive coaches.
Here are three defensive coaches who must rise to the occasion for their teams to succeed.
SEAN MCDERMOTT, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
The hardest situation for any young coach is when he gains a promotion by working through the ranks, learns one system, and then is called upon to coordinate that scheme. The coach is very excited to be promoted, but in reality he should know he doesn't have a broad enough background to handle the challenges that wait in calling the game.
It's not that he isn't qualified for the job, but rather he's not diversified enough in his learning for the promotion. For example, it would be like learning to cook from chef extraordinaire Mario Batali and then being expected to make his same dishes in his same style and then have them all taste exactly the same. Well this happened to Sean McDermott in Philadelphia. Jim Johnson taught McDermott the game, how to coach it and how to call it. Unfortunately, Johnson took a leave of absence last offseason as he fought a cancerous tumor on his spine and died right after the start of training camp, which put McDermott in the top chair. He wanted to be just like Johnson, but he wasn't and neither were the results.
McDermott was in a difficult position. He was taking over for a very popular and highly successful coach in Johnson, who was truly one of the game's best defensive play-callers. McDermott learned that game planning is challenging, but adjustments during the game are even tougher. The Eagles finished 23rd in points allowed on the first possession of the second half. They were the worst team in the league over the last eight games of the season in third quarter points allowed -- clearly an indication that the longer the game is played, the more adjustments are needed.
Johnson loved to blitz and was very creative in attacking opponents' protection schemes, but the Eagles allowed 15 touchdown passes in blitz situations last season, the worst in the league.
Now this is not entirely McDermott's fault. Still, he's the coordinator, and like some of his players, he will need to take his game up a level for the Eagles to win. He has to diversify his knowledge, be willing to expand his call sheet and create his own style within the framework of the Johnson defense. McDermott will need to mature as a coach and player caller and be ready to handle the game adjustments. This improvement will be critical for Philadelphia this season.
ROD MARINELLI, CHICAGO BEARS
Marinelli is known around the league as a master motivator, who can be an inspiration to players as well as inspire them. However, he's now the defensive coordinator in Chicago and will need to do more than motivate -- he will need to be a great chess player and play-caller. The Bears are better on offense; Jay Cutler is a going to improve this season and the unit will score points -- this is not a guess, but something I believe.
For the Bears to make a giant leap in the NFC North, however, they will need to diversify defensively, be more willing to adapt during the game and get more creative in pregame planning.
The Bears used one or two blitzes as their signature pressure packages last season. As the game went along, adjustments weren't made and opponents figured out how to attack the pressure. Head coach Lovie Smith and Marinelli had success during their stint together in Tampa Bay being basic and using superior talent to overwhelm opponents. But that was then and now teams have a greater understanding of how the duo likes to attack.
Quarterbacks had an easy time against the Bears' secondary, throwing 29 touchdowns with a passer rating over 90. As the most alarming statistic, the Bears were behind by 60 points after the first quarter, which ranked 27th in the league. For the Bears to eliminate the mistakes, they can't play from behind. That burden will fall on Marinelli to be creative.
MIKE NOLAN, MIAMI DOLPHINS
The bad news for Nolan is that he takes over a unit that allowed 57 pass plays over 20 yards. The good news is the offense was the seventh best at controlling the football, which means less time playing defense. Coach Tony Sparano switched defensive coordinators this offseason, bringing Nolan in to replace Paul Pasqualoni, who many felt wasn't able to make game-time adjustments as a first-time coordinator (the basis for this column).
Nolan is an experienced coordinator who will help the Dolphins with his ability as a play-caller, especially at critical points in the game. Nolan will be looked upon to make the right call at the right time, to keep from giving up leads late as they did in losses to the Saints and Colts last season. If the Dolphins win the AFC East, it will be because Nolan made the difference.
STATS I THINK ABOUT ...
Winning requires having a defense built to perform at the end of each half. Oftentimes, when a team doesn't win the toss and allows points at the close of the first half, they face the daunting task of overcoming a large deficit. If a team prevents scores at the end of the half, and then gets the ball to add to their lead, they can put the game away.
Here's how the league stacks up in preventing scores on the final drive at the end of the half.
Wonder why McDermott is facing pressure to improve the Eagles' defense? Philly finished last in this category.
NEWS AROUND THE LEAGUE ...
» With Wes Welker now back on the active list for the Patriots, I wouldn't expect to see him in the preseason until the third game. Welker looked very good this week running routes with the trainers and appears to be ready, especially for the opener against Cincinnati.
» Spending the day around the Patriots, I was very impressed with many of their young players, particularly safety Pat Chung and cornerback Darius Butler. With a very healthy Jerod Mayo at linebacker New England is much faster, and more athletic on defense.
» Before everyone gets too excited about the new dynamic duo in Cincinnati, Terrell Owens finished 76th in yards gained after the catch and Chad Ochocinco was 83rd. Both were once great receivers, and both are now good players, with Owens having trouble getting away from press coverage.
» I wonder why Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill didn't just sign their restricted tenders of over $3 million and not report to camp. The fine for missing camp is $15,000 per day, which would be less of a reduction than the one both took for not signing their tenders. Both players could have missed 30 days and still been around $2.5 million in salary, instead of being well under a million. It makes no sense to me.
» Speaking of wondering, how will the players react to general manager Mike Tannenbaum getting a five-year extension? What message did that send to the locker room?
» The Ravens were already light at corner before losing Domonique Foxworth for the season. The injury is a huge obstacle to overcome considering three good man-to-man corners are needed against division rivals Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
» The rest of the first round should fill in soon, with the exception of Jacksonville, Buffalo and Cincinnati, which might take much more time.
» I'm excited about this upcoming Hall of Fame inductions this week. Jerry Rice was part of the first draft room I ever worked in and I'll share some special memories all this week.
Follow me on Twitter at @michaelombardi