First, the Titans don’t necessarily have to go out and hire an “offensive guru” or a — heaven forbid — “quarterback whisperer” with their upcoming head coaching hire. It is far more important for them to get a good “leader of men” as Jon Robinson said in yesterday’s press conference. A franchise quarterback can thrive under a defensive-minded head coach just as well as they can under an offensive coach. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin. Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll. Troy Aikman and Jimmy Johnson. All those Super Bowl winning pairings featured a defensive head coach with a star quarterback. They were all wildly successful.
So if the Titans go on to hire Mike Vrabel or Steve Wilks — two of the names that have already been linked to interviews with the team — you won’t find me panicking about Marcus Mariota’s future by any means. I believe getting the right person is far more important that getting the right type of person.
With presumed favorite Josh McDaniels reportedly heading to the Colts and Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur reportedly heading to the Giants, the list of available, qualified, defensive-minded head coaching candidates is currently much longer than the list for the other side of the ball.
That being said, there are still two young offensive minds that I think would be excellent fits for this franchise and Marcus Mariota: Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo and Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur (LaFleur is scheduled to interview with the team on Thursday). Both guys are well-respected around the league and offer a progressive approach to offense that would fit the Titans current personnel, and most importantly, quarterback Marcus Mariota. Here is what you need to know about each guy.
DeFilippo, or “Coach Flip” as he’s known around the league, is currently the quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles and is largely credited with the development of Carson Wentz from a small-school prospect to a leading MVP candidate over the last two years. He was important enough to Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie that he blocked an attempt by the Jets to interview DeFilippo for their offensive coordinator position. He is a high-energy guy with an extreme work ethic and a history of getting the best out of quarterbacks — even though his other pupils haven’t been as talented as Wentz.
A former college quarterback at James Madison University, DeFilippo broke in to the NFL in 2005 as part of the Tom Coughlin Giants’ quality control staff. In 2007, he was hired on to Lane Kiffin’s first staff in Oakland as the quarterbacks coach. There, he was tasked with the challenge of turning JaMarcus Russell in to an NFL quarterback as Russell was drafted the same year he came on board. The Raiders QB produced his best season as a pro — to be fair, this bar is impossibly low — under DeFilippo’s watch in 2008 before completely falling apart after Flip moved on to take the same role with the Jets. In 2009 Rex Ryan and the Jets gave him another rookie quarterback to work with in Mark Sanchez. While Sanchez was far from great in his first year, he did manage to get out of the defense’s way enough to get the Jets to the AFC Championship game that season.
The next year saw DeFilippo return to the college coaching ranks, taking a job on Mike MacIntyre’s San Jose State staff where he helped David Fales go from a two-star JUCO transfer to a 6th round pick of the Bears — Fales is now a backup QB in Miami where he took over for an injured Jay Cutler in Week 17.
After two years there, he went back to the Raiders as the QB coach for Dennis Allen. While there, he worked with one season of Carson Palmer, a mishmash year of Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin, and then Derek Carr’s rookie season. While the Raiders were bad in 2014, Carr’s rookie year was considered a smashing success and that led DeFilippo to getting a promotion as the offensive coordinator in Cleveland under Mike Pettine. In his one season as the playcaller for the Browns, he managed to get a 4,000 yard passing season out of a combination of Josh McCown, Johnny Manziel (another rookie), and Austin Davis.
After Pettine’s ejection as Browns coach following the 2015 season, Flip caught on with the Eagles where he’s since mentored Carson Wentz’s meteoric rise. Benjamin Solak at Bleeding Green Nation wrote a great profile on DeFilippo last month which I’ve linked previously, but here it is again in case you missed it. In the piece, the 40-year old coach is described as a “workaholic” who has boundless energy and an obsession with football. He also cites character as the foundation for everything at the quarterback position.
“If you don’t have great character playing the quarterback position in the NFL, you have no chance for success.”
Think he’d love to coach Marcus Mariota?
You can pick holes in his track record as a coach — three former first round quarterbacks who he coached in their rookie year turned in to busts, his stints at the Raiders, Jets, and Browns never really produced a prolific offense — but if you watch and listen to this guy talk about football you can’t help but believe in him.
Listen to the detail that he goes in to in this video. A 7-minute clip leaves you feeling like you’re ready to go run those plays. You can see his skill and passion as a teacher at work. And this is just a video for the team website, imagine what this guy is like in the quarterback meeting room.
In my research on him, the words that come up most often are “character”, “work ethic”, “teacher”, “detailed”, and “communicator”. That sounds like an awfully good fit for a coach charged with molding a young team.
DeFilippo has spent the past two years working in an offensive system that Mariota would thrive in. Doug Pederson has done a masterful job of blending some concepts from Carson Wentz’s college offense at North Dakota State with the west coast passing concepts he picked up from working under Andy Reid. It’s not hard to see DeFilippo taking a similar approach with Marcus Mariota and we’ve seen a glimpse of what Mariota can do in an offense similar to that during the comeback in KC. That is a match made in football heaven to me.
Because the Eagles are playing in the NFC Championship game this weekend, the Titans can’t set up an interview with DeFilippo until after his team has been eliminated from the playoffs. If his team advances to the Super Bowl, his timeline will get pretty dicey due to a very strange rule which prohibits teams from requesting an initial interview from a coach who is still in the playoffs after the divisional round, but for some reason second interviews are OK. That means an Eagles win pushes back the earliest possible DeFilippo interview with the Titans to February 5th, the day after the Super Bowl. That’s a long time to wait, but considering the fact that the Cardinals are the only other team without a reported dance partner, the Titans may decide that waiting a couple extra weeks won’t hurt too much. The real downside would be other staffs filling up with assistants while they wait and weakening the pool of coaches their eventual choice has available. With Shurmur appearing to be a lock for the Giants job at this point, we should all be rooting for the Vikings to end the Eagles’ season on Sunday so DeFilippo can sit down with Jon Robinson ASAP.
The biggest question mark for me with Coach Flip is his coaching staff. I scoured his coaching record for hints about who his defensive coordinator might be and there were some big names.
The obvious and most exciting one is obviously current Eagles defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz. Schwartz was the Titans’ DC from 2001 to 2008 and presided over many of the best defenses in team history. He also still lives in Nashville and occasionally will make comments in interviews hinting that he’d like to one day work here again. However, its not all up to him. First, would the Eagles let Schwartz out of his contract to pursue a lateral move? They can block him from interviewing for any position but head coach, however they may be more willing to let him walk than you might think if you believe reports of him attempting to undermine head coach Doug Pederson this offseason. Of course that also raises the question of whether Schwartz would want to take another coordinating job — particularly one working under a coach I’m sure he feels is less qualified than he is — and if DeFilippo would want that potentially divisive presence on his staff. Schwartz is a phenomenal defensive coach, but I think this is a pipe dream.
The two other big names that have crossed DeFilippo’s path at previous stops are also current Nashville residents — Rex and Rob Ryan. Rob was the defensive coordinator in Flip’s first stop in Oakland, while Rex was the head coach that hired him in New York in 2009. You may roll your eyes at this thought, but Rex Ryan was always a lights out defensive coach (Rob? Not so much). Would Rex give up his cushy life of being a terrible commentator for ESPN and smashing cars at Preds games to do something he used to be really good at? I tend to doubt it, but its an interesting thought.
Two of the more realistic names that popped up in my search were former Browns head coach Mike Pettine and former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen, however both those guys are current defensive coordinators for the Packers and Saints, respectively, and would have to get clearance from their teams to interview for a lateral move. The Saints aren’t letting Allen walk after his tremendous year in New Orleans and Pettine just got hired in Green Bay so those guys are probably unavailable for Flip.
However, DeFilippo doesn’t necessarily have to bring someone that he has worked with previously. One unattached defensive coordinator that I would like to see as part of his potential staff is former Cardinals DC James Bettcher, assuming he doesn’t stick around Arizona with their new head coach. He could also consider dipping in to the college ranks for a top coordinator like Clemson’s Brent Venables. Both Pagano brothers are now both unemployed thanks to coaching overhauls in Oakland and Indianapolis. While many Titans fans would be less than thrilled with the idea of Chuck Pagano here due to his time as head coach with the Colts, he was a very successful defensive coordinator prior to getting that job and nobody would be able to give you a better road map to stopping Andrew Luck than his former head coach.
Flip could also consider keeping Dick LeBeau, but I’m not sure that LeBeau would be willing to work under a coach he doesn’t know and is less than half his age. I’m also not sure that continuing with LeBeau is the best fit for the Titans. Yes, he’s a legend and an incredible human being, but the dirty little secret here is that his defenses flat out haven’t been getting it done in Tennessee, never finishing higher than 21st in defensive DVOA since arriving in 2015. You can point to talent level — and that’s fair — but this defense still no-shows far too often. They did take small steps this year, but the total collapse against New England showed how far they still have to go. No one expects to shut down the Patriots, but the Titans defense was barely a speed bump for Tom Brady’s methodical marches towards the end zone.
DeFilippo’s plan for filling out his coaching staff is potentially the biggest stumbling block I see for him as a coaching candidate, but if he can put together a few key pieces I think he becomes the strongest option for the Titans. He’s a proven developer of quarterbacks, a progressive offensive mind, and someone with all the personality traits that you could want in a head coach. I’m sold on Coach Flip.
LaFleur’s background is not that much different than DeFilippo’s. He’s a 38-year old, up and coming offensive coach with a background of developing quarterbacks. He currently serves as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator for the Rams, but his track record may be even more impressive than Coach Flip’s.
Before we get in to his coaching stops, LaFleur had a bit of an interesting playing career. He played wide receiver at Western Michigan — like a certain current Titans receiver — for two years before transferring to Saginaw Valley State and playing quarterback there from 2000 to 2002. He went on to play a couple years in the National Indoor Football League for the Omaha Beef and the Billings Outlaws before starting his coaching career.
After bouncing around several small schools he got his NFL break in 2008 with the Texans as an offensive quality control coach under head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — this is important.
In 2010, Mike Shanahan returns to the coaching ranks as the head man in Washington and summons his son, Kyle, to D.C. to be his offensive coordinator. The younger Shanahan brings LaFleur along and offers him a promotion to be his quarterbacks coach. This is also where the young coach first met Sean McVay. In his first season overseeing the QB room, LaFleur is given a 34-year old, washed up Donovan McNabb and a 30-year old, also washed up Rex Grossman to work with. Those two combine for over 4,000 yards, but they toss 19 picks as well. The next season was similar with Grossman continuing to put up big yardage while more than occassionally throwing to the wrong team.
Before the 2012 season, Washington traded up for Robert Griffin III and he went on to put together one of the best seasons for a rookie quarterback in the history of the sport under the guidance of LaFleur before tearing multiple ligaments in his knee in a playoff game. RGIII rushed back to start Week 1 in 2013 but was clearly hampered by his lingering knee trouble and struggled through a disastrous season.
Mike Shanahan was ousted after the season and Kyle went on to take the Browns offensive coordinator position on Mike Pettine’s staff for a season, but LaFleur split away from his partner in crime for the first time since 2008 to become the quarterbacks coach for Notre Dame. While in South Bend, he primarily worked with senior starter Everett Golson who put up his best statistical season on campus, throwing for 3,445 yards and 29 passing touchdowns to go with his 283 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground.
One year later, Kyle Shanahan leaves Cleveland to take over as Dan Quinn’s offensive coordinator in Atlanta and he brings LaFleur along again. In 2015 the Falcons see some incremental improvement overall, but the offense really takes off in 2016 as they become the #1 offense in football and nearly take home the sport’s biggest prize.
When Shanahan left to take the 49ers head job last offseason many expected LaFleur to join him as his offensive coordinator, but Shanahan opted not to name an OC, instead taking on those duties himself. However, when his former Redskins colleague, Sean McVay, got hired in LA, he asked LaFleur to join him there as offensive coordinator — though McVay retained playcalling duties.
Rams QB Jared Goff obviously made an enormous leap from a disastrous rookie season in 2016 to a division title in 2017. LaFleur has been credited with some of that progress, but McVay gets the lion’s share.
The big concern for many with LaFleur is his lack of playcalling experience. He has only called plays once in his coaching career — at Ashland University in 2007. And its hard to separate his success from the successes of Shanahan and McVay. We do know that he has earned the trust and respect of two of the brightest young coaches in the NFL, but can he succeed on his own?
I’m far less convinced by LaFleur than I am DeFilippo, despite very similar resumes. For one, he is not the polished communicator that Flip is. Here are a couple videos to show what I’m talking about in both a coaching setting and a media setting.
I’m not going to rule out a coach because of a couple YouTube videos, but I think it’s fair to point out that LaFleur simply doesn’t exude the same confidence and swagger that DeFilippo does. I think that kind of stuff is important when Jon Robinson says he’s looking for a “leader of men”.
On the other hand, the big plus for LaFleur is that its hard to beat working under Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay for most of the last 10 years when it comes to learning modern NFL offense. He is clearly well-respected in those circles as he keeps showing up on the staffs of the hottest young offensive coaches in the league. Shanahan and McVay both like to run balanced west coast offenses and that’s almost certainly what LaFleur would try to build around here. He also has experience blending some college style spread concepts with a pro-style attack from his time in Washington. The Redskins famously modified their offense during RG3’s rookie year to maximize his skill set and make his transition to the NFL easier. That type of scheme flexibility is exactly what we’ve been asking for from the Titans over the past two years. LaFleur has been a part of a staff that had unbelievable success with that.
One other advantage for the Rams OC is his connection to possible defensive coordinator candidates. He has crossed paths with former successful DCs Raheem Morris (currently the Falcons WR coach) and Jim Haslett (currently the Bengals LB coach) during his time in Washington — that early 2010s staff Mike Shanahan had there was ridiculously good. However, like DeFilippo, he could also consider bringing in a defensive mind that he hasn’t worked with directly.
LaFleur is reportedly interviewing with the Titans on Thursday this week so he is officially in the mix. We will have to wait and see how this weekend’s Eagles-Vikings game turns out before we know when DeFilippo might be available to chat with Jon Robinson. I think these two guys represent the best remaining options on the offensive side of the ball — assuming there are no surprises from what has been reported so far.
One wrinkle with both these guys is that even if they don’t wind getting the head job, both would be prime offensive coordinator candidates if the Titans go with a defensive-minded head coach like Vrabel or Wilks (who also both have confirmed interviews scheduled with the team). DeFilippo was blocked by Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie from pursuing the OC job for the Jets this past offseason, but his contract is up at the end of this season so he will be free to take any job he would like. LaFleur could also be allowed to leave if given the opportunity to take playcalling duties at his next stop. It seems unlikely that Sean McVay would attempt to block his long time colleague from taking the next step in his career if such an offer came.
I would expect DeFilippo to be a head coach sooner than later so if you want him long term you really need to make him the head coach now. I’m all aboard with Coach Flip here. I would prefer him as head coach, but would be thrilled to get him as offensive coordinator as well if they decide to go with a defensive head coach.
I think LaFleur is a strong candidate as well, but my preference would be to have him here as offensive coordinator rather than head coach. I’m just not sure he has the demeanor and presence of a head coach right now. That kind of stuff is important in this role.
What do you guys think about these two?