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Offensive Coordinator vs. Defensive Coordinator: Does It Matter?

Should the Titans be looking for a former offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, or neither to fill their head coaching vacancy?

Seattle Seahawks v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Wanted: Head Coach, Tennessee Titans

The Tennessee Titans are seeking a head coach for the 2018 season and beyond. The ideal candidate is a great leader of men, has a team-first attitude, is dependable and tough, organized and detail-oriented. Must possess the ability to maximize the skills of the players, both currently on the roster and to be added in the future. Candidate should be flexible, willing to adapt, and be able to work well with others. At least 5 years experience coaching professional football preferred.

That’s how I imagine Jon Robinson’s job listing for the now vacant head coaching position would look, based on his press conference from Monday.

(on what qualities he’s looking for the new head coach to have)

Leader of men. Obviously, the things that are stamped out there on those pillars, team-first, detailed, tough, dependable. One that’s going to, like I said, maximize the abilities of the players in all three phases of the game.

The three buzz-phrases that sum up the type of person Robinson is seeking are: “leader of men,” “team-first, detailed, tough, dependable,” and “maximize the abilities of the players.”

To me, these qualities are more important than being a successful coordinator. Sure, Sean McVay and Kyle Shannahan have found early success as head coaches after guiding very productive offenses, but as Trevor pointed out in his endorsement of Mike Vrabel, the Hue Jacksons (1-31) of the world are far more common.

Coordinator experience aside, McVay and Shannahan both appear to be great leaders of men (McVay especially) with their ability to command a room. They are extremely detailed. And they have indisputably figured out how to maximize the abilities of their players. The “successful coordinator” part is a nice resume bullet point, but it’s not why they have been “successful” head coaches (it’s only been one year, after all).

As evidenced by the initial interviews the Titans have lined up, Robinson is showing no preference towards one side of the ball or the other. The Titans met with Panthers’ Defensive Coordinator Steve Wilks and Texans’ Defensive Coordinator Mike Vrabel on Thursday, and Rams’ Offensive Coordinator Matt LaFleur sat down with the team on Friday.

Jommy recently wrote his 3 things I am looking for in the next Titans head coach article, which discusses important traits he would like to see in the next head coach.

I want to take an opportunity to express my initial thoughts on the Titans head coaching search as I walk through the improvements that we should expect to see with the new head coach regardless of their background. Along the way, I’ll compare and contrast the effects of hiring an offensive coordinator versus a defensive coordinator. If the next head coach fails to bring any of these elements, they shouldn’t be hired for the job in the first place.

Expected Areas of Improvement

There are many who feel that the Titans need to hire an “offensive-minded head coach” to replace Mike Mularkey for the sake of Marcus Mariota’s success.

I think a defensive-minded candidate would be required to fill his offensive coordinator position with a brilliant offensive mind, so that point is pretty moot to me.

So where are the Titans going to get better with their next head coach?

A Potent Offensive Attack

An offensive coach like Matt LaFleur would presumably be great for our young quarterback. After all, he was with RGIII during his all-time rookie season. He was Matt Ryan’s positional coach for the MVP campaign. And he was part of the Rams offensive brain trust that took Jared Goff’s offense from 32nd in the NFL in points scored in 2016 to 1st in the NFL in points scored in 2017.

This is the kind of improvement you’d expect to see on the offensive side of the ball with the new head coach, whether it be LaFleur or someone else. They would hopefully install a “quarterback-friendly” system that allows the skill players to take advantage of their talents, devise schemes that create and exploit mismatches, and form an offensive attack that opposing teams fear.

Obviously, with a defensive head coach, you would have to be confident they will bring in someone to run the other side of the ball in an effective way. It would be more of a gamble in this regard to hire someone from the defensive side of the ball.

The offense has talented players on it already. They’ve showed flashes of their potential. The next head coach should take advantage of that potential and allow these players to take the next step in developing consistency.

Marcus Mariota’s Development

I just talked about LaFleur’s success working with quarterbacks in the past. It is unknown how much of the credit for that success is due to him. Regardless, you’d better believe Robinson and Co. will hire someone with a good reputation for working with and developing quarterbacks, regardless of if that is the head coach or the offensive coordinator.

Greg Cosell said some interesting things on Wednesday on his weekly appearance on the Midday 180 regarding Marcus Mariota’s development. Cosell has a much more objective view of Mariota than any of us could possibly have, so I want to talk about some of the flaws he pointed out in Mariota’s game.

While acknowledging that he thinks Mariota is “talented,” Cosell also discussed the young quarterback’s tendency to drift to one side in his drop-backs and his inconsistency synchronizing his lower body movements with his upper body. These problems can lead to self-created pressure and inaccurate throws.

Both of these flaws were on display when Mariota threw his first interception (of four) against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Fast motion and slow motion views of Mariota’s first interception versus Pittsburgh (NFL Gamepass).

Watch how Mariota drifts slightly to his left during his drop-back (notice where his feet land in relation to the hash marks). In this particular example, Mariota doesn’t walk into pressure or make things harder on himself, but the tendency to drift is apparent.

More importantly, when he begins to throw, notice how Mariota plants his front foot a little short and a little ahead - he doesn’t quite step all the way into this throw - of releasing the ball.

Mariota is slightly off balance and leaning a little to his left because his footing is not set properly. This causes the ball to leave his hand ahead of the ideal release point and thus sail over his target (literally Mariota’s worst miss of his entire career) and into the arms of the waiting Steelers’ safety.

Cosell went on to say that these flaws are very coachable and that Mariota could see drastic improvement in these areas with a solid offseasons’s worth of work.

The fact that these problems weren’t coached out of Mariota is an indictment of Jason Michael and Mularkey’s entire offensive staff, but that is a hand-wringing best saved for another day.

Mariota undergoes stretches where he looks like the “next big thing” at quarterback, but the inconsistency in his performances is what is keeping him from reaching that next level. If he can be coached up to eliminate the flaws that create the inconsistencies, he has a chance to be a truly special player in this league.

Marcus Mariota is about to be on his third offensive coordinator in four years. That is usually a recipe for disaster when it comes to a young quarterback’s development. With no consistency to build off of from year to year, you are asking an inexperienced player to restart their learning much too often. Luckily, Mariota is exceptionally smart and resilient, so it shouldn’t be a problem for him.

The plus about hiring an offensive coach for the top job is that they won’t be poached for their own head coaching gig in a year or two and thus, Mariota will have that continuity year-to-year to continue improving his game with a qualified teacher in a productive system.

On the other hand, a defensive-minded head coach would (hopefully) be objective about the offensive side and be able to recognize if and when changes need to be made.

The general consensus seems to be something along these lines:

“I want an offensive-minded head coach for Mariota because if we hire a really great offensive coordinator, he’s just going to leave in a few years to be a head coach somewhere else and then Mariota has to learn a new system... again.”

I think this is bogus. First of all, you never know what’s going to happen in the future. The guys who are hot head coaching candidates this year were nobodies last year. Some of the guys who were hot head coaching candidates last year are not in consideration at all this year (such as Dave Toub).

Second of all, if you have the chance to hire a really great offensive coordinator, YOU DO IT! The amount of knowledge that a genius could pass on to Mariota and the rest of the offense could be invaluable for the rest of Mariota’s career, even if he is only here for one or two seasons.

As new offensive coordinators are hired and promoted to take over, they will bring with them all of their own experiences and philosophies. Even if they are running the same system as their predecessor, they are going to bring fresh ideas and innovations that will help keep the offense from growing stale.

I think it could actually be better for Mariota to be exposed to as many different philosophies as possible as long as there is an element of continuity (whether it’s the scheme or the head coach) still in place.

If the offensive staff never changes, you could lose the opportunity to bring in fresh ideas and new perspectives that could push the offense forward. Marcus Mariota would miss out on learning from a wide variety of coaches with a variety of backgrounds and philosophies. The more different ideas Mariota can be exposed to and learn from, the better for his long-term development.

My point is that regardless of the background of the head coach, you want your offensive coordinator to eventually be up for head coaching jobs himself. If he isn’t, odds are your offense is bad.

Defense Wins Championships

The old cliché saying “defense wins championships” is overused for good reason - because it’s pretty much true.

Just look at the four teams left in the NFL playoffs heading into Conference Championship weekend: the Vikings (1st), Jaguars (2nd), and Eagles (4th) are all top-4 in the NFL in total yards allowed. Those three teams hold the same rank in points allowed, with the Patriots rounding out the top 5.

Obviously, a team can still build a great defense without a defensive-minded head coach (just look at the Eagles), but I want to touch on the interesting nugget Mike pointed out in his Getting to Know Titans Head Coach Candidate Steve Wilks article about defensive coordinators being slightly more successful in the last ten years of new head coach hires:

If we consider the consensus “best” head coaches around the NFL (my list would look something like Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Mike Zimmer, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh, Andy Reid, Sean Payton), only two of those seven coaches come from an offensive background (Reid and Payton).

In Mike’s article, he pointed out that defensive head coaches have a longer average tenure. I believe the reason for that is that when the offense is struggling under a defensive-minded head coach, usually that head coach (if he’s smart enough) will fire his offensive coordinator and hire a new one to fix the problem. Pete Carroll and Mike Zimmer have recently fired their offensive coordinators. Mike Tomlin and the Steelers elected not to pursue Todd Haley for a contract extension. Sean McDermott fired his offensive coordinator this year. The Jets just fired theirs despite a relatively successful offensive season given their talent issues.

The reason is that the head coach isn’t seen as the problem when he doesn’t design the offense. Conversely, when the offense struggles under an offensive-minded head coach, such as Mike Mularkey, the team’s struggles are often pinned on the head coach and it usually results in a firing and full restart for the franchise.

On the other side of the ball, defensive rankings usually fluctuate so much year to year that it’s often hard to get a realistic gauge of how good a defense is unless they are on one end of the extreme. In addition, fans really care a lot more about having an exciting offense to watch, so you often see a head coach’s seat start to heat up more when the offense is struggling. Just look at Marvin Lewis. That guy still has a job!

The point is that if you want to hire a guy that will be here for awhile to maintain overall continuity for the team, history says you’re better off going with a defensive guy.

Regardless, the next head coaching candidate will hopefully bring a strong defensive coordinator with him if he is not the defensive coordinator himself.

That’s right. The new head coach should bring a potent offensive attack and a championship-level defense. It sounds obvious, dramatic, and extreme, but that’s what you have to strive for - the very best.

Bottom Line

Shout-out to franklintitan who had this to say in the comment section of Jommy’s The 3 things I am looking for in the next Titans head coach article:

Three things great NFL coaches have in common

1. A great QB

I forgot the other two.

It’s true - the quarterback is the most important player on the field. Getting him to play up to his absolute maximum potential is of paramount importance for the next head coach. Head coaches have trouble sticking around if they swing and miss on a quarterback prospect.

I think the importance of being a successful coordinator is really moot. It obviously helps a lot if the head coach has been successful with one side of the ball or the other in his past, but really, it’s irrelevant to his potential success or failure as a head coach.

I come from the film industry, so I’m going to use a film analogy really quick to illustrate my point...

A great director of a film has to oversee all the parts of the film. He has to be able to tell the cameraman where to set-up the next shot, he has to be able to key into the emotions of his actors, he has to keep his crew motivated and productive, he has to work well with his superiors (usually studio heads or executive producers), and he has to have an overall vision for the film.

I think that’s a lot like being a head coach. Obviously, if the director has a thorough knowledge of lighting, he can help the Director of Photography design the lighting setup for a particular shot. But it’s not the Director’s job to tell the Gaffer and the Grips where to actually set-up those lights; that is the Director of Photography’s job. Being a great Director of Photography doesn’t have any bearing on your abilities as a Director.

A lot of directors start out as actors. The experience gained from knowing how to draw on your own emotions no doubt helps in communicating that as a director. But you don’t have to be a good actor to transition to and become a good director. The experience is important, the success or failure during that experience? Not so much.

As long as you can speak their language, it helps, the same way that Matt LaFleur would be able to speak intricately about designing the offense. But having limited experience calling plays (one year at Ashland University) doesn’t lessen LaFleur’s qualifications as a head coach, especially if he ends up hiring an experienced offensive coordinator. His head coaching candidacy isn’t based on being a great coordinator - it’s based on the traits Jon Robinson listed in his press conference.

Another example, less technical: Michael Scott. Michael Scott was Dunder Mifflin’s best salesman, and that performance got him promoted to Branch Manager. But Michael Scott’s background as a great salesman didn’t help him to be a great manager. If anything, he was a terrible manager (the Scranton Branch’s profitability notwithstanding).

So I would say, don’t think of Mike Vrabel as a defensive coordinator. His time as a defensive coordinator means very little in regards to his prospects as a head coach. As long as he can create and communicate his vision for the football team, lead the coordinators (and let them do their jobs), motivate the team, help design flexible gameplans, and in general carry out all the duties of a head coach very well, it doesn’t matter if he wasn’t great as a defensive coordinator.

“Leader of men,” “team-first, detailed, tough, dependable,” and “maximize the abilities of the players.” Jon Robinson used these traits when describing his head coach candidate, and those are the same traits he’s looking for in his players.

It’s obvious that Robinson wants his coach to be a role model for the team, to embody the same values as the Titans organization as a whole.

As long as the head coach knows how to get the best from his players, his background could not matter less.