Rob Ryan and the Importance of Defensive Coordinators

By Sean McAlevey

THE TOON SQUAD LOCKER ROOM, TOON ARENA, Toon Land — After failing to reach the playoffs last season, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones did what Jerry Jones does best: he found a scapegoat and fired him.

Dallas, according to Jones, missed the playoffs not because its franchise quarterback, the one who makes nearly $20 million per year and is the highest payed Cowboy in history, threw three interceptions against one of the league’s worst defenses in the decisive final game of the season. Nor was it because of the team’s moronic GM that cobbles together unseemly rosters year after year. Well, that would be Jones himself, and the Cowboys’ Dear Leader is never wrong.

Rob Ryan was underrated by Jerry Jones and the Cowboys. Now the Saints are reaping the reward of his firing.

Rob Ryan was underrated by Jerry Jones and the Cowboys. Now the Saints are reaping the reward of his firing.

The ‘Boys lost their NFC East-deciding contest against the Washington Redskins because of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Or at least that’s how Jones saw it. And as it turns out, he couldn’t have been more wrong, as Ryan is currently running one of the NFL’s most effective defenses in New Orleans while Monte Kiffin’s Dallas D has been historically bad this year.

But this column doesn’t have anything to do with the unquestioned authority of an egomaniacal oil tycoon from Arkansas. This has to do with the important and surprising effect that defensive coordinators have on defensive performance. (The reason for singling out defensive as opposed to offensive coordinators is because offensive performance is highly predicated on quarterback skill. You think Peyton Manning needs some dude in a glass box barking calls into his helmet play after play? He could throw for 4,000+ yards a season with his team running around touch football-style.)

Originally, I was of the school of thought that put more emphasis on talent than coaching. And I believe many others still subscribe to this line of thinking. It’s undoubtedly true that coaches play a role, but talent – at least on the face of it – seems to be 95% of the story, and coaching the remaining 5%. Occasionally turning the undrafted rookie into an All-Pro corner, the smart scheme to pack nine in the box against the Vikings, the good call to blitz on third-and-long – you know, the small, underrated things that can make a difference in the long run. Outside of that, what else can a defensive coordinator do?

As it turns out, quite a lot. The above line of thought severely underestimates the role of the defensive coordinator in today’s NFL. Good DCs like Rob Ryan can be the difference between a garbage defense and a good one, the difference between a mediocre defense and an All-World one. Let’s run with the Ryan example for a minute.

In 2011 and 2012, Ryan’s last two seasons running the Cowboy defense, Dallas allowed a pedestrian, but by no means disastrous, 5.7 yards per play. (The league average is typically around 5.4. The best defenses allow roughly 4.4-4.7, while the worst allow in the 6.1-6.4 range.) Over the same time period, the New Orleans Saints defense, which Ryan currently heads, allowed a league-worst 6.2 YPP. Flash to this year. Through 13 games, the Saint defense is the 13th-best in the NFL, allowing a mere 5.2 YPP, while the Cowboy defense is ranked second-worst (and by some other measures, the worst) at 6.2 YPP.

If we put those changes all on Ryan, he was responsible for improving the Saints by a full 1.0 YPP and for keeping Dallas better by 0.5 YPP, a net 1.5-YPP swing. To put that in perspective, the difference between the league’s current best defense, Seattle, and the league’s worst, San Diego, is 1.7 YPP. In other words, Ryan took the Chargers and Manti Te’o and turned them into Seattle and Richard Sherman. Jesus. Smooth firing, Jerry.

What about other defensive coordinators hired this offseason? Buffalo’s hiring of Mike Pettine turned a 5.75-YPP defense (’11 and ’12) into a 5.0-YPP defense. Cleveland’s Ray Horton improved the Brown defense from a solid 5.05 YPP to a league-best 4.6 YPP. After hiring Todd Bowles, Arizona went from 5.2 YPP to 4.8 YPP. And the defensive coordinator effect can be just as disastrous as it can be helpful. A bad defensive coordinator can have a deleterious effect on an otherwise sound defense: Monte Kiffin in Dallas (from 5.7 to 6.2) and Mel Tucker in Chicago (5.15 to 6.0).

Todd Bowles has done a fantastic job with the Cardinal defense this season.

Todd Bowles has done a fantastic job with the Cardinal defense this season.

Of course, all of these increases/decreases in YPP can’t be solely pinned on the defensive coordinator. A good deal has to be attributed to the gain/loss of personnel and talent, particularly in the case of a team like Chicago, which lost its long-time defensive general, Brian Urlacher, to retirement. There’s also the influence of luck and randomness. No team plays at its true skill-level every game; there’s going to be natural variation. In a brief 16-game season, that variation can strongly influence team stats. But despite these considerations, can anyone seriously believe it’s a coincidence that of the 12 defensive coordinators hired in the offseason, six are experiencing monumental (and in the case of Ryan, unprecedented) increases/decreases in their defensive production?

I don’t have the resources to compile an exhaustive list of every defensive coordinator change over the past 15 years and the corresponding increases or decreases in defensive production. (Let’s get Brian Burke on it!) But the semi-anecdotal evidence I’ve provided above shows that defensive coordinators can have an impressive impact on their units.

But where does this influence come from? How can a coach have such a critical effect on his team? That’s not for me to answer. I have a whopping three years of high school playing experience to contribute regarding the day-to-day, hour-to-hour prep work and decision-making coordinators go through each week – so I’ll sit this one out and leave it up to personal conjecture and the reports of others who’ve played at the higher levels.

Regardless, this is an important phenomenon to understand for predicting future outcomes. A defense isn’t great solely because it’s stacked with talent; nor is it terrible because it lacks star power. Who remembers the historic calamity of the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles? After signing a swath of defensive All-Pros in the offseason, the NFL’s biggest underachievers dubbed themselves the “Dream Team” – which, by the way, is probably in the top five douchiest things of all time, Matt Hasselbeck’s in-game “we’re gonna score” comment and all – but went a dreamlike 8-8 and missed the playoffs, crippled by the moronic decisions of first year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, a career offensive line coach prior to his promotion.

Juan Castillo had no idea what he was doing as the Eagles' defensive coordinator, and it showed in the team's 8-8 record.

Juan Castillo had no idea what he was doing as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, and it showed in the team’s 8-8 record.

The salient point is that coaching plays a much bigger role than the mere 5% or so I estimated it did before this analysis. What that percentage is exactly is hard to say. It might be that the defensive coordinator effect is larger on younger teams; or that it’s smaller on teams with strong rush defenses; or something else entirely. Generally speaking, however, it’s definitely a key factor in determining defensive success. But while I can’t say exactly how large the effect is or how it changes in varying team dimensions, I can say this: Jerry Jones cost his team a chance at a Super Bowl run by underestimating the effectiveness of Rob Ryan.

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