Howdy folks! I hope everyone’s New Year is off to a great start. Of course it would be better for us all with an extended playoff run but this season was nonetheless more successful than a majority of us imagined it would be going in. We were a single, brutal injury away from witnessing something special, despite being weighed down by a developmental coordinator.
Some of you might remember me mentioning that phrase when discussing Ken Norton Jr. a few months ago here on the blog (thought I was going Todd Downing here, eh?). I was doing some research for another article back then when it dawned on me that what was being said by Jack Del Rio about our defensive flaws early in the season, coupled with what was said about KNJ back when he was brought on board, certainly indicated we were dealing with a protected, developmental defensive coordinator. Therefore, I decided to focus on the first Truth Booth installment of 2017 by looking at how KNJ ended up in Oakland and why he was retained as coordinator, just as I disappointedly predicted he would be.
It’s hard to envision someone with KNJ’s resume being considered a developmental coordinator:
- Decorated college player for UCLA, ranking 6th all-time in tackles and inducted to the Bruins HoF
- Won 4 bowl games
- All-American and Butkus Award finalist
- 2nd round draft pick
- Thirteen accrued NFL seasons for both the Cowboys and 49ers, playing his final 10 years without missing a game
- Multiple time Pro Bowler and All-Pro
- Only player in the Super Bowl Era to win 3 consecutive Super Bowl Rings as a player
- Pete Carrol protégé
- Served 6 years as linebacker’s coach at USC (final year he was also Assistant Head Coach for Defense)
- Coached in several bowl games, winning 3 consecutive Rose Bowls
- 5 seasons as LB’s coach for Seattle, winning a Super Bowl
There is no denying his accolades made him a prime candidate for a defensive coordinator position. So why was Seattle willing to easily let someone with such a pedigree walk when their defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, was hired as the new coach of the Falcon’s prior to the 2015 season? It had appeared he was being groomed under Carrol for that very position yet they made no real attempts to retain him as their DC, reserving that promotion for defensive backs coach Kris Richard. Even when Dan Quinn was putting together a staff in Atlanta he wanted Richard to join him but no reports suggested the same for KNJ (although he spoke fondly of both after they received their new positions).
Even more concerning is that KNJ didn’t even appear to be JDR’s first choice (Norton was still coaching in the playoffs for the Seahawks therefore he couldn’t interview at the time). Reports indicated back then that we wanted Mike Smith to join the staff but Smith wanted to take a year off from coaching (having just been fired as head coach by Atlanta). After he failed at roping in his former colleague, Del Rio then turned his attention to a supposed Plan B – a former NFL coordinator who was now coaching in the college ranks – Louisville’s assistant head coach and defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham. Apparently we offered Grantham a two-year deal but he decided to remain loyal to Louisville. Now onto Plan C, how promising…
A Winner by default?
With both Mike Smith and Todd Grantham deciding against joining Del Rio’s staff, Jack then turned his attentions to Ken Norton Jr. Known as an intense motivator and players coach, many wondered in what capacity KNJ would excel strategically as an X’s and O’s guy. While being masked by the mastermind that is Pete Carrol, KNJ’s direct link to both USC’s and Seattle’s success was questionable. The fact that the Seahawks wasted no time in promoting Kris Richard to DC over Norton, as well as Quinn requesting his services and not KNJ’s in Atlanta, to me speaks volumes about how some of his closest colleagues viewed him as a potential coordinator. Fortunately for him, he and JDR had remained friends over the years since playing together for Dallas, and Jack was willing to take Norton under his wing while giving him a chance to coordinate a defense ripe with young talent.
Many pundits, analysts and fans instantly assumed he would continue to be groomed under JDR rather than be taken off the leash immediately. Jack alluded to this during a news conference shortly after being hired when discussing potential candidates: “It just depends on the situation, who we acquire as the defensive coordinator, how I assess his play-calling abilities and readiness and those types of things,” Del Rio said during his news conference earlier this month. “If it were a veteran guy hired that I had complete trust in to call game day than I would let that go. If it’s younger guy that is being groomed and maybe a first time, I might help him along that process. That’s something you work through with your staff to make sure that at the end of the day we’re going to play good defense here. “
Even Norton himself had that vibe when taking the position as he admitted in a conference call shortly after his hire “there hasn’t been a formal discussion (to who will call plays), but just in my early meetings with him, his plan is to continue to groom me and I’ll be making the calls.” Both preached similar philosophies upon the hire as a reason for the pairing and the belief KNJ could accommodate the promotion. Despite the glowing positivity, it was undoubtedly apparent from the start that Norton would be a developmental defensive coordinator.
The product we have seen on the field resembles that of a developmental coordinator in over his head. We have regressed in several areas while having a plethora more talent and depth across the board. To help exemplify this I will compare our defense in 2014, Tarver’s final year, to our first two seasons under KNJ. For those that continued to defend Norton all season and claim the defense wasn’t the problem, you may want to just jump to the comments because it’s not very pretty for you folks.
2014 – 21st ranked defense/ 28.2 points allowed per game (1st)/ 12th most yards allowed per game/ 14th in 3rd down % (38%)/ 30th in sacks (22)/ 27th in INT’s (9)
2015 – 22nd ranked defense/ 24.9 PPG (11th)/ 11th most YPG/ 11th in 3rd down % (38%)/ 14th in sacks (38), T-13th in INT’s (14)
2016 – 26th ranked defense/ 24.1 PPG (13th)/ 7th most YPG/ 16th in 3rd down % (39%)/ 32nd in sacks (25), 9th in INT’s (16)
While we have improved in points allowed per game, sacks and interceptions under KNJ, we have ranked worse in total defense, yards allowed per game, and had the same/worse 3rd down percentage. It’s also worth mentioning the difference in talent both coordinators had to work with, and that’s where it becomes clear just how bad Norton has failed to improve a unit overall with far better talent across the board. Don’t get me wrong here, sacks and INT’s are undoubtedly two of the most important stats you want to see improve on defense. With the money and draft picks invested in the pass rush and defensive backfield one should expect to see improvements in those regards.
The problem is, however, we have regressed from KNJ’s first season to second in all of the above mentioned categories except for PPG allowed and INT’s (an increase of 2 this season). Again, this is while drastically improving that side of the ball by signing Bruce Irvin, Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson, Perry Riley Jr. and spending a 1st, 2nd and 3rd round draft picks on players for him to utilize. Those “explosive plays” we have heard about dating back to the Dennis Allen regime continue to haunt us and our scheme has spent two seasons failing to adjust and stop them from happening religiously. I guess we are still developing…
So here we are, coming off a spectacular season where we went into week 17 battling for the #2 seed in the AFC. With a young nucleus in place we will head into next season with sky high expectations and be viewed across the league as a competitive team that has returned to relevancy. A playoff run is definitely an expectation and there will certainly be a handful of new players brought in to improve a defense that vastly underwhelmed.
Unfortunately for us fans, as it looks now, next season will once again be dependent on continually overcoming a porous defense ran by a developmental coordinator. I tried my best to prepare both myself and the community for this situation several weeks ago when suggesting this subject, and was of course met with replies about how ridiculous the notion of hanging onto a developmental coordinator was. Yet we saw JDR’s ego get the best of him and do just that – retain the very guy he took a chance bringing in under his tutelage to groom. If he were to let KNJ go it would expose JDR as also being the culprit of our defensive woes while making Norton the fall guy. Surely he couldn’t do that considering he was already quick to throw the offensive coordinator subtly under the bus later in the season while coming to the defense of Norton on multiple occasions. Now we must hope it doesn’t come back to bite us in the ass, because with an extension looming for JDR, Norton may just be getting comfortable, regardless of how poorly his development has gone thus far.
Written by: Sir Truth
This article was submitted late last Wednesday therefore it was intended to be posted prior to the surprising Pagano hire.
“My Bad” -Kenny Stapler