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Friday, September 16, 2005
The Idealizing of Jim Bates and the Coaching Influence
Because I tend to be a glass-half-full fan when it comes to discussing the Packers, I generally try to shy away from a lot of naysaying. But while there seems to be quite a bit of optimism about the Packers’ defense that has swelled ever since Sherman hired Jim Bates, I am not convinced that it is his presence alone that will catapult the Packers’ defense from the shameful to the respectable. That is not to say that I think the Packers’ defense won’t improve this next year under his direction, even with many of the same players. I do. But if and when the defense does improve, I think giving all or even most of the credit to the influence of Jim Bates is probably overdoing it.
Defense as system
Why? First of all, it should be noted that the nature of defense is that each player is very dependent upon his teammates to do their jobs so that he can do his job. Defense is very system dependent---probably more so than offense. It's the nature of offense to find a weakness and attack it, so if even one defensive player can't cover well, doesn't tackle well, doesn't know his assignments, etc., it negatively affects the play of the rest of his defensive teammates, as they have to scramble to cover up the weaknesses rather than play their game.
That's probably what happened last year with Carroll (and Hawthorne) replacing the solid, well above average McKenzie as the team's top cornerback. Sharper and Roman had to not only play their positions, they had to keep an eye on their inexperienced, grabby teammate. Can one player make that kind of a difference in how well the rest of the defense performs? Yes. And the opposite can be true as well---when a good player is added, it can have ripple effect on the entire defense. Consider the example of Grady Jackson, a good, solid player at an important position for any defense. In 2003, the Packer defense had ranked 30th in total defense through the first 8 games of the season. Their run defense was abysmal, and their pass defense was worse. But then Grady Jackson was claimed off waivers in the middle of the season to replace the ailing Gilbert Brown, and the Packers jumped from 30th to 17th in total defense over the course of just the next 8 games. KGB played better. Cletidus Hunt played better. Harris and McKenzie played better. With the same coaches and same scheme, the Packers' defense went from allowing 117.3 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry without Jackson to 97.6 yards per game and 3.97 yards per carry with Jackson manning the middle.
Now, I realize that it’s not as simple as adding or subtracting a good player or two when explaining how well or poorly a team plays from one year to the next. Losing McKenzie and replacing him with unproven, inexperienced players wasn’t the sole reason the Packer defense was awful last year. Other factors, such as lingering injuries to Navies and Sharper and Jackson might explain some of the drop-off from 2003 to 2004 too. And Slowik’s questionable strategies and schemes were an important factor in the poor defensive showing. But sometimes I think the inter-dependent nature of playing good defense is underappreciated, as is the impact of a good player or two.
Besides what appears to be a modest upgrade in overall defensive talent/player hunger in 2005 as opposed to 2004 (the secondary already looks like it’s going to be manned better this year than last, and replacing Hunt with hungrier players could spur the line to play better), I think another of the main reasons the Packers’ defense is likely to improve this next year is not necessarily because of Bates, but because it will be very, very difficult for it to get worse. Now this may sound like a rather glib and trite explanation….and maybe it is. But this phenomenon, technically referred to as “regression towards the mean,” is likely to have a rather powerful effect on where the defense goes this next year---at least statistically.
Take the pass defense from 2004 as a for-instance. The Packers’ secondary allowed 33 touchdown passes (ranked 32nd), picked off just 8 passes (ranked 31st), allowed 3,663 passing yards (ranked 25th), and opposing QBs averaged about a 100 passer rating against them, the worst in Packers' history. (The previous worst passer rating allowed by a Packer defense was 86.1 back in 1958.) In my opinion, there just isn’t any way that the pass defense could get any worse than that. In other words, even if we were unfortunate enough to have Slowik as our defensive coordinator again in 2005, the likelihood that the Packer secondary would collect more than 8 interceptions, allow fewer than 33 TD passes, or even rank higher than 25th overall is very high. It’s also quite likely that the linebackers would be involved in more than merely one turnover play all season long even had Slowik remained our DC in 2005. Extreme statistical rankings/figures like that just have a way of eventually evening out, or winding up closer to the middle of the pack. And that isn’t necessarily all—or even most---of the coach’s doing.
What happened in Atlanta?
In my opinion, this regression-to-the mean phenomenon had something to do with what happened in Atlanta this past season. In 2003, Atlanta’s defense ranked 32nd in yards allowed (381.8 per game), 30th in points allowed (26.4 per game), 32nd in passing yards allowed (250.3 per game), and 30th in passing TDs allowed (28). Put simply, the 2003 Atlanta defense was atrocious. So I don’t think it’s all that surprising that the Atlanta pass defense jumped from 32nd to 22nd from ’03 to ’04, or that both the total defense and scoring defense leapt to a much more respectable 14th. It was highly unlikely it could have gotten any worse.
But weren’t Jim Mora and Ed Donatell the ones almost exclusively responsible for that turnaround? That’s what we’re led to believe anyway. But consider the Atlanta Falcons further. Back in 2001, the Falcons had Don Blackmon as their DC, and they ranked 30th in yards and 24th in points, which led to Blackmon’s ouster. Dan Reeves was able to recruit Wade Phillips to lead the defense in 2002, landing him despite great interest from many other teams (it also may have helped that Reeves made him the 2nd highest paid assistant coach at the time). By week 13 of 2002, the Falcons were ranked 4th in scoring defense, 4th in interceptions, and 2nd in sacks. Phillips, as the first year coordinator, was given much, if not all, of the credit for the dramatic turnaround.
But then 2003 and the dead-last-in-total-defense thing happened. Phillips was still the DC for that debacle, but he (like Bates) was made interim head coach near the end of the year (winning 2 of 3 for a 5-11 team) before being passed over for the head coaching job. Now what’s intriguing to me about this is that Phillips was given nearly all of the credit for the immediate defensive turnaround from ’01 to ’02, but he wasn’t given much of any blame for Atlanta’s shameful defensive performance in 2003. That seems to be the way it goes once a coach---especially a defensive coordinator---has established a reputation. If his team has a good year or two defensively, that’s considered his doing. If it doesn’t, it’s either considered a fluke, or other variables (injuries, less talent in the lineup) are thought to be responsible.
The 2004 Miami defense
That’s probably what happened with the 2004 Miami defense, which wasn’t nearly as good as it was made out to be. They lost too many good players to be all that good. The main reason why the Dolphins could even rank 8th in yards allowed defense in 2004 (but 20th in points allowed) is that they easily had the most rushing attempts against them in the NFL (539), and because they simultaneously had the fewest number of passes thrown against them (434). As would be expected given those disparities, the run defense ranked 31st, and the pass defense ranked 2nd. And because the average yards gained per rush attempt is always going to be almost half of the average yards gained per pass attempt, the number of total yards yielded is naturally going to be lower if there are far more rushing attempts than passing attempts. Thus, teams that play from behind a lot are probably going to be helped in the defensive rankings by the end of the year.
The validity of defensive rankings
Which brings me to the validity of the defensive rankings themselves. Just pointing to position rank alone as measurement of defensive performance can sometimes be misleading. For example, the 2001 Dolphins' defense allowed 290 points, but ranked 11th in scoring defense. The next year, the Miami defense allowed 301 points, but ranked 4th in scoring defense. It would appear they substantially improved in '02 by looking at the ranking figures, but actually their defense gave up more points than they did the year before.
Also in 2001, there was a 53-points-allowed difference between the 3rd (212 points) and 4th (265 points) best scoring defenses. But there was only a 17-points-allowed difference between the 4th best defense (265 points) and the 9th best defense (282 points). Allow just one or two fewer touchdowns in a season and a team can move up 4 or 5 slots in the rankings.
Or consider the case of the 2004 Buccaneers. The offense had 5 turnovers returned for touchdowns this past season, resulting in an extra 35 points that the defense gets the blame for allowing. Instead of 304 points allowed in '04, the Buccaneers could have allowed only 269 points, which would have put them within 10 points of the #2 ranking instead of their actual #9 ranking.
The fragility of defensive rankings
Nose-dives in defensive rankings with the same defensive coordinator (and head coach) are probably rather common. We just don’t hear about them too often, as they don’t usually mesh with the perspective that it’s the coaches that make up most of the difference between the winners and losers. Consider that the Dallas Cowboys ranked 2nd in scoring defense in 2003. In 2004, after losing Darren Woodson and a few others (again, the loss of even one good player can make a big difference), they plummeted to 28th in scoring defense. This happened despite having the same head coach and the same defensive coordinator (Zimmer). Greg Blache was the Bears’ defensive coordinator in 2001, when Chicago had the #1 scoring defense in the NFL. He was still the Bears’ DC in 2002, when they ranked 25th. The New York Giants ranked 3rd in scoring defense in 2002, only to drop to 29th in 2003 with the same coach and DC. Even the Miami Dolphins dropped from 3rd in scoring defense in 2003 down to 20th in 2004 with, yes, Jim Bates coordinating the defense.
Wade Phillips is a highly regarded defensive coordinator (and sometimes head coach) who probably would rival Jim Bates in terms of the respect he carries around the league as a defensive coach. But here's a statistical summary of his coaching career and the defenses he either coordinated or was a head coach of. Notice the leaps---sometimes giant leaps---from one year to the next in terms of defensive ranking during the last 15 years.
Denver (ranked 20th in scoring defense in 1988, the year before Phillips arrived; Phillips was head coach in '93 and '94)
1989: 1st 1990: 23rd 1991: 3rd 1992: 19th 1993: 10th 1994: 25th
Buffalo (ranked 22nd in scoring defense in 1994, the year before Phillips arrived; Phillips was head coach from '98-'00)
1995: 13th 1996: 6th 1997: 23rd 1998: 15th 1999: 2nd 2000: 18th
Atlanta (ranked 24th in scoring defense in 2001, the year before Phillips arrived)
2002: 8th 2003: 30th
San Diego (ranked 31st in scoring defense in 2003, the year before Phillips arrived)
To summarize with just the ranking numbers (with the first number being the ranking the year before Phillips arrived), here's an overview:
The average jump (up or down) in team defensive ranking during Wade Phillips' recent career as a DC or HC (including the season-before rankings) is a whopping 15.3 slots a year. While that may be more fluctuation than usual, I think that demonstrates just how fragile the defensive ranking statistics can be.
Why is this noteworthy? Because I think one has to wonder why it is that teams with the same defensive coordinator or head coach can have that extreme level of variance from one year to the next if the coaching factor means so much. Put simply, if the coaching factor, or how good your defensive coordinator is, makes that significant of an impact on how your team performs on the field, then I would think the defensive rankings would be much, much more stable than an average of 15.3 slot movements a year with the same coaches, wouldn't they?
Credit, not blame
When Wade Phillips took over the Denver defense in 1989 and helped it to land a #1 ranking (after having ranked 20th the season before), he was likely given much, if not most of the credit for that turnaround. Likewise in Buffalo from 1994 to 1995/1996 (22nd to 13th/6th), and in Atlanta from 2001 to 2002 (24th to 8th). The thing is, I highly doubt that Phillips was given much of the blame when his 1st ranked defense (Denver) plummeted to 23rd the following year, or his 6th ranked defense (Buffalo) plummeted to 23rd the following year, or when his 8th ranked defense (Atlanta) plummeted to 30th the following year. As I mentioned earlier, for some reason we give coordinators and head coaches most of the credit when the team's (defensive) performance improves, but when they play poorly, or when they fall in the rankings, we tend to look elsewhere (injuries, loss of talent, etc.) rather than point the finger at the DC or HC. This is especially true if the DC or HC has already established a solid reputation as a coach, as both Phillips and Bates have. To me this is an example of how we tend to overestimate the contribution of coaching to the winning equation.
Back to Bates. He sure does seem to be a solid coach, and his schemes, from all appearances, seem to be very effective. But there seems to be a perspective that he, through his vocal and demanding and Shurmur-like coaching style alone, can take average or worse players and turn them into above average players, or that he can take a shameful defense and turn it into a respected one. But that’s not usually how it works. While I realize there are exceptions, it is generally the case that a coach is either limited or aided by the talent he has to work with.
When Bates was the defensive coordinator for the Falcons in 1994, his defense ranked dead last (28th) in passing defense, 24th in yards per rushing attempt, dead last (28th) in total defense (6,058 yards allowed), and 24th in points allowed (24.1 points per game). He was fired after the season. Then he went 6 years before he got another shot as a defensive coordinator, when he was hired by Wannstadt in 2000 to be the DC for the Dolphins. Now, consider that the 1998 Dolphins defense led the NFL in interceptions and fewest rushing TDs allowed, and they finished 3rd in total defense. The 1999 Dolphins defense finished 4th in total defense. Bates and Wannstadt had not only inherited a top 5 defense when they arrived in 2000, they had inherited the following players: Trace Armstrong (18 total sacks in '98 and '99); Tim Bowens (Pro Bowler in '99); Sam Madison (8 INTs in '98, 7 INTs in '99 and Pro Bowl starter); Patrick Surtain (2 INTs, 48 tackles, and 9 passes defensed despite starting just 6 games in '99); Jason Taylor (9 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 9 passes defensed in '98 ) ; Brock Marion (112 tackles in '98, 100 tackles in '99---tops among defensive backs); and Zach Thomas (160 tackles, 3 INTs in `98, 167 tackles in '99 and Pro Bowl starter). With that kind of lineup, it would have been difficult NOT to turn out some pretty good defenses in Miami in the last several years.
Two more examples: Johnson and Shurmur
Jimmy Johnson (Philly's DC) was the DC for Indianapolis in '96 and '97. The year before he was hired by Infante to be the DC (1995), Indianapolis had ranked an impressive 5th in scoring defense. By 1996 under Johnson, however, the Indy defense sunk to 18th. Then, in 1997, Johnson's defense ranked 26th, and he was fired as DC. But when Johnson was hired by Reid to be the DC in Philadelphia in '99, he had inherited Taylor, Vincent, Dawkins, Douglas, and Trotter on his team---all 5 Pro Bowlers. Since 2000, Johnson's scoring defense has ranked 4th, 2nd, 2nd, 7th, and 3rd.
Fritz Shurmur was a DC for 11 seasons before he came to Green Bay in '94. In those 11 previous seasons, his defenses ranked in the top 10 in total defense (yards) just 2 times. When he came to Green Bay in 1994, he inherited a Packer defense that had already jumped from 21st in total defense in 1992 to 2nd in total defense in 1993. A good chunk of the reason for the Packers’ acute rise to the #2 ranking in 1993 was probably related to the arrival of Reggie White that year. In the 5 seasons (’94-’98) Shurmur coordinated the defense in Green Bay, the Packers ranked in the top 10 in total defense 4 times. So Shurmur’s defense spent 4 of 5 years in the top 10 with Reggie White, and 2 of 11 years in the top 10 without Reggie White. I think it’s likely there’s a connection.
You can't make chicken salad....
There’s no denying that good coaching is important to good player performance. Even the most talented players can’t completely overcome inadequate preparation and rickety schemes. But having good players on the roster who have the capacity to consistently execute and limit their mistakes through effort and concentration is more important than coaching is when determining what contributes most to the winning equation. In other words, coaches are more limited or aided by the talent (or lack thereof) on the roster than players are aided or limited by poor coaching.
It’s always possible we’ll see an exception to this. For example, it’s possible that the Packers could have a defense that is above average or even well above average this season despite the apparent dearth of significant new talent this year. That’s possible, but it’s probably unlikely. I’d expect the Packers to be better defensively than they were last year, but not dramatically so. Some of their improvement may be due to coaching and schemes, some may be due to some slightly better or more experienced talent, some may be due to a better chemistry between certain players, some may be due to luck and happenstance (such as playing a larger share of weak offensive teams), and some may be due to the tenet that it’s not possible for them to get any worse. That said, it will be very tempting to give Bates all or most of the credit if the Packers play substantially better defensive football. I will be tempted to give him much of the credit too. But history has taught us that, for the most part, the notorious chicken salad principle is at work here, and therefore tempering our idealism about the impact that a new, energetic coach can have may be prudent.