Reviewing potential defensive coordinator candidates for the Titans

After a crushing defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, it’s officially the offseason. I wanted to give everyone enough time to become calm, cool, and collected so we can move forward into looking at the future of this franchise.

While the Titans are on the cusp of many offseason decisions, none may be greater and hold more weight than who will become the next Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator, a job that nobody (officially) held last year.

I am going to keep it easy and split off all the possible candidates into a few tiers.

The 4-3 Guys, Very Unlikely

  • Marvin Lewis
    • Arizona State co-defensive coordinator (2020)
    • Cincinnati Bengals head coach (2003-2018)
  • Raheem Morris
    • Atlanta Falcons interim head coach (2020)
    • Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator (2020)
    • Atlanta Falcons assistant head coach/secondary coach (2019)
  • Teryl Austin
    • Detroit Lions defensive coordinator (2014-2017)
    • Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator (2018)
    • Pittsburgh Steelers senior defensive assistant/secondary coach (2019-2020)

Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn were also going to be under this section, but they both were recently hired. These guys would also fall under the “Hey, those are names I recognize, but I have no clue about defensive fit!” category.

Ultimately, anyone that works using a 4-3 as their main scheme is not a fit for this job here in Nashville. Tennessee does not have the right personnel to use a proper 4-3. Now, this is not to say these guys wouldn’t be great at being the new top defensive coach if hired, I just think it’s highly unlikely the Titans hire any of these guys.

I love what Raheem Morris has done with the Atlanta Falcons, and I had held out some hope that he would fill that head coach position instead of Art Smith, but that now looks very unlikely. When Morris took over as interim head coach he was able to turn the Falcons into one of the top defenses in the NFL. The players love him, and he really got them to punch above their weight class.

That is a huge plus for Morris as a defensive coordinator because we all saw what was lacking on the field for the Titans in 2020. Leadership, motivation, etc, etc. I just wish Morris wasn’t a 4-3 guy.

At this point, everyone knows about Marvin Lewis. He was a head coach who overstayed his welcome in Cincinnati and had to deal with ownership that was stuck in the past. We’ve seen that Marvin has gotten a few head coaching interviews, but ultimately I think he will end up as a defensive coordinator in the NFL upon his return.

Again, a great coach who the Titans defense could benefit from in many ways, but again it’s a defensive scheme that this group would have a hard time adjusting to.

Teryl Austin is on the flip side of the previously aforementioned coaches. Teryl Austin stinks. He’s only ever had one top-10 defense as an NFL defensive coordinator. In his last year as a defensive coordinator, his defense ranked 32nd in yards allowed and 30th in scoring.

Now, sure one can say, “He’s coached the secondary for 3-4’s and in today’s NFL world, base fronts don’t really matter as much given how much nickel and dime teams run.”

Sure, there is some truth to all of that, but when a DC who has had experience coaching defensive backs in a 3-4 chooses to roll with a mainly 4-3 defense at multiple stops, and on top of that, sucks at it, it’s a bad mixture.

The Longshots

  • Rex Ryan
    • Margaritaville Heavyweight Champion
    • ESPN Analyst
    • Buffalo Bills head coach (2015-2016)
    • New York Jets head coach (2009-2014)
    • Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator (2005-2008)
  • Rob Ryan
    • The Big Footballski
    • Washington Football Team ILB coach (2019)
    • Buffalo Bills Assistant head coach/defense (2016)
    • New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator (2013-2015)
    • Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator (2011-2012)
    • Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator (2009-2010)
    • Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator (2004-2008)
    • New England Patriots linebackers coach (2000-2003)

I love the Ryan brothers and their personalities. They’re fun off the field and they have a big presence. However, while they do reside in the Nashville area, I am still classifying them as longshots.

Rex Ryan would be the preferred choice of the two. He is by far the better defensive mind. He tailed off his last two years in Buffalo, but from 2005-2014, his defenses never finished worse than 11th in yards allowed. He has also had two different stops where his team was the top scoring defense in the NFL.

Rex fits a lot of what the Titans lacked in 2020. He is all about pressure, exotic blitzes, front multiplicity, and coverage consistency. He would be a fantastic hire, and just think of the press conferences! However, he currently has a cushy studio gig. Vrabel has been able to coax one coach out of retirement in Dean Pees; can he pull that same magic again? Not likely.

Rob Ryan would be the easier of the two to get. He coached Vrabel in New England, he lives in the area, and he probably has nothing better to do. However, this pick wouldn’t change too much about the defense we saw in 2020. 

Rob has never excelled like his brother. In 12 years as a defensive coordinator, he has only had one season where his defense placed in the top-10 of scoring defenses and two seasons in which his defenses were top-10 in yards allowed.

The Forgotten Man, as he should be

  • Eric Mangini
    • San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator (2015)
    • Cleveland Browns head coach (2009-2010)
    • New York Jets head coach (2006-2008)
    • New England Patriots defensive coordinator (2005)

When Dean Pees retired, a few people out on the timeline had suggested Eric Mangini as a possible replacement. Mangini served as defensive coordinator for one year with the New England Patriots, while Mike Vrabel was on the roster.

Mangini would be a dark horse kind of hire. He is currently serving as a studio analyst, and he has been out of the coaching game for five years now. He is a lot like Rob Ryan. His defenses have never been good. In fact, while the connection is there to Mike Vrabel, the production isn’t.

This would be another hire that would be more of the same in 2021 that we saw in 2020. 

The College Guys, possible, but not likely

  • Kerry Coombs
    • Ohio State defensive coordinator (2020)
    • Tennessee Titans defensive backs coach (2018-2019)
  • Jim Leonhard
    • Wisconsin defensive backs coach  (2016)
    • Wisconsin defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach (2017-2020)

Kerry Coombs and Mike Vrabel have an obvious connection in multiple ways. They both coached at Ohio State at the same time, and Kerry came with Vrabel to coach the Titans secondary.

The loss of Coombs cannot be overstated, the drop off in the performance of the Titans safeties was tremendous in 2020. However, I am not sold on him coming in to be the defensive coordinator of an NFL team.

This has nothing to do with the championship game. There is very little that any defensive coordinator can do to slow down that Alabama offense. I just am not confident in his success at a quick level. He has one more year left on his contract with Ohio State as well, and from all accounts, he loves it up there.

Jim Leonhard is one of two coaches that I would be super excited about and love. Leonhard played ten seasons in the NFL as a safety for the Bills, Ravens, Jets, Broncos, and Browns, and when he retired in 2014, he reemerged two years later as the Wisconsin defensive backs coach.

Leonhard is probably a Broadway Sports favorite among the possible candidates. He has done an amazing job with the Wisconsin defense since becoming their coordinator. In 2020, they were top-10 in points allowed, yards allowed, and yards per game. He is one of those players-turned-coaches that have made an impact quickly, and his success can carry over to the NFL.

The Old Guys, likely hires

  • Romeo Crennel
    • New England Patriots defensive coordinator (2001-2004)
    • Cleveland Browns head coach (2005-2008)
    • Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator (2010-2011)
    • Kansas City head coach (2011-2012)
    • Houston Texans defensive coordinator (2014-2019)
    • Houston Texans interim head coach (2020)
  • James Bettcher
    • Arizona Cardinals outside linebackers coach (2013-2014)
    • Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator (2015-2017)
    • New York Giants defensive coordinator (2018-2019)
  • John Butler
    • Penn State defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach (2013)
    • Houston Texans secondary coach (2014-2017)
    • Buffalo Bills defensive backs coach (2018-2020)
  • Bill Kollar
    • Houston Texans assistant head coach/defensive line coach (2009-2013)
    • Houston Texans defensive line coach (2014)
    • Denver Broncos defensive line coach (2015-2020)
  • Wade Phillips
    • Denver Broncos defensive coordinator (2015-2016)
    • Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator (2017-2019)

Out of all of these guys on this list, Romeo Crennel is the most likely candidate to be the Titans defensive coordinator. The connections are obvious and carry through both Vrabel as a player in New England and as a coach in Houston.

The biggest hurdle with Crennel is going to be his age. This year he will be turning 74, and after a tumultuous last two years in Houston, I wonder if he doesn’t retire or take a year off. The other question you have to have with Crennel is how much will he actually improve upon the Bowen/Vrabel defense. Crennel is no Dean Pees. While players love and respect him, as anyone in the NFL should, you look at his overall body of work with defenses and it’s very ho-hum. Nothing truly bad, besides his last years in Houston, which were a dumpster fire, but nothing great either.

James Bettcher is an interesting name. He has had some mild success in Arizona and became a hot name on the head coaching circuit. He didn’t get a job. He then coached a mediocre Giants unit that struggled in 2018 and 2019. Since then he has taken a year off.

What’s interesting about Bettcher is that at one point he was linked to being on Vrabel’s defensive staff as defensive coordinator and reports were that Vrabel interviewed Bettcher at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, but he ended up choosing the New York Giants. The Titans ended up with Dean Pees which, as well all know now, was the better choice.

Could Bettcher come to the Titans? Is he wanted by Vrabel? Doubtful. I’d say you only get one shot with a guy like Vrabel and then you’re removed from the list. I personally would like the Bettcher hire. A year off may have done him some good, and he would have a much more talented roster to coach than he did in New York.

I am going to lump in John Butler and Bill Kollar together. Both Butler and Kollar have crossed paths with Mike Vrabel during his time in Houston. They both churn out constant Pro Bowlers at their coached positions and they both get the absolute most out of their players.

Kollar has continually developed Pro Bowlers on the defensive line and has coached up some key role players like Derek Wolfe. Butler is basically the same, but for defensive backs. He’s known for getting the most out of Kareem Jackson, developing A.J. Bouye as a UDFA, and helping Sean McDermott create one of the best secondaries in the NFL in Buffalo. 

Butler and Kollar may have you scratching your head and saying “Who?”, but if you just do some quick research and look at their resumes, I think you will find yourself more than confident in these guys as potential Tennessee Titans defensive coordinators.

Finally, we have the son of Bum, Wade Phillips, who announced on January 15th that he is unretiring from retirement. He’s awesome. Not only is he a fun guy in interviews and on Twitter, but he’s also an awesome coach.

You can look at his 37 years in the NFL and see the proven and successful track record. He would immediately turn this defense around and it would make the team so much better. I just don’t know if it is very likely to be the Titans that he comes back to. It would make a great story. Wade coming to revive a Titans defense, the same franchise that his father was head coach, and this is where he chooses to retire again?

How awesome would that be? Out of all of the old guys or retreads, this is the one I could really get behind.

The Young Guy

  • Jerod Mayo
    • New England Patriots inside linebacker (2008-2015)
    • New England Patriots inside linebacker coach (2019-2020)

DeMeco Ryans was going to be on this list, but with the reports of Robert Saleh taking a head coaching job with the Jets, Ryans seems to be the frontrunner to replace him as 49ers defensive coordinator. So I’ll just stick with Jerod Mayo for this group.

For me, Jerod Mayo is the guy I want as defensive coordinator for the Titans. The connections are obvious. The Patriots link is undeniable, however, there is more to it than that. 

He is a fast-rising coach and has the utmost faith and respect of Bill Belichick. He is the only Patriots position coach ever to be hired by Belichick without a year of experience coaching in his system or elsewhere in the NFL or major college ranks.

He also landed in a coaching position that Belichick hasn’t had since 2003. Belichick never saw a reason to have two different linebacker coaches since 2003, and essentially created this so Mayo could have a spot on his staff. So how does he do it? He knows Bill Belichick’s defense inside and out.

He has been called one of the best leaders players have been around. The very definition of a player-coach. During the end of his career he was  plagued by injuries, but he used that time to coach younger linebackers. Help them, and advise them on how to be better.

How ingrained is he in the Patriots way? Various reports have him being called ‘Jerod Belichick’ by various people and on top of that, he has spent his whole NFL career with the Patriots.

Reports also have him calling plays alongside Steve Belichick, so he also has already been given some responsibility in that area as well. I think Mike Vrabel would have made a wise choice if he was able to hire Jerod away from the Patriots.

The Likely Guys

  • Shane Bowen
    • Houston Texans defensive assistant (2016-2017)
    • Tennessee Titans outside linebackers coach (2018-2020)
    • Tennessee Titans defensive play caller (2020)
  • Matt Patricia
    • New England Patriots defensive coordinator (2012-2017)
    • Detroit Lions head coach (2018-2020)

The likely guys are a mixed bag. Tennessee Titans fans need to keep their mind open to the fact that Shane Bowen may be brought back in full capacity as defensive coordinator. Vrabel may be willing to give Bowen another chance and chalk it up to first year growing pains. Is it a mistake? Yes. 

I am paraphrasing, but in his press conference on Monday, Vrabel was asked by Paul Kuharsky, of paulkuharsky.com, about what it was about Bowen that led him to let him call plays but be reluctant to give him the title of defensive coordinator. It’s an intriguing question that, of course, got a standard non-answer answer from Vrabel.

It’s perplexing, but there is hope. Vrabel said in that very same press conference that he would be evaluating every position on the defensive staff. If Bowen isn’t officially crowned as defensive coordinator, would he be willing to accept staying on the staff as outside linebackers coach? Could Bowen jump to another team in a lateral move? It’s possible.

Matt Patricia is probably the most likely outside hire for the Titans. He had a rough go in Detroit because of his own actions, and his players celebrated with mimosas at the end of last season. So that’s not a great sign, but we know that he spent six seasons as a defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots and he is very respected by Belichick.

I think Patricia would fit right in and we would see a more defensive-wunderkind Patricia than the hard-to-deal-with Patricia we saw in Detroit. As defensive coordinator in New England, the Patricia-led defenses were top-10 in scoring all six seasons. Patricia may just be better suited as a coordinator than a head coach. 

In the end, there are plenty of names to consider for the Tennessee Titans vacancy at defensive coordinator. There is absolutely no reason for Vrabel to stick with Bowen, but it does still have a decent chance of happening.

As Samuel L. Jackson would say: “Hold on to your butts”.

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