Dougherty: Joe Barry hiring doesn't have to be exciting to be good
GREEN BAY - Let’s face it: Hiring Joe Barry was about as blasé at it gets for a new Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator.
And let’s face it: That really doesn’t tell us much about whether Barry will be any better or worse than the coordinators who have come before.
Barry’s track record running NFL defenses, which we'll get into later, is underwhelming, there is no disputing that. Then again, Mike McCarthy’s offense in San Francisco was ranked last in the NFL when former Packers general manager Ted Thompson tabbed him as new coach, and McCarthy went on to produce one of the NFL’s best offenses year-in and year-out until the end of his tenure in Green Bay.
On the other hand, Dom Capers and Mike Pettine, Barry’s predecessors, came to the Packers as former head coaches with reputations as excellent defensive minds and No. 1-ranked scoring defenses on their coordinator resumes. Yet both had big ups and downs and did not leave town on their own accord.
The truth is, there’s probably not much difference between most coordinators in the league. Capers and Pettine were good at running defenses, whatever their faults. But the job reaper gets just about everybody in this game.
All we know for now is that coach Matt LaFleur interviewed nine candidates and decided this is his guy. LaFleur wanted Brandon Staley’s version of the Vic Fangio scheme and determined that Barry was the best choice to provide it. The two had worked together with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017, which surely made a difference.
“The bottom line is that we are going to get judged on what we do moving forward and not from our past experiences,” LaFleur said in a Zoom news conference this week.
“We understand what’s at stake each and every week when we go out on the field. We’ve got to perform. But I just felt really comfortable, the person, his ability to communicate, the energy he’s going to bring, the scheme he’s bringing with him, in a word, to get the most out of our players.”
Whenever there’s a new coordinator, there’s always the message, even if only implied, on how things will be different now. The defense will be multiple. It will be physical and energetic and fundamental and turn the ball over. Players will be put in position to do what they do best. They’ll be held accountable.
In his own way, Barry, though understated, was no different in his introductory Zoom conference with local media this week.
“I'm not making a bunch of promises, but I'll promise you the guys will tackle,” he said. “I promise you they'll get off blocks. I promise you we're gonna do everything humanly possible to go take the ball away and get it back in No. 12's hands, and we're gonna play fast and furious.”
This is the seventh new defensive coordinator in the 29 seasons I’ve covered this team, and believe me, that’s what they all plan. So here’s some quick history to keep in mind:
Emmitt Thomas was one-and-done with his coach, Ray Rhodes, in 1999. Ed Donatell lasted four years and Bob Slowik one before Mike Sherman fired them. Jim Bates left after one season when he was passed over as head coach. And Bob Sanders lasted three years before McCarthy jettisoned him.
Capers looked like a godsend when he finished seventh and then first in points allowed his first two years. But then Nick Collins’ neck injury ended his career, B.J. Raji’s play slipped and Charles Woodson went from great to very good. Capers never cracked the top 10 in points again.
Likewise, Pettine’s first year was good enough that the Packers encouraged the newly hired LaFleur to keep him on in 2019. Now Pettine’s gone too.
What stands out at first blush on LaFleur’s hire is Barry’s record as a coordinator. I don’t put too much into that, though the numbers do catch your eye for the wrong reasons.
The most telling defensive stats are points allowed and defensive passer rating, and here’s Barry’s line in four years calling the shots:
In his two years at Detroit (2007 and ’08) he was 32nd in points both seasons, and 31st and 32nd in passer rating. That included the Lions’ 0-16 season in ’08.
In two years with Washington (2015 and ’16) he was 17th in points both seasons and 20th and 22nd in passer rating. Washington was 17-14-1 those two years combined.
It's also worth remembering that those Lions teams were a disaster from top to bottom, so apportioning responsibility there isn't a clear-cut call. And while the Washington numbers aren't good, they aren't as bad as the stat usually cited (No. 28 in yards allowed both seasons) suggest.
Still, it’s safe to say LaFleur's hiring of Barry didn’t send shivers down other teams’ spines.
In his news conference this week, Barry also name-checked the successful defensive coaches he has worked with — Tony Dungy, Monte Kiffin, Rod Marinelli, Mike Tomlin and Raheem Morris among others — and owned up to his failures as well.
“If you learn from it and you grow from it and you expand, you don't have to wear sleeves and cover (the scars) up,” he said. “You can wear (the scars) and say, 'Hey, that was a tough experience. That was brutal. That one hurt, but I learned from it. I got better. I grew.’”
Of the handful of assistant coaches I know best in this league, none had worked with Barry but several know him or at least of him. In one way or another, all described his reputation as high energy, likable to players and a sound football mind.
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As for his scheme, judging by what the Rams did under Staley last year, Barry is going to use a lot of five-man lines (to stop the run) with one inside linebacker and a nickel backfield in coverage behind it. That’s what the Rams played almost every snap of their playoff loss to the Packers a few weeks ago.
“It was one of the most difficult schemes to scheme against as we were getting prepared for that game,” LaFleur said.
Based on Barry's news conference, there wasn’t much else to glean about his real thoughts on playing defense in today’s NFL. He didn’t offer specifics on anything or anyone, but to be fair, few new coordinators ever do. We’ll have to wait until we see Barry’s defense on the field.
When LaFleur fired Pettine, he had his first chance to make an exciting hire and inject some offseason life into the defensive side of the ball. He could have taken a chance on a young up-and-comer, like the Packers did on him two years ago. Among his candidates were two young position coaches likely to be running NFL defenses soon: Ejiro Evero (age 40) of the Rams and Chris Harris (38) of Washington.
Instead, LaFleur played it safe by choosing the 50-year-old Barry, a coach he already knew.
Now, a hiring doesn’t have to be exciting to be good. But this is a big one LaFleur needs to have gotten right. Or else he’ll be doing it all over again in two or three years.