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Top NFL assistants can make or break a season ... or a career

by | Senior NFL Columnist

Rob Ryan's defense, under tremendous pressure this season, came through against the Giants. (US Presswire)  
Rob Ryan's defense, under tremendous pressure this season, came through against the Giants. (US Presswire)  

Three days ago, New Yorkers wondered if the Giants would repeat as Super Bowl champions. Now, those same people are asking what's wrong with their club.

Jerry Glanville was right. The NFL does stand for "Not For Long," with the futures of coaches riding on the current success of their teams.

But I'm not concerned with head coaches here; I'm more interested in their coordinators, the guys who play critical roles in determining how far their teams go -- with some under orders to reach the playoffs or else.

What follows, then, is a list of 10 of the most intriguing coordinators entering the 2012 season. Most of them you know, and some you know are in uncomfortable positions. What they share, however, is that they could hold the keys to the kingdom, and here's why:

Tony Sparano, offensive coordinator, New York Jets

Bad enough he has to figure out how and when to use Tim Tebow. Now he's coming off a preseason where his offense produced one touchdown in four games ... and that by his third-string quarterback. So the heat is on for Sparano, and take it from Brian Schottenheimer: That's never good in Tabloid Nation.

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Schottenheimer was the scapegoat for last year's 8-8 finish, but he looks like Bill Walsh compared to what happened this summer. Sparano is supposed to return the Jets to "Ground and Pound," and that's where Tebow comes in. He's involved in the wildcat that Sparano ran in Miami, and he'll be involved in it here. But let's get something straight. It's still a passing league, and Sparano must pass the ball and pass it a lot.

"It's not going to be the Wing-T out there," he said this week. That's reassuring. Little else, however, about this offense this summer was. Coach Rex Ryan has said this may be the best team he's had with the Jets, and tell me that doesn't up the heat for his assistants ... with one in particular. Tony Sparano, please step forward.

Juan Castillo, defensive coordinator, Philadelphia

Few persons last year absorbed as many body blows as Castillo, who made the unorthodox jump from offensive line coach to defensive coordinator, then watched his defense blow five fourth-quarter leads. Critics called for his firing, but coach Andy Reid stood by him -- believing Castillo was the right man if only he had the right help. That's why he hired Todd Bowles as his secondary coach, believing he could serve as a sounding board for Castillo.

There's no doubt the Eagles' defense improved down the stretch, but it will take a lot more than four games to convince frazzled Eagles fans that Castillo knows what he's doing.

"In Philadelphia," said Castillo, who seems more subdued this year, "we all want to win a championship, and it's time." I'll second that, but the Eagles go nowhere if they can't get back to what made them such a tough out years ago -- and that's an attacking, aggressive defense that produced sacks, turnovers and victories. Castillo's job is to get them there, and Reid's future could depend on it.

"It's a tough spot," I told him. He shook his head. "It's an opportunity," he said, correcting me, "a great opportunity for a great city for fans that love the game and are second to none. I understand that. That's why we're working hard to get the job done. It's time for us to do what we have to do."

Todd Haley, offensive coordinator, Pittsburgh

The Steelers know how effective Haley can be. He was the offensive coordinator in Arizona when the Cardinals came so close to beating Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII.

But the job doesn't come without drawbacks, and here's the first: The guy he replaced, Bruce Arians, was enormously popular with the star quarterback, and the Steelers go only as far as Ben Roethlisberger takes them. One problem: These Steelers want to run more. They want a more balanced approach to the game than last season when they threw 57 percent of the time, and that's where Haley comes in.

It's his intention to make the Steelers more physical on offense, and if that doesn't sit well with Roethlisberger ... well, Haley's been down this road before. He's the guy who developed a quick-rhythm passing attack in Arizona that spared Kurt Warner, with the quarterback sacked 52 times from 2004-05. Roethlisberger has been sacked 314 times in 114 games. "However we've got to win," said Roethlisberger, "that's all that matters." I'll second that. But what if they don't succeed? It won't be Big Ben under fire. It will be Haley.

John Pagano, defensive coordinator, San Diego

If there's one number about the Chargers' defense that jumps out from 2011 it's this: 49.2. That's the percentage of third downs opponents converted last season, and it not only stinks; it got Greg Manusky fired. Pagano promises to fix that, and he better: There are jobs at stake here, and I'm not talking about the players.

"Our biggest thing is playing with effort," Pagano said. "The players know they have to play better, and the coaches know they have to coach better. We learn from our mistakes, but this team right now is not last in third downs, OK? This team right now is not bottom five in red-zone defense. And that's something that we've been stressing."

Another thing they've been stressing: pass rush. The Chargers must find one, which is why they drafted Melvin Ingram. "We have to be creative," said Pagano. No, they have to be successful, otherwise you can turn out the lights; the party's over.

Pagano understands, and he's not concerned. "I've been in this league 17 years," he said, "and I've never looked at me being safe any year. It's a bottom-line business, and we're here to win, and we're here to win a Super Bowl."

Dirk Koetter, offensive coordinator, Atlanta

Sooner or later, Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons must win a playoff game. Koetter's job is to make it sooner rather than later. The Falcons were dreadful in last year's playoff loss to the Giants, failing to score an offensive point and getting jammed on two fourth-and-1s and another third-and-1. Nevertheless, Ryan thrived during the regular season under offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bob Bratkowski, throwing for a franchise-record 4,177 yards and a career-best 29 touchdown passes. None of that mattered much, though, in January when Ryan lost his third playoff start. Koetter has experience working with coach Mike Smith, with the two together in Jacksonville, but it's what he does with Ryan that determines what happens next with Atlanta.

"I'm very impressed with how quickly they've gotten on the same page," Smith said of Ryan and Koetter. "The one thing I think about both Matt and Dirk is that they're very collaborative." I don't know what that means. The only question that matters is: Are they very successful? That's why they play the games, people.

Dave Wannstedt, defensive coordinator, Buffalo

Buffalo hasn't averaged more than two sacks per game since 2006, so the Bills decided enough was enough and did something about it. They signed free-agent pass rushers Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, drafted cornerback Stephon Gilmore to improve the back end of their defense, then hired Wannstedt to make the whole thing work.

The expectation is that the Bills will be better, maybe so much better they make the playoffs, but that could be up to Wannstedt. The Cowboys' defensive coordinator during their Super Bowl days of the 1990s, Wannstedt will try to pressure the pocket with his front four ... and with Williams, Anderson, Chris Kelsey, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, he has a chance. Buffalo produced 31 takeaways last year, so that's not a problem. But getting to the quarterback? Tom Brady is 18-2 against these guys, so I don't think I need to draw you a picture.

Brian Daboll, offensive coordinator, Kansas City

So the Chiefs may have the fourth-best quarterback in the AFC West. All I know is that Matt Cassel was good enough to take them to the top two years ago, which means he should be good enough to get them there again. The key is how he and his coordinator get along, and that's why Daboll makes this list.

In Cassel he has a quarterback who can take him farther than Colt McCoy in Cleveland or Matt Moore in Miami ... but he has more, much more, on offense than he did at either of those two stops. Remember, it was Daboll who made a playmaker out of Peyton Hillis in Cleveland, and Hillis is paired now with Jamaal Charles.

If Daboll can return the Chiefs to the top of the rushing charts, everything might fall into place again. It worked in 2010. It could now.

Rob Ryan, defensive coordinator, Dallas

He promised this defense would be better than the last, and seeing is believing. In Wednesday's defeat of the New York Giants, the Cowboys held the Giants to a field goal after an interception had them set up first-and-goal at the 1.

OK, so it later allowed two touchdown drives. Big deal. It short-circuited another potential score with a fumble recovery and allowed 14 fewer points than its best performance vs. the Giants a year ago. But a year ago the Cowboys' defense stunk, with Dallas blowing too many second-half leads.

Ryan promised better things, and he backed it up with Wednesday's opener. The biggest improvement for these guys should be on the back end, where new cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne plug holes that sabotaged Dallas in 2011. An improved defense could make these guys a playoff club again. It all depends on Ryan, and so far, so good.

Darrell Bevell, offensive coordinator, Seattle

There's a feeling that Seattle has the defense to win. The question, of course, is does it have the offense? Much will depend on what Bevell can draw out of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, who is up against enormous odds to make it. First of all, he's a rookie. Second, he's 5-11. The Seahawks don't seem concerned, but I am.

Plus, tell me the last time Seattle knew what it was doing with its quarterbacks. It traded for Charlie Whitehurst. It signed Tarvaris Jackson. It spent millions on Matt Flynn. Now, it's on to Wilson. Maybe he works out. Maybe he doesn't. All I know is that Bevell is under enormous pressure to make his unit as productive as the Seattle defense. If he can, the Seahawks could squeeze San Francisco. If not, we may be looking at another 7-9 finish.

Dean Pees, defensive coordinator, Baltimore

First Marvin Lewis becomes a head coach. Then it's Jack Del Rio, Mike Nolan, Rex Ryan and Chuck Pagano. Yep, one of the fastest tracks to becoming a head coach in this league is becoming a defensive coordinator in Baltimore. That job belongs to Pees now, and it's a good-news, bad-news type of deal.

The good news: You oversee a unit that's been marvelous for years and still includes Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and you may be auditioning for your first head-coaching job. The bad: You just subtracted the Defensive Player of the Year from your lineup. Yep, that's Terrell Suggs, who's out indefinitely and could miss the season. Add the loss of run-stopper Jarret Johnson (he signed with San Diego), and, suddenly, this picture isn't as promising as it appears for Pees.

People keep telling me Baltimore is Super Bowl ready, and maybe they're right. But I see holes that weren't there a year ago. Pees must, too, only he must do something about it. The Ravens go nowhere without a dominant defense -- and not having Suggs makes it tough on its new coordinator.


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