The Big Reveal

Alan Grant

I met Ray Horton when he was an assistant secondary coach for the Redskins. He was a bright guy, upbeat and personable. He was easy to talk to. I never made it a habit to say too much to my coaches. I had a dad, so none of my coaches was ever a “father figure.”

All I required from a coach was that he put me in the best position to succeed. But I would always share my thoughts on tactical things.

After one game Horton remarked that I seemed more relaxed than usual. I told him it was because we didn’t worry too much about the formations that day. I had a tendency to over think a formation and all of its route possibilities. I liked it when we had a coverage and an audible and we stuck to the script. Horton nodded.

By then Horton had already demonstrated a tendency to reveal parts of himself. He had played ten years as a cornerback for the Cincinnati Bengals and the Dallas Cowboys. Despite that he said that he always knew there was more to him than his ability to make people say “Yeah! or Boo!”  on the field of play.

Years later, Horton showed his humanity when he sold his Mercedes SL500 convertible to a member of the kitchen staff at the Pittsburgh Steelers headquarters. The car was sold for $20.

Interesting guy, no?

After the Redskins, Horton took a job as an assistant secondary coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Horton had played for Dick Lebeau in Cincinnati and while there he learned the intricacies of the zone blitz. From there he was secondary coach of the Detroit Lions. After that he returned to the Bengals to coach their secondary. Then he returned to Pittsburgh where he remained until 2011, when he was named the Cardinals defensive coordinator.

The Arizona Cardinals are playing exceptionally well. Did you know they’re 3-0? Yeah, me neither. The plot lines in an NFL season are normally pretty fixed. Well, this year there’s been the sensational “Bounty Gate,” along with the topic du jour—the officials’ lockout. But in normal times anything pertaining to Messers Manning and Brady provides enough grist ‘til January.

GoogleThe Arizona defense doesn't let quarterbacks breathe.

I thought after Arizona got the best of New England and Brady—in the process disrupting the Patriots’ ten-game home opener win streak, the blogosphere would blow up in discussion about the man behind the Cardinals’ defense. The method is to overreact to these things, is it not?

I thought more would be made of coaching—Horton’s contribution, in particular. After all, much has been made of the Saints struggles in the wake of their coach’s year-long exile. But from watching the Saints, their most glaring weakness is on the defensive side of the ball. Sean Payton’s area of expertise is that uber-aggressive offensive scheme. That part hasn’t changed all that much.

The Saints can’t stop anyone, which is puzzling. The defense would appear to be in good hands with Steve Spagnuolo, he of the Giants victory in Super Bowl XLII. But Gregg Williams’ departure has left this a unit in transition. It takes a year or so for a new guy to get a house in order.

That appears to be the case in Arizona, where Ray Horton, in his second year on the job, has the Cardinals defense rolling with uncharacteristic thunder. After beating the Patriots, the Cardinals promptly relieved the Philadelphia Eagles of any good will they had achieved in their stunning win over Baltimore. The Cardinals defense has allowed just two touchdowns this season.

As most coaches are wont to do these days, Horton appeared on a local Arizona radio show to reveal some things to the Arizona fan base. Some were personal items, like the fact he reads and plays golf and doesn’t follow sports that much.

But maybe Horton revealed too much when discussing his team’s victory over the mighty Patriots. Maybe he shouldn’t have been too eager to share the fact that his job is to get “inside the offensive coordinator’s head” or that he knew the Patriots would try a flea flicker because they had done so against Pittsburgh two years ago. Some folks might (mis) interpret that information, or see it as bragging.

I think the guys at Pro Football Talk took it that way. They posted a story about it, suggesting how Horton wasn’t telling the truth about how the Cardinals defense held Tom Brady to just one touchdown pass.

It was a story about how Horton revealed that the Patriots had a “tell” in their offense. When Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was lined up tight, near the tackle, they would run the ball. And when Hernandez was lined up wide, they would throw the ball.

But after Hernandez injured his ankle in the first quarter the Cardinals’ original game plan went out the window. Without Hernandez, the Patriots went to a lot of three wide receiver sets. So Horton made Tom Brady the key.

Omitted from the story was the fact that Horton and his staff had begun preparing for New England back in April, during the week of the draft. Film study revealed that Brady usually threw the ball when he was in shot gun and the Patriots ran the ball when he was under center.

So the Cardinals defense was based on Brady’s placement. They made two calls in the huddle. When Brady was under center, Horton instructed his defense to go to their run audible. When Brady was in the shotgun, they went to the pass audible. Pretty straightforward. With an agile behemoth like Darnell Dockett up front, and a ball-hawking big play factory like Patrick Peterson in back, the Cardinals can afford to keep it that way.

This approach worked against New England. After the game, Brady admitted to being confused.

But the folks at Pro Football Talk may confuse a tendency with a hard and fast rule. They eagerly point out that after Hernandez left the game, the Patriots ran the ball out of shot gun formation 10 times and passed when Brady was under center 11 times. They say those 21 plays contradict Horton’s tendencies. They say that because of this we shouldn’t “take a coach at his word” anymore.

Anyone who plays this game knows that you must approach every week with a clear-visioned plan. And a tendency can be anything you do more than once. Some game plans are better than others, but there is no exact science in ‘ball. We can pretend there is, especially after the fact. It’s so much fun to do—for fans and coaches alike. But we all know better.

I think we can usually take a coach at his word, especially when he’s excited to share the game with us.

He just should just keep it simple.

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