There is a derisive remark by veteran poker players when they see novices get a good run of cards: You can't bluff against a royal flush.
In other words, all the skills and thinking that go into the game can't beat great cards.
As the New York Giants stockpile talent in their defensive front seven during free agency, some coaches around the league believe there's a cover-up. The feeling is that the franchise is doing its best to build a strong hand to make up for inexperienced Bill Sheridan, who was named defensive coordinator after Steve Spagnuolo was hired as head coach by the St. Louis Rams in January.
"Frankly, I don't know anything about Bill Sheridan and what kind of tendencies he might have," an NFC offensive coordinator said. "I don't have the first guess what he's going to do on third-and-6 or third-and-3. … But I can tell you this: With the guys he has now, he can pretty much do anything he wants."
So far this offseason, the Giants have brought in defensive tackles Chris Canty (six years, $42 million) and Rocky Bernard (four years, $16 million) and speedy linebacker Michael Boley (five years, $25 million) to bolster the front seven. The Giants even talked about signing prized free-agent defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth before the price got too high.
Thus, the plan is obvious.
"There's no doubt: They're trying to load up with as many good players as they can to help the coach, make it as easy as you can on everybody," said Baltimore Ravens quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson. "You want to do that any time, with any coach, whether that guy has been around a long time or not. But this is a way of making it that much smoother a transition. Don't make it hard for a guy who hasn't had a lot of experience."
Sheridan, 50, had served as the team's linebacker coach the previous four seasons. He was promoted from linebackers coach, where he had served with the Giants for four seasons. Before that, he spent 20 years in the college ranks as a position coach at Maine, Cincinnati, Army, Michigan State and Michigan.
In that time, Sheridan has never been in charge of calling plays or making strategic decisions, particularly on the fly. Spagnuolo also didn't have any NFL coordinator experience when he took over the Giants defense in 2007 and helped them win the Super Bowl. But Spagnuolo had at least been a defensive coordinator during three previous stops in his career in college and NFL Europe.
"Spags is a great example of what you're talking about," an AFC head coach said. "He's a really smart guy and came up with some great schemes, particularly as they got through the playoffs. But when you have [Strahan], Umenyiora and Tuck, drawing up schemes is the easy part."
Conversely, drawing up schemes is hard is when a new coordinator is working with a limited group. In 2007, San Francisco was in the midst of going through its third offensive coordinator in three years and head coach Mike Nolan hired Jeff Hostler from within. Hostler, who had been the quarterbacks coach, had no experience as a coordinator and was following experienced offensive coordinators Mike McCarthy and Norv Turner.
Worse, he had little talent on hand. Running back Frank Gore was coming off a monster '06 campaign, but the rest of the skill positions featured quarterback Alex Smith, tight end Vernon Davis and wide receivers Arnaz Battle and Darrell Jackson, whose production waned with the Seattle Seahawks before he joined San Francisco.
By late October of that season, there was little or no trust in Hostler's ability among players such as Gore.
"Norv Turner, he's been doing it for a while," Gore told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time, referring to the previous season. "Whenever he said something, we wanted to do it. Now I feel that a lot of people, when [Hostler] calls something, it gets in the back of their heads, 'Is he calling the right play?' "
Ultimately, the 49ers finished 5-11 that season and Hostler was fired following the campaign.
While Sheridan certainly has much more talent than Hostler did with the 49ers, the confidence issue has yet to be tested. This is the pitfall any inexperienced coach faces.
"That's a pretty natural fear, and I'm sure that [Giants head coach] Tom [Coughlin thought about that. He sees the big picture," the NFC offensive coordinator said. "But knowing some of their players the way I do … Tuck, [Kiwanuka] and [Umenyiora] are all really professional guys. They know how to work, they know what it takes to win and they know how to lead. They'll keep everything under control."
Aside from the Giants' 4-3 scheme, Sheridan has a background in 3-4 defense from his two years of working with Alabama coach Nick Saban at Michigan State. Saban is a disciple of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has specialized in alternating defenses depending on the situation.
Now, Sheridan will have the same options. Adding Canty and Bernard to a group that already includes Tuck, Umenyiora, Kiwanuka, Fred Robbins, Barry Cofield and Jay Alford gives the Giants multiple options.
Tuck and Kiwanuka have played defensive tackle in pass-rush situations. Canty played defensive end in the Dallas Cowboys' 3-4 defense and has the size (6-foot-7, 299 pounds) and athletic ability to make him an ideal fit at any spot except right end in a 4-3 defense. Kiwanuka's natural position is right end, but he can also stand up and play outside linebacker. Both Tuck and Umenyiora, who is coming back from knee surgery, are former Pro Bowlers.
In other words, Sheridan has a pretty good hand to play.
"How bad is it going to be? I mean, you can run any front you want with those guys," the NFC coach said. "Heck, I'd take that job right now – and I haven't coached defense since I was in college."
- Bill Sheridan
- Steve Spagnuolo