How 29 defensive assistants have done as NFL head coaches

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Barry Werner
·9 min read
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Jets set future on Saleh

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The New York Jets are banking on Robert Saleh turning their losing ways into winning ones. The former defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers has a big task turning around a 2-14 team. How have other defensive coaches done when they have stepped up to the big gig?

Wade Phillips (82-64 as head coach)

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Wade Phillips served on the defensive side of the ball for many teams. He also had numerous head coaching jobs, whether with an interim tag or an actual head coach. Phillips has an 82-64 record as the bossman.

Steve Spagnuolo (11-41)

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Steve Spagnuolo won two Super Bowls as defensive coordinator, one with the New York Giants and one with the Kansas City Chiefs. Following two seasons in New York, he was the head coach of the St. Louis Rams for three seasons. His record as head coach of the Rams from 2009-11 was an abysmal 11-41.

Matt Patricia (13-29-1)

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For 14 seasons, Matt Patricia was an assistant coach with the New England Patriots, including six seasons as the team's defensive coordinator from 2012 to 2017. During his tenure with the Patriots, Patricia won three Super Bowls, two as defensive coordinator. He went on to coach the Detroit Lions for two-plus seasons with a record of 13-29-1 before being fired.

Dan Quinn (43-42)

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Dan Quinn is the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys. He came to prominence as the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks from 2013-14. Under Quinn, Seattle led the league in defense and made two Super Bowl appearances for consecutive seasons, winning the franchise's first in Super Bowl XLVIII. This success led to Quinn being named head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, where he served for six seasons. He was fired in 2020 with a 43-42 record.

Rex Ryan (61-66)

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Rex Ryan joined the Baltimore Ravens in 1999 and spent nine years there. In 2005, he became the defensive coordinator and later was promoted to be the team's assistant head coach in 2008. Ryan later became head coach of the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills. His record as a head coach: 61-66.

Todd Bowles (24-40)

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Todd Bowles is the defensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the interim defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2012, and then held the permanent position for the Arizona Cardinals in 2013 and '14. He was 2-1 as interim head coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2011. As head coach of the Jets over four seasons, Bowles was 24-40.

Bill Arnsparger (7-28)

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The late Arnsparger is best known for serving as a defensive coordinator for Miami Dolphins teams that won consecutive Super Bowls (1972 and 1973) and reached another (1982), all under head coach Don Shula. Later in his career, he served as the defensive coordinator for another Super Bowl runner-up, the 1994 San Diego Chargers. He was also the head coach of the New York Giants 1974–1976, gong 7-28, and LSU (1983–1986).

Dom Capers (48-80)

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Dom Capers is a senior defensive assistant for the Minnesota Vikings. A defensive assistant for most of his coaching career, Capers held his first defensive coordinator position with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1992. He left Pittsburgh to become the Panthers head coach in 1995. He is the only head coach to lead two different NFL expansion teams during their first seasons. He was 48-80 over eight seasons, split between Carolina and Houston.

Bill Belichick (274-126)

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Bill Belichick is an eight-time Super Bowl champion. Six of the rings came as head coach of the New England Patriots. The first two were as defensive coordinator for the New York Giants.

Buddy Ryan (55-55-1)

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Buddy Ryan began his professional coaching career as the defensive line coach for the New York Jets of the AFL for the team's Super Bowl III victory. He became the defensive line coach for the Minnesota Vikings. He then became the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears, who won Super Bowl XX. As defensive coordinator of the Bears. Ryan then coached the Eagles, served as defensive coordinator of the Oilers, and coached the Cardinals. Overall as a head coach he was 55-55-1.

Eric Mangini (33-47)

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Eric Mangini was an assistant under Bill Belichick, serving under him while Belichick was the defensive coordinator with the Jets and later following him to the New England Patriots, where he succeeded Romeo Crennel as defensive coordinator in 2005. Mangini served as the coach of the New York Jets from 2006-08 and the Cleveland Browns in 2009-10. He was 33-47 overall.

Rod Marinelli (10-38)

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Rod Marinelli is the defensive line coach for the Las Vegas Raiders. He has been a defensive coach for several college and professional teams, serving primarily as a defensive line coach when he has not been a coordinator. From 2006-08, Marinelli was the head coach of the Detroit Lions, where he oversaw their infamous winless 2008 season.

Romeo Crennel (32-63)

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Romeo Crennel served as the interim head coach for the Houston Texans in 2020. He previously was head coach of the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs, as well as an assistant coach for six NFL teams and four college teams. He has five Super Bowl wins as an assistant coach, two with the New York Giants and three with the New England Patriots. Overall, Crennel is 32-63 as a head coach.

Jim Schwartz (29-51)

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Jim Schwartz just left his position as defensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was also the head coach of the Detroit Lions, going 29-51 from 2009-13.

Nick Saban (15-17)

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Nick Saban is best known for his college success but he did have time in the NFL. Saban became the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns of under head coach Bill Belichick from 1991-94. Eventually, he was head coach of the Miami Dolphins. He was 15-17 in two seasons.

Brian Flores (15-17)

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Brian Flores began his coaching career with the New England Patriots where he joined as a scout in 2004 before serving as an assistant coach from 2008-18. Flores was New England's defensive play-caller during his final season coaching for the team, He has done a great job in two seasons with the Dolphins.

Mike Zimmer (64-47-1)

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Mike Zimmer is the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. He is 64-47-1 since 2014. He previously served as defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, Atlanta Falcons, and Dallas Cowboys.

Mike Vrabel (29-19)

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After retiring as a player following the 2010 season, Mike Vrabel was the linebackers and defensive line coach at Ohio State for three seasons. His NFL coaching career began in 2014 with the Houston Texans as linebackers coach and then defensive coordinator, before becoming the Titans' head coach in 2018.

Vic Fangio (12-20)

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Vic Fangio was a defensive coordinator for 20 of the last 24 seasons at the NFL or college level before becoming the Broncos’ head coach. He has spent two sub-.500 seasons as Denver's head coach.

Ron Rivera (83-72-1)

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Ron Rivera's coaching career began in 1997 when he served as a quality control coach for the Bears. He then joined the Philadelphia Eagles as a linebackers coach in 1999 before rejoining the Bears to become their defensive coordinator in 2004. In 2007, he joined the San Diego Chargers as a linebackers coach before serving as their defensive coordinator for the next three seasons. In 2011, Rivera became the head coach for the Carolina Panthers. He became the head coach of the Washington Football Team in 2020. He is the only coach in NFL history to have led two teams with a losing record to the playoffs, doing so with the Carolina Panthers in 2014 and Washington Football Team in 2020.

Steve Wilks (3-13)

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Steve Wilks is the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns. He was the head coach for the Arizona Cardinals for one season and was fired after a 3-13 record. He also spent time as defensive backs coach for the Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers, and as defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers.

Chuck Pagano (53-43)

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Chuck Pagano served as the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens in 2011, and as defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears from 2019–2020. He also spent six seasons as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

Mike Pettine (10-22)

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Mike Pettine is the defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers. He was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns from 2014-15.

Mike Tomlin (145-78-1)

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Mike Tomlin was the defensive backs coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2001-05. Tomlin spent the 2006 season as the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator. He took over as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2007.

Vance Joseph (11-21)

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Vance Joseph is the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals. Previously he was the head coach of the Denver Broncos.

Marvin Lewis (131-122-3)

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Marvin Lewis came to prominence as the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens from 1996-2001. This success resulted in Lewis being named the Bengals' head coach, where he served from 2003 to 2018. .

Pete Carroll (145-94-1)

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Pete Carroll entered the NFL in 1984 as the defensive backs coach of the Buffalo Bills. The next year, he moved onto the Minnesota Vikings where he held a similar position for five seasons (1985–89). His success with the Vikings led to his hiring by the New York Jets, where he served as defensive coordinator under Bruce Coslet for four seasons. Carroll had head coaching jobs with the Jets and New England before returning to college at USC. He left the Trojans for the Seattle Seahawks, where he remains.

John Harbaugh (129-79)

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John Harbaugh is the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. Previously, he coached the defensive backs for the Philadelphia Eagles and served as the Eagles special teams coach for nine years.

Leslie Frazier (21-32-1)

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Leslie Frazier is the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills. He served as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings from 2010-13, going 21-32-1.