When former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator and interim head coach Bruce Arians became the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals (a well-deserved honor), some changes to the staff were inevitable. One change that could alter the franchise in a negative way was defensive coordinator Ray Horton moving on to take that same position with the Cleveland Browns. Despite an offense that was an unmitigated dumpster fire, Horton led Arizona's defense to one of the best single-season performances in the long history of the franchise.
The 2012 Cardinals ranked sixth overall in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted defensive metrics, the squad's highest ranking since 1994 -- the first year they were termed the Arizona Cardinals, and the first year of Buddy Ryan's head coaching tenure. Horton's advanced schemes made stars out of end Calais Campbell and linebacker Darryl Washington, and made it very difficult for opposing offenses to do much of anything. Arizona ranked dead last in offensive efficiency last season, which makes Horton's work even more impressive.
But with new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles on board, it seems that Arizona's defensive linemen -- especially Campbell and his fellow end Darnell Dockett are not only happy with the new system in place; some are also claiming that Horton's system held them back.
“Personally, I had nothing against Ray,” Dockett told the team's official website this week. “But I hated that scheme. I really hated it. I played it because I needed to. But this defense is based on guys and what their ability allows them to be good at. What they were drafted for.”
Horton, a Dick Lebeau disciple, often set his fronts with three down linemen -- a nose tackle and the Campbell/Dockett combo outside -- and other defenders flying around with heavy pre-snap motion and post-snap disguising. Part of the problem in facing Arizona's defense under Horton was that it was very tough to determine where people were coming from. That was especially true for Washington, who played all over the place.
Campbell, who had two great seasons under Horton in 2011 and 2012, also believes that the new regime will provide better results.
“I definitely like it,” he said. “Darnell and myself, I feel like we have the ability to make a lot of different plays, but sometimes in the 3-4 you have to put the team in front of yourself. This defense, the way we are doing things, it gives us a chance to make a difference.”
We'll see. Bowles has limited experience coaching an entire NFL defense -- he was promoted from secondary coach to defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles last October after Andy Reid's experiment with Juan Castillo proved to be a dismal failure. And under Bowles, the Eagles' defense actually regressed in the second half of the season -- from 16th to 32nd against the pass in FO's metrics, and from 14th to 22nd against the run. He was a secondary coach for multiple NFL teams before that. This defense is not one that Bowles inherited mid-season, so he'll have more time to put his own schemes together -- though he'll be without Washington for the first four games, due to an NFL suspension.
Meanwhile, Horton has moved on to greener pastures. The Browns loaded up on line talent in the offseason, adding ex-Baltimore outside linebacker Paul Kruger and former Oakland Raiders end Desmond Bryant to an underrated front seven that also includes end Athyba Rubin, tackle Phil Taylor, and first-round pass-rusher Barkevious Mingo.
The Cards may be happier about the new guy in the short term, but we'll see who has the last word. Removing a coordinator of Horton's skill and proven success could easily backfire.