There’s been a recent trend in the NFL over recent years.
After decades of watching coaching hires and coaching escalation serve as a “pay your dues”-type process, younger coaches have leaped to the forefront. This has been most evident on the offensive side of the ball, as young coaches have brought innovative ideas and new concepts to the game that have led to an explosion of offense.
Colloquially, the “Sean McVay effect,” named after the Rams offensive-oriented head coach who brought his team to the Super Bowl as the youngest head coach in league history, has been a dominant theme in the hiring process. However, the Houston Texans decided to ignore this trend and pave their own path during the off-season. They hired former linebacker DeMeco Ryans who, despite spending ample time with the McVay-Shanahan offensive tree, specialized on the defensive side of the football as the AP Assistant Coach of the Year in San Francisco.
What really differentiates offensive coaching from defensive coaching? Where does youth factor into both of those equations?
In an interview regarding his new partnership with Frito-Lay to fight food insecurity in Houston, Texans franchise legend J.J. Watt spoke about what made former Houston defensive coordinator and Super Bowl champion Wade Phillips great and the different driving forces of defensive coaching prowess. On Phillips specifically, Watt was beyond complimentary of his former coach.
On the direction of NFL OFF v DEF coaching, @JJWatt had some insights
“On the defensive side of the ball, you need extra experience, someone who’s seen it all to be able to handle it… The reality is we’re just seeing new ways to do similar things from the past.”#WeAreTexans pic.twitter.com/2teUeLF0Rq
— John Crumpler (@JohnHCrumpler) September 6, 2023
“I would 100% agree with Cush that Wade is an incredible coach. I’ve been very fortunate. I had Wade and I had Romeo Crennel, two legends of the game.”
Watt later continued: “He was one of my favorite coaches of all time and there’s a reason that, every single place he goes, he puts up a Top 3 defense within the first two or three years. He’s special and I loved playing for him. That defense we had in 2011 and 2012, that was a special feeling.”
Phillips won a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos and aided the previously mentioned McVay during his first few seasons with the Rams. He was successful everywhere he went despite his age and specialty being the opposite of the McVay or Shanahan mold.
On that note, when asked for elements that made Wade great, Watt pointed to something counter-intuitive to one of the league’s driving hiring forces currently: the concept of experience.
“I think that on the defensive side of the ball – it’s fascinating – the offensive side of the ball in today’s world there’s a lot of really young coaches who are up and coming. Really new ideas whether it’s shift, motions, or whether it’s these new RPOs and things like that,” Watt said.
In contrast, he said of Ryans’ and Phillips’ side of the football, “The defensive side of the ball you need that extra experience, somebody who’s seen it all to be able to handle that situation. They’re able to say hey I’ve seen this before; I’ve seen a variation of this before. The reality is that we’re seeing things (offensively) that are just new ways to do similar things that were done in the past.”
Watt’s discernment that experience allows for easier dissection of offensive football is an interesting one in the context of Coach Ryans’ rapid elevation through the coaching ranks. Ryans features as one of the youngest defensive head coaches in the league and was one of the younger defensive coordinators as well during the past two seasons. However, Ryans piloted NFL defenses as a middle linebacker for 10 seasons prior to beginning his coaching career. The responsibilities of his position and experience discerning plays at the middle level of the defense likely eased his transition significantly.
The league’s dominant hiring practice has pointed to offensive coaches with largely one offensive philosophy. Houston is gambling their special talent, who once starred as defensive rookie of the year in the Battle Red, can transcend both trends and experience. They’ll get their first taste on Sunday when the Texans travel to face the Baltimore Ravens.