One of the priorities, which may be overlooked, in any NFL off-season is to review, and hopefully upgrade, your coaching staff. For the AFC South the four current Head Coaches could have felt reasonably comfortable that they would be returning to the top job for 2019. Bill O’Brien had a division title in Houston, Frank Reich and Mike Vrabel had enjoyed varying degrees of success (Reich’s Colts got the furthest of all AFC South teams) and it would only have been Doug Marrone shifting slightly nervously in his Jacksonville office after a disappointing 4-12 season. In all cases the ownership have rolled the dice again with the same lead guy. However, there have been some intriguing changes to other coaching positions which may give a clue as to how the sides will look to develop or alter their approach to the 2019 season. In part 1 we focus in on Jacksonville and Tennessee.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are the obvious team to look at first; the Jags have made eight changes to the coaching staff with some internal moves and other notable additions. On the defensive side of the ball the main switch to pick up on is that, following the firing of Perry Fewell as Defensive Backs Coach, the Jags have divided the responsibilities into a Cornerbacks coach (Tim Walton) and a Safeties coach (Joe Danna). This is interesting for a defense which pretty much aced statistics on defending against the pass last season, except for interceptions which was down from 21 in 2017 (2nd) to 11 in 2018 (23rd). We’ll see down the line if this shift makes any improvements. The Tom Coughlin / New York Giants connection is also strengthened with Walton and Dave Merritt (new Assistant Defensive Line coach) and Coughlin’s reach and influence throughout the organisation is there for all to see.
There is one change on offense which has taken all the headlines and it is the introduction of John DeFilippo as the new Offensive Coordinator (OC) in Jacksonville, and this is down to a link with another name, Nick Foles. It is clear that Blake Bortles’ time is up with the Jags and the sense is that they are looking for an experienced safe bet to take over as the starting QB, and Foles fits the bill as he looks to use his recent time with the Eagles to secure a starting berth. DeFilippo (another coach with links to Coughlin) was the quarterback whisperer in Philadelphia during Foles run to SuperBowl LII, and he was also a coach on the rise before a tepid year in Minnesota overseeing a lacklustre Vikings offense led by Kirk Cousins. It will be intriguing to see how DeFilippo influences what has usually been a run heavy Jags offense (Minnesota HC Mike Zimmer complained of too little emphasis on the run during 2018). The Jags called pass plays 58% of the time in 2018 versus the Vikings 64% but those statistics will be skewed by the simple fact that both sides were often behind and chasing the game last season. With or without Foles I would expect to see some new wrinkles in the Jags offense in 2019.
Unlike in Jacksonville, the order of the day in Tennessee is more “steady as she goes” with Mike Vrabel valuing continuity and stability on both sides of the ball as he heads into his second year as Head Coach (HC). The Titans were one win away from the playoffs and have now enjoyed a level of consistency (3 consecutive seasons at 9-7). This could have been disrupted by the recent loss of Matt LaFleur to the Green Bay Packers vacant HC position. However, the Titans have been able to promote from within as Assistant Coach Arthur Smith steps up to OC. Smith has been with the Titans for 8 years, spending the last 3 as Tight-End coach. He has developed an excellent working relationship with his players, and the production of the tight end position in Tennessee has been high during his tenure, both in terms of receiving yards (Delanie Walker’s receiving yards between 2014-17 were third behind only Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce), and in their blocking of the run game (a particular current strength of the Titans with Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray before him). How he works with Mariota in 2019 will be key to the production of the offense as a whole and one would hope the Tennessee front office provides Smith with a couple of new exciting additions to the roster through free agency and the draft.
Solid defense is also a strength in Tennessee (3rd lowest points per game allowed in 2018 at 18.9) and in Dean Pees as defensive coordinator they have a guy who just loves defense. He recently said of Super Bowl LIII, “It was gorgeous”. Defense wins championships and Dean Pees is a true believer. Pees is not a new hire for the Titans in 2019 but he did have a health concern during the season (November vs Colts which required an overnight hospital stay) so his confirmation of returning in 2019 is a boost to Vrabel. Pees has over 40 years experience in the NFL with two Super Bowl rings, one with the Patriots and one with the Ravens. There will be no let up for offenses suiting up against the Titans any time soon.
One other appointment to note is Frank Piraino going into Tennessee from a six-year stint at Boston College as strength and conditioning coach. The Titans suffered a number of key injuries in 2018 which may have contributed to them not quite being able to make it to the playoffs. Although injuries can come from multiple sources the value of a top notch strength and conditioning coach and programme cannot be overlooked.
Mark or MJ has turned his love of the NFL into sharing his thoughts and opinions on twitter @47yards and on 47yards.blog – He has been a New York Giants fan since their Super Bowl wins in 1986 and 1990 (47 yards is a reference to the distance Scott Norwood missed from in 1990 for the Bills – sorry Bills fans). He enjoys all things NFL and has extended that enjoyment to College football of late, following Ohio State. He is loving seeing the growth of the NFL fan base in the UK and finds September to February is the best part of the year!
Photo credit: Brett Coomer. Houston Chronicle