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Protecting the nest: A look at potential Cardinals defensive coordinator candidates

The Cardinals need to find a new DC to help protect the nest at State Farm Stadium. Which of the potential candidates we’ve been hearing about should the team target?

Houston Texans v Arizona Cardinals
Protecting the nest will be one of the keys to success in 2019.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With the hiring of Kliff Kingsbury, the Cardinals have addressed their biggest priority of the offseason—bringing aboard a bright, young offensive mind to accelerate the development of Josh Rosen. However, that hire immediately created a new top priority—hiring a veteran defensive coordinator to pair with their relatively inexperienced and defensively challenged new head coach.

GM Steve Keim says the team is looking for two things out of its next DC: head-coaching experience and expertise in the 3-4 defense that the Cardinals ran for years before the failed Steve Wilks/Al Holcomb experiment. Getting the right DC in place to protect the nest now becomes almost as important as the head coaching hire was.

There have been several candidates linked to the Redbirds’ DC job—some officially and some not, and some who fit the bill and some who do not. Basically, if there’s a veteran defensive coach looking for work, he’s probably been mentioned in the media as a candidate.

So rather than trying to make sense of the rumor mill, let’s crunch the numbers on all the potential candidates and see who the data says should be the Cardinal’s next defensive coordinator. Let’s start by listing the candidates.

The Candidates

Cardinals Defensive Coordinator Candidates

Name Age NFL Experience (HC+DC) Runs a 3-4? (Y/N) Most Recent Position
Name Age NFL Experience (HC+DC) Runs a 3-4? (Y/N) Most Recent Position
Todd Bowles 55 8 Yes New York Jets HC
Dom Capers 68 24 Yes Green Bay Packers DC
Vance Joseph 46 3 Yes Denver Broncos HC
Marvin Lewis 60 23 No Cincinnati Bengals HC
Mike Nolan 59 21 Yes New Orleans Saints LB Coach
Chuck Pagano 58 7 Yes Indianapolis Colts HC
Gregg Williams 60 20 No Cleveland Browns DC/Interim HC

This list is a real who’s who of mediocre defensive-minded head coaches. Former Cardinals DC Bowles, Joseph, and Lewis were all fired as head coaches earlier this offseason. Pagano was fired by the Colts last offseason. Capers and Nolan haven’t been head coaches in years and have bounced around the league as DCs for hire.

So good thing we’re just looking for a defensive coordinator, someone to run the defense and be a steadying presence for our rookie head coach. How do these guys rate as defensive coaches? Let’s see what the stats have to say.

Note: Lewis and Williams don’t run a 3-4 defense. That hasn’t stopped some members of the local media from talking them up, but they probably won’t be serious candidates. That said, we’ll include them in the analysis below in the interest of completeness.

Crunching the Numbers

Cardinals Defensive Coordinator Candidate Stats

Name Average YPG Rank (HC+DC) Average PPG Rank (HC+DC) Average Takeaways Rank (HC+DC) Average YPG Rank (DC only) Average PPG Rank (DC only) Average Takeaways Rank (DC only) 1st Year as DC YPG Rank 1st Year as DC PPG Rank 1st Year as DC Takeaways Rank
Name Average YPG Rank (HC+DC) Average PPG Rank (HC+DC) Average Takeaways Rank (HC+DC) Average YPG Rank (DC only) Average PPG Rank (DC only) Average Takeaways Rank (DC only) 1st Year as DC YPG Rank 1st Year as DC PPG Rank 1st Year as DC Takeaways Rank
Todd Bowles 16 17 18 15 14 17 11 18 19
Dom Capers 16 14 14 13 12 12 6 4 9
Vance Joseph 18 18 14 29 18 11 29 18 11
Marvin Lewis 16 15 14 13 13 17 18 25 25
Mike Nolan 17 16 15 16 14 13 13 10 12
Chuck Pagano 21 18 18 3 3 13 3 3 13
Gregg Williams 15 16 20 15 15 19 15 18 19

First, some general observations about the numbers in the chart above:

  • A lot of the rankings in the first three columns (the statistics that include all rankings from a coach’s career, inclusive of their numbers as a head coach and a defensive coordinator) fall in the 14-18 range. That means the defenses of these coaches have tended to normalize around a league-average ranking of 16.
  • That doesn’t mean these are league-average coaches—it just likely means that a defensive head coach’s influence on their team’s defense isn’t as strong as you might think. At least these particular coaches, anyway—coaches who are currently out of a job for a reason. That’s not a particularly useful observation for this exercise (trying to identify the Cardinals’ next DC), but it’s interesting nonetheless.
  • These coaches have just about all been better as defensive coordinator than head coach, as the defensive rankings for their teams are mostly better when when they were coordinator versus head coach. (The exception to this is Joseph, who inherited a Broncos defense that was stronger than the one he previously coached in Miami.) This is a more useful observation for this exercise—it means this is a group of qualified, talented DCs.
  • Even more encouraging for the 2019 Cardinals is that several of these candidates have delivered strong performances in their first season as DC—Capers, Nolan, and Pagano especially. That’s good news for a defense that could be primed for a quick turnaround. (Note that there are some sample size issues with some of these candidates here—Pagano and Joseph only had one season as a DC, and Bowles only had three.)

Next, I’ll give some quick thoughts on each candidate in light of the numbers in the chart above:

  • Bowles: He’s a familiar name, he runs a 3-4, and his defenses have generally been competent. I think most Cardinals fans would be happy to have him back in the desert. Unfortunately, Bowles was hired late yesterday by former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians to be his DC in Tampa Bay. So you can cross Bowles’s name off the list.
  • Capers: He is 8 years older than any other candidate on this list, which immediately brings to mind the Sean McVay/Wade Phillips pairing in Los Angeles. Capers might be older, but he’s also the most successful candidate—as a DC, his defenses have averaged out to top-12 in the league, and his performance in his first year with a team is incredible, turning every defense he touches into a top-10 unit. I wasn’t high on Capers before I started this exercise, but color me intrigued now.
  • Joseph: The youngest and least experienced name on this list, with only one season as a coordinator and two as a head coach under his belt. His main problems in Denver were on the offensive side of the ball, but it’s not like the defense was the same fearsome unit it had been in years past on his watch. There’s nothing terribly impressive about his resume. I think the Cardinals can do better than Joseph.
  • Lewis: He helmed arguably the greatest defense of all time—the 2000 Baltimore Ravens—and his defenses in Cincinnati were usually respectable (at least until this season). But he runs a 4-3 and doesn’t really have any ties to the desert. I don’t think we’ll see Lewis on the Cardinals sidelines in 2019.
  • Nolan: Nolan has really bounced around the league, serving as DC for seven different teams and serving as the 49ers HC for 3+ seasons. But he’s been fairly successful as a DC and has had solid results in his first season on the job at most stops. Like Capers, I wasn’t enthused when I first heard Nolan’s name, but after looking at the numbers, I’m a bit higher on him now.
  • Pagano: It’s hard to know what to make of Pagano. He fielded an excellent defense in his lone year as Ravens DC, but the defense had been excellent for several years prior to Pagano taking over. (Note: Pagano is the third former Ravens DC on this list, along with Lewis and Nolan.) And his defenses in Indianapolis were mostly atrocious, ranking 26th or worse in YPG four times. He was someone I was intrigued by prior to this article; now, I’m not so sure about him.
  • Williams: He was recently passed over for the Browns’ HC job for former Cardinals assistant Freddie Kitchens despite leading the team to a 5-3 record. Williams has bounced around a ton like Nolan (seven DC gigs, two HC gigs, including Cleveland), and he has more baggage than you’d like for a DC (Bountygate, reported clashes with Hue Jackson last season)—not to mention that he runs a 4-3. He’s a big name, but he’s not anyone the Cardinals should be looking at.

The Verdict

Here’s how I’d rank these seven candidates after considering the fit and looking at the numbers:

  1. Dom Capers
  2. Todd Bowles
  3. Mike Nolan
  4. Chuck Pagano
  5. Vance Joseph
  6. Gregg Williams
  7. Marvin Lewis

If Keim wants an experienced 3-4 defensive coordinator, Capers fits that to a tee. Other than his head coaching stint with the expansion Houston Texans, Capers has delivered a top-10 defense at every single one of his other coaching stops (Pittsburgh DC, Carolina HC, Jacksonville DC, Miami DC, Green Bay DC), and he earned a Super Bowl ring with the Packers as DC in 2010. With Chandler Jones, Budda Baker, and Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals defense doesn’t need much to return to top-10 status, and it would likely happen sooner rather than later with Capers’s magic touch. Plus, the McVay/Phillips parallels with Kingsbury are too strong to ignore. Keim should be gunning hard for Capers.

But if he strikes out, Nolan would make a decent fallback option. He has a strong statistical record as a DC, and he might very well add a Super Bowl ring to his resume if the Saints go all the way this postseason. Plus he’s almost a decade younger than Capers. I’m still somewhat intrigued by Pagano, but he doesn’t appear to have the same level of defensive acumen as Capers and Nolan. Joseph lacks the experience Keim is looking for, and Williams and Lewis don’t run a 3-4, so they should all be out of the running.

To sum it up, Capers, Nolan, and Pagano (in that order) are the names the Cardinals should be going after for defensive coordinator. Once that hire is made, Kingsbury can go about filling the rest of his staff and the team can turn its attention toward free agency and the draft. The offseason is in full swing, Redbirds fans! (Never mind that the playoffs are still going on.)

So what do we think about these prospective DC candidates? Should we be targeting Capers, Nolan, and Pagano? Or one of the other candidates? Anyone we missed? Leave us your thoughts in the comments.