Monday the New York Giants will be interviewing Pepper Johnson for their vacant defensive coordinator position.
Johnson was selected by the New York Giants in the second round of the 1986 draft and was a key linebacker for the Giants for six years. Later on, Johnson re-joined his former defensive coordinator Bill Belichick as a linebackers' coach in 2000. Since then he has coached linebackers and the defensive line for New England before becoming the defensive line coach for the Buffalo Bills.
There are two big questions about Johnson that the Giants need answered as the process moves forward. The first is could he build a defensive playbook, create and teach a scheme, manage the personnel, and call the defense during a game. The other question is why was Johnson passed over for a defensive coordinator job when it became available in New England.
Because we couldn't reach out to Johnson, the Buffalo Bills, or New England Patriots themselves -- not that they would tell me anything if I did -- I reached out to Richard Hill of Pats Pulpit and Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings.
Could Jim Schwartz be a candidate for DC?
•Big Blue ViewRex Ryan is now Buffalo head coach, and he and Schwartz have differing defensive styles.
First up is Brian of Buffalo Rumblings. I asked him for any insight he might have on Johnson or what he could bring with him from his short time in Buffalo.
The Bills ran a basic 4-3 defense under Jim Schwartz, and Pepper Johnson coached the defensive line. Buffalo has, arguably, the league's best defensive line, with two first team All-Pro players (Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus), a Pro Bowler (Kyle Williams), and a should-have-been-in-the-Pro-Bowl end (Jerry Hughes), so I can't imagine his one year in Buffalo was a particularly stressful job.
Honestly, having only seen him in action for a year, it's tough to gauge how he was received by the players. They always had more to say about Schwartz than about Johnson. [...] It's tough to feel bad about what his line accomplished in one season in Buffalo.
This isn't much. Actually it's about what the folks at Acme Packing Company had to say about Ben McAdoo when I reached out to them last year, and not unexpected. Johnson was only at Buffalo for one year and much like McAdoo, he had a big figure drawing headlines above him. For McAdoo that was Mike McCarthy, for Johnson that was Jim Schwartz.
But while we can't glean much about his coaching abilities from who he coached, we can feel comfortable assuming that he is comfortable with both the 3-4 and 4-3 defensive fronts. The Patriots have long run a 3-4 defense, while as Brian noted, the Bills ran a 4-3 based around a strong, attacking defensive line.
The bigger question is probably why Johnson never got promoted to defensive coordinator, and for that I reached out to Richard Hill of Pats Pulpit.
With Pep, he's been with Belichick forever, so Bill either has a great understanding of where Johnson's ceiling is, or he's unable to overlook his potential. He was drafted to the Giants, with Belichick. Went to the Browns when Belichick went there, and then went to the Jets when Belichick was there. Once he retired, he joined the staff under Belichick in New England in 2000.
I lean towards the "Bill has a great understanding of his ceiling" notion, but that's not to say Pep doesn't have potential- it's just that there were other candidates. When Romeo Crennel left in 2004, Eric Mangini received the nod, which is fine because Mangini had been a coach under Belichick and left the Jets to come to the Patriots. Mangini was only a coach for one year before moving to the Jets, and was replaced by Dean Pees.
This could've been the first case of overlooking Pep, since Pees had only joined in 2004. Still, Pees had been a DC under Nick Saban in college and had been a head coach at Kent State; he had a firm understanding of what it's like to lead an entire unit, so it's clear that Pep, with just six years of coaching experience, just wasn't ready.
That all makes sense, but it gets interesting in 2009 when Pees left.
Pees left in 2009, and then the Patriots opted to not have a defensive coordinator in 2010 and 2011- where the quality of the defense clearly bottomed out and they let up the second most yards all time in 2011. Big mistake on the Patriots part, and it showed an unwillingness to promote Pep.
So in 2012, Belichick promoted Matt Patricia, who had joined the team in 2004 with little experience, to be DC. Pep was a little ticked off and reasonably so.
The question is now, why was Johnson overlooked twice by a coach that Johnson had first played for, then worked for in some capacity for 20 years?
Well, the answer to that could be in an article on NESN.com that Richard pointed me to.
"I think the big thing that Pepper brings to our staff that is really unique is that he's played in this system and he's actually done it out there on the field," Belichick told WEEI earlier this month. "That's been important, not just [to] our defense, but to our entire team, talking to players. He's got a wealth of experience, and he's very good at sharing that."
Meanwhile, the word on Patricia at the time was:
"He always knows what's going on all the time," Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich told WEEI. "He's very up to speed on everything. He knows the adjustments, he knows all that stuff. He's definitely telling us all the right information at the right times."
"He's a real good coach," added fellow linebacker Pierre Woods. "Very smart. Very intelligent. Has a great knowledge for the game when it comes to breaking down opponents. He does a great job."
At the time, Belichick decided to go with option three and not pick either one to be defensive coordinator, and their defense suffered. When he decided to have a defensive coordinator again, Belichick decided to go with Patricia.
Finally, Richard summed it all up with this:
Essentially, Belichick understood that Pep was a great positional coach, but didn't think he had the make-up to be a full coordinator. He thought that Patricia had a better understanding of the macro-scale impacts of setting up defenses, and that led him to make that choice.
This is all not to say that Pep can't be successful, but that there were other better candidates and he was never the #1 choice.
So, what does all that tell us about what kind of candidate Pepper Johnson might be? Well, from where I'm sitting, it means that he would likely be comfortable calling a multiple, or hybrid defense thanks to his time teaching and playing in 4-3 and 3-4 fronts.
What it also means is that he can communicate to and relate to players well. But, it also means that Belichick passed him over twice, probably over concerns about whether or not Johnson could implement a game-plan and make in-game adjustments. Being able to reach and relate to players is vitally important for a coordinator, but being able to effectively game-plan, and then manage a game, are at least equally important.
Players need to be able to understand and want to play for their coach, but they also need the coach to put them in position to play their best. If Johnson is going to be a legitimate candidate for the Giants' head coaching job, he will need to prove to Tom Coughlin, Jerry Reese, and John Mara that he can do that.