NFL assistant coaches don’t usually get too much publicity this time of year. The center of attention is usually the quarterback, his new receivers, a team’s new crop of rookies, and how a new head coach is changing the team’s culture.
But the assistant coaches are an important piece to the puzzle. They are the ones who interact with the players each day, helping them improve their technique, scout their opponents, and learn from their mistakes.
Let’s take a look at the most important assistant coaches in new roles for the 2022 season:
▪ Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. Quarterback Josh Allen has developed into a top-five NFL quarterback over the past two seasons and turned the Bills into an annual contender. But now he has lost his right-hand man in Brian Daboll, the Giants’ head coach who was the only offensive coordinator Allen has had as a pro.
In steps Dorsey, a former University of Miami quarterback who was promoted after serving as the Bills’ quarterbacks coach since 2017. The Bills hope that the continuity between Dorsey and Allen will make the transition seamless.
“It’s a great opportunity to just kind of hit the ground running because there’s not that feel-out period,” Dorsey said this past week.
▪ Packers special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia. The Packers finished 32nd in Rick Gosselin’s rankings for 2021, which combine all elements of special teams into a single number. Under former coach Maurice Drayton, the Packers had the worst punt coverage in the NFL, the worst kickoff return average, the worst field goal percentage, and had a field goal and a punt blocked in the playoff loss to the 49ers.
So they brought in Bisaccia, an NFL special teams coordinator since 2002 who was available after the Raiders decided not to hire him as their head coach. If Bisaccia can fix even half of the mistakes of last year’s team, it might be enough to get the Packers over the hump and into the Super Bowl.
▪ 49ers quarterbacks coach Brian Griese. He played 11 NFL seasons, and called games for ESPN for 12. But Griese is now coaching for the first time, and it’s a fairly important role. He’s in charge of developing second-year quarterback Trey Lance, who is the future of the 49ers after they traded multiple first-round picks for him in 2021.
Lance, only 22, has started just three games and thrown only 101 passes over the past two seasons, between losing 2020 to COVID and spending most of 2021 on the bench. The 49ers are choosing Lance over Jimmy Garoppolo but still have Super Bowl hopes. They need Griese to develop Lance into a winner right away.
▪ Jaguars offensive coordinator Press Taylor, passing game coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, and quarterbacks coach Mike McCoy. Trevor Lawrence was viewed as a potential superstar when he was drafted in 2021, but his rookie season under Urban Meyer was a disaster. Now former Eagles coach Doug Pederson, who won a Super Bowl with backup Nick Foles, is in charge in Jacksonville, and he’s relying on a talented trio of coaches to help develop the Jaguars’ young quarterback.
Taylor, 34, is the younger brother of Bengals coach Zac Taylor and was one of Pederson’s prized assistants in Philadelphia. Cooter, 37, worked with Matthew Stafford for five seasons in Detroit and is a favored coach of Peyton Manning. And McCoy, 50, has spent eight years as a coordinator and four as an NFL head coach before coming to Jacksonville. This is McCoy’s first NFL job since 2018.
▪ Steelers senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach Brian Flores. The Steelers have not had a losing season in 15 years under Mike Tomlin, but they have gotten sloppy and complacent the last few years. They haven’t won a playoff game since 2016, and also missed the playoffs twice in that time.
Enter Flores, the hard-nosed, disciplined coach who came on board this offseason after he was fired by the Dolphins (and is suing the Dolphins and the NFL for racial discrimination) despite compiling a 19-14 record the last two seasons. Steelers players have already noticed Flores’s impact.
“He’s a bulldog,” safety Terrell Edmunds said. “Just the way he talks, you can tell that he’s got the military mentality. He wants everything to be on point. He’s not letting anybody slack off. We need that.”
▪ Dolphins quarterbacks coach Darrell Bevell. The Dolphins have an impressive receiving corps with Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Mike Gesicki, and Cedrick Wilson. They have a solid defense with two excellent cornerbacks in Xavien Howard and Byron Jones. And they have an exciting new offensive system being installed by new head coach Mike McDaniel.
The Dolphins’ hopes ultimately come down to quarterback Tua Tagovailoa making a big leap in his third season. Bevell, 50, certainly has a lot of great experience, spending three years as Brett Favre’s quarterbacks coach, and 15 years as an offensive coordinator with the Vikings, Seahawks (coaching a young Russell Wilson), Lions, and Jaguars.
▪ Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. The pride of Medway High and Boston College has been the Saints’ quarterbacks coach since 2006 and offensive coordinator since 2009. But he takes on a new responsibility this year now that Sean Payton has retired.
Carmichael, 50, will have to call plays and truly be in charge of the offense, instead of serving as Payton’s wingman. Last year, the Saints’ first without Drew Brees, they finished 28th in total yards and 19th in points, though Jameis Winston’s midseason ACL tear played a big factor. If the Saints want to contend, they need Carmichael to continue Payton’s offensive mastery.
▪ Ravens defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald. Injuries were a big reason why the Ravens finished 8-9 and missed the playoffs last year. But the defense struggled under former coordinator Don Martindale, finishing 19th in points, 25th in total yards allowed, 32nd in passing yards allowed, and 29th in turnovers created.
MacDonald, 34, joined the Ravens in 2014 as a coaching intern, and in seven seasons was promoted to defensive assistant, defensive backs coach, and linebackers coach. Jim Harbaugh hired him away to be Michigan’s defensive coordinator in 2021, but John Harbaugh took him right back to be the Ravens’ defensive coordinator in 2022.
Patriots preseason won’t be the same
A couple of items that stand out about the Patriots’ schedule:
▪ The preseason has a different look for the first time in almost 20 years. The Patriots played the Giants in the final preseason game every season between 2005-21 (except 2020 because of COVID), but this year the game was scheduled as the preseason opener. This will mark the 20th preseason meeting in 23 years between the Patriots and Giants, but the first time they are meeting in the opener since 2001-03.
Instead, the Patriots will wrap up the preseason in Las Vegas, which will include a couple days of joint practices with Josh McDaniels and the Raiders in the days leading up to the game. Bill Belichick perhaps wanted an opportunity to practice in the desert heat before the Patriots’ kick off the regular season in Miami in Week 1.
McDaniels told me at the owners’ meetings that the Raiders will practice early in the morning in training camp — like 7 a.m. early — because they want to practice outside and it’s the only humane time of the day to do it.
▪ The Patriots and Colts have a Week 9 game scheduled for a 1 p.m. kickoff at Gillette Stadium. That in and of itself seems unremarkable, but it’s a rare Sunday 1 p.m. kickoff for what had been a premium NFL matchup for the past 20 years.
The Week 9 game will be the 20th Patriots-Colts matchup since the start of the 2003 season (including playoffs). It will be just the third time that the game kicks off at 1 p.m., and the first time since 2011, a streak of eight games. And that 2011 game was supposed to be in prime time, but it was flexed to 1 p.m. because Peyton Manning was hurt and the Colts were awful.
Of the 19 Colts-Patriots games over the last two decades, 10 kicked off at 8 p.m. or later, and five in the 4 p.m. window. In recent years, Patriots-Colts has been used as a Thursday night or Saturday night matchup.
But that was an era of Tom Brady vs. Manning. Belichick vs. Tony Dungy and Bill Polian. Then Brady vs. Andrew Luck. Then Deflategate.
The 1 p.m. kickoff this year is a reminder that those days, sadly, are gone. Perhaps Mac Jones and Matt Ryan can help revive the rivalry.
Offseason takes a tragic turn
The offseason can unfortunately be a time when the real world intervenes, and the last few weeks have been especially tough for NFL players.
Two players suffered tragic accidents: Steelers quarterback Dwayne Haskins was killed when hit by a truck in Florida, and Cardinals cornerback Jeff Gladney was killed in a car accident last week in Dallas.
Gladney, a first-round pick by the Vikings in 2020, had not been with the Cardinals long before his accident early Monday morning. Released by the Vikings last August for a felony assault charge, Gladney, 25, sat out the 2021 season, but he was found not guilty in March. He signed with the Cardinals a week later, and had only been around his new team for about a week of voluntary workouts before his accident.
The news still hit the Cardinals hard, and coach Kliff Kingsbury made sure his players knew about Gladney the person.
“I had known Jeff when I was the head coach at Texas Tech and he was playing at TCU and always admired his competitiveness, tough-nosed [playing style],” Kingsbury said via the Arizona Republic. “He’s from New Boston, a small town of like 4,000 people, and he just earned everything every step of the way. It’s tough to handle, but it definitely gives all our players a perspective on just how precious life is. I know a lot of guys want to make sure they live it the right way, because you never know.”
In a separate tragedy, former seven-year NFL running back Marion Barber, 38, was found dead in his Dallas-area apartment on Wednesday. Barber scored 53 touchdowns in his career and made the 2007 Pro Bowl but seemed to have a few troubles after football. In 2014, Barber was detained by police and taken to a hospital for a mental health examination, and in 2019, he was arrested on two counts of criminal mischief.
A year ago, former Cowboys teammate Dez Bryant tweeted a Barber highlight video with the caption, “As I watch this video and me knowing exactly how Marion Barber’s life is going right now … I can’t even enjoy it because he’s down and out bad.”
And Steelers seven-year defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt, who had 11.5 sacks last year, announced his retirement Wednesday. He cited his recent degree from Notre Dame, and a desire to do something bigger with his life following the death last year of his younger brother, Richard Bartlett III, who was killed in a hit-and-run car accident in suburban Atlanta that remains unsolved.
Gore, Fitzpatrick will be missed in retirement
Two remarkable NFL careers wrapped up this past week when running back Frank Gore, who didn’t play in 2021, and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick retired.
Gore’s 16-year career is incredible in and of itself, considering he played the most physically demanding position in football. But his longevity and durability — he played in 241 of a possible 256 games — was even more impressive given that Gore tore his ACL twice in college, and he fell to the third round of the draft as an injury risk.
But in 10 seasons with the 49ers, three with the Colts, and one each with the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets, Gore racked up an even 16,000 rushing yards, third most in NFL history, and rushed for 81 touchdowns, tied for 19th. He’s going into the 49ers’ Hall of Fame this year, and considering he played in a pass-happy era that devalued the running back, Gore should be a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well.
Fitzpatrick won’t be getting a bust in Canton, Ohio, but he was one of the NFL’s most enjoyable personalities, and one of its biggest roller coasters, in the last two decades. The only quarterback drafted out of the Ivy League in the last 35 years, Fitzpatrick improbably crafted a 17-year career despite being picked 250th overall in the seventh round in 2005, and despite never gaining traction with one team.
Fitzpatrick started 147 games in his career, throwing 223 for touchdowns and creating plenty of Fitzmagic.
But he was a journeyman in every sense of the word. His four years with the Bills from 2009-12 were the longest he stayed with one team. Fitzpatrick spent two years each with the Bengals, Dolphins, Jets, Buccaneers, and Dolphins, and one year each with the Titans, Texans, and Washington. Fitzpatrick never played in a postseason game in 17 seasons, but he played his best ball in his late 30s, and deserved better treatment from the Dolphins near the end of his career, when he was benched for a clearly inferior Tua Tagovailoa. Fitzpatrick looked like a good pickup for Washington last year, but he tore his hip in the season opener and never played again.
The NFL was more fun with Gore and Fitzpatrick in the huddle, and fans will miss them in retirement.
Sony Michel was a postseason hero for the Patriots in 2018, rushing for 336 yards and six touchdowns in their Super Bowl run. But Michel has fallen off the map pretty quickly. After three seasons in New England and a trade to the Rams last year, Michel is now with the Dolphins on a one-year, $1.75 million contract with only $850,000 guaranteed, which means he’s no lock to make the team. Michel did rush for 845 yards last year for the Rams, but he never did display the speed or dynamism that led the Patriots to drafting him in the first round in 2018 … It’s Tom Brady’s world, and we’re all just living in it, part 78: According to the Sports Business Journal, Brady led all NFL players in group licensing and marketing deals via the NFL Players Association, earning $9.5 million in 2021. Next on the list is Patrick Mahomes at $3.3 million … Tremendous decision by the folks at EA Sports to put the dearly departed John Madden on the cover of the Madden 23 football game, and to use Madden’s photo from the original game. It’s the first time since 2000 with Madden on the cover. I see the picture and can hear Madden shouting “Boom!” … The Colts have been blown away by Matt Ryan’s accuracy. Receiver Michael Pittman reveled that Ryan “can pretty much put it wherever he wants,” and coach Frank Reich said, “I always knew he was a great passer, but his accuracy is insane.” It’s hard not to chuckle at these comments as backhanded swipes at Carson Wentz, who could barely throw the ball into the ocean last season.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.