January 16, 2010

Digging Deeper - Defensive Coordinator Jim Haslett

Redskins “official blogger” Matt Terl picked up last week’s piece on the then-prospective hiring of Jim Haslett as defensive coordinator as a jumping-off point to make his case for Haslett … and that’s fine. It was actually a welcome result, as it was pretty much what I was hoping someone would do.

The earlier piece, after all, was as much a plea for someone to convince me that Haslett's statistics really were meaningless as they were a statement of my opinion of the man.

So just for fun, and to dig a little deeper now that Haslett's actually been hired, I thought maybe I’d respond to Matt's Redskins Blog piece, message board style …

MT: The Redskins named Jim Haslett their defensive coordinator today, confirming a move that's been rumored for a few days now, and filling a position that opened when Greg Blache retired.

Haslett coached the UFL's Florida Tuskers to an undefeated season and a loss in the championship game last year, which pretty much makes him the Bill Belichick of the UFL. (It also means that he fills an interesting parenthetical niche as the second guy the Redskins have signed who was involved with that UFL Championship game -- mid-season replacement kicker Graham Gano kicked the gamewinning field goal to beat Haslett's Tuskers.)

Not sure how compelling these two points really are in helping the Haslett cause.  For one thing, being the second-best coach in the UFL can arguably be compared to being the second-pace finisher in the NIT. Better than finishing third there, sure, but it is still second. And it is still the NIT. I’m sure Matt would agree he’d feel a whole lot warm and fuzzier bragging up the second place finisher in the NFL.

Oh, and purely parenthetically … the fact that Bill Belichick has casually been help up as a genius for the past several years has always rankled me.


Cleveland ('91-'95)

36 - 44 (.450)

New England ('00-'09)

Sans Tom Brady ... 15 - 18 (.454)
With Tom Brady ... 97 - 30 (.764)

But that’s a discussion for another day.

MT: And he has NFL cred as well. He was the defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints in 1996, the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1997-99, and the St. Louis Rams in 2006, 2007 and for the first four games of 2008 before being named interim head coach in St. Louis. (And beating the Redskins the following Sunday, in fact.)

It is nice to know Haslett’s been attractive enough a DC candidate to have been offered the job four times. Hopefully, assuming things work out for him in that role in Washington, he will stay at least as long as he did in Pittsburgh and not as long as he did in New Orleans or St. Louis.

Oh, I know there were “circumstances.” Just pointing out that longevity and Jim Haslett, Defensive Coordinator have not exactly been synonymous through his NFL coaching career.

MT: He played in the NFL as well, as linebacker for the Buffalo Bills, where he won defensive rookie of the year in 1979 and went to the Pro Bowl in 1980. The picture above -- Haslett stopping Tony Dorsett for a short gain -- is really all the backstory I need to embrace the guy as a Redskins coach.

Hey, I love a good Cowboy masher as much as the next Redskins fan.  Partial to former Pro Bowlers too.  I'm just not sure I would choose to use either as a pillar of support for handing my defense over to, oh, say LaVar Arrington or Dexter Manley.  Just sayin’.

MT: But not everyone agrees with me on that.

I should think not.  

MT: On his Redskins blog The Om Field, the eponymous Om is less than enthused by the hiring …

The defensive numbers are ... less-than-optimal, let's say. Haslett's defenses in Pittsburgh slipped noticeably in the rankings from the time he took over, from 2nd before he got there to 6th and then to 12th in the league. And that's certainly less-than-ideal. (This would be the "con" perspective, in case you hadn't guessed.)

But here's the thing: the defense in Washington has been ranked well numerically the last couple of years, but that ranking never seemed to be fully reflected on the field. If you're being honest with yourself, what do you picture when you picture the 2009 Redskins pass defense, for example?

Do you think of it as the 8th ranked pass defense in the NFL (which it was), or do you think of the defensive secondary playing ten yards off the line of scrimmage on a third-and-8? Or of Tony Romo passing the Cowboys down the field to the game winning touchdown? Based on my emails and what I see on Twitter, I suspect that most of you think of something more like those second things.

So rankings are meaningless. Fine.

Couple of semi-serious things here:

• As previously noted, taking Haslett’s defensive coordinator stats in a vacuum serves admittedly limited purpose. The underlying point was that there is little about Haslett's numbers that jump out as particularly impressive or cause excitement—things one presumably wants when contemplating a new coach and new direction heading into a New Era.  Fact is, Haslett's numbers are at best average. At worst, they are a little unsettling … particularly the clear statistical regression in Pittsburgh under his watch, and absent contextual explanation, remain a bit of a concern.

• The argument that Haslett is aggressive in style is obviously attractive to Redskins fans long frustrated (read: guts-in-a-knot) by watching their bend-but-don’t-break-until-the-game-is-on-the-line defense of the past few years. No one, for instance, wants to see Redskins corners challenge (read: be in the frame) receivers on 3rd-and-long again more than me. And the occasional blitz that actually surprises an offense or springs someone free would be nice.

It’s just that being aggressive alone isn’t enough. I flat guarantee that if, come mid-season 2010, the Redskins secondary is pressing receivers but getting strafed deep repeatedly and losing games 34-31, no one will be saying “hey but at least we're aggressive.” I’ll take effective over aggressive 10 times out of 10.  If I thought Haslett was bringing that, we would be talking about something else today. At the moment, I’m still hoping to be convinced.

• Once the Hastlett hiring was confirmed I dug a little deeper into his Pittsburgh years, hoping to find mitigating circumstances for the falloff during his defensive tenure there.  One obvious thing I noted was that the offenses Haslett had in support were less-than-impressive themselves (Haslett’s years are in bold, the previous and successive years are shown for context):

1996 – 15th overall, 11th points (defense 2nd, 4th; record 10-6)

1997 – 6th overall, 7th points (defense 6th, 11th; record 11-5)
1998 – 25th, 28th points (defense 12th, 7th; record 7-9)
1999 – 22nd, 17th points (defense 11th, 12th; record 6-10)

2000 – 18th, 17th points (defense 7th, 6th, record 9-7)

This does seem to mitigate for Haslett—the Steelers offenses in those years was pretty pedestrian.  Redskins fans certainly understand how trying to judge a defense in the context of an ineffective (read: limp) offense can be a waste of time. Of course, it should be noted that the Steeler offenses was pretty weak in the years before and after Haslett was there, too ... but the defenses managed to finish higher.

Oh well … they’re just numbers. Right?

As to the Steelers themselves, those inconsistent, middling years must have been before Ben Roethlisberger showed up and Bill Cowher became a genius.

MT: But does that actually address the concerns Om expresses about Haslett? Yes, actually, according to ESPN.com's Matt Mosley:

Haslett, a former NFL linebacker, has an outstanding reputation as a defensive coordinator in the league and you can guarantee that he'll field a more aggressive unit than Greg Blache featured the past two seasons. Redskins fans clung to stats that showed they were a top-10 defense on Blache's watch, but this unit didn't cause enough turnovers and never really took over games.

(That's the "pro" perspective.)

Kind of like the “Belichick is a genius” mantra, “[Haslett] has an outstanding reputation as a defensive coordinator” does little for me once you get past the words. Color me a skeptic, but I continue to hold out hope there is something a little more tangible that Matt Mosley’s say-so or vague third-hand testimonials.

I am not saying there aren’t any number of coaches, front office types or other insiders who would readily corroborate the sentiment … just that I haven’t seen them despite throwing the question around fairly brazenly. Again, if anyone cares to link some examples, please do.  I’m a Redskins fan too, and I would be thrilled to see them.

MT: Honestly, I'd rather see a more aggressive defense -- one that gets takeaways and (even more) sacks and tried to assert its will on an opponent -- even if it means giving up the occasional big play. Because, really, the defense seemed to be doing that anyhow last year, without the aggressive part.

No argument.  And, since we're back on the aggressiveness angle, I thought it might be interesting to look at how Haslett’s defenses have fared in the takeaway/sack department.  We know what a problem that's been in Washington, maybe we're looking at a new day?

New Orleans

1996 - INT 25th; FUMBLES 22nd; SACKS 7th;


1997 - INT 6th; FUMBLES 12th; SACKS 6th
1998 - INT 17th; FUMBLES 11th; SACKS 12th
1999 - INT 23rd; FUMBLES 11th; SACKS 17th

St. Louis

2006 - INT 13th; FUMBLES 17th; SACKS 19th
2007 - INT 10th; FUMBLES 23rd; SACKS 21st

Or maybe not.

Now, there are obvious, key factors we don't have at hand here, such as personnel, key injuries, situational motivation, etc., but it is pretty clear that Haslett's defenses, regardless of team, have been consistently middle-of-the-pack in areas typically associated with "aggressive" football.  Maybe numbers don't tell the whole story, but they can provide some fairly compelling background.

What would be really helpful is hearing, from those in the know who watched every one of the Steelers games between '97 and '99 for instance, who could speak to how Haslett's defenses have actually played.

Did they start fast and fade? Start slow and get better over the course of the year. Did he make good halftime adjustments?

How is he as a play-caller ... does he telegraph his blitzes and routinely get beat by screens, or generally keep opposing offensive coordinators off balance?

How is he at making halftime adjustments?

Do his defense's sacks tend to come on early downs or in games already decided, or does he get his share on key third downs in key moments of big games?

Does he routinely go "prevent" with a one-score lead late in a game and hope, or attack and take his chances?

That's the kind of insight I was really interested in when writing the original piece when Haslett's name first came up. I was hoping to find evidence of potential coming success in the numbers, but the truth is I have not been able to.  Mostly I've heard second-hand, general observations from outsiders, in the most general terms, intoning that Haslett is "well-respected" and his defenses have been "pretty good."

Maybe so. I hope so. But the numbers certainly don't support that argument.

MT: The best thing I've heard about Haslett, though, has just been the general gossip on the guy, which goes something like this: he's not rigid, he's not attached to a particular system, and he's very good at putting his players in position to take advantage of their natural abilities. If that's accurate, it could help any number of players on the defense -- and make at least one grouchy defensive tackle much happier.

All good, in theory. Given the record, however, at this point it is only theory.

The facts are that Jim Haslett has coordinated six defenses in his NFL career.

One of those six teams ('97 Steelers) had a winning record. One made the playoffs (that same Steeler team beat New England in the divisional round, then lost the AFC title to Denver).

His highest defensive ranking was 6th ('97 Steelers). His lowest, 23rd ('06 Rams).

His average finish ... 14th.

I think maybe that's what has me digging in my heels.  When I look at Jim Haslett's record, I see average.

I think maybe in the afterglow of the seismic upheaval at Redskins Park, with the front office turnover and hiring of Super Bowl Head Coach Mike Shanahan, I was looking for something more.

But enough. I don't expect Matt (Terl and Mosley, for that matter) to take the time to respond to any of this, but if either choses to, I hope they'll take this in the spirit intended ... a little bar talk about X's, O's and guys in headsets.

More importantly, I hope I get to come back here at some point in the not-too-distant future and write a piece about how damn happy I am to have been flat out wrong about Jim Haslett.

Bring it, gentlemen.


Blake said...

I just wanted to bring up another factor in this. As we often say over at ES, stats tell so little.

Free Agents lost going into 1997
- Rod Woodson (1 sack, 6 picks in 1996)
- Chad Brown (13 sacks, 2 pics in 1996)
- Brenson Buckner (3 sacks in 1996)

Free Agents lost going into 1999
- Carnell Lake (6 sacks, 3 ints in 1997, 1 sack 4 pics in 1998)

I mean, those are some big losses, particularly for the success they were having in the scheme. It kinda seems logical that the rankings would drop considerably after that. Add to it Kordell Stewart as QB and loss of linemen and WRs like Yancy Thigpen, and its somewhat understandable of a drop.

But you act like having a 12th ranked defense is such a bad thing. Lets not forget that the often praised Gregg Williams's defense also dropped similarly when he was here. 3rd -> 9th ->31st -> 8th. We could draw conclusions from Williams's drop as well, but instead we can just look at the impact he's having in New Orleans and agree that he may just be a good defensive coordinator.

The key point about Haslett's time in Pittsburgh is that they were and remained a top defense and he blitzed so often that it was called Blitzburg, and not only did he blitz, but he was successful in his blitzing (as you can see with the sack numbers by Lake).

I'm not sold on Haslett either, but mainly because I'm skeptical of anything Snyder supports. But thats another story.

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Injuries and personnel are two of the things I mentioned as possible and obvious mitigating factors.

The players you mention surely cost the Steelers something in the two seasons you mention. Do you know who they might have added? Seems to me that should probably be considered as well ...

Bottom line, what the numbers tell me overall is that Haslett has been an average defensive coordinator. Not a lousy one--an average one. I was hoping, frankly, for something a little more compelling. Weren't you? :)

I keep trying to make this NOT so much about the numbers, though. What I really want is answers to the kind of questions I posed at the end of this piece ... insight into how his defenses actually play.

Smoke 'em if ya got 'em.

Anonymous said...

Great piece Om. I didn't have a warm and fuzzy when the speculation started and my feelings didn't improve once the hire was official. Sometimes gut feelings are more important than statistical anomalies, but your article brings up a very good statistical record of "average." So I'd like to thank your for not only letting me keep my feeling of "non warm and fuzzy," but also throwing out some pedestrian stats...j/k. Just like any young draft pick, only time will tell of the success or non-success Haslett will have, but like you, I wish for my gut reaction to be reverted to a "damn I was wrong" reaction. As for a reaction from the Matt's; I'd expect something from Terl because let's face it, Skins news is a little slow. As for Mosley, he's probably busy with his Cowboys material for his blog...per usual.