What Does Life After Brandon Staley Look Like?
We are less than a year into Brandon Staley’s tenure with the Rams and he is already among the top prospects for open head coaching positions in the league. He has already interviewed with the Chargers and the Jets and will only bolster his case if he is able to stifle Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay this weekend. Beating the Packers would most certainly launch him into an even higher strata of job interviews. The writing’s on the wall, Ramily.
So, Brandon Staley, thanks for the memories. It was fun while it lasted. Queue up “I Will Remember You” by Sarah McLachlan. The Rams are no stranger to losing smart ambitious up-and-comers from their coaching staff. So, C’est la vie.
Depending on how you look at it, this is actually a good thing when thinking about what life after Brandon Staley will look like. The fact that so many of the Rams coaches have gotten external promotions means Sean McVay knows how to assess and empower coaching talent, even if, like Staley, they fly under the radar or have little experience.
Not only that but with all the talent and the culture within the franchise, the Rams have to be seen as a top destination for a DC. Getting to work with top talents like Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey in a creative and forward-thinking environment is very enticing for the next would be Brandon Staley.
All that said, finding a replacement for the guy many have tagged “Sean McVay of Defense” is obviously job one and no easy task.
The comparison to McVay is apt and their similarities are a big reason they are a successful duo. Both rose quickly in the NFL ranks because they are young innovative coaches. Both were criticized early on because of their lack of experience and both were able to expeditiously quiet those critics by making their squads elite. In Staley’s case, he turned the team into the top-rated defense a year after being just above average under Wade Phillips. It’s not hard to see that Staley is the key that unlocked the Rams defensive potential. They added and lost a few pieces in the offense, but elevated the team with the same core and many on the defense are having career years, from the stars to the role players.
The commonality between Staley and McVay that makes them the most similar and that ultimately has made them successful is their devotion to the game of football. They aren’t innovators just to disrupt the status quo. The two see things about the game that others don’t because they are obsessed with it. They also have the ability to execute what they see.
The descriptor commonly used to oversimplify all of the hard work and preparation these guys do is, savant. A savant is described as a person who exhibits exceptional skill or brilliance in some limited field. So calling them football savants isn’t inaccurate and Staley may be even more savant-ish than McVay. McVay describes Staley in this way, “I’d like to think that I love football as much as anybody, you’re sitting there and you’re thinking, ‘This’ guy might be sicker than I am.”
If finding a guy that’s sicker in the head than McVay about football isn’t hard enough, they also need to find a guy that can coach like Staley. Because he’s brilliant, he thinks about defense differently than most and therefore he built a defense in a way that most don’t.
By-in-large, teams prioritize spending on the defensive front, especially edge rushers and linebackers. The Rams have not and it is because of how Staley game plans. He starts with Jalen Ramsey and works his way up to the defensive line. Safeties also play a much bigger role in his defense than on most teams. The Rams run two high safeties much more than just about any team in the league, with Denver being the exception.
Without a fairly significant overhaul, the Rams defense will struggle if they bring in a coach that wants to run cover 3, or bring heavy blitzes and stack the box. Not saying that the next DC needs to be a Staley clone. As we know it will be very hard to find someone with his football acumen. But, at the very least, if the Rams expect some amount of consistency in the short term after Staley leaves his defensive philosophy must be maintained and the Rams should be concerned with short term success, as they are built to win now and several of their players are in their prime.
This makes tracking the candidates down much easier. Maybe not as easy as one NFL head coaching prospect did. He just called up Vic Fangio to ask if he has “…any more Brandon Staleys…” A quick glance at the Broncos coaching staff will answer that question, but keep an eye on Nathaniel Willingham. There’s a good chance you could be hearing his name more in the next few years.
So life after Brandon Staley should, in theory, look a lot like life with him. So knowing this, we can take a stab at potential replacements or at the very least deduce where the Rams may look for a replacement.
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Here are a few good candidates to consider.
Promoting From Within
We have to assume if/when Staley becomes the next great head coach, he will take some of the Rams staff with him, promoting one of them to his DC. But there are three, in my opinion, position coaches that are very qualified to become a defensive coordinator, so let’s also assume that one of them would stay and become Sean McVay’s new DC.
Joe Barry – Rams Assistant Head Coach/ Linebacker Coach
Barry will undoubtedly become a defensive coordinator this offseason, whether that is on Staley’s staff, with the Rams, or elsewhere in the league. He has two short stints as DC with the Detroit Lions and Washington Football Team. He is a fantastic LB coach that helped mold Cory Littleton into a star and has produced high-quality production from lesser-known players. He is a hot name, and one the Rams will try to keep on their staff.
Aubrey Pleasant – Rams Cornerbacks Coach
Pleasant is in his fourth season as the Rams Cornerbacks coach. He has coached the likes of Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, and Jalen Ramsey, but more importantly, is a huge reason for the quick development of Troy Hill and Darious Williams. He has worked within two different schemes (Wade Phillips and now Staley) and has proven how integral he is in implementing concepts and developing talent. He will be a DC sooner rather than later.
Eric Henderson – Rams Defensive Line Coach
Henderson is in his second season coaching the “Dawg Work” unit, after spending time with the Chargers as their DL coach. After retiring from the NFL as a player, he got his start coaching at the Georgia Military College, so you know his attention to detail and work ethic is second to none. Having Aaron Donald in your room is obviously a huge help, but the development of Sebastian Joseph-Day and Morgan Fox, among others, must be noted. Henderson has a great rapport with McVay and would be a strong candidate to replace Staley if necessary.
Outside Of The Organization
Aaron Glenn – New Orleans Saints Secondary Coach
Glenn has spent the last five seasons in New Orleans coaching the secondary. 2020 was a breakout year for the group. They led the league with 18 interceptions and gave up the third-fewest yards after the catch. They ranked third in passing DVOA. The Rams finished ranked fourth.
The New Orleans defense is built similarly to the Rams in that they are built from back to front. Both defenses have big fast smart safeties that can lock down pass catchers and can help in the running game.
Glenn just interviewed with the Jets for their open DC position. Glenn started his NFL career with the Jets when they drafted him 12th overall in 1994. After his 14-year playing career, he spent time as a Jets scout, then on the coaching staff in Cleveland working under Mike Pettine before joining the Saints.
Former players aren’t always the most innovative coaches, but 23 years of experience in the NFL has to be worth something. It’s a big plus that he’s been involved in shaping the Saints secondary and an even bigger plus that he’s succeeded in a winning culture.
Steve Russ – Washington Football Team Linebacker Coach
Steve Russ is one of the many coaches that Ron Rivera brought with him from Carolina. Russ was hired by Rivera in Carolina who already had two-star linebackers, Shaq Thompson and Luke Kuechly. Seems like a ringer of a job, but the two thrived in Russ’s two seasons with the team. 2018 and 2019 saw Kuechly return to form and Thompson developed into a starter.
Neither Washington nor Carolina resemble the LA Rams. In fact, Washington is built exactly the opposite. They run a 4-3 and the flash of the defense is on the line. But what is intriguing about Russ is that he is a good linebackers coach, just like Staley was. What makes linebacker coaches good DC’s is that they have to teach how to read and defend both aspects of the game.
Not only that, but Russ has a track record of success. Along with improving Carolina’s linebackers, he also helped turn around the Air Force football program. In his first year as defensive coordinator, the defense held offenses to 24.2 points per game. The previous season they had allowed 40 ppg.
Having had some experience in the role certainly warrants a closer look at what he could bring in the big leagues, but questions about switching to a 3-4 may disqualify Russ from consideration.
Matt MacPherson – Northwestern Assistant Head Coach Defensive Backs
MacPherson is new to the defensive side of the ball. He was promoted in 2018 to DB Coach from running backs coach. Since moving to the defensive side of the ball, the Wildcats defense has blossomed into one of the best in the nation, improving each year.
In their 2020 campaign, they held opposing offenses to 18.3 points per game. MacPherson’s secondary was what anchored the defense. While the team struggled against the run, the team was in the top 20 in passing yards. Brandon Joseph was tied for first with six interceptions and Greg Newsome was tied for 6th with nine passes defended.
MacPherson also helmed the Northwestern running game into national prominence. Most prominently, he coached Justin Jackson, who finished his career with the third-most rushing yards in Big Ten history. He also coached Tyrell Sutton and Venric Mark. Sutton ranks third in program history in career rushing yards, while Mark is fourth in school history in all-purpose yards.
What makes MacPherson impressive is that he has seen so much success on both sides of the ball. That shows an incredible amount of football IQ. Coaching defense with an offensive point of view is the kind of thinking that changes the game.
The big drawback for MacPherson is that he hasn’t coached in the pros and hasn’t had experience as a defensive coordinator. He may not be ready to make the leap and may be up for a promotion within Northwestern, with the retirement of long-time defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. Unfortunately, missing out on a more prepared MacPherson may be a result of bad timing.
Sean Desai – Chicago Bears Secondary Coach
This could be the one. He has a master’s degree and a PH. D. He is young but has been steadily climbing the coaching ladder. He served as the special teams coordinator for Boston College. Special teams coordinators are often underestimated in their football IQ, but having to work with a wider swath of players and players that are less refined often gives them a very unique perspective. He was also a running backs coach at BC, which gives him that aforementioned insight as a defensive coach.
In his first year as secondary coach, Desai’s squad helped the Bears hold opponents to the second-fewest passing yards per game in the NFC and allowed only 17 passing touchdowns, fourth in the league. And! He’s been called Vic Fangio’s right-hand man. So maybe Fangio does/did have another Brandon Staley in the wings.
Luring him away from the Bears just got a little harder. He is considered among the coaches to fill the freshly vacated defensive coordinator position in Chicago. This could be where LA’s talent and team culture may be enticing to Desai. Not to mention getting out of sub-zero winters and into the warm friendly confines of SoFi stadium.
Apart from the obvious reasons that LA is better than Chicago, Chicago’s defense is in a very tough spot. They have a lot of dead money on defense and most likely require a major rebuild. To boot, the team decided to stay the course with Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy.
The one big question that remains about Desai is can he lead a team and raise it to the next level. But that was also the big question that was asked about Staley.
Going back to one of the first points, McVay is smart. His list is going to be longer, better, and more well thought out than this one. Also, he’s proving he can hunt out the best. He hired Matt Lafleur, Zac Taylor, and Brandon Staley. He can do it again.
Life after Brandon Staley will not look the same as it did this season, even if Staley were to stick around for another year. It’s part of what makes the game great. But the great thing about following a good franchise is you know they are going to make a smart thoughtful decision for the future. So don’t worry about life after, we have at least one more game with this defense. And if Staley can keep the ball rolling on defense, we will have another.