Five Thoughts on Elevating Anthony Weaver to Defensive Coordinator

On Monday, the Texans elevated defensive line coach Anthony Weaver to defensive coordinator while removing Romeo Crennel from the job. As I covered in last week’s post about the Chiefs blowup, I do think Crennel’s defense has had a problem with top-notch quarterbacks that can’t be ignored if the Texans are hoping to take the next step.

Anthony Weaver was an interesting choice because, even though he fits the mold of a Mike Vrabel, I haven’t heard a lot about other teams being interested in poaching Weaver via promotion. That doesn’t mean Weaver is a bad choice or that his tenure will wind up being bad — it just means that this is a big bet on a young coordinator.

Anyway, the thoughts:

1 — The process continues to be Bill O’Brien-centric

The very first Texans post of this blog was about how Bill O’Brien hired Tim Kelly to be offensive coordinator. In making that pick, O’Brien rewarded loyalty rather than trying to find established minds to help temper his own view of things. It was a bet on Bill O’Brien more than it was a bet on Tim Kelly. Nothing really changed with Kelly on staff in 2019, other than the fact that his press conferences were the dullest things to ever be broadcast.

When Crennel stepped down, the search for his replacement didn’t even take three hours. There were no interviews, there were no new minds brought in to give fresh input. It was straight to Weaver. Now, if the Texans are lucky, it’ll be bad process -> good result. But O’Brien continues to double down on making sure there are no other experienced offensive or defensive minds in the building. The only person on staff with non-Texans OC/DC experience is QB coach Carl Smith, who last coordinated an NFL offense in 2006.

2 — This immediately brought to mind Frank Bush

In Gary Kubiak’s first two seasons, he was held back by one of the worst defenses in the NFL, one that was coordinated by his friend Richard Smith, who had one season of experience with the 2005 Dolphins. After Smith could do absolutely nothing with the talent on hand for three seasons, the Texans hired Frank Bush as Smith’s replacement.

Bush, who had already been on the staff (check) as a defensive assistant (check), was an extremely complacent pick. Bush had a mediocre year in 2009. then followed that up with one of the worst defensive seasons of the modern era in 2010 — one where the Texans finished last in passing DVOA allowed while Kareem Jackson was dunked on by any team that could throw. One where the defense refused to blitz, as I wrote way back in the day — Jesus am I getting old when my Google search results take me to my own writing.

After he was fired, the Texans hired an extremely experienced defensive mind in Wade Phillips and drafted J.J. Watt. I’m not saying this is how that’ll shake up, but the circumstances feel similar.

3 — How much will Weaver take from Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine?

Weaver’s first NFL coaching jobs were with Ryan’s Jets and, after a one-year stint in Buffalo with Doug Marrone, with Pettine’s Browns for two seasons. That whole staff got shredded — as things in Cleveland do — and Weaver washed up in Houston.

Ryan, who was Weaver’s coordinator with the Ravens when Weaver was a player, in particular seems to hold a lot of Weaver’s mind. Both Seth Payne/Sean Pendergast spoke on his influence on Weaver on the radio, and Aaron Wilson wrote an article for the Chronicle interviewing Ryan on Weaver’s chance.

The Ryan brothers had a bit of a rude awakening as a duo as the NFL continued to evolve in the 2010s. If you don’t remember Rex Ryan’s Buffalo tenure well, it became an opposite day scenario where Tyrod Taylor of all people came in and made the offense viable with Greg Roman, but Ryan’s defense held the team back. Mario Williams vocally complained about his role. It was a little overly cute as a whole, with a lot of droppers and amoeba looks (everyone bunched at the line) that didn’t really confuse some of the NFL’s best quaterbacks.

So where does that leave the Texans? I don’t know, and I don’t think we’ll know for sure until we see the plays on the field. On paper, combining the tactics of Crennel and Ryan could create some very odd looks for an offense. Certainly the idea of Weaver keeping it simple as opposed to complex goes against that:

One area that might be interesting is how many defensive backs the Texans play. Towards the beginning of his tenure with the Jets, Ryan’s defenses innovated by playing an obscene amount of defensive backs. The Texans had a dime package last year, but it wasn’t their only third-down look. If it becomes their only third-down look, that could make spending more on defensive backs a priority.

4 — Where does this leave J.J. Watt?

One of the biggest questions I have about this defense going forward — and one of Crennel’s biggest failings — is that J.J. Watt didn’t rush inside often. That doesn’t necessarily have to be Crennel’s fault. It may be a Watt thing, it may be an injury reduction thing where they’re protecting Watt from cheap shots. But because of how Crennel played it, they never really got Jadeveon Clowney, J.J. Watt, and Whitney Mercilus on the field at the same time. Putting Watt inside last year was devastating, as Atlanta learned:

One of the easiest ways for the Texans to improve is to get better at rushing the passer. One of the easiest ways to do that is to bring in an actual replacement for Clowney in either the draft or free agency, then put Watt inside on passing downs.

I’m not saying this is all Weaver has to do to quick-fix the defense, but just that move would make a big difference as far as rushing, particularly if they were able to keep D.J. Reader and ask the offense to win three one-on-ones against four solid-to-good rushers.

Ultimately, outside of dumping a top-100 NFL player for peanuts because he wasn’t a BOB guy, Watt not playing inside more has been the biggest reason this defense hasn’t reached its potential. Is that going to change?

5 – The recent history of NFL DCs with no experience at the position hasn’t been great

Let’s look at currently employed NFL DCs who hadn’t had a coordinator job in college or the pros before taking their current job.

SF — Robert Saleh — Has had a great year, with the 49ers finishing second in defensive DVOA. But the two years to get there were 26th and 23rd, and the 49ers invested a ton of money (Kwon Alexander, Dee Ford, Richard Sherman) and draft capital (Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Deforest Buckner) to get to where they are today.
PIT — Keith Butler — Almost the same story. Third in defensive DVOA this year, but has struggled mightily over the four years before it and needed a massive talent infusion (Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steven Nelson) in the secondary to turn things around.

Every other defensive coordinator that finished in the top 15 in defensive DVOA last season had some previous experience as either a college coordinator or an NFL coordinator. The only first-year, first-time coordinator I could find from last season was Miami’s Patrick Graham, who finished last in defensive DVOA. If you look at Houston’s history with it — I grant you that this happened in a Watt injury season — Mike Vrabel’s defensive coordinator work wasn’t stellar. In fact, I thought it was an upgrade for the Texans when the Titans hired him.

Again, that doesn’t mean that Weaver is a bad pick. It doesn’t mean that Weaver will be bad. But try to look at this from a probabilities standpoint — even if you think he will eventually be a good coordinator, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen in his first year. I am coming into this year with tempered expectations for this defense. Absolutely rooting for Weaver, especially because of the lack of minority defensive coordinators in the NFL today, but I don’t think we have a lot of reasons to believe in an instant turnaround right now.


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