Robert Saleh, DC San Francisco 49ers
Saleh has been talked about as one of the hottest coaching candidates among NFL coordinators for a while now – at least for most of this season – and it’s certainly hard to deny that his 49ers’ defense is playing at an extremely high level. While there is generally more appeal in an excellent offensive coordinator than a great defensive one, due to both the direction which the NFL appears to be going and the historic inconsistencies in defensive play on a year-to-year basis, when you lead a defense to second in the NFL in both combined and passing defense (via PFR) there is always going to be some interest. For Saleh, it will be crucial for him – wherever he goes – to find himself a good offensive coach as this is where a lot of defensive head coaches have fallen down in the past, but if he can replicate what the 49ers are able to do defensively, he will likely be able to have success, just look at Sean McDermott.
However, for all of that, there are also some concerns with Saleh as well.
The biggest of which is that, as good as the 49ers have been this season, the fact that they ranked 27th in total defense during both of his first two seasons as coordinator is something that should be concerning. This 49ers defense is absolutely stacked with talent, especially up front, and they have the luxury of playing in combination with a high-powered offense that is able to run the ball effectively to keep them off the field for long periods, and which tends to build scores quickly, allowing the defense to pin their ears back and just get after the quarterback without having to worry about the running game as much.
The key to being a good coordinator is not making elite players look elite, but rather in allowing you to get away with not having elite talent. If you want to go back to the McDermott comparison for a second, what made him so good during his time in Carolina was the consistent success he was able to have without having to have elite talent at every level of the defense – while he certainly had some really good players, he managed to build an elite defense with Drayton Florence, Robert Lester, Mike Mitchell and Melvin White at corner. Saleh might just have taken some time to warm into the role and might well become a really good coach, but teams may well want to see if he can follow up an excellent 2019 with an equally good 2020 before they hand their franchise to somebody with only one really notable season as a coordinator.
Greg Roman, OC Baltimore Ravens
It’s hard to deny that this Ravens’ offense isn’t really, really good.
They rank first in the NFL in overall and rushing offense and third in passing offense and they have managed all of that without having a running back top 170 carries (Ingram has 166 carries, Lamar Jackson has 140 and Edwards has 90, with 48 other combined carries), or a receiver make 60 catches (Andrews is the only pass catcher with over 40 catches, with Brown being the only other player over 25). One explanation for this might be that Lamar Jackson is really, really good – and he is – but a lot of it has also got to do with a scheme that plays to the strength of the roster without overworking any one player.
Roman’s history in the NFL is a little more mixed than some of those above, in part due to the fact that it is a far amount longer than all but the last name on our list. He spent four seasons with the 49ers as the offensive coordinator between 2011 and 2014, a period which saw the 49ers go 36-11-1 after having gone 6-10 the season prior – but he wasn’t retained after the 2014 season which saw them fall to 8-8 with six of their losses coming in games where they failed to score 20 points. He spent a season and two weeks as the offensive coordinator of the Bills between 2015 and 2016 and was fired after they lost to the Jets while scoring 31 points before then working his way back up from position coach to offensive coordinator with the Ravens.
That is all well and good as a resume, but what is it that makes a Roman offense effective?
Well, for a start, Roman runs the ball more than pretty much anybody in the NFL – and on the whole he does it really, really well. This year, the Ravens rank 30th in passes attempted, his 2015 Bills ranked 31st, his 2014 49ers 29th, 2013 49ers 32nd, 2012 49ers 31st and his 2011 49ers 31st. In a league that is moving more and more towards a pass-happy throwing-fest, nobody is as unwilling to throw the ball as Greg Roman. The flip side of this is that there has never been a Roman-coached offense that has failed to run for more than 125 yards per game, with half of his teams topping the 150 yards per game mark and the current 2019 Ravens on track for a ridiculous 208 yards per game average. He manages to run the ball efficiently as well – only two of his teams have averaged under 4.5 yards per carry and none have averaged less than 4.1.
From a scheme point of view, it is also worth noting that Roman has always looked to involve his quarterback as a running threat – while Lamar Jackson is the only one of his quarterbacks to have surpassed 110 carries (he is currently on track for over 180), he has always looked to build the threat that Jackson, Tyrod Taylor, Kaepernick and Alex Smith are as runners into his scheme, where they are able to make an impact on the running game without being a significant ballcarrier.
This is something that he seems to have leaned into more with time, as he has only used his quarterbacks more and more as ballcarriers as time has gone on. The obvious issue with this in Carolina, if Cam Newton should leave, is that neither Allen nor Grier are viewed as really mobile players – but there is a decent likelihood that if Newton does leave, the long-term solution isn’t currently on the roster; in that case, any future quarterback’s ability to at least threaten as a ball carrier will be key to Roman’s effectiveness.
Of course, not only is the passing game an important part of every offense, but it’s what separates Roman’s offense from what Georgia Tech and Army run, so what are the signatures of a Roman offense? Well, for a start, they take extremely good care of the ball, as despite throwing some of the fewest passes in the NFL, Roman’s offenses also have had extremely low interception rates. In fact, the only season in which his offense throw an interception on more than 2% of passes was the 2014 49ers, and even then they were only at 2.1% which still ranked eighth best in the NFL. In fact, in his near six seasons as an NFL coordinator, his teams have only thrown a combined 50 interceptions.
Of course, a huge amount will be determined by interviews and it’s almost impossible to know for sure how good a prospective coach will eventually be, but Roman has been successful everywhere he’s been – he’s never had a losing season as an offensive coordinator and has a combined record of 62-29-1 – and has a scheme that not only plays to the strength of the Panthers’ roster but which doesn’t require elite play to be effective. Like any offensive coach, he will need to find a good defensive coach to work with, but for Roman’s ball-control offense this might be particularly important due to the style of offense he wants to play.
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