NFL Nation: Ray Horton

Ray HortonCourtesy of Matt LehtiFlight instructor Matt Lehti (left) teaches Ray Horton how to fly a single-engine plane in 2011.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- From the coaching box looking down over the Tennessee Titans' defense, coordinator Ray Horton can see it all.

That all-22 view of a football game unfolding is important to him as he relays signals to his defense.

It's nothing, however, compared to a view from 3,500 feet he enjoys a couple times a week in the offseason when he can.

Horton is a licensed pilot, who has taken a lot from how he was taught to fly in 2011, and in turn used it as he's taught the Titans a new 3-4 scheme based on principles of long-time Steelers coordinator and Pro Football Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau.

"Everything is simple if you understand it," said Horton, who figured it's going to take the Titans' defense until about Week 4 to have a full grasp of what he's asking. "Flying a plane? Are you kidding me? I know how it works, but way back when I just knew it was up in the air. I didn't know how it was. But I learned to fly. It was complicated to me, but it's simple to me now.

"If you're a doctor doing brain surgery. That would be tough for me. But I think if I learned it, I could probably do it. It's simple if you understand it. And that's our job, to get them to understand it."

Horton set out to learn to fly a single engine plan at Chandler Municipal Airport about 20 miles southeast of Phoenix in the offseason of 2011, during the NFL's lockout.

He struck up a friendship with his instructor, Matt Lehti.

The coach was really impressed by Lehti's ability to make something as complicated as flying so digestible. Horton compliments Lehti's teaching style and has used learning to fly as an example in the classroom in front of the Cardinals in 2011, the Browns in 2013 and the Titans this summer.

Horton was a good student, Lehti remembers.

Chandler is a busy airport, so students have to juggle the mechanics of flying with a lot of communication with the control tower. Everyone struggles with that early on, Lehti said, and Horton was no different. Once he got the hang of it, he was then "off to the races."

The idea that Horton might refer to Lehti as the Titans talk defense is gratifying to a guy who's been teaching flying for about 10 years.

"I've heard him say it before, that I made him a better coach; I don't know if that's true or not," said Lehti, who pointed out that his team, the Packers, beat Horton's Steelers in the Super Bowl the year before they met. "It's very flattering to me. I've got a lot of respect for Ray, I've got a lot of respect for everybody in the NFL. I'm a huge NFL fan.

[+] EnlargeRay Horton
Courtesy Matt LehtiDefensive coordinator Ray Horton often draws comparisons to the complexities of learning to fly and learning an NFL playbook for his players.
"To know that he is kind of invoking my name, as you put it, I'm proud of that, absolutely. That's something that's really cool."

Players respect that Horton, who was an NFL cornerback, has been in their position recently. More recently, he was a student learning something complex.

"As a pilot, there are different situations that are going to arise in the cockpit," veteran safety George Wilson said. "And there is a playbook or a manual that that pilot has to be mindful of or has to know what protocols to follow in order to make sure the situation has a favorable outcome.

"For us, it's the same thing on the football field. There are situations that are going to arise, we have a playbook, we have a manual, that we have to refer to. We have to be mindful of the things that we covered and talked about in the meeting room, on the practice field. So that when those situations arise, we know the protocols to follow so that that situation ends in a favorable outcome for us.

"There are a lot of parallels."

Horton has a more balanced life than a lot of football coaches. He's got a lot of outside interests. He's big on time management.

During the season, he's focused on the offenses he's trying to slow down. Most defensive coordinators simply concede they just don't have time to see what other defenses in the league are doing.

Horton found a small easy way to check in at least a little.

During offensive periods at practice, rather than sitting back, he runs the scout team defense. That gives him a look at the defense the Titans are about to face. It's regarded as menial work by many in his position. But Horton gets in the defensive scout team huddle and holds up the card from which players learn what to do before a play.

He's not currently flying a plane, as he's not certified to do so in Tennessee and the team is in season.

Still, the Titans know he's seen things from a vastly different perspective, and believe in his view of the big picture.

"I trust Ray," Wilson said. "I trust his leadership, I trust everything that he says. I would be just as comfortable up in his airplane as I would getting on a Delta flight."

W2W4: Tennessee Titans

August, 9, 2014
Aug 9
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The Tennessee Titans (0-0) and Green Bay Packers (0-0) open the preseason Saturday night at LP Field.

1. Utilizing Locker: Quarterback Jake Locker plays in a game for the first time since he injured his foot on Nov. 10 against Jacksonville. He’s said getting hit will be the final hurdle in being all the way back. We get our first real look at how the new Titans staff might use him and what he’ll be asked to do. Don’t look for much designed movement; Tennessee will save most of that for the regular season. Poise, command, chemistry and all the typical preseason buzzwords for a quarterback trying to solidify his standing will be the things we evaluate after Locker comes out of the game.

2. Situational play from the 3-4. Ray Horton’s new scheme will be unveiled, though we don’t know how many wrinkles we'll see. Throughout recent practices, going to the nickel has meant nose tackle Sammie Hill leaves the field, ends Jurrell Casey and Ropati Pitoitua pinch toward the middle and outside linebackers Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley work as if they are stand-up ends. I’m curious to see how base vs. nickel looks and what, if any, confusion the Titans' defense can cause, particularly for Aaron Rodgers for however long he plays.

3. Kicker competition. Ken Whisenhunt has consistently minimized what the kickers in competition have done so far, but it has to start making positive or negative impressions starting here. Maikon Bonani has the superior leg, but he’s been less consistent and accurate than Travis Coons. This game will include extra points snapped from the 25-yard line, and that should increase the film the Titans get on these two. They’ve alternated kicks in practices, so I’d expect that is how they will be used tonight, though Whisenhunt couldn’t yet say the plan on Thursday.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Every team in every training camp talks optimistically. Every team with a new coaching staff talks about how things are different for the better.

The Tennessee Titans are lowly regarded by plenty of fans and media nationally. But they have a lot going on that they feel those people have not paid attention to.

With Ken Whisenhunt and his staff at the helm, new schemes on both sides of the ball, a schedule that doesn’t include some of the powers they faced a year ago and a division with two other rebuilding franchises, they might have a chance to surprise.

."You say each and every year, 'Feels different, feels different, feels different,'" safety Michael Griffin said. "Just, you can see every day, people out there talking, we always have guys picking people up. Each and every day there is competition. There are little side bets here and there -- who’s going to win this period and things of that nature. The whole time we’re all trying to get each other better.

"Again, it just feels so much different in this locker room, and everybody has the same goals in mind, and that’s a positive around here."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeKen Whisenhunt
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsNew coach Ken Whisenhunt brings a solid résumé and a strong coaching staff to the Titans.
1. Whisenhunt isn’t Vince Lombardi or Don Shula, but the Titans' new coach is a significant upgrade from Mike Munchak, who was unsteady in his first three years as an NFL head coach. Whisenhunt had success in the role during his six seasons in Arizona, and he is a well-regarded offensive mind who will do more with what the Titans have than his predecessors.

Whisenhunt had the connections and the interviewing skills to hire a staff that appears to be filled with strong teachers, including a few quality holdovers. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is turning the Titans into a less predictable 3-4 and comfortably works his way into different sections of practice when position work is unfolding. I've watched these coaches teach and I've seen them connect with players.

Whisenhunt may field a complex offense that's hard to defend, but he's good at keeping things simple. I don't see any changes in how the Titans function that aren't for the better at this point.

2. The Titans don’t have players the fans are going to pick to captain their fantasy squads, but Tennessee should have a good array of quality weapons on offense. Kendall Wright topped 1,000 yards in his second season, and now the team’s best receiver will be sent on a wider variety of routes, not just inside slot stuff. He's been excellent so far in camp. Justin Hunter is doing better getting his legs under him and is catching the ball more comfortably. He got behind Atlanta's defense a few times in the recent joint practice and should be a constant deep threat. Nate Washington is showing he remains a versatile, productive guy.

Beyond the receivers, tight end Delanie Walker and running backs Dexter McCluster and Bishop Sankey will be good pass-catching options. When the Falcons gave the Titans a lot of room underneath, Jake Locker hit McCluster with a pass over the middle, and he had a ton of space to take. The Titans have invested a great deal in their offensive line over the past two seasons. They have one more tackle than they need after signing Michael Oher and drafting Taylor Lewan. There should be better protection for the quarterback and better holes for the running backs.

3. The 4-3 defense in recent years lacked a star pass-rusher on the edge who an offense had to fear every snap. The Titans still don’t seem to have that guy. They have to find him, but even if he doesn’t emerge from this group, the overall production out of the pass rush should be better. Who is rushing and who is dropping into coverage? In the 4-3, opponents pretty much knew. In this 3-4, it won’t be nearly as clear on a regular basis. Jurrell Casey, who notched 10.5 sacks as a tackle last season, will work as an end now. He's worked on speed rushes off the edge as well as his bread-and-butter quick power stuff in camp.

Sure, some good quarterbacks can diagnose who is rushing and who isn’t, no matter the front. But outside of Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck (twice), the Titans don’t face any A-list quarterbacks coming off big 2013 seasons this time around. They don’t see Seattle and San Francisco this season either.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Locker is a really likable guy who works hard, says the right things and desperately wants to prove he is the long-term answer for the Titans at quarterback. But in two seasons as the starter, he's missed 14 games while dealing with shoulder, hip, knee and foot injuries. He's practiced pretty well, but there are plays splashed in that can be killers on a Sunday afternoon.

Getting 16 games out of him is hardly a certainty for the Titans. Even if they do and he fits well with what Whisenhunt is asking him to do, he has not been accurate or poised enough when he has played. He sometimes tries to do too much and isn’t poised under pressure. Though he moves well and is very fast, putting him on the move puts him at more risk of another injury. Behind him are more question marks. Charlie Whitehurst has had no real success in just 13 games in eight seasons and often fails to step into his throws. Rookie Zach Mettenberger has a great arm but slipped to the sixth round for several reasons and is rotating with Tyler Wilson as the third-team QB. (Update: Wilson was released Wednesday.)

2. The offensive weaponry looks good, but for those five pass-catchers to give the Titans the nice smorgasbord of options, they need to stay healthy. Also, guys like Hunter (second year), Sankey (a rookie) and McCluster (first year with the Titans and Whisenhunt) need to show that their potential and practice play translate into NFL Sundays in a Tennessee uniform. Wright was the best player on offense last season and should grow more. Can the others become known quantities?

Who is the star of the defense? DT-turned-DE Casey is a strong, quick rusher who was healthy and productive in 2013. He is going to land a big-money contract -- either soon from Tennessee or on the market next spring. There are some nice pieces around him, but the Titans need veterans to have their best seasons and youngsters to emerge, all simultaneously. In Georgia, no defender stood out and regularly gave the Falcons more than they could handle.

3. Forty-seven percent of the current 90-man roster has been in the league for two years or less. Youth is generally good, but it needs to be quality youth and it needs to be surrounded by quality veterans. The Titans lack experience in a lot of spots. There aren't kids in camp who weren't high picks but have forced their way up the depth chart to this point.

Maybe it’s a great mix of players and a good share of the inexperienced people can blossom together. But with new coaches and new schemes, it could be asking a lot for all that to happen in the first season.

OBSERVATION DECK
    [+] EnlargeJake Locker
    Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsJake Locker needs a healthy season if he hopes to become the long-term answer at QB for the Titans.

  • Locker said he feels more comfortable speaking up and being vocal, and he has shown himself to be more confident in how he carries himself. After one throw that looked to be too long for an undrafted rookie, Locker pointed to tell Julian Horton where he should have gone. He still has bad moments in practice, but the preseason has not started, and he is progressing.
  • The Titans have moved running back Jackie Battle to fullback, where he can offer some needed versatility. He appears to have a sizable lead on incumbent Collin Mooney, who has had, at most, a handful of first-team snaps.
  • Among long-shot late additions, veteran receiver Derek Hagan has been consistently good and Brian Robiskie is also gaining notice. He's competing for the fourth and fifth wide receiver spots with Marc Mariani and Michael Preston. Maybe they'll keep six.
  • Sankey is learning quickly how to be a pro, and he has shown a bit of everything the Titans said they expected when they made him the first running back selected in the draft. His first day in pads he looked like an experienced NFL-caliber pass protector. He has good vision and makes good decisions on when to go and when to cut. He also catches the ball well, can run inside and outside.
  • Weakside outside linebacker Shaun Phillips has not worked at all with the first team when Kamerion Wimbley has been practicing.
  • Tommie Campbell was politely mentioned with Coty Sensabaugh and Blidi Wreh-Wilson as a contender for the starting right cornerback spot that opened when Alterraun Verner signed with Tampa Bay. But it’s a two-man competition, and Campbell has struggled horribly.

Titans offseason wrap-up

May, 23, 2014
May 23
10:00
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» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the Tennessee Titans' offseason moves.

Best move: You might call it a cop-out, but the biggest and most significant upgrade the Titans made is the new coaching staff. With head coach Ken Whisenhunt and Ray Horton as the offensive and defensive playcallers, respectively, this team is going to have smarter plans on Sundays than it did during the past three seasons. It will also adjust better as a game unfolds. It’s hard to rate some of the talent until we see how those guys and their deputies assess and deploy it.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker
AP Photo/Patric SchneiderThe Titans will take their chances with Jake Locker as the starting quarterback again this season.
Riskiest move: Sticking with Jake Locker as the quarterback and not at least creating a situation where he has to win the job. I know it’s not like there was an obvious alternative, and just three seasons after they overreached on Locker in the draft it would have been a big mistake to overreach again. But I like to think that if they had seen a good alternative, they would have made a move. It's hard to have much faith in Locker, given his injury history, and there is no assurance he will be able to grasp the new offense quickly.

Most surprising move: We knew they were thinking about the left tackle situation beyond 2014, and their rationale for picking Taylor Lewan 11th overall is sound. Still, he’s not guaranteed to be in position to contribute in 2014. If he does, then a well-paid veteran tackle -- free-agent addition Michael Oher or nine-year stalwart Michael Roos -- won’t be playing. It is easy to argue that a team that was 7-9 and has a new staff and systems could have found a guy guaranteed to have first-year impact in the first round.

I’m not arguing: The Titans survived the Pacman Jones disaster thanks to seventh-round pick Cortland Finnegan. They replaced Finnegan with fourth-round pick Alterraun Verner. Now they will replace Verner with either 2013 third-round pick Blidi Wreh-Wilson or 2012 fourth-round pick Coty Sensabaugh. The franchise's cornerback succession plans have been sound. It should be able to have a third- or fourth-round pick be a better-than-functional starter as it moves forward.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With D'Qwell Jackson's visit to the Tennessee Titans on Friday will come all sort of speculation.

So I take the occasion to urge us all to emphasize the word at the heart of what’s going on: visiting.

Jackson
Jackson is presumably chatting with coach Ken Whisenhunt, with defensive coordinator Ray Horton, and with linebacker coach Lou Spanos. They will talk scheme and role and expectations. Perhaps they will watch some film as the Titans sell their situation.

Presumably Jackson will take a physical.

Perhaps as it wraps up, Ruston Webster or contract guru Vin Marino will talk contract parameters with Brian Mackler, Jackson’s agent.

I don’t think this is a scenario where the Titans, no matter how good they feel about Jackson, attempt to keep him from leaving town without signing.

Jackson is to visit the Broncos on Sunday, and is also reportedly fielding interest from Arizona. The Cardinals could be prepping to lose Karlos Dansby as a free agent, and Dansby is a player Whisenhunt knows well from time together in Arizona.

The Titans might love Jackson, who at 30 is two years younger than Dansby.

They might love Dansby more.

Maybe the Titans will wind up with Jackson. Maybe they’ll wind up with Dansby and create an opportunity for Jackson in Arizona. Maybe he’ll wind up with the Broncos. Maybe the Titans won't end up with either.

Maybe something happens fast for Jackson.

I suspect it’ll take a bit of time.
 

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- D'Qwell Jackson, the linebacker released by the Cleveland Browns, is likely to be a guy the Tennessee Titans look at closely.

Tennessee defensive coordinator Ray Horton coached Jackson in 2013.

“D’Qwell has been a coach’s dream as far as leadership, intelligence,'' Horton said last season per this article from Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. "He demands a lot from himself and his teammates. He really is a locker room coach [with] some of the things he says after the game and at halftime.”

The Titans could use that in the middle of a defense that needs more leaders. Strong safety Bernard Pollard, who could be leaving as a free agent, was the singular leader of the 2013 defense.

I talked to one executive who couldn’t predict what sort of deal Jackson might command because he believes everyone is waiting to see what the market will offer when free agency opens March 11. That executive said while Jackson has been productive in both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, he’s probably better in a 4-3.

The numbers from Pro Football Focus suggest it’s more than a bit better.

ESPN.com’s resident scout, Matt Williamson, is a bit skeptical of Jackson.

“He’s highly productive when he’s right [physically], but I also have always seen that as a bit of an aberration, as he is often making plays downfield, rather than 'impact tackles,' Williamson said. “He has experience in both schemes, but never was a great take-on linebacker and need protection, which I would think Jurrell Casey and company could do rather well. He’s an every down LB, but his name value is greater than what he truly is in my opinion.”

Williamson said another player connected to Horton, Arizona free-agent-to-be Karlos Dansby is a superior option: “Dansby had a much better year than Jackson in all areas and is more versatile ... would clearly prefer Dansby.”

Odds are Jackson fares well on the open market, though as indicated in Cabot’s piece, just two months ago he never imagined he would be moving on from Cleveland.

Horton will certainly have a strong voice in how seriously the Titans look into Jackson.
The last three Cleveland Browns offensive coordinators have been Brad Childress, Norv Turner and, now, Kyle Shanahan.

Two were former head coaches who brought impressive résumés to their jobs.

Childress took Brett Favre and the Vikings to within a whisker of the Super Bowl in 2009, guiding Favre to one of his best seasons. He crashed and burned the following year, then took a year off before joining Pat Shurmur’s staff in Cleveland. Midway through that season, he had Brandon Weeden looking like he might work out as the Browns quarterback, but things fizzled -- as they usually do -- when a coaching staff and players pretty much know their days are numbered due to an ownership change.

[+] EnlargeNorv Turner
AP Photo/David RichardNorv Turner came to Cleveland with a sparkling resume, but still only lasted a season.
Enter Jimmy Haslam and Joe Banner, who hired Rob Chudzinski as coach and touted the hire of Norv Turner as offensive coordinator as the veteran guy who could make it all work. Turner was a former coordinator for Jimmy Johnson in Dallas and a head coach in Washington and San Diego. His coaching résumé isn’t perfect, but few question his smarts and credentials.

Rarely were phrases like “reason for optimism” not used with Turner’s name. He got wins out of Brian Hoyer, but struggled without a running game and lack of continuity at quarterback. As the season droned on, Turner seemed to get more and more frustrated with the expectations for a team that lacked all the cards.

Childress and Turner are both good coaches. They’ve proven that. They know what they’re doing. They were both fired by the Browns.

The same was true on the defensive side of the ball. Dick Jauron was the coordinator two years ago. It’s impossible to find anyone who doesn’t respect Jauron. He’s a former head coach who knows the game, knows how to coach.

When Haslam and Banner made the change to a new staff, they touted Ray Horton as another great addition. Horton had interviewed to be the Browns' head coach, he spoke a good game and he attacked defensively. Horton knows what he’s doing, but his unit struggled with some poor end-of-game production.

Good coaches can struggle -- and they can lose. Bill Cowher had some very poor losing seasons. It happens.

But the spin that was put on the Turner-Horton tandem when they were hired bordered on the absurd. Horton and Turner were going to fill potholes citywide, balance the federal budget, win games and water and fertilize the stadium grass in their downtime. Some optimism wasn’t unfounded, but the public spin made them seem more like miracle workers than coaches working with a needy roster. And it wasn’t the public or media making these statements, it was the Browns.

That’s four very good coaches who were Browns coordinators the past two seasons, coaches with head-coaching experience, coaches with winning experience, coaches with impressive résumés. The difference between Josh McDaniels and Norv Turner last season may well be Tom Brady. The difference between Ray Horton and Dan Quinn starts with Richard Sherman.

Now the Browns have Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator and Jim O’Neil as defensive coordinator. Shanahan has five years experience as a coordinator, O’Neil has no experience but will have new coach Mike Pettine calling defensive signals for at least the first season.

This version of the Browns may work, and the new group deserves a chance.

But nobody can say it failed the previous two seasons because of a lack of qualified guys leading the offense and defense. The résumés for the coordinators the Browns had the past two years would stack up with any in the league.
NEW YORK -- A good share of Tennessee Titans devotees latched on to Gregg Williams in 2013.

The team’s senior assistant/defense helped change Tennessee’s defense for the better.

But the degree of public support for Williams as a defensive coordinator candidate once Mike Munchak was fired surprised me.

Now Williams is heading back to St. Louis for the reunion with Jeff Fisher that was slated for 2012, before Williams was sidetracked by his Bountygate suspension.

[+] EnlargeRay Horton
AP Photo/Mark DuncanRay Horton likes the speed and effort he's seen on tape from the Titans' 2013 defense.
In the meantime, the Titans have fresh defensive leadership in Ray Horton.

And Horton has the one big quality people like so much in Williams: Swagger.

He was formally introduced by the Titans on Wednesday and visited with us on the Midday 180, too.

He said he’s excited to be reunited with Ken Whisenhunt, who he called “a dynamic, proven, play-calling, winning coach” and he told us something I suspect will become a sound byte with staying power: “We’re going to get the damn job done.”

He likes the speed and effort he’s seen on tape from the 2013 defense, and said it’s the staff’s job to turn those things into wins.

“I want my players to be very disciplined, to be in the right place at the right time, and never, never, never let your teammates down,” he said. “...You better have good technique, you better be fundamentally sound, you better know how to take care of your responsibility.”

Horton’s played in and coached in a total of five Super Bowls.

He’s won three times -- Super Bowl XXVII as a player for Dallas, and Super Bowls XL and XLIII as a coach with Pittsburgh. But it’s the two losses he was part of that he says are most memorable.

He lists Super Bowl XXIII when San Francisco’s John Taylor caught the game-winning touchdown against his Bengals, and the Green Bay Packers win in Dallas against Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV.

“I remember the losses not the wins,” he said. “The wins are easy. You just take your hardware, your ring, you go home and you wear it ... The losses, they haunt you.”

We were on Radio Row at the Super Bowl and Horton was in Nashville when we spoke.

“I truly believe this with all my heart,” he said. “What players want is to be where you guys are right now. The first week of February, they want to be in that city where you guys are.”

By Friday night, Horton will have watched every snap of every player.

Next week he and the staff will begin to discuss how to maximize what they have, accentuating strengths, hiding weaknesses and determining needs.

Fans should be energized by the reviews Whisenhunt has received for getting Horton, and about what Horton has said so far.

I anticipate that while fans will remember Williams’ contribution fondly, they will be quite happy with the man who got the job.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Ray Horton is officially the Titans defensive coordinator.

The only bad thing I've heard about him is that some Arizona defenders felt they were able to play with more freedom after his two seasons. And that's commonplace for guys up front in a Pittsburgh-style, 2-gap, 3-4.

Horton
Ken Whisenhunt has said that's not what the Titans will run. They will be a hybrid front showing multiple looks.

"His body of work speaks for itself over the last few years as a coordinator and a position coach," Whisenhunt said of Horton in the release announcing the addition to his staff. "Not only was he a good player in the league for a number of years, but he has transferred that into becoming a very good NFL coach.

"Scheme-wise, one of the most impressive things about Ray is his flexibility. He has the ability to go between a 4-3 and 3-4 and put our players in the best position to succeed. It has been evident by what he done and where his defenses have ranked in the league over the last few years."

Here's a look at how the Titans defense and Browns defense compared last year. The yardage numbers were good in Cleveland, with the overall defense moving up to ninth from 23rd in 2012. But Horton will have to mold a group that fares better on third down and in scoring defense.

 

"I am excited about this opportunity, to be reunited with coach Whisenhunt and to be a piece of the puzzle to move this team forward," Horton said. "I have a great deal of respect for Whiz, as someone who took a franchise that had never been to the Super Bowl, he was able to take them to one. I was with him in Pittsburgh as well and he is a leader, a great play-caller and has a love for the game.

"As for our defensive system, I have said from day one that I don't coach a particular alignment, I coach men who want to get after it and we will play physical and fundamentally sound. We will do whatever suits the men that I coach and whatever the Tennessee Titans can do best."

Whisenhunt has been working quickly on his staff. Still open are jobs coaching quarterbacks, offensive line and defensive line.

NASHILLE, Tenn. -- During his final two years as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, Ken Whisenhunt’s wanted a Pittsburgh style, 2-gapping, 3-4 defense.

He could adjust given his second head-coaching job, with the Tennessee Titans. But if we're forecasting scheme, that might be the most likely defense we'll see.

What's that mean regarding potential coordinators on the other side of the ball for Whisenhunt, who played as an NFL tight end and is an offensive coach?

If defensive coordinator Ray Horton is fired by the Cleveland Browns, who are still searching for a head coach, he’d likely be a prime candidate to re-join Whisenhunt, for whom he worked with the Cardinals. It was Horton who went from Pittsburgh to Arizona to run that scheme for the Cardinals.

[+] EnlargeRay Horton
AP Photo/Mark DuncanIf Ray Horton is not retained when the Browns hire a new coach, he could be a prime candidate to join Ken Whisenhunt's staff.
A couple others I think could be defensive coordinator possibilities: Green Bay’s inside linebackers coach Winston Moss and Baltimore’s secondary coach Teryl Austin, who coached Arizona’s secondary for Whisenhunt from 2007-09.

The Packers or Ravens would have to be willing to let them go in order for Whisenhunt to get them.

Steelers linebacker coach Keith Butler is someone Whisenhunt coveted for the role in his first go-round as a head coach. But Pittsburgh wouldn't let Butler go then and it's unlikely it will let him go now.

Gregg Williams was a 4-3 guy coming up with the Oilers/Titans, as head coach in Buffalo, as coordinator in Washington and Jacksonville. He did run some 3-4 in New Orleans, where he coaches a Super Bowl-wining defense.

Williams did well as a senior assistant/defense for Mike Munchak in 2013. His contract recently expired. He seems like an unlikely guy for Whisenhunt to want, but who knows what options the new coach will wind up with?

His two earlier defensive coordinators in Arizona -- Clancy Pendergast in 2007-08 and Billy Davis in 2009-10 -- ran hybrid fronts. But ultimately Whisenhunt landed on Horton and that 3-4.

If Whisenhunt puts the Titans on a course for a 3-4 defense, he’ll likely need some time to get them there. In the traditional version of the scheme, linemen generally take on the man across from them and are expected to clog the gap on either side of the blocker depending on how a play develops. The linebackers fill in and make the bulk of the plays.

The Titans’ best defensive player, Jurrell Casey, is a 4-3 tackle who would surely become a 3-4 end. Big nose tackles who demand a double team are hard to find, though perhaps 328-pound Sammie Hill could make the conversion.

The Titans linebackers were very unproductive in 2013 after a good start. None scream out to me that they’d be better standing up and adding some coverage duties, though Akeem Ayers was projected by many in that role when he came out of UCLA. I didn’t think the Titans had one sufficient middle linebacker, better yet two who could be tackling machines sharing the inside.

Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano got good results running a hybrid in his first season converting a 4-3 to a 3-4 in 2012, and in his second season the team was better stocked for his preferred front. But he had Robert Mathis, a pass-rushing demon at end who’s taken well to playing as an outside linebacker.

When he’s formally introduced Tuesday, we’ll hear from Whisenhunt about his plans for Tennessee’s defense.
MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Minnesota Vikings hired Brad Childress as their head coach in 2006, infamously keeping him in the Twin Cities before he could get on a plane to interview for the Green Bay Packers' head-coaching position, they were taking their chances on an offensive coordinator from a successful team (Philadelphia) who had not been a NFL head coach or a playcaller for the Eagles. That search wrapped up six days after Vikings ownership fired Mike Tice on the final day of the season.

When the Vikings removed the interim tag from Leslie Frazier's title before their final game of the 2010 season, they were taking their chances on a defensive coordinator who'd done good work for them and managed to win three of the final six games in a chaotic year marked by the collapse of the Metrodome. But Frazier, like the man he replaced in the middle of the season, had not been a head coach.

Those two searches were relatively short -- the first likely because of the Wilf family's inexperience as NFL owners, the second because the Vikings were rewarding a candidate who had interviewed for a handful of jobs elsewhere and who had kept the team together during a trying season. The Vikings' current search for a head coach, though, has general manager Rick Spielman criss-crossing the country, talking to coaching candidates. As ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter reported on Saturday and as we discussed on Friday, the Vikings will interview San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman on Saturday.

That would make Roman the sixth known candidate the Vikings have talked to. And all of those -- Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton, Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and Roman -- are current coordinators who have never been NFL head coaches beyond an interim level.

After the Vikings fired Frazier on Dec. 30, Spielman outlined his process by talking about the research he'd already done on previous head coaches. NFL coaches can come from 13 different backgrounds, he said, and none had proven to be more successful than any other.

"That can be anything from head coaches that are currently offensive coordinators, former head coaches that are currently defensive coordinators, defensive coordinators [and] offensive coordinators without head-coaching experiences, college head coaches with and without NFL coaching experience," Spielman said. "So there is a long list of areas that you can look for in a head coach."

We'll say this with the disclaimer that the Vikings could certainly be talking to candidates whose names haven't been publicized, but the list so far has zeroed in, almost exclusively, on coordinators who haven't been permanent head coaches yet. As ESPN's John Clayton pointed out this week, the Houston Texans decided to go away from a coordinator because of how many have failed at the NFL level -- 60 percent, in Texans owner Bob McNair's estimation.

If the Vikings have found the coordinator pool to contain the best candidates, great. Spielman has too much riding on this hire -- his reputation as a GM and possibly his future with the team -- not to turn over every stone, and he has gone through this search in his typical diligent manner.

Roman certainly has the wares to be conducting an extensive interview tour this year, too; he's helped the 49ers get to the NFC title game and the Super Bowl with two different quarterbacks, and has designed one of the league's most diverse offenses behind quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a power running game. The Vikings could certainly use someone with that kind of offensive know-how, especially if he's able to develop a young quarterback.

But it's worth pointing out the considerable risk in the coordinator pool, and the Vikings should be well-acquainted with that, based on the past two coaches they've hired (and fired). The search, at least so far and at least with the names that have become public, hasn't included as much diversity in coaching backgrounds as we thought it could. We'll have to presume that's because Spielman is finding the right people in a class of coordinators that's historically been fraught with risk.

"There is no specific [type of coach we have to have]: offense, defense, college coach, high school coach, whatever," Spielman said on Dec. 30. "It is a coach that we feel is the best fit for our organization."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings suddenly found themselves with an opening in their schedule today, after Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden -- whom the Vikings were scheduled to interview in Cincinnati -- accepted the Washington Redskins' head coaching job. Gruden is believed to be the first candidate to come off the market that the Vikings had planned to interview, and now, it will be interesting to see how they react.

Bowles
Zimmer
To this point, we know they've talked to five people: Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton, and Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. They've requested interviews with San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. At this point, the Vikings could talk to the 49ers candidates this week, and then not again until their season is over. They'd have to wait until after the Broncos' season is over to talk to either Gase or Del Rio, and can't go back to Bevell or Quinn until the Seahawks are done.

So the Vikings, in other words, have a few options at this point: They could talk to one of the 49ers' candidates between now and Sunday, conduct interviews with candidates they haven't talked with yet, or double back to some of their previous candidates. Considering they're believed to be high on both Zimmer and Bowles, they might well pursue the third option.

John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said general manager Rick Spielman was very impressed with Bowles, but added that the Vikings would want to talk again with Bevell and Quinn. Spielman said last week that he planned to bring two or three finalists to Vikings ownership after an initial round of interviews, and that the Wilfs would make the final call at that point.

Here's where things get interesting, though: Zimmer, whom ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter said has emerged as a favorite for the Vikings, was interviewing with the Tennessee Titans on Thursday, and Bowles has also talked with the Cleveland Browns. Do the Vikings risk waiting on the Seahawks to be eliminated from the playoffs, or do they move forward with the candidates who are available now in hopes of securing one of their top guys before he goes somewhere else? Spielman had said he wanted to have a coach in place by the Senior Bowl, and while he would still have time to make that happen, it's possible the Seahawks could wind up in the Super Bowl, keeping Bevell and Quinn off-limits until February.

The Vikings aren't at a point where they have to rush their process, and they could well be talking to other candidates we don't know about. But the candidate pool does appear to have split into two groups -- those who are available now, and those who might not be available until much later. It will be interesting to see if Spielman has to alter his process because of competing teams, and what will happen if the 49ers, Seahawks or Broncos should happen to lose this weekend. The results of those games could help steer the Vikings firmly in one direction or another.
Erin Henderson, Leslie FrazierHannah Foslien/Getty ImagesThe coach hired by Minnesota to replace Leslie Frazier, right, must be able to relate to a younger generation of players, according to former Viking Chris Doleman.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings are continuing on with their coaching search this week, talking to Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton today after interviewing Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles on Monday. They will talk with Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden on Thursday, according to a league source, and likely still have interviews coming with Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Wisenhunt, and San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman. They have already talked with the Seattle Seahawks' offensive and defensive coordinators (Darrell Bevell and Dan Quinn). If their coaching search goes until the Denver Broncos' season is over, they could wind up talking to Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase or defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, too.

It's a long list with a range of different options. But one consideration I've been wondering about lately relates to something former Vikings defensive end Chris Doleman said in an interview last month: How much weight should the Vikings give to a coach's ability to manage millennials?

Ah, yes, 'millennials' -- the buzzword for my generation that's colloquially come to describe a group of people in their teens, 20s and early 30s who are narcissistic, overstimulated by technology and in constant need of and affirmation. Or, at least, that's been the scouting report on us in countless magazine articles about millennials in the workplace -- which, curiously enough, always seem to quote analysts the age of our parents, the same people who helped condition us to so much privilege and praise.

At any rate, Doleman related the concept to football in an Inside the NFL interview last month in which he described many millennials as "soft, soft players" who might not want to work as hard as previous generations of players did.

"This is a class of players that feel like they deserve so much more. I don’t know if the work ethic is still there," Doleman said. "I think these guys want to win. I think they want to be good players, but are you willing to do the hard stuff? This, ‘I’ll ease into the game’ type of attitude is just not good enough. You have to be able to step up there and make it happen.”

Doleman pointed out Vikings linebackers coach Mike Singletary's time as the 49ers' head coach as an example of a disconnect with today's players, because Singletary couldn't understand why every player didn't have his drive. Both Doleman and Singletary were Hall of Famers as players, so they're naturally on the far end of the bell curve, but Doleman does raise an interesting point.

While I'd say the stock criticism of millennials is overly simple and often refers to affluent suburban kids who grew up as hyper-achievers in school (present company admittedly included), there's little doubt young professionals come to the workforce from a different background than previous generations. Football players do, too. Millennials grew up in organizational environments that place a strong emphasis on teamwork and collaboration, and as a result, they draw greater meaning from experiences where they feel like their ideas matter. Generally, they're less used to being screamed at, more used to being asked what they think and more likely to buy into an idea when they've been told the rationale behind it. Former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier seemed to get that -- he met each week with a players' leadership council consisting of players as young as 23 or 24 -- and in an era where salary-cap restrictions have pushed more and more teams toward younger players, the Vikings' next coach will have to find the right style to connect with millennials.

That doesn't necessarily mean every coach has to be like Pete Carroll; Jim Harbaugh has certainly been able to get the most out of young players, first at Stanford and then in San Francisco. But even as gruff as Harbaugh can seem in public, his leadership style is different than that of the coaches he played for (Bo Schembechler or Mike Ditka). A Sports Illustrated profile of Harbaugh in October quoted players who said Harbaugh "thinks of himself as part of the team." Receiver Anquan Boldin said of Harbaugh, "He's definitely not a screamer. He's usually calm when he talks to guys. He's more of a teacher."

Is that a softer way of relating to players? Is it more refined? I'll let someone else be the judge of that, but today's player probably requires a different kind of leader than players did in the 1980s or 1990s. It's a tough thing to quantify, but as Vikings general manager Rick Spielman continues his tour of coaching candidates, he'll have to find the coach that can connect with a generation of players who respond to something different than their predecessors did.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings wasted little time in expanding their coaching search to include coordinators whose teams played in the first round of the playoffs over the weekend. And as expected, they went right to Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

They are one of four teams to request an interview with Gruden, according to a league source. Gruden, who has won praise around the league for his work with Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, is free to interview for jobs now that the Bengals are out of the playoffs, and could emerge as one of the hottest coaching candidates this offseason.

It's telling that four of the five teams with coaching openings -- Washington, Tennessee, Detroit and the Vikings -- have requested permission to talk to Gruden and even though the Bengals' offense sputtered in the team's loss to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, Gruden has built plenty of momentum before this season. He interviewed for four jobs -- Seattle, San Diego, Philadelphia and Arizona -- after last season, and seemed likely to get strong consideration this year. The Bengals jumped from 18th to sixth in the league in offense in Gruden's three seasons, and they've made the playoffs in each of his three seasons working with Dalton, who was drafted after the Vikings took Christian Ponder.

Gruden, the younger brother of ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden, would follow the Vikings' interviews with Seattle offensive and defensive coordinators Darrell Bevell and Dan Quinn over the weekend. They also have scheduled talks with Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton on Monday and Tuesday, and had requested to talk to Denver offensive and defensive coordinators Adam Gase and Jack Del Rio.

San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer are also able to interview for jobs this week, and both could wind up on the Vikings' radar.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- So who’s next in line to be coach of the Tennessee Titans?

My first choice would be Stanford coach David Shaw, but I don’t think the Titans could lure him away from Palo Alto.

General manager Ruston Webster is connected to a lot of coaches who could be candidates from his time in the front offices in Tampa Bay and Seattle.

[+] EnlargeRich Bisaccia
AP Photo/James D. SmithCowboys special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia is a possible candidate for the Titans' head job.
I pondered many of those connections on Christmas Eve. Lovie Smith is off the board, hired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His ties to ownership there would have made it tough for the Titans to get involved even if they had fired Munchak earlier and liked him. Jim Mora appears set on staying at UCLA.

But a few other coaches Webster knows could surface. Dallas Cowboys special teams coach Rich Bisaccia is a name I’ve already heard Webster will consider. Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden or Chicago Bears offensive coordinator and line coach Aaron Kromer might be of interest.

Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, whose current office is only a couple miles from LP Field, is a high-energy coach who’s very popular in Nashville. He has a bit of NFL experience. Adam Schefter says Franklin interviewed with the Houston Texans before they hired Bill O'Brien.

A Pennsylvania native, Franklin is reportedly in line to talk to Penn State about its opening. I feel he’s a better fit with college kids than the NFL, but Webster certainly could feel differently.

Like Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean before me, I’ve heard Bisaccia and Seattle Seawhawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn are guys Webster is likely to interview.

Before the Titans hired Munchak in 2011, I wrote about why I thought Bisaccia would be a good candidate for the job. It included a rave review from Jon Gruden and Derrick Brooks. (And a bad assessment by me of Raheem Morris.)

From what I’ve heard about Bisaccia, I think he might be a Franklin-type in the energy department. He’d bring far more experience coaching guys in the pro ranks. Already on Twitter some are crushing the idea. I’m asking them if John Harbaugh was a bad hire for the Baltimore Ravens. He won the Super Bowl with Baltimore last year and was hired by the Ravens with a resume that was predominantly overseeing special teams with the Philadelphia Eagles. A top special teams coordinators should have head coaching qualities, and it's an outside-the-box idea worthy of consideration.

Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton have been popular names with regard to remaining openings and it would be no surprise if Webster considered them. Greg Roman of the San Francisco 49ers is among the most popular offensive coordinators in the NFL right now.

One guy I do not think will draw Webster's attention: San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, the former coach of the Cardinals. I don't think Webster is a big fan.

Mike Mularkey (not working this season) and New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell interviewed with the Titans when Munchak was hired in 2011. Mularkey got the Jacksonville Jaguars job in 2012 and was a one-year disaster.

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