Boclair: No surprise that defense looks first rate in Cecil's second year

Monday, September 27, 2010 at 10:45pm

Dave McGinnis didn’t even want to hear the question when it was raised during the offseason.

The Tennessee Titans’ assistant head coach/defense scoffed at the suggestion that inexperience played any role in the team’s struggles on defense in 2009. Not the inexperience of the players, but the inexperience of defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil.

McGinnis quickly pointed to Cecil’s career as both a player (a seven-year NFL career with one Pro Bowl appearance) and a coach (eight years and three different jobs with the Titans) as clear-cut proof that Cecil had seen and done everything he possibly could to be prepared.

Indications are, of course, that the only way to actually prepare to do the job is to do the job.

Under Jeff Fisher, the Titans have a history of going with inexperienced coordinators and letting them grow into the job, as was the case with Cecil. Typically, that’s exactly what happens: The longer they’re on the job, the better they do.

Thus it was not necessarily a surprise that two weeks into this season, the Titans had the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense in terms of total yards allowed. True, those two games were against the typically inept Oakland Raiders and the Ben Roethlisberger-less Pittsburgh Steelers, but let’s be honest: Last fall — in their first year with Cecil laying out the game plan and making the calls — the Titans made some other less-than-frightening offenses look pretty comfortable.

Even at such an early stage, it was reasonable to assume that the defense would finish much better than 28th overall, where it ranked last year, because that’s what has happened pretty much every other time.

Gregg Williams became a defensive coordinator in 1997, and his first unit ranked 22nd in the NFL in yards allowed after having been in the top 10 each of the three previous seasons. Three years later, he had the top-ranked defense and a chance to be a head coach with the Buffalo Bills.

Then came Jim Schwartz, another first-time coordinator. His first season ended with Tennessee ranked 25th in total defense. The next year it was in the top 10, and after two more back-to-back top 10s in 2007 and 2008, he became head coach of the Detroit Lions.

It’s been no different with the offense, although the improvement has not been as dramatic. Mike Heimerdinger became an NFL coordinator for the first time in 2000, and his second year (eighth in total offense) was better than his first (14th).

The only person who bucks the trend is Norm Chow, who both succeeded and preceded Heimerdinger in that spot. The offense got worse in terms of yards from his first to second season, but that’s likely because he went from a veteran quarterback, Steve McNair, to rookie Vince Young. Even with that, the Titans scored more points in their second year with Chow.

The truth is that most NFL assistants maintain an incredibly narrow focus.

The Titans’ staff is composed of 15 assistants, not counting the strength and conditioning coach, including an assistant special teams coach. If the Titans were a school, they could boast that they have better than a 4:1 student-teacher ratio. That’s an environment conducive to some serious learning.

The coordinators have much more to consider, and there’s a lot about the job they have to learn on their own. It makes sense that it takes some time to adjust.

The good news for Titans’ fans is that it seems the adjustment period lasts about a year. That means there’s not likely to be
any questions about Cecil’s proficiency throughout this season.