Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale likes to say that the game of football “always has been, and it always will be, about the players,” using an adage from late defensive line coach Clarence Brooks.
Since being promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator after the retirement of Dean Pees following the 2017 season, Martindale, 57, always has centered his unit’s success around his players.
Martindale, though, was one of the storylines among the myriad subplots from Sunday’s 20-13 wild-card-round win over the Tennessee Titans. Martindale, whose name has been floated as a head coaching candidate, thoroughly outwitted Titans second-year offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who has interviewed for several of the NFL’s coaching vacancies.
As Martindale plans to stop another offense whose unit is coached by a rising prospect — Buffalo Bills coordinator Brian Daboll — his candidacy highlights the challenges defensive coordinators can face in the modern landscape.
Using a blitz-happy philosophy and personable nature that has endeared him to players, Martindale has led a unit that ranked in the top three in points allowed in each of his first three seasons. The Ravens are one of three teams, along with the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears, whose defense has ranked top 10 in efficiency by Football Outsiders each season since 2018, an impressive feat given the variation in defensive performance from year to year.
“In our [defensive] room, the way he speaks to us, talks to us and just relates with us, it translates to how we play for him,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said Wednesday. “We have a lot of different packages, different things guys can do, all kinds of stuff, and he makes sure everybody knows that. He puts everybody in position to play at their strengths.”
One year after the New York Giants interviewed Martindale before hiring former New England Patriots special teams coordinator/wide receivers coach Joe Judge, Martindale hasn’t been officially linked to any vacancies.
“As a coordinator, [Martindale] is phenomenal with an excellent roster, but some guys can’t coach great players,” said former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who coached alongside Martindale at the University of Cincinnati in the late 1990′s. “He can coach great players, average players, can coach them all; they are going to feel like King Kong. That is what the great ones do. The thing about ‘Wink’ is he can be himself, genuine, which is why players like him, they love that he is who he is.”
This year’s coaching carousel has been more deliberate. Since the regular season ended Jan. 3, none of the seven openings — the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, Los Angeles Chargers, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles — has been filled (the Eagles fired Doug Pederson on Monday).
The NFL allowed teams with vacancies to begin requesting virtual interviews with assistants before the end of the regular season, a provision that seemingly allows franchises to cast a wider net with candidates. The Texans requested to interview 65-year-old Ravens assistant head coach David Culley, coach John Harbaugh confirmed Monday.
In recent years, people inside the league have lamented the lack of diversity in coaching searches, which have skewed to the young, offensive-minded assistants — who more often than not are also white (The NFL also expanded the Rooney Rule to require teams to interview at least two outside minority candidates for head coaching vacancies).
Over the past two offseasons, nine of the 13 head coaching vacancies were filled by a coach with an offensive-oriented background. The trend is understandable, given rule changes that have favored quarterbacks and offenses. But it can result in oversight in decision-making, said Marc Ross, a former vice president of player evaluation with the Giants who now works as an analyst for NFL Network.
Ross said he’s seen a trend in which franchises aren’t hiring “the best person. They hire who they feel they’re most comfortable with or they go with what the new trend is as far as the hiring.”
“The best coaches are leaders. It’s not, ‘I coach offense or defense,’” Ross said. “It’s like, ‘I can lead an entire team.’ If these owners are smart and they start doing their due diligence with that, you’ll see it not being specific to the side of a ball, but, ‘this is the best candidate.’”
Eight years after a disastrous one-season stint as defensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos, Martindale got another chance in Baltimore and has made the most of it. Martindale has said several times that only the “opportunity of a lifetime” would sway him to leave his current post. He reportedly agreed to a three-year extension after the 2019 season that makes him the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the league.
With the window for teams to interview assistants who are currently coaching in the postseason closed, it’s unclear how that will affect Martindale’s chances this year. Teams could elect to fill their vacancies in the coming days and weeks. However, an extended postseason run against the potential gantlet of offensive minds who have been mentioned as head coaching candidates — Tennessee’s Smith, Buffalo’s Daboll and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Eric Bieniemy — would bring Martindale further into the spotlight.
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“His time will come, sometimes it takes a while,” Ryan said. “Sometimes when you are in the [playoff] hunt, it can work against you. There are guys who are available to be interviewed because they are not as far in the playoffs as you. He is still going to get plenty of opportunities; I am sure he will. It is hard to ignore the success he has had; you can’t. He’ll eventually get a shot, it’s just a matter of time, and hopefully, it will happen at the end of this year.”
AFC divisional round
Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Bills by 2½