Ravens defensive coordinator used to be one of the best assistant coaching positions in the NFL, but the luster is gone.
It started to fade after the team’s Super Bowl XLVII-winning season when soon-to-be Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis retired. Before then, prospects wanted to come to Baltimore to coach but the Ravens were content promoting from within.
So when it was announced Tuesday that Ravens linebackers coach Don “Wink” Martindale had become the new coordinator, there was a lot of disappointment from fans around town. They wanted a big-splash hire such as Chuck Pagano, but instead they got business as usual.
They got Martindale, 54. That’s not a knock on him, but times have changed.
Being the Ravens defensive coordinator was a marquee position because the team had players such as Lewis, safety Ed Reed and two other linebackers named Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper. They could sign another Hall of Fame talent in safety Rod Woodson and get him to lead a secondary that featured young cornerbacks Chris McAlister, Duane Starks and fellow safety Kim Herring.
Lewis was the train and head coaches Brian Billick and John Harbaugh rode him to Super Bowl titles. Former Ravens defensive coordinators Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Rex Ryan and Pagano went on to land head coaching positions, as did former linebackers coaches Jack Del Rio and Mike Smith.
Since Ray Lewis left, the only defensive coordinator has been Dean Pees, who retired shortly after the team blew another fourth-quarter lead to the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 31 to end their playoff aspirations.
The great defensive players have disappeared. The best the Ravens have are linebacker C.J. Mosley and nose tackle Brandon Williams, but do those names carry enough clout to draw a prospect away from a possibly better position with a team that might have more promising talent?
Plus, there’s the lame duck factor. Harbaugh is signed through 2019, but even owner Steve Bisciotti can’t hold on to him after 2018 if he fails to go to the playoffs for a fourth straight year and five times out of six.
If you’re Pagano, did you really want to risk moving your family here again after dealing with an illness and horrible ownership in Indianapolis? Steve Spagnuolo, 58, might’ve been just as travel-weary having gone to six pro teams throughout his long coaching career.
With the Ravens, it has to be the right mix. Harbaugh can’t handle strong personalities, which is why the Ravens jettisoned those types of players after the 2012 season. He struggled with Ryan’s arrogance, and there is no way he could coexist with the up-and-down mood swings of Del Rio.
Harbaugh got along with former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, but that hire was forced upon him.
Harbaugh could’ve gone outside the box and brought in a young defensive mind such as Woodson, or New York Jets linebackers coach Kevin Greene or former Ravens safety Jim Leonhard, now the Wisconsin defensive coordinator. All three are familiar with the Ravens’ defensive style.
But Harbaugh stayed in his comfort zone. He likes to hire coaches who worked with either him, his brother, Jim, or father, Jack. It sounds ridiculous, but it makes sense — especially for a head coach who needs to win next season.
His ego isn’t overbearing and Martindale is considered a players’ coach, especially working with young players. There is a concern about the year he spent as Denver Broncos defensive coordinator in 2010.
That season, the Broncos had a defense ranked last in total yards (390.8) and points (29.4).
Of course, it’s eight years later and Martindale has grown a lot since then. We’ll find out how much in 2018.
The bottom line, though, is when it came down to the final decision, there weren’t a lot of options for the Ravens. Martindale was the best they could get because being Ravens defensive coordinator isn’t as prestigious as it used to be.