As far as the Ravens were concerned, the goodbye was final.
Dean Pees seemed unequivocal when he met with players before they cleaned out their lockers on New Year’s Day 2018. After 45 years of football, covering more than 600 games and 6,000 practices, Pees felt ready to stop designing defenses and start playing with grandkids. He would retire with no regrets.
Twenty-eight days later, he was defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, the team the Ravens are preparing to play Sunday in Nashville.
Pees said that when Titans coach Mike Vrabel pursued him, he “kept missing the game more and more,” a surprising statement from someone who’d retired less than a month earlier. The move also offered him the chance to work with his son, Matt, whom the Titans hired as a quality control assistant.
So here he is, in the odd position of doing the same job against the Ravens that he was doing for them at this time last year.
Both sides might be better off.
Pees, 69, has improved the Tennessee defense from 17th to third in points allowed, with particular success on third down.
“Dean has always been a great coach,” Vrabel said Wednesday on a conference call with Baltimore reporters. “He was a coach of mine. I admired what he did from afar in Baltimore, and when the opportunity presented itself, I tried to take advantage of it. The guys really like him. Replacing [previous defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau anywhere is not an easy thing to do, and I was very aware of that, but I felt like we needed a change, and Dean has been everything that I had hoped for.”
The Ravens, meanwhile, rank third in total defense and first in scoring defense under new coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, compared to 12th in total defense and sixth in scoring defense in 2017. It’s not a perfect comparison, because several of Pees’ Baltimore defenses also jumped to ferocious starts before falling off late.
But listening to players talk about the aggression and adaptability of Martindale’s defense, there’s no sense they regret the switch.
Martindale worked for Pees as the team’s linebackers coach, and many of his overarching principles are similar. But he retooled the operation from top to bottom in the offseason with an eye toward improving on-field communications and flexibility.
“I think the communication,” safety Eric Weddle said when asked what he likes best about Martindale. “He’s very open [with] game-planning. … It’s not just one guy. Obviously, he’s leading us, but by his leadership and the assistant coaches, we’re all doing and believing in the same goal. I just think we’re prepared for a lot of situations that come up, and it shows in critical situations.”
Such words of praise — and there have been many for Martindale since he took over — can always be interpreted as backhanded slaps at the previous coach. But Weddle said that’s not the case.
“Along the same lines, they’re very similar,” he said when asked what he most appreciated about Pees. “He was very open if I ever had anything that came up with what I thought with schemes or blitzes or the way we ran coverages or things like that. So, he was an amazing man, great coach — nothing but great things my two years with him. It was tough to see him go. And then obviously, seeing him go back into coaching, we were all happy for him, because we know how much he loves coaching. But he’s with them now. We appreciate what he did here, but we’re doing our thing now, and he’s doing his.”
Few in Baltimore seemed eager to talk about Pees this week.
“I don’t sit and reflect on things like that,” Martindale said when asked about their time together. “What we’re concerned with is [quarterback Marcus] Mariota and the Titans offense right now. We haven’t even brought it up. I think that anytime I reflect on something like that, I’m taking away from getting prepared for this game.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said it would be pointless to speculate which side might hold a tactical advantage in Sunday’s game.
“I feel like I can make most of the calls,” he acknowledged when asked what it’s like watching the Titans defense on tape. “I know the names [of] most of the calls, but he has added some wrinkles. There’s no doubt about that. Like any good coach does, he’s evolved the defense a little bit, and I’m sure he’ll have some new ideas for this game. That’s really what you look at.”
Pees watched his defenders practice against quarterback Joe Flacco for eight years. At the same time, Flacco and Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg spent plenty of time confronting Pees’ schemes.
“It goes both ways,” Flacco said. “I’m sure that we think that we know probably more than we actually know. I’m sure that they think they know more than they actually know. I think you’re dealing with prideful people, and everyone tends to think that they have a leg up. But who knows?”
Harbaugh will always keep warm feelings for his longtime coordinator.
“Dean means a lot to me personally, and he did a good job here,” he said. “He put a lot of good defenses together here in Baltimore. I hope the fans understand that and believe that. There are a lot of heartbreaking moments for every team around the league. I have a lot of respect for Dean, and when you watch his defense play — because they’re playing very well — and they’re one of the top defenses in football right now, which is pretty much a trademark for Dean’s defenses. It’s really no surprise. But it will be special before the game. Once the game starts, we’ll be trying to choke each other out.”
Abrupt job changes are the norm for football coaches. Even so, this one induced a bit of whiplash in Baltimore, where Pees went from a folksy institution to the enemy in less than a month.
Vrabel said he called Harbaugh and Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome to ask for their blessing before he contacted Pees about an interview. He said they were fine with it and that Pees weighed the move for a few days before committing.
Though Pees was not made available to Baltimore reporters this week, he has professed nothing but happiness about his new environment. “There really is something to Southern hospitality,” he told the Tennessee media Wednesday.
For the last question of his farewell news conference on New Year’s Day, Pees was asked how he would spend game days this autumn.
“Root for the Ravens!” he said. “I wanted to retire a Raven, so I’ll be cheering for the Ravens.”
“Who knows what will happen?” he added.