The text messages started rolling in almost immediately. When word leaked out that he was being elevated to Ravens defensive coordinator, Don “Wink” Martindale heard from Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle and many others.
“If you’re a coach, it hits you right in the heart,” Martindale said at a Thursday news conference at the team’s training facility. “I've been preparing for this job all my life and I understand what comes with this job with this great organization. I think it's one of the great challenges there is in the National Football League.”
Martindale, the Ravens linebackers coach for the past six seasons, was hired to succeed Dean Pees, who retired a day after the conclusion of the team’s 2017 season. On the job for a little more than a week, Martindale said it’s been a humbling experience. He also acknowledged that he wasn’t sure that he’d get another chance to lead an NFL defense.
He was the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos in 2010, when his dream job quickly turned into a nightmare. Top pass rusher Elvis Dumervil, who was coming off a 17-sack season, tore a pectoral muscle and was lost for the season before it even began. Perennial Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins missed a chunk of the year with injuries. The Broncos defense finished last in the league in points and yards allowed per game. Coach Josh McDaniels was fired in early December with his team having lost nine of its first 12 games.
“You win or you learn. I learned a lot that year,” Martindale said. “It always has been and it always will be about the players. Even though the stats were what they were, I was really proud with how we played. I know it didn’t work out the way we wanted it to work out. Eight years later or whatever it is, I’m glad I went through that process because I think that makes me a better coach today.”
Asked if he viewed his new job as a second chance to prove himself, Martindale said: “Without a doubt. My family knows it. Everybody knows it. My players know it. I can’t wait.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh considered several options to replace Pees. He spoke to former Indianapolis Colts and Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano about returning to Baltimore. He talked to coveted Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Several former Ravens assistants, including Ted Monachino, Teryl Austin and Steve Spagnuolo, were considered candidates for the job.
Martindale was the clear choice of the players who have long appreciated his direct yet flexible coaching style. Martindale has been instrumental in the development of young linebackers Mosley, Zachary Orr and Patrick Onwuasor and has also meshed well with established veterans such as Lewis and Daryl Smith.
He also has quite a coaching pedigree. He’s been influenced by Buddy Ryan and he remains extremely close with Ryan’s sons, Rob and Rex. He’s worked with Lou Holtz and his son, Skip, and coached under Harbaugh’s father, Jack, at Western Kentucky.
The Ravens franchise has long been defined by its defense and the defensive coordinator job has been considered a glamorous position. Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Rex Ryan and Pagano parlayed it into head-coaching jobs elsewhere. Pees is also a widely respected defensive mind.
“I coached with just about every one of those guys you just mentioned,” Martindale said. “I understand the pressure of the job and task, and what's great about it is the coaching staff we have right now has been awesome. We've been back at it for seven days and John's come in, spent two days with us, and has given us some projects to take our good and make it great. It's very humbling, but I understand the pressure and I look forward to the challenge.”
Asked how his style will be different from Pees’, Martindale said: “I think personality-wise, and just calls, there's going to be some things that are the same, and then there are going to be sometimes where I'm going to pressure more. I just think I have a more aggressive personality in calling the game — sometimes too aggressive. That's some of the things I've learned from the past. So there's that fine line in what quarterback you're playing and things of that nature.”
The Ravens defense is expected to return mostly intact. The team’s only free agent on that side of the ball that started a game in 2017 was defensive end Brent Urban, and he suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 3. The Ravens posted three shutouts, led the league with 33 takeaways and ranked sixth in points allowed per game (113.3) during the regular season.
However, it was stung by late-game meltdowns, the final one coming in a regular-season finale loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that kept the Ravens out of the playoffs for a third consecutive year.
“Obviously the last two years, it's been the last play that's knocked us out of it,” Martindale said. “We are going to work diligently — all of us — with our package and situational football. That's going to be the next step, I think, that will skyrocket us. That's the big thing that I see. We're going to take our good and make it great. We were really good. Let's make it great.”