Monday, 4 a.m.
The best heroes have sidekicks.
The Lone Ranger had Tonto. Batman had Robin. Sherlock Holmes had Watson. Laurel had Hardy. And so it goes.
Coaches are like that, too. Oh, the head guy gets most of the credit, because that's the way we are. We like to throw confetti on one guy. We like to give out our medals one at a time. It's the way we are.
But through the history of the NFL, the best teams seem to have two coaches, really. One guy in charge of the Xs, one guy in charge of the Os. Meet you at the trophy stand.
That's the hope with the Bucs' re-signing of Mike Smith as the team's right-hand man. Officially, Smith is the second banana. But we know better. We know he's in charge of
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being his generation's Monte Kiffin. He's in charge of developing this era's Derrick Brooks, this era's Warren Sapp, this era's John Lynch.
The guy in charge of those guys, of course, was Kiffin, who orchestrated a defense that had a 10-year run that would compete with anyone's. Compute the yardage allowed, the points surrendered, the sacks, and few defenses have ever compared to those Bucs' defenses. If someone mentions locally that Kiffin deserves to be considered for the Hall, who's going to argue?
Kiffin worked with both Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden. To be honest, his unit was always the best on the field. It had the best talent, and it produced the best results. There was a reason he was thought of as the mad professor, sleeping nights on his couch and trying to dream up new blitz packages.
Gruden once said of Kiffn: "If he wants, he can be the head coach and I'll be his assistant." I'm not sure that Gruden meant it, but the point is clear. Kiffin waged his own battles.
Of course, there have been a lot of good defensive minds who have failed. You still have to have the right mix of players. You need a pass rusher. You need a crisp tackling linebacker. You need a secondary that can compete for the ball. Then the defensive coordinator gets smarter, and the head coach gets to be a genius.
It has always been thus. Remember Bill Arnsparger? He was Don Shula's defensive guru -- although Shula had bee a defensive back. Arnsparger helped fashion the no-name defense in the years he worked for Shula. And if you'll notice, Shula never won a Super Bowl without him.
You could say the same about Bill Parcells, a Hall of Fame coach. But Parcells was better when he had Bill Belichick in charge of the defense. Once they split up, Parcells didn't win another Super Bowl.
It goes that way. Running one side of the ball is hard enough anymore. The best coaches have a lieutenant on the other side of the ball.
Joe Gibbs had Richie Petitbon. Bill Cowher had Dick LeBeau. Jimmy Johnson had Dave Wannstedt. Andy Reid has Jim Johnson. Bill Walsh had George Seifert. Vince Lombardi had Phil Bengston. Mike Holmgren had Fritz Shurmur.
To put it on the college level, Bobby Bowden had Mickey Andrews. Asked what Andrews meant, he said "It was like Jackson was to Lee."
There is a reason that half of the NFL openings went to defensive coordinators (so far). Everyone has to start somewhere. Coordinator is a good place to look.
The Chicago Bears, whose '85 team might be the best ever, had the perfect setup. Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan were never going to share a milkshake, but the defensive players swore a blood oath to Ryan. When he left, things unraveled.
Tom Landry had Ernie Stautner. Chuck Noll had Bud Carson. Marv Levy had Walt Corey. Don Coryell had Joe Gibbs running his offense. Dan Reeves had Joe Collier. You get the idea. It's Starsky and Hutch. It's Jagger and Richards. It's Lennon and McCartney.
There is a common thread among the assistants. With only a few exceptions (Belichick, Siefert, Gibbs), the second-in-charge was a lousy head coach. Sometimes, it's better to work behind the scenes than be the one in charge. Still, where else are you going to hire an NFL coach from? College?
The exception? It seems to be Belichick. Oh, he had Romeo Crennell early. He has Matt Patricia lately. But for the most part, the Patriots seem to be a one-man coaching staff. Everyone else counts side-straddle hops.
Ideally, a head coach lives above it all, dabbling with both offense and defense. But anymore, it doesn't work that way. Gruden left most of the defense to Kiffin, and there was a reason. It was Kiffin who had the loyalty of the assistant coaches, Kiffin who commanded the players (Sapp didn't care much for Kiffin, by the way), Kiffin who set the standards.
Do the Bucs have another in Kif's image?
We can only hope he gets the pieces to prove it.