Back in a time where being a coach for the Seattle Seahawks under Pete Carroll used to mean something, Ken Norton, Jr. was hired away by Jack Del Rio to be the defensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders in 2015. Norton had spent 11 years with Carroll, including the previous five for the Seahawks as linebackers coach under Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn, with back-to-back Super Bowl appearances.
When Quinn left after Seattle’s second straight season of winning the conference, Carroll hired Kris Richard to take over as defensive coordinator, while Norton went to the Raiders. The two assistants saw their paths take different directions from that point forward, but now as things have come full circle, Norton suddenly looks to be “ahead” of his longtime colleague with USC and the Seahawks.
But really isn’t just about timing and talent?
Oakland went 3-13 and finished 32nd in points allowed in 2014, which is why they fired Dennis Allen (and replacement Tony Sparano), and hired Del Rio. That’s where Norton came in and he helped the Raiders improve to 22nd in points allowed, with 16 more sacks than they had the year before, and a notably better pass defense. All because of Norton, right?
Probably a lot more to do with second-year linebacker Khalil Mack actually, who went from three sacks to 15. And as we’ve seen, Mack doesn’t need a certain coach in order to be productive. Not that the Raiders had a super talented defense (Charles Woodson, Aldon Smith, Malcolm Smith, David Amerson, Dan Williams, Mario Edwards), but they also weren’t super good. They were just a little better.
Then they weren’t.
Then in September of 2016, Del Rio reportedly took playcalling away from Norton following a terrible start to the season by the defense; they gave up over 1,000 yards over the first two games. They stopped giving up 500 yards per game, but the Oakland defense was still among the worst in the NFL, even after adding Bruce Irvin and Reggie Nelson, probably because many other starters were still very bad. The Raiders finished dead last in net yards per pass attempt allowed. They did go 12-4, but lost badly in the first round of the playoffs. Maybe it’s a different story if not for Derek Carr’s broken leg, but the defense still stood no shot of helping them through that gauntlet.
After a 4-6 start last season, Oakland fired Norton, severing ties completely. They had forced just five turnovers in 10 games. He hit the open market as a coach who wasn’t good enough to even improve the Oakland Raiders defense. Not a good place to be in.
Luckily enough, Carroll didn’t care about any of his Oakland issues. He knew Norton for over a decade and he knew that he had the talent for a good defense. Isn’t that really the majority of what you need?
Richard had the Seahawks back at their number one ranking for scoring defense in 2015, getting through a bad wild card game in Minnesota before losing on the road to the Carolina Panthers; they gave up 31 first half points to the Panthers but a significant problem that day was incompetence by the offense and then Seattle shut Carolina down in the second half. The Seahawks were third in points allowed in 2016, including first in yards per carry allowed. Quarterbacks had a rating of just 85 against Seattle, with only 16 touchdown passes.
The Seahawks held the Detroit Lions to six in a wild card win, but again lost badly on the road in the divisional round.
Things finally took a downward turn in 2017, with Seattle finishing 13th in points allowed and surrendering 30+ five times. However, there was a significant change that year: No Cliff Avril for 12 games, no Richard Sherman or Kam Chancellor for seven, Earl Thomas missed two games and was recovering from a broken leg, K.J. Wright was out for the defense’s worst game in years.
It was a lack of talent.
Carroll decided to shake things up — this is more the cause for Richard’s firing than anything, I believe — and found his old friend on the coaching free agent market. Now where are the Seahawks, Richard, and Norton?
Well, somewhat quietly Norton has certainly raised his stock, hasn’t he? Seattle is ninth in points allowed, seventh in yards allowed, fourth in net yards per pass attempt allowed, and has a top-10 ranking in DVOA again. What’s the difference between the 2018 Seahawks and all of his Raiders defenses that weren’t as good? Well, Oakland had Mack, and Seattle has had an actual defense.
That obviously changes now with the injury to Thomas. And if the Seahawks’ pass defense gets worse week-to-week, we’ll know why. If Norton’s resume goes from “coached a top-10 defense” to “helped sink a top-10 defense,” it’ll be because he didn’t have as much talent to end the year as he did to start it. Norton may be a great coach — whatever that even means — but coaches are only as good as the talent that they can put on the field. Bill Belichick is famous for overturning players-not-named-Brady all the time, but less talked about is the decade he’s spent with Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung as his safeties. If the players work, they work. If they don’t, you’re out of a job.
Richard is drawing praise for his work with the Dallas Cowboys secondary as an assistant there now, including the Pro Bowl-caliber season for Byron Jones at cornerback. Certainly Richard’s knowledge has something to do with that, but it would be for nothing if Jones wasn’t one an extremely special athlete with the capacity to play at this level. And eventually, Richard will get another chance as a defensive coordinator too, perhaps leading to a head coaching opportunity.
His best way back there will be to continue to follow the talent.