All four NFL teams playing in the conference championships have a defensive coordinator who flopped as a head coach but who has the chops as a lieutenant to help his team and his head coach get to the Super Bowl.
The NFC championship pits high-powered offenses led by Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady, who is making his 14th title game appearance, and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, who is starting in his fifth conference title game but first at Lambeau Field.
Which of the iconic quarterbacks makes it to Super Bowl 55 in Tampa next month might come down to the chess moves made by Mike Pettine of the Packers and Todd Bowles of the Buccaneers on Sunday.
In the third consecutive AFC championship contested at Arrowhead Stadium, it’s Steve Spagnuolo trying to outwit Bills breakout quarterback Josh Allen and Leslie Frazier tasked with prying the Lamar Hunt trophy from the grip of Chiefs young star QB Patrick Mahomes.
Together, the four defensive coordinators won just 33.6% of their games as head coaches in the NFL and made it to a single playoff game (Frazier’s Vikings lost to Green Bay in a wild-card game in January 2013). But all are credited with providing a steady helping hand, a sturdy shoulder and a willing ear to their team’s current head coach.
Pettine went 10-22 (.313) as head coach of the Cleveland Browns from 2014-15, before joining Matt LaFleur, who was named Packers head coach in 2018 after just two seasons as an offensive coordinator, a year each with the Rams and Titans.
Pettine, 54, has provided LaFleur, 41, not only advice on the bigger things but suggestions on the day-to-day routines, as well.
“From the first day that we started working together, he’s been just a great sounding board because he’s been through a lot of these situations in terms of practice schedules and certainly many other things,” LaFleur said. “I think he’s been awesome for me; a great resource for us as we’ve built this thing over the last two years.”
Bowles, 57, compiled a 26-41 mark (.388) as New York Jets head coach from 2015-18. He was fired around the same time Bruce Arians, 68, came out of retirement to take the Buccaneers’ head coaching job in 2019. Arians brought along Bowles, whom he coached at Temple in the mid-1980s and who had been his defensive coordinator in Arizona from 2013-14.
Before Brady turned around Tampa Bay’s fortunes in 2020, leading them to the playoffs for the first time since 2007, it was Bowles who made his mark on the Bucs.
The Bucs led the league in rushing defense for the second straight year in 2020 and have improved from No. 27 in total defense the year before Bowles arrived to No. 6 in two years.
“Todd is one of those guys, he’s here at 4:30 (a.m.), so there’s guys coming in the door to sit down and watch film with him every single day,” Arians said. “Todd does a great job. He’s a great communicator, he’s a great teacher. It’s really, really helped their growth as players and their confidence, too.”
Frazier, 61, went 21-33-1 (.391) in Minnesota from 2010-13. A defensive back on the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears, he was among the first hires by head coach Sean McDermott, 46, in 2017.
McDermott has talked about how Frazier’s experience has been invaluable to him, and how he uses him as a sounding board on addressing issues within the team.
Frazier called it “an honor to stand alongside Sean,” and said that while some of their conversations have been challenging, he appreciates his voice being valued. It began with Frazier saying he didn’t want McDermott to make the same mistakes he did as a first-time head coach.
“Now, you have to be an ego-less guy in Sean’s shoes to take some of that conversation and not feel threatened,” Frazier said. “So I just appreciate his willingness to allow me to share my thoughts and then to listen and give feedback. I have to be able to not be prideful if he says no, let’s do it this way or that way to let it go.
“At the end of the day, these have to be his decisions. I’m so thankful that I worked with a guy and we could have that type of dialogue and come to a conclusion that’s best for our team and someone willing to utilize my experience,” Frazier added. “That’s not always the case. It’s a business with a lot of egos, a lot of people concerned with who gets the credit.”
Spagnuolo, 61, compiled an 11-41 record (.212) as head coach of the St. Louis Rams from 2009-11 and as interim head coach of the New York Giants in 2017, when he went 1-3. He joined Andy Reid, 62, in Kansas City in 2019 and played a big role in turning around the Chiefs’ defense in their Super Bowl-winning season a year ago.
Spagnuolo didn’t shy away when asked a couple of weeks ago whether he wanted another crack at a head coaching job.
“Certainly. The fire burns in me for that,” Spagnuolo said. “I had that one opportunity, things didn’t work out. But, yeah, listen, I want to say this: I’m really happy with the job I’ve got. I’m good there.
“But someday I would love that opportunity.”