In January of this year, a relatively important story received very little attention due to draft speculation, normal for the time of year. When Bill Kollar was hired by the Houston Texans, a statement was being made: Defense would no longer be an afterthought.
Kollar’s hiring came only a week after the promotion of head defensive assistant Frank Bush to defensive coordinator on January 13th. Kollar’s hiring was likely unheralded among Texans fans because of timing but also his recent success, or lack thereof; Kollar coached a Buffalo defensive line that ranked 28th and 29th in sacks for the last two years. How valuable of an asset could Kollar be if the Bills allowed him to leave for the same position on another team despite a contractual obligation? Upon further examination of his career coaching defensive lines for almost two decades, however, there is a great deal for Texans fans to take note of and think about.
Kollar began his career coaching after playing eight years as a defensive lineman from 1974 to 1982. Following a brief five year stint coaching college football, Kollar got his first job as a defensive line coach for the Atlanta Falcons from 1990 to 1999. After Atlanta, Kollar was brought to the St. Louis Rams organization from 2000 to 2005. Following the Rams, Kollar went to Buffalo for three seasons until he was released so he could be subsequently hired by the Texans on January 20th.
Coaches that specialize on one positional group for so long usually fall into one of two categories; either the coach hasn’t shown the ability to merit more responsibility, or that coach has passion and talent for one positional group, kind of like Alex Gibbs. Considering this coming season will make two solid decades that Kollar will have concentrated on one position, it begs the question, "Which group does he fall into?"
Right or wrong, defensive lines are usually judged by how many sacks they are able to record. Over the 19 years that Kollar has led defensive lines, his units have averaged 35 sacks a year, an average of 16th overall, which is as close as you can get to mediocre as possible in a 28 to 32 team league. On the other hand, six years have to be taken with a grain of salt; from '90 to '93, the Falcons utilized the 3-4 scheme, which does not rely on the defensive line to record sacks, so you could make the case that the sack count was somewhat out of Kollar’s control. And in '07 and '08, the Bills' defensive line was devoid of almost any talent with Aaron Schobel playing on a limited basis or not playing at all due to injuries. Excluding these seasons could be construed as selective analyzing, but in the remaining thirteen years, Kollar’s units averaged 40 sacks a year, which would place them at 12th overall. Even the biased stat gathering doesn't yield rosy numbers.
As pointed out by Brocos-Texans, Bill Kollar’s defensive lines have not been stout against the run. Over the last 19 years, the defenses featuring lines coached by Kollar have given up an average of 15 rushing touchdowns a year and 115.2 yards per game, which was good for 19th and 18th in the league over that period. Failure of a rushing defense can’t be blamed completely on a defensive line, but the averages don’t bode well for Kollar.
Kollar’s résumé seems lackluster considering these overall statistics, but there is a silver lining--he has repeatedly been able to elevate the play of certain types of defensive lineman. The first type he showed a talent for while coaching in Atlanta. After the Falcons switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 in 1994, Bill Kollar had at least one defensive tackle with 6 sacks or more.
1994: James Gathers – 8 sacks.
1995: James Gathers – 7 sacks.
1996: Travis Hall – 6 sacks.
1997: Travis Hall – 10.5 sacks/Dan Owens – 8 sacks.
1998: Shane Dronett – 6.5 sacks.
1999: Shane Dronett – 6.5 sacks.
Gathers, Hall, Owens and Dronett were all similar players; tall, light under tackles who benefited from Kollar’s penetrating scheme. They ranged from 6’3" to 6’6" and yet not a single one was over 300 pounds. Every single one performed better for Kollar in Atlanta than any other team in their career, except for Dronett, who matched his two years in Denver. Kollar was never able to elevate any defensive tackles to this level in St. Louis or Buffalo, but the six years of 4-3 DT success in Atlanta with four different players shows a measure of consistency that should be attributed to coaching.
The second type is a smaller, high motor, speed rushing defensive end. Chuck Smith in Atlanta, Leonard Little in St. Louis, and Aaron Schobel in Buffalo were all similar players who had their best production under Kollar. Chuck Smith (6’2", 257) averaged 9 sacks a year under Kollar but managed only 5.5 sacks in the rest of his career without Kollar's tutelage. Leonard Little (6’3", 261) averaged 12 sacks a year under Kollar and 5 a year without him. Aaron Schobel (6’4", 262) had his only two Pro Bowl selections and highest sack total under Kollar before being injured for most of 2008.
Considering this particular success, there are two players that could benefit greatly from Bill Kollar’s coaching. Amobi Okoye showed flashes of talent when he recorded 5.5 sacks in his rookie year but regressed in 2008 due to a high ankle sprain and what many have speculated as lack of effort in the offseason. Connor Barwin is small for a defensive end but he was drafted in the second round because he showed extreme amounts of athleticism and determination. Both are identical in stature and manner of play to the types of players that Kollar has been able to get the most from.
Frank Bush has preached a mantra of getting up the field and attacking the ball since he was promoted to defensive coordinator. Mario Williams has shown that he can thrive in even a defunct defensive system, but for the Texans to have a pressure defense they will need more players to get after the quarterback, namely Okoye and Barwin. Kollar may not have the best résumé against the run, but hopefully the linebacking corps, which is as strong as it has ever been, can provide the necessary backup for an attacking defensive line. Bill Kollar may not be an elite defensive line coach, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be good for the Texans.