Yesterday the search for Frank Bush’s replacement as defensive coordinator began, but the fact that Wade Phillips will eventually be named DC of the Texans may be the worst-kept secret in the NFL. Gary Kubiak and Co. are dragging their feet a bit the same way they did last time they were "searching" for a new DC, when everyone knew that Frank Bush was already earmarked for the gig. Now that a writer employed by the team is publishing Phillips’ track record, obviously designed to sell fans on the merit of Wade as DC, I would be shocked if someone else was named to take over the defense.
Personally, I’m ok with it. Yes, he’s part of the good ol' boys club. Usually, that practice of hiring a familiar face will land another inept, Denver-originated defensive coordinator who employs vanilla schemes that aren’t hard to beat. This time, however, might be a case of a broke clock being right twice a day. Wade Phillips might be the right man for the job, even if most fans are frustrated by how he gets the job.
Everyone else around the Texans blogosphere seems to think Wade as DC is a foregone conclusion as well. I’ve already seen several posts and notes on Twitter about who already on the roster will be good for Wade’s 3-4 defense, and what positions and players will need to be targeted in free agency and the draft to fill any holes. Most talk revolves around nose tackle and various secondary help, which is logical since it has been years, if ever, that the organization invested anything real in a real nose tackle or safety. Truly, these would be a position of need whether a switch is made to a 3-4 or not.
Another position of focus is outside linebacker. Fans and bloggers have their theories of who will play the role of rush linebacker, and those theories range from Brian Cushing to drafting a difference-maker such as Von Miller with the eleventh overall pick. The discussion of who will play this role is an important one. Wade Phillips coordinated six defenses which were a 3-4 scheme, constituting 19 seasons. In 13 of those years, Wade had at least one linebacker tally double-digit sacks, which doesn’t account for the strike-shortened 1982 season or 1981, when apparently they didn’t record sacks. The sack-leading linebacker in those years averaged an impressive 13 sacks per season. A Wade Phillips defense lives and dies by its ability to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and that pressure is usually applied by a rush specialist linebacker.
The person I think will thrive the most seems to be the most overlooked. Besides a great write-up of how the personnel fit in a 3-4 by John Hallam at the Texans Bull Blog, I haven’t seen anyone show any enthusiasm towards Connor Barwin. But I think he might be just as, if not more, important to the Texans' chances of making the 3-4 work than any other defensive player.Barwin was slated by many to be a mid-round pick in 2009 until an amazing showing at the Combine elevated his status to as high as a first round pick. Despite playing only one year as a defensive player in college, Barwin’s raw athleticism made him an enticing prospect as an outside rush linebacker in a 3-4 defense. I myself did a mock draft in which I projected the Patriots selecting him in the first round to fill just that role. Furthermore, I remember that when the Texans selected Barwin in the second round after taking Cushing in the first, many people were so confused that it was thought that the Texans might be switching back to the 3-4. A certain blogger from a forgotten website named DGDB&D even wrote a post titled "<expletive deleted> Me in the <expletive deleted> with a Sandpaper Chainsaw" detailing how stupid a switch to the 3-4 would be (I really wish I could link to it, but the site's archives were nuked). In a move that no one could have foreseen, it looks like Barwin will still end up fulfilling that role.
Barwin had a decent season in 2009 as a true 4-3 defensive end, leading all rookie DEs with 4.5 sacks. He was slated to be a big part of the Texans defensive scheme in 2010 (insert joke here) before he dislocated his ankle in Week One and was placed on injured reserve. Most of the plan to utilize Barwin supposedly focused on allowing him to stand up and use his athletic ability and speed to overwhelm slower offensive linemen. That sounds pretty much exactly what Phillips did with linebackers like DeMarcus Ware.
Speaking of Ware, Barwin fits the mold of linebacker that Wade has historically favored as a rusher. He is the same height and weight as DeMarcus Ware and Shawne Merriman, both of whom led the league in sacks at least once under Phillips. Despite Cushing’s similar size, Barwin is a much more natural pass rusher, especially off the edge when leverage, speed and block-disengaging are key. Cushing also hasn’t shown the best ability to keep containment this year, something that the OLB will be asked regularly to do.
As for drafting a rush specialist linebacker, why spend such an investment on a player who likely played with his hand in the dirt in college and hope he can make the transition? With Barwin, the Texans' coaching staff that remains (like Bill Kollar) has already seen that Barwin can play in space, because they’ve been mentoring him to do just that all last offseason. He may not be a proven commodity, but he is much more proven than a rookie who has never played a down of football in the NFL.
Wade may be a mediocre to bad head coach, but he has a proven track record as a defensive coordinator. His ability to apply pressure on the quarterback is exactly what is needed to try and overcome a bad secondary, which even with free agent acquisitions and draft picks, the Texans will still have next season. I personally believe that Barwin will be the key to that pressure, and that could elevate him to Pro Bowl status in the near future. What’s your take?