Lions Hire Gunther Cunningham. Guten Tag, Guntherball

>> 1.21.2009

So Jim Schwartz has inked his top lieutenant: longtime KC defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. Cunningham is the Lions' new defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.  Often the "assistant head coach" tag is applied to position coaches--either up-and-comers who are destined for coordinating gigs (a la Todd Bowles), or senior assistants who have the trust and ear of the coach (a la Rod Marinelli in Tampa and Chicago).  To be both the defensive coordinator AND the assistant head coach implies that Gunther will be Schwartz's right-hand man, having a very strong hand in gameplanning, calling the plays, and leading the defensive position coaches.  Cunningham and Schwartz coached together in Tennessee in 2001, where Cunningham had landed after a long tenure as the Chiefs' DC and then a short tenure as the Chiefs's head coach.  He was the linebackers coach and assistant head coach (ah ha!) while Schwartz served as defensive coordinator.  Cunningham left after three years to reclaim his headset as the defensive coordinator in KC--but now, with the uncertainty surrounding Chiefs head coach Herman Edwards, Gunther has taken on the task of rebuilding one of the absolute worst defenses in the history of the NFL.

This hire tells me quite a bit about Schwartz.  First, he understands the size of the task ahead of him.  Leading a group of talented veterans who know what to do and how to do it is one thing--he saw how that was done in Cleveland/Baltimore, and he did it in Tennesee.  However, rebuilding this defense from the ground up is not something that a first-time head coach can do and do well.  He sees that he needs a strong, experienced defensive coordinator who can handle a lot of the administrative tasks and grunt work of running the defense while he gets oriented in his new role as head coach.  Check out this excellent piece by Nick Cotsonika of the Free Press; it goes in-depth on how Schwartz is really starting to feel the magnitude of time and effort he's going to have to put in to do the head coach stuff the way he wants to; he knows he won't have time to carry the load doing the DC's job as well. Further, Gunther went from being a defensive coordinator with an impeccable resume to being a head coach, and was fired after only two years.  Having that 'what not to do' experience at your right hand--and in your ear--I would think would be an invaluable resource for a first-time head coach.  Finally, Gunther doesn't take lip, he gives lip (thanks John Madden!):

He's exactly the sort of guy I said I'd like to see as DC if Schwartz were hired; a guy with a lot of fire.  I don't know if Schwartz sees himself as a subpar motivator, as a Good Cop who needs a Bad Cop, or if Gunther's coaching style didn't enter into his decision at all.  Still, I think it's a good dynamic.  Finally, Schwartz has hired a guy who fits with his defensive philosophy.  What is that philosophy?  That's a very good question . . .

Remember this man?  If you don't, click the picture.  He's former (and, tragically, late) Chiefs badass Derrick Thomas.  In his nine-year career, he made the Pro Bowl nine times.  He sacked the quarterback 126.5 times, including seven in one game (still an NFL record).  Drafted as a pass-rushing linebacker, as he got into the prime of his career he started flexing between OLB and DE, being used situationally to wreak maximum havoc.  Gunther Cunningham was the man behind Thomas and that brutal Chiefs defense.  In my mind, the 90's Chiefs were the Ravens of their day: blitzing to sack the quarterback, blitzing to stop the run, attacking from snap to whistle, attacking from coin flip to final gun, creating turnovers, and just generally vicious.  Like the Ravens, they didn't feature much of an offense, yet were consistently contending for the AFC crown.  From Wikipedia:

"During his original tenure as defensive coordinator, Cunningham's defenses allowed an average of only 16.4 points per game, the best mark in the NFL and had a turnover margin of +30, tops in the AFC. Under his lead, a number of players excelled, including stars such as Derrick Thomas, Neil Smith, James Hasty, and Dale Carter. Cunningham's defenses led Kansas City to an overall record of 42-22."

Note the stats they used there: scoring defense, turnover margin, wins.  Not 'yards allowed', the official yardstick of NFL defenses.  Cunningham gears his defenses to excel in the exact same dimensions that Jim Schwartz believes are the real hallmarks of successful defense: allow few points, stop the run, get lots of quarterback pressure, generate turnovers, and stop drives.  Well, what's the problem then?  Why isn't this a slam dunk hire?

Because in 2008, the Chiefs didn't do any of those things.

* They allowed 27.5 points per game, ranking 29th in the NFL.

* They allowed 2,543 yards rushing (5.0 per carry); only the Raiders and Lions were worse.

* They sacked the quarterback only 10 times, the lowest total in NFL16-game-season history.

* They generated 24 turnovers, 19th best in the NFL.

So what's going on here?  How did Gunther Cunningham, well known as one of the most intense, demanding, aggressive, and successful defensive coaches in the modern era, build such a limp-wristed, feather-loafered defense?

The answer seems to lie in two maladies that have plagued the Millen-era Lions: coaches and staff leading the troops in different directions, and total lack of firepower on the field.  Cunningham was defensive coordinator under Herm Edwards--another Tampa 2 disciple.  As we know all too well, the Tampa 2 relies on the front four generating pressure with nearly no blitzing.  The Tampa 2 emphasizes stifling the opponents's passing game with quick pressure and a suffocating tight zone scheme.  The Chiefs were clearly playing Edwards's brand of defense over the past two years; never blitzing and always in soft zones.  Moreover, the Chiefs were essentially talentless on defense before Gunther took over; recently resigned GM Carl Peterson made few moves to address this, and even those were spectacularly ineffective (see Mitchell, Kawika).

So, Gunther had no talent to work with, and was running another coach's scheme that ran counter to everything he's traditionally believed in.  Is it any wonder that this failed?

Frankly, I'd be lying if I said this hire didn't give me pause.  Gunther's nearly a decade removed from being the mastermind of the most feared defense in football, and he's done very little in the interim to show he still has it in him.  Many Chiefs fans believe than in his 40th year in football, the game has passed him by.  At this point, only time will tell.   Either the Lions could build an aggressive, blizting, turnover-generating, 3-4/4-3 flex, flying from everywhere, smack-you-in-the-mouth defense, or they could be almost exactly the same unit they were in 2008: a soft zone defense that's both conservative AND ineffective.  Or, they could be somewhere in between--at this point, nobodycan possibly know.

This was probably Schwartz's most critical hire, and he erred on the side of experience, trust, and consistency of philosophy over 'hotness' or 'name value'--which is a choice I have to respect and agree with.  So say "Ja" to Guntherball--but pray the new Lions look like the old Chiefs, and not the current ones.


Truant,  January 21, 2009 at 8:45 PM  


Thanks for all the great info in this post. I forgot how good that KC defence was in the late 80's. I don't know if I agree that this was Schwartz most important hire given the fact that he is a defensive coach, I believe who he picks as the OC and ST guys are the most important

Great Read, keep it up

Ty,  January 22, 2009 at 12:16 AM  


Thanks man! The reason I said it was the most important hire was because we'd see if he'd try and be an HC/DC combo like Rod did. Let's face it, he made Donnie Henderson run a T2 and then he hired Joe Barry who did whatever he said. A first-time NFL head coach should worry about being a good head coach, not try and wear multiple hats. The head coach hat is big enough . . .

I think the OC is not going to be a 'WOW' pick--it'll be a younger up-and-comer who buys into a run-first philosophy. You are spot on with the ST hire--I think he has to make a push to keep Kwan; the Hanson/Harris/Muhlback trio is one of the best in the game, and our return blocking is always good. It's not Kwan's fault that nobody on the roster had any speed or vision.

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