Sunday, July 17, 2005

Know Thine Enemy: Dave Wannstedt | by Michael

(This is part 5, the last in a series on the newly-hired coaches ND will face this year.)

Over the past five weeks, we've looked at Robinson, Willingham, Harris, Mendenhall and the assistant shuffle. We'll end at the beginning of the Charlie Weis era...the University of Pitt's Dave Wannstedt.

Dave Wannstedt, Pittsburgh

Bio/record: Take a look at Wannstedt’s bio. He owns an 84-89 lifetime record as an NFL head coach with both the Miami Dolphins (43-32) and Chicago Bears (41-57). In three of the four years prior to the 1-7 start in 2004 that prompted his resignation and a day in court, Wannstedt won ten or more games with the Dolphins, a plateau he never reached with the Bears.

After a neck injury curtailed his NFL career, Wannstedt returned to his alma mater, Pitt, and coached special teams and receivers under head coach Jackie Sherrill. It was here that Wannstedt developed a strong relationship with Jimmy Johnson, who was the assistant head coach at the time. Wannstedt would eventually follow Johnson to Oklahoma State and Miami, where they won a national championship in 1989, before they left to rebuild the Dallas Cowboys. Wannstedt again worked as the defensive coordinator under Johnson; three years later, after winning Super Bowl XXXVII, Wannstedt was offered the Bears head coaching position.

Bears fans have never forgotten the six awful years under Wannstedt, and while some have mellowed, his name still conjures up a mixture of laughter and hatred among da Bears faithful to this day. But now that Wannstedt has replaced Walt Harris, who had worn out his welcome, all is wonderful and happy and pretty in Pittsburgh. From his bio, linked above:
“The scene outside of Dave Wannstedt’s office windows in the Pitt football practice facility provides a view that is uniquely Pittsburgh and totally fitting for the Panthers’ new head coach.

The immediate view is to the east, where in the foreground the Panthers’ lush grass practice fields capture the eye.

Just beyond the green fields sit steel mills, a reminder of the city’s industrial heritage and, for decades, the economic lifeblood of the region.

A gaze back to the west and one can soak in Pittsburgh’s breathtaking skyline. The skyscrapers now symbolize the “new Pittsburgh,” the former steel city that has evolved into a thriving center for corporations, medicine and higher education.
I cannot wait to see the same flowery, descriptive language used to camouflage Wannstedt's "offense."

Notable staff: Wannstedt retained the entire defensive staff left behind by Harris, including defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, beaten out for the head coaching position, and veteran DL coach Bob Junko. These defensive assistants consistently did more with less, and the addition of Wannstedt’s NFL experience will only enhance their productivity.

On the offensive side of the ball, Wannstedt tapped former Pitt teammate and quarterback Matt Cavanaugh to run the offense. Cavanaugh had been Wannstedt's coordinator with the Bears in 1997-1998, and after the staff was fired, Brian Billick hired him in the same capacity. From 1999-2003, Cavanaugh was both the QB coach and the offensive coordinator; last year Jim Fassel was hired to allow Cavanaugh to focus on running the offense. Since the offense still struggled, Billick and Cavanaugh mutually decided to part ways in January. Cavanaugh was one of the primary candidates for the vacancy when Wannstedt initially pulled his name from contention, and ironically, Cavanaugh was also the leading candidate to replace Johnny Majors for the Pitt head coaching position in 1997, but he withdrew his name from consideration. Per Cavanaugh:
"It seemed like I spent about one-third of my time teaching football and the other two-thirds worrying about class schedules and faculty and making sure my kids weren't getting into trouble and were getting out of bed and going to study hall. I wasn't ready to make that kind of commitment as a head coach. It wouldn't have been fair to the university or to my family. The days are just as long in the NFL, but it's all about football on this level. When the day is over, I can go home at night. I don't have to go to a booster meeting."
Maybe if he asks nicely, one of the other guys on the Pitt staff can go to the booster meetings as Cavanaugh's proxy.

One of the smartest hires that Wannstedt may have made is the addition of Greg Gattuso as the recruiting coordinator. While Gattuso, who played and briefly coached for JoePa, is not a big name in D1 football circles, he comes to Pitt after twelve years as the head coach of D1AA power Duquesne. More importantly, he has played and coached in western Pennsylvania for nearly his entire football career and, as a result, Gattuso brings to Pitt his strong relationships with the local high school coaching staffs. It’s already started paying off as Pitt has begun to erect a fence around the WPIAL talent.

Offensive philosophy: Is Matt Cavanaugh a bastard child in the West Coast Offense (WCO) coaching tree? After working for Brian Billick the last six years, one would think that he'd automatically qualify for membership because of Billick's affiliation with Bill Walsh. You'd especially think so since he also spent a year tutoring the 49ers quarterbacks under George Seifert in 1996. We're not so sure, however, and we'll be collecting funds to sponsor a paternity test in the near future.

After a year coaching TEs for Johnny Majors and Pitt in 1993, Cavanaugh coached QBs under Arizona Cardinals' offensive coordinator Dave Atkins from 1994-1995. Both stints probably did little to impact Cavanaugh's offensive philosophies; Atkins was a running back coach before that stint, and has been one ever since. Besides, Cavanaugh was probably living in fear, hoping that he wouldn't get verbally and physically abused by Buddy Ryan a la Kevin Gilbride.

After three years as a QB coach, Cavanaugh was hired by Wannstedt to run his offense in Chicago, and it wasn't pretty. I really think it was with the Bears, and then with Billick at Baltimore, where Cavanaugh developed the core concepts of his offense, which is based on a strong running game (helped when you have a Pro Bowl-caliber back like Jamaal Lewis).

It appears that this model is what Wannstedt and Cavanaugh are emulating at Pitt, and it's been jokingly dubbed the Allegheny County Offense. As an aside, it's funny how so many people, especially in the media, so loosely throw around the term "West Coast offense" and ask coordinators or head coaches to describe their offense in relation to it. Although Cavanaugh and Walt Harris might have both run the WCO in the past, their offenses really couldn’t have had more disparate results. Cavanaugh’s offenses have sucked throwing the ball, whereas Harris’s have sucked running the ball. Check out Baltimore's offensive stats during Cavanaugh's tenure (the number in parentheses is the NFL rank).
Baltimore Ravens Offense
Year Yds Passing Yds/Pass Yds Rushing Yds/Rush
2004 2,559 (32) 5.5 (32) 2,063 (9) 4.2 (15)
2003 2,517 (32) 6.1 (27) 2,669 (1) 4.8 (5)
2002 3,118 (26) 6.5 (20) 1,792 (16) 4.2 (14)
2001 3,595 (17) 6.5 (23) 1,810 (11) 3.8 (25)
2000 3,102 (23) 6.2 (24) 2,199 (5) 4.3 (8)
1999 3,360 (24) 6.2 (27) 1,754 (16) 4.1 (10)
Ironically, the offenses at New England weren’t much better statistically during the same time period...keep that in mind. Of course, unlike the Ravens, Weis and the Patriots didn't have a quality running back until Corey Dillon in 2004.

The biggest problem for Cavanaugh has been QB development. The Ravens drafted Louisville’s Chris Redman in the 3rd round of the 2000 draft, and they drafted Cal’s Kyle Boller in the 1st round of the 2003 draft. That Redman hadn't emerged within three years (admittedly, as well as his back injury, which contributed to his lack of development) was one of the primary reasons why Boller was drafted, and Boller's performance these last two seasons was one of the underlying reasons for Cavanaugh's departure. Chas from the fine Panthers blog Pitt Sports Blather (who has been incredibly helpful putting this KTE together) chronicled some of this anti-Cavanaugh scuttlebutt when he was being considered for the head coaching position.

So where does that leave returning Pitt QB Tyler Palko? Hard to say, and most Pitt fans hope that his poor performance in the spring game isn't an indicator. He threw 2 interceptions and managed only 157 yards on 27 attempts (5.6 ypa). As far as the rest of the offense, it may take a while for Pitt's linemen to become better run-blockers than pass-blockers, but the power running game will definitely develop. Two big, bruising RBs were recruited by Wannstedt, and one of them, Rashad Jennings, enrolled early and played extremely well in the spring game. While there's little doubt in my mind that Pitt will eventually develop a strong rushing attack, I just wonder what will happen to Palko during the next two years, and more importantly, will Wannstedt and Cavanaugh reverse their trend of woeful passing attacks wherever they coach?

One last note on offense. In eleven years as an NFL coach, Dave Wannstedt drafted just two QBs. The Bears took Colorado State’s Moses Moreno in the 7th round of the 1998 draft, and the Dolphins took Oklahoma’s Josh Heupel in the 6th round of the 2001 draft. By comparison, from 2000-2004, the Patriots drafted three (Tom Brady – 6th rounder in 2000, Rohan Davey – 4th rounder in 2002, Jeff Klingsbury – 6th rounder in 2003).

Defensive philosophy: Wannstedt owes nearly everything he knows about defense to defensive coordinator-turned-head coach Jimmy Johnson, whom he followed to Oklahoma State even as Jackie Sherrill was offering him more money to stay with his alma mater. The following excerpts from an article on new Packers' coordinator Jim Bates offer valuable insights into Wannstedt's defensive philosophy since Bates worked for both Wannstedt and Johnson:
The essence of Johnson's philosophy was speed, speed and more speed. He wanted waves of penetrating defensive linemen to fit a one-gap scheme and rotate constantly. He wanted fast linebackers regardless of size at linebacker. And he wanted smart defensive backs that wouldn't make mistakes in a "quarters" or Cover 2 coverage scheme. Those great Dallas front sevens were among the smallest in the NFL but they chased all over the field and gave great effort. Johnson's system started with a 4-3 "over" front in which the under, or three-technique, defensive tackle lined up to the tight-end side and all three linebackers were stacked off the ball.

Cornerbacks Larry Brown and Issiac Holt lacked bump-and-run coverage ability in the early 1990s so Johnson had to play them off in "quarters" coverage. The Cowboys' safeties lined up at the same shallow depth of just eight to 10 yards, almost creating a nine-man front and positioning them to jump routes and make interceptions. When run showed, one safety would force and the other would rotate to the deep middle. "We never had corners in Dallas," Wannstedt said. "They weren't even close to Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain, who are as good as there is. Even in Chicago we were always on the conservative side with our corners only because of ability level."

Generally speaking, the defenses that Bates was associated with over the last nine years were able to press with their cornerbacks within a "quarters" or Cover 2 zone coverage scheme. "You can't blitz without corners," Wannstedt said. "Everyone knows that. It's common sense. I don't know what Green Bay's situation is but I'm sure that will be one of the first things Jim will have to address. "Let's not make more of this than what it is. It depends on how good your players are that determines what you can do."

Still, the objective is to limit blitzing to maybe 20%, stress third down and play smart. "Our mental mistakes were minimal," Wannstedt said. "That was always a focus. Our philosophy always was that we will execute our system better than your offense plays. People around the NFL always said that we did less than most teams but we'd always do it better."
So in ten full seasons as a head coach, Wannstedt's defenses finished in the top ten for total defense five times; they also finished eleventh and twelfth in two other years. It's worked in college and the pros, and many other teams have tried to emulate it.

The conversion of Pitt's defensive personnel is well underway. Last year's starting DE Thomas Smith has moved to DT. "Coach [Dave Wannstedt] wants more speed on defense, and by moving me inside we get more speed inside, which is the key to this defense. And with the young guys on the end, we'll get more speed out there as well. We're going to be a much different defense." Meanwhile, FB Chris McKillop has been switched sides and, while undersized at 230 lbs, is expected to be a pass rusher. "One of the reasons they asked me to switch was my speed. I plan on gaining a little weight, but I know now after watching Jason, you don't have to be huge to play this position if you're quick and tough." Other switches: backer Joe Clermond has moved to end, corner Mike Phillips has moved to strong safety, and star strong-side linebacker H.B. Blades has been moved to the middle.

It's all about team speed. This year's Pitt defense should be faster, albeit smaller, and at the same time I believe they are moving away from Rhoads' two-gap, read-and-react system to the aggressive, one-gap defense that Wannstedt prefers.

Predictions: New coach, new attitude, new uniforms, new fact, don't even call them Pittsburgh anymore, it's Pitt. In addition, the days of D1 patsies on the schedule are also over; Pitt has recently added NC State, Iowa, Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech to their future schedules.

I fully expect Pitt's quick start in recruiting to carry over to the 2005 season. While I have my hesitations about Wannstedt as a head coach (especially on the offensive side of the ball), not only is college football a step down from the NFL, but the Big East is yet another step down in college. While I think the conference has promise (and I think Jim Leavitt's South Florida squad is a team to watch in the years ahead), Pitt has the resources to entrench itself at the top of the BE for some time.

Wannstedt's future will ultimately depend upon Cavanaugh's ability to recruit, develop and utilize quarterbacks in the offense. The running game will come around, but when you're replacing teams like Furman, Ohio, Kent State, Ball State, Youngstown State on your schedule with D1 powers, you had better be able to throw the ball when it's needed. The local columnists love Wannstedt and joke that neither he nor Cavanaugh have had a quarterback as good as Palko, but why are they making excuses? After all, wasn't it Dave Wannstedt who traded a first round pick, the eleventh overall, for NFL draft bust Rick Mirer?

Despite some overall improvement, Pitt's annual ceiling should be the Big East championship. I certainly believe that Wannstedt will develop some fast, disruptive defenses, and Pitt will likely overpower weaker opponents, but the good D1 teams who can stop the run will give Wannstedt and Cavanaugh fits. With Wannstedt, history repeats itself too often for me to think otherwise. Furthermore, there are several teams like Cincinnati and South Florida which should be able to parlay their Big East membership into stronger recruiting classes in Ohio and Florida, respectively. How those teams perform over the next few years could help ascertain where Pitt eventually resides in the Big East. I think it'll be at the top, but I'm hesitant to jump on the bandwagon and make Pitt a consistent national player.

The Weis Factor: Wannstedt has faced Weis numerous times, including some memorable games in recent years as the Patriots and Dolphins fought for control of the AFC East.

1999 - Weis 28-20, Weis 38-31

2000 - Wannstedt 10-3, Wannstedt 27-24
2001 - Wannstedt 30-10, Weis 20-13
2002 - Wannstedt 26-13, Weis 27-24
2003 - Weis 19-13, Weis 12-0
2004 - Weis 24-10

Weis holds a 7-4 advantage, although Wannstedt had a 4-1 streak from 2000-2002.

Also of interest: when Weis got his start as an assistant on Bill Parcells' New York Giants' staff, Cavanaugh was a back-up quarterback. Both won their first Super Bowl rings after the Giants downed the Bills 20-19 in Super Bowl XXV. Cavanaugh didn't play in 1990 but he did get into four games in 1991 under new head coach Ray Handley; Weis was the RB coach. Cavanaugh did not attempt a pass in those four games.

The game on September 3rd is the first for both teams in the 2005 season. Initially, it would appear to be a more crucial game for Notre Dame, since their September schedule includes road games at Michigan and Washington, as well as a home game against a dangerous Michigan State team. On the other hand, although Pitt does travel to Nebraska, they also have Youngstown State at home and a road game against Ohio. A win against the Irish would pretty much ensure a 3-1 start when Pitt would enter Big East play.

A game prediction? Not yet...although I do think that Tyler Palko will be dropping some more F-bombs on September 3rd. Mostly because of some guy named Charlie. Blame him.