Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Coach Named Cunningham

Well the Lions got their man. Detroit agreed to a contract with Gunther Cunningham to become their next defensive coordinator. Forgive me for being less than enthusiastic.

First the good. Cunningham coordinated the NFLs #1 defense in 1995 and 1997. And.. umm .. he used to be a head coach. That's about it.

Now a word about those Kansas City defenses. They were great. With Neil Smith and Derrick Thomas dominating at the line and that outstanding secondary with Dale Carter and James Hasty as the best safety tandem in the league. So there is some hope that given the requisite number of great players* Cunningham can build a great defense.

His last five years he has coordinated less than stellar defenses in Kansas City. His scoring defenses have been 29, 16, 12, 14, and 29. His yardage defenses 31, 25, 16, 13, and 31. These were teams that typically had among the worst pass defenses in the league (32, 30, 18, 5 (~!~), 28). I'm guessing that their 5th overall ranking in '07 was primarily the Jared Allen factor. How much of KC's defensive ineptitude was due to Herm craziness, talent deficits or simply 'Gunther isn't who he thought he was' we really can't know right now. It is a problem though, as he is coming to Detroit who had the worst defensive secondary in the NFL last year, and one of the historically worst defenses ever.

Interestingly, Cunningham really can't be credited to any particular coaching tree. He left Stanford a year before Walsh got there. He joined the NFL with Frank Kush's staff in Baltimore '82 for their disastrous last few years before joining Don Coryell for his last two coaching seasons in San Diego. Hard to say where his coaching philosophy evolved. I'd like to credit coaching with Schottenheimer in KC but I suspect by then Cunningham's style and system was probably fully formed.

So what does Cunningham bring besides a so-so pedigree? Intensity. Lots and lots of intensity.

"He's half-crazy,'' said one defensive coordinator in the league. "Good coach, but he's half-crazy. Very, very intense.''

"Explosive,'' said an assistant coach. "He doesn't tolerate anybody stepping out of line. Those players will learn very quickly that they can't test him.''


"The best way for me to describe it is that every minute of every day is fourth-and-1 to Gunther," Schwartz said. "And we're going to need that kind of attitude.''


"He's one of the most aggressive people that I've met,'' Schwartz said. "Generally, the people who work with him love him and the people who work against him, hate him. The reason is because he views the people who work against him as the enemy. He's not trying to make any friends. You'll get a different perception (from his own coaches and players) than you do from somebody's who's gotten their (butt) kicked by him for a number of years.''

So we'll see. There is a certain quality if a coach is able to take top players and mold them into a top defense, not many coaches can. Whether this coach can take a bunch of lousy players and mold them into a representative defense, and whether he can keep his unit tuned in while they find and develop pieces remains to be seen.

*my pet theory is that great defensive teams have to have an All-Pro at each of the three position groups


In a weird sort of juxtaposition, when the Chiefs fired Cunningham as HC and replaced him with Dick Vermeil, Vermeil hired Greg Robinson as defensive coordinator. Robinson failed and the Chiefs ultimately fired him and re-hired Cunningham to be DC. Robinson went on to coach up the championship Longhorn squad as DC in Austin, had a miserable stint as Syracuse HC and got hired to be Michigan's DC only yesterday.


  1. >>>>whether he can keep his unit tuned in while they find and develop pieces remains to be seen.<<<<

    I think this part is pretty critical right now. Cunningham brings a lot of passion, like you noted. These guys need someone to mold them. Honestly, I trust his fire to keep them straight, and I trust Schwartz's judgment to know he's bringing on a guy that can make it work.

    Cunningham's issues seemed to be talent problems. KC has brought in defensive guy after defensive guy and they've just hit on almost none of them.

    Since 2000, they've drafted 16 players in the first or second round. Eleven of them were defensive players. Derek Johnson's probably been the best of them, but there's really very little actual talent there. I think that's more of a statement about Peterson than it is about Cunningham.

    Maybe I'm wrong, and I can definitely see the side of being less than excited about this. But I personally think it's a pretty solid hire.

  2. I always think of Gunther as being a Marty-type guy: you bring him in, he will clean house. In year one he'll throw half the guys off the team, field a squad with a zillion rookies, and be halfway respectable with them, like 7 wins. In subsequent years they'll be disciplined, fast, and aggressive.

    I don't know if that's fair, maybe I'm just painting Gunther with the Marty brush, from their association in KC. But if it is fair, it could be a clue to Schwartz' plans.

  3. An All-Pro, or merely a Pro Bowler?

    In my mind there's a difference between being a "great" defense for historical discussion, like one of the all-time great defenses; or being a "great" defense in today's league, where (say) the Titans have a great defense. I would think having a Pro Bowler at each level would be plenty for having a great contemporary defense.

  4. I meant Pro Bowler, but to refine it you probably do need at least one All Pro on your squad.


About This Blog

Twitter: oblong_spheroid

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP