Way back in 2011, current Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was the defensive coordinator for the New York Jets under Rex Ryan. 2011 was a turbulent season for New York as, following up a near-Super Bowl run in 2010, things fell apart completely. That season is captured wonderfully by Nicholas Dawidoff in his 2013 book, “Collision Low Crossers,” in which Dawidoff was given unprecedented access to the Jets’ coaching staff and players for the entire 2011 season.
For a fan of Wisconsin sports, the book turns out to be an extremely interesting read as two of the main characters of the story are Pettine and current Wisconsin Badgers’ defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, then a safety for the Jets.
Every member of the coaching staff is viewed as a workaholic, and no one more than Pettine, who is portrayed as a 23-hour-a-day film rat, but the contrast between Pettine and Ryan is stark. Ryan is presented as defensive savant, who only needs to study the tape once to see what others still can’t see after five or six rewatches. Pettine, on the other hand, is a paragon of detail-oriented preparation, someone who broke into the league as an underpaid technology-forward tape watcher for the Ravens (while secretly cashing out his 401K in order to hide a substantial pay cut from his then-wife), but who doesn’t see the game at the same level as Ryan.
Ryan is Mozart, Pettine is Salieri. While they work well together if Ryan is leading the way, Ryan can’t help but criticize and interfere when Pettine is given more power.
Ryan and Pettine spend much of the book bouncing ideas off of each other, often forgetting whose idea it was in the first place. However, it’s an uneasy relationship, with Ryan giving Pettine more and more responsibility, only to quickly grab it back when he disagrees with something he sees. Everyone in the locker room that year loved Ryan, but not so with Pettine. As a defensive coordinator’s defensive coordinator, he played the role of bad cop to Ryan’s jovial good cop while taking much of the blame (sometimes deservedly) when things went wrong. Pettine wasn’t exactly Ryan’s fall-guy, but it’s unsurprising that the gang split up after the season.
Working for guys like Ryan can be difficult. They see and understand things at such a high level compared to almost everyone else, that it’s actually difficult to learn much of use from them. Bill Belichick, who is also discussed at length, is similar in that he primarily needs coaches to execute his vision, not necessarily to bring additional ideas to the table. It is, I believe, the chief reason so many of his assistants fail when they leave the Patriots. There is a lot to like about Pettine, as his pro-technology, meticulous nature, and old-school work ethic likely make him an effective, process-oriented coach. That said, I suspect he excels at the tactics of coaching more than the strategy, and some of his defense’s numbers on early downs vs. late downs bears that out. The Packers, while well-prepared on 3rd and long, were eaten alive on first and second down.
Likewise, the book makes clear that Ryan really isn’t a great fit as a head-coach. He is too willing to delegate on offense and completely unable to delegate on defense, leading to a lack of overall chemistry and a volatile relationship on both sides of the ball. I’m sure it’s commonplace on NFL teams for offensive and defensive players to have uneasy relationships, but in this instance, Ryan’s lack of offensive direction compounded the problem. I doubt there is a universe where a Mark Sanchez-led offense succeeds, but there probably is one where the the Jets’ offense doesn’t repeatedly beat itself, allowing the defense to secure more wins.
Everything came to a head for these 2011 Jets in a late-season game against the Giants that saw Sanchez throw the ball 59 times despite being in a close game. With Pettine calling the defense, and Jim Leonhard missing his second game of the season, the Jets’ defense allowed an unusual number of big plays, including a 99-yard touchdown to Victor Cruz. It was the nail in the coffin for the pairing.
It’s possible that Pettine will yet succeed, but the book made me long for Ryan as the superior defensive mind. If I were looking for someone to combat the new, innovative offensive minds in the game, it wouldn’t be Pettine, who needs to process a lot of information before cranking out alternative plans.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Collision Low Crossers is the juxtaposition of the all-world Darrelle Revis, perhaps the finest corner to ever play the game, with the supremely talented but deeply flawed Antonio Cromartie and the less-talented but hugely important safety Jim Leonhard. Leonhard is the current defensive coordinator for the University of Wisconsin, where he also starred as a ball-hawking safety. In the book, Leonhard is portrayed as a coach-on-the-field, responsible for making the calls for one of the NFL’s best defense while relying on his football intelligence to allow him to compete with faster, stronger players.
When Leonhard is lost for the season to a knee injury for the second year in a row, the defense goes to pieces for the second year in a row, as no one behind Leonhard is capable of implementing the defensive calls as well or as quickly. In fact, when the coaching staff and front office are seeking his replacement, they don’t focus on forty times or agility drills, but on Wonderlic scores (eventually settling on journeyman safety Gerald Alexander and his solid, if unspectacular 25). Leonhard also comes across as a superb locker room presence, able to laugh at himself in the way confident people can without actually sacrificing any charisma, while diffusing petty squabbles.
Everyone on the team seems to respect Leonhard, and he comes across as one of the few people outside or Ryan who really seems to understand the Ryan defense at a deep level. It’s no surprise that Leonhard is a rising star as a college football coach, and if he isn’t a high-level head coach in the next several year, I’ll be shocked. I actually found myself preferring Leonhard to Pettine as a coaching candidate once I was finished reading.
“Collision Low Crossers” is fundamentally a book about the Jets, but for any Packers or Badgers fan wondering about their team’s defensive coordinator, you won’t find a more in-depth profile. It’s a pretty breezy read, and it offers plenty of insight into the inner workings of a football team including a few fascinating one-off facts. For instance, the Jets did not value wide receivers in the draft because “they only touch the ball a handful of times per game,” which explains a lot about their offense. They also didn’t trust Penn State pro-day times because the PSU facility sloped noticeably downward, and running drills were all downhill as a result. It’s well worth your time, especially if you happen to be interested in the direction of the defenses for the two highest-profile football teams in the state of Wisconsin.