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Joe Barry appears to be a good example of the NFL’s nepotism problem

Barry’s ascent to Packer defensive coordinator almost certainly would not have occurred without an impressive amount of family connections.

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Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The primary reason I wanted Jim Leonhard as the Green Bay Packers’ new defensive coordinator is due to his portrayal in the book Collision Low Crossers, which covers the 2011 New York Jets, focusing on Rex Ryan, Mike Pettine, Jim Leonhard, and Darrelle Revis. Leonhard, still a safety at the time, is portrayed as the “on-field coach” with a deep understanding of Ryan’s schemes, almost always implementing the right call for the right offensive look. I’m convinced that Jim Leonhard “gets it,” and the University of Wisconsin apparently agrees, as they managed to fend off the Packers to retain him.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a book on every candidate the Packers looked at, and as we don’t have access to the interview room it’s difficult to have strong opinions of Ejiro Evero, Jerry Gray, or the Packers’ eventual choice, Joe Barry. However, while we don’t have a book on each candidate, it’s not as if we have no information.

Jerry Gray and Ejiro Evero have solid resumes. Gray has been a successful position coach many times over and worked as a successful defensive coordinator for the Bills (2001-2005) and Titans (2011-2013). Unlike Gray, Evero is more of the up-and-comer. He played in college for UC-Davis and managed to win a spot with the Raiders as a UDFA. But although his playing career was short, he made a nice transition into coaching and climbed the ladder the old-fashioned way, serving as position coaches for a number of successful regimes. If you wanted experience and success, Gray was your man. If you wanted some young blood in the form of a hard-working candidate who has done his time working up the coaching ladder, Evero was right there for you.

And then we have Joe Barry.

Wade Phillips on Joe Barry

Let’s talk about Joe Barry and how Joe Barry came across his opportunities. I knew nothing of Joe Barry at the time of his hiring, but my colleague Matub just happened to be reading Wade Phillips’ autobiography, Son of Bum, and Matt just happened to recall a passage in the book about Joe Barry. Many Packer fans (myself included) were also hoping they would consider Wade Phillips, but Phillips has been around forever and the search for newer ideas is seemingly what led them to Matt LaFleur. Passing on Wade made sense.

Getting back to Joe Barry, you can find the relevant passage on page 175 of the Kindle version (location 1761) in Chapter 9, “From Unemployment to Super Bowl.”

Phillips describes the 2014-2015 offseasons after he was let go by the Houston Texans, where he worked under head coach Gary Kubiak. Phillips had been the highest paid coordinator in the league and, with a year left on his deal following his release from Houston, he was forced to sit out the season. He started getting interviews again in 2015 and eventually wound up back with Kubiak in Denver, but before that he had what he describes a bizarre interview with Jay Gruden, then the head coach in Washington.

The interview consisted mostly of watching tape of Phillips’ Texans defenses getting beaten by Gruden’s Bengals offenses during his time as offensive coordinator in Cincinnati. Phillips is quick to point out that, overall, his defenses dominated Gruden’s offenses. Phillips was disappointed with how the interview went, and Gruden eventually offered the job to Joe Barry instead. As Phillips’ writes:

“He ended up hiring Joe Barry, a friend of his, to be defensive coordinator. Joe had been with the Chargers, whose defensive coordinator was John Pagano. John, my linebackers coach when I was the defensive coordinator in San Diego, so Joe Basically learned my defensive system through John.”

Phillips goes on to say:

“Although I didn’t get the job, I was happy for Joe because I think he’s a good, young coach. Of course, the main reason I even considered going to Washington was for the chance to work with my son again.”

There is a lot going on here. Yes, Phillips is gracious in saying he’s happy for Joe Barry —Wade would even go on to hire Barry as linebackers coach while DC of the Rams in 2017. However, reading between the lines, he seems to think of Barry as the dime-store version of himself, with his understanding of defense filtered through two layers into a cheaper version. Phillips blames his high salary with Houston as a reason several teams passed him over, and clearly sees Barry’s inexperience, friendship with Gruden, and much lower salary as a reason he lost out.

The Incredible Nepotism of Joe Barry’s Career

The NFL has a huge nepotism problem. According to the NFL’s 2020 diversity report, well:

This is pretty incredible, if unsurprising, and it’s worth revisiting much of the previous paragraph and some other facts about Barry just to put a concrete example to just how pervasive the NFL’s nepotism problem is. Let’s start with Wade Phillips himself, who is, of course, the son of Bum Phillips, which literally comprises the name of his book. Wade coached under his father at Oklahoma State, with the Oilers, and with the Saints, where Wade stepped in as interim head coach when Bum stepped down.

In the passage above, Wade’s primary motivation for wanting to go to Washington in 2015 was to work with his son Wes Phillips, the tight ends coach there, but he loses to Barry because Barry is friends with Jay Gruden. Why is Barry friends with Jay Gruden? Because they both worked together in Tampa under Jay’s older brother Jon Gruden. How did Barry learn Wade’s defense? He picked it up in San Diego from John Pagano, the younger brother of Chuck Pagano, most recently defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears.

So far, Joe Barry’s biggest talent seems to be befriending the younger brothers of more successful NFL coaches, but that’s not where the analysis ends, because one of the reasons Barry was even considered for defensive coordinator jobs in 2015 is because he had previous defensive coordinator experience. You see, Barry served, infamously, as the defensive coordinator for the 2008 Lions, who went 0-16 and surrendered the most points in the league. In fairness to Joe, he also coordinated the 2007 Lions who went 7-9, although that same fairness requires pointing out that the 2007 Lions also gave up the most points in the league.

How did Joe Barry get the job in Detroit, you ask? Well it just so happens that the head coach of the Lions, Rod Marinelli, was Barry’s father-in-law. Yes, Joe Barry was married to Rod Marinelli’s daughter, and Marinelli hired him. Don’t worry though, Rod said it wasn’t nepotism:

Oh, by the way, the year before Joe Barry took the job, the Lions hired his father, Mike Barry, as the offensive line coach. Mike previously bounced around college football as an offensive line coach and occasionally as an offensive coordinator. It’s funny how he managed to land his first NFL job working for his daughter-in-law’s father.

So, just to recap all of that: Joe Barry worked as a linebackers coach for UNLV and Northern Arizona. He broke into the NFL with San Francisco as a quality control coach, but quickly moved to Tampa where he was linebackers coach for five years. While there, he made friends with Jon Gruden’s younger brother and married Rod Marinelli’s daughter. He was then hired as DC by his father in-law, who had already hired his father, but was in way over his head and got fired. He then went to the Chargers, once again as linebackers coach, where he learned a watered down version of Bum Phillips’ son’s defensive philosophy from Chuck Pagano’s younger brother. He parlayed that into another DC job, this time working for his friend (again, Jon Gruden’s younger brother), along with Bum Phillips’ grandson. He was once again in over his head and would wind up back with the Rams, where he has been working again as a linebackers’ coach, under Bum Phillips’ son.

Wade Phillips, at least, has a long track record of running successful defenses. What does Joe Barry have, exactly?

Completing the Circle

Just to round out this story, Gary Kubiak, who got into football as a kid serving as a ball boy for the Houston Oilers under Bum Phillips and who hired Wade Phillips as the Texans’s defensive coordinator way back in 2011, came back to coaching in 2020 as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator under head coach Mike Zimmer. Kubiak decided to retire after the 2020 season. Let’s take a look at his replacement:

I started this by saying I don’t know much about Ejiro Evero. That’s still true, but sometimes what you don’t know about someone speaks louder than what you do know. From what I do know about Joe Barry, he seemingly did not come by his big breaks through merit and, when he got them, he failed to capitalize. Wade Phillips also benefited from his family connections, but at least has a long track record of success. If the Packers decided to hire Phillips, they could have certainly justified it. How do you justify elevating a linebackers coach who keeps landing positions he doesn’t deserve and failing in them?

Ejiro Evero has garnered a reputation as a respected coach who is apparently qualified to be a defensive coordinator — given his status as a finalist for the Packers’ job — with none of the nepotistic nonsense or baggage that Barry brings to the table. Matt LaFleur was offensive coordinator for the Rams in 2017 when both Joe Barry and Ejiro Evero were on staff, and probably has more insight into each than I do, but I’d love to know what exactly made LaFleur prefer Barry.

I hope the answer isn’t just “experience.”