With only four teams remaining in the race for the Lombardi Trophy, most teams are in full off-season mode, seeking to compete for the trophy next year. This time of year is ripe with coach reshuffling as new staffs seek to fill their open positions and other teams look to upgrade on one side of the ball or the other.
For better or worse, the Green Bay Packers seem content to roll it back with their current coordinators, which, unfortunately, means keeping Joe Barry and his defensive staff intact. But while Barry might not be going anywhere, a member of his staff is getting attention from around the league.
Passing game coordinator/defensive backs coach Jerry Gray recently interviewed for the defensive coordinator role with the Atlanta Falcons, who have an opening after the venerable Dean Pees retired. Gray has ties to the coaching staff thanks to working with Arthur Smith in Tennessee and is considered a strong candidate for the role.
Jerry Gray https://t.co/fujtXUnTWZ
— Benjamin Allbright (@AllbrightNFL) January 17, 2023
Even if Gray doesn’t land the Atlanta job, he could get more DC opportunities once the league’s head coaching jobs are filled and they are looking to round out their staff. If Gray does get a better opportunity elsewhere, how will that affect Green Bay’s defense?
Gray is well-respected around the league and has had a long career as a defensive coach. Since coming to Green Bay in 2020, Gray served in both Mike Pettine and Joe Barry’s defensive staffs, adding the passing game coordinator title to his resume in 2021. Gray interviewed for the Packers’ DC opening in 2021 as the team’s top internal candidate, but Matt LaFleur hired Barry to run the defense.
A couple of Packers coaches – Rich Bisaccia and Jerry Gray – have interviewed elsewhere.
Per a source, Gray is not currently under contract for next season allowing him to peruse any opportunity without being blocked.
Doesn’t mean he won’t return. Just means he’s a free agent. https://t.co/DXZ2d6joW9
— Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) January 23, 2023
Green Bay’s defense is lopsided, as always. The run defense has more holes than a good Swiss cheese, while the passing defense is more solid, like a good Gruyere. There was a lot of success in the defensive backs group. Jaire Alexander became one of the league’s top corners. Eric Stokes had an inspiring rookie season. Rasul Douglas went from a practice squad pluck to a core player. Adrian Amos was one of the league’s most reliable safeties. Green Bay’s defense might not be great, but you could do much worse in the secondary.
But Gray’s unit was inconsistent, especially in 2022. Douglas, Stokes, and Amos regressed, and it took far too long for the team to find a better way to utilize Darnell Savage. Even Alexander had far more boom-or-bust moments than in previous seasons. Each week, some sort of breakdown in the secondary led to a big play for the opposing offense, especially in end-of-half situations.
While Barry can be blamed for much of the schematic issues, Gray isn’t blameless for the lack of preparedness, the poor communication, and playing 49 yards away from the line of scrimmage.
Jerry Gray is probably due some criticism for how the Packers’ cornerbacks routinely gave large cushions in short-yardage situations. Even so, he has a strong reputation around the NFL.
— Jason B. Hirschhorn (@by_JBH) January 14, 2023
Still, Gray showed leadership and a potential for change late in the season when the defense started ascending following the bye week. The secondary played much better, and players were put in better positions to succeed. Gray famously tore the secondary a new one after allowing big plays to the Miami Dolphins’ powerful passing offense, leading to a stout second half.
“That woke us up for sure,” Alexander said following Green Bay’s win over Miami. “He doesn’t really yell, but he was yelling at us then. And you see the results. He probably needed to yell at us at the beginning of the game.”
Even after a down 2022, Green Bay would lose a massive leadership and experience void if Gray took a job elsewhere.
The Packers don’t have many internal options to replace Gray. The team lacks a cornerbacks coach, and safeties coach Ryan Downard has only had the job for one year. Despite his coaching at Bowling Green State University, the finest university on the planet, Downard would be unlikely to get the passing-game coordinator title at this point.
The Packers would have to look outside the building to replace Gray, and the hire could have massive implications. Would LaFleur look for an up-and-coming defensive mind? Someone who would take over if/when the Barry era is over? Or would he look for a respected veteran mind? Adding the passing-game coordinator title could entice a cornerbacks coach looking for their next step.
Either way, the hire needs to be someone who can challenge Barry and evolve the defense — no more echo chamber hires. This defense has consistently performed below expectations, thanks to poor communication and a lack of physicality. Whoever the team hires needs to be able to change the defensive mindset and culture.
This is the time for coaching changes throughout the NFL, and even if Matt LaFleur has no plans to change his staff, outside factors may force him to react. It wouldn’t be a coordinator-level replacement, but probably losing the second-highest-ranked defensive coach on the staff is undoubtedly a big deal. If Jerry Gray takes a new job this winter, LaFleur needs to nail the replacement to set up his chosen DC for success.