Let me start by asking two questions:

  1. Who is the most invisible coach, from a fan’s perspective, but one of the most important coaches to the football team?
  2. Who will the 2013 version of the Packers miss the most from a previous year’s team?

The first answer is the offensive line coach.

The second answer is former offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin.

Offensive line coaches are usually invisible to the fans, but that does not diminish their importance. They are responsible for implementing the running blocking schemes and pass protections. In other words, the offense goes through them, despite us really only seeing the super stars on the field do their thing. Adrian Peterson wouldn’t have 2000 yards in a season without a good blocking scheme. Aaron Rodgers wouldn’t have 45 touchdown passes without good pass protection. James Jones wouldn’t have 14 touchdown catches if Aaron Rodgers is constantly on his back (well, any more than he usually is).

Good offensive line coaches are involved in all aspects of the offense. They must be great teachers and great strategists. Due to their intimate knowledge of the game, many offensive line coaches eventually find their way to being promoted to offensive coordinator, and maybe even head coach.

The greatest coach of all time, Vince Lombardi, cut his teeth as the offensive line coach for the legendary Colonel Blaik at West Point. Lombardi later designed and coordinated the New York Giants offense that won a World Title in 1956. This attracted the attention of Dom Olejniczak, and the rest is history. Five World Titles later, Lombardi has the Super Bowl Trophy named after him. He won those titles with a power running game and great offensive line play. Forrest Gregg is in the Hall of Fame. Jerry Kramer deserves to be.

The legendary “Hogs” of the Washington Redskins were the product of the great offensive line coach, Joe Bugel. The “Hogs” won three Super Bowl titles with three different starting quarterbacks. This epitomizes the importance of great offensive line play. Bugel is considered the greatest offensive line coach in NFL history. He also held the titles of offensive coordinator and assistant head coach at various points during his career. He was head coach for the Phoenix Cardinals for a short time. No one historically won there, so that’s not really a reflection of his coaching abilities.

Let’s take a look at current NFL head coaches who rose through the ranks after starting out as offensive line coaches:

  • Doug Marrone, Buffalo Bills
  • Joe Philbin, Miami Dolphins
  • Mike Munchak, Tennessee Titans
  • Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
  • Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles
  • Additionally, Bill Belichick’s assistant head coach is offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.

Now, let’s look at current NFL offensive coordinators who were previously offensive line coaches:

  • Mike Sherman, Miami Dolphins (former head coach of the Green Bay Packers)
  • Rick Dennison, Houston Texans
  • Bill Callahan, Dallas Cowboys (former head coach of the Oakland Raiders; led them to the Super Bowl)
  • Pat Shurmur, Philadelphia Eagles (former head coach of the Cleveland Browns)
  • Aaron Kromer, Chicago Bears
  • Harold Goodwin, Arizona Cardinals
  • Greg Roman, San Francisco 49ers

This list is a highly respected group of coaches with several Super Bowl appearances. It’s pretty obvious that a consistent model of promotion within football teams starts with the offensive line coach.

If you look at the list above, who on it is the most recent to have won a Super Bowl? The answer is Joe Philbin. That’s right. The Packer’s own Joe Philbin.

Philbin came to the Packers in 2003 as an offensive line specialist. Previously, he worked under legendary offensive line guru, and head coach, Kirk Ferentz at the University of Iowa. Ferentz was Bill Belichick’s offensive line coach for the Cleveland Browns between 1995-1999. During Philbin’s first year in Green Bay, running back Ahman Green enjoyed his finest year in his NFL career, having rushed for a Packer’s record 1883 yards and scoring 15 rushing touchdowns.

Head coach Mike McCarthy joined the Packers in 2006. Most head coaches will relieve any incumbent assistant coaches under contract to bring in their own hand-picked staff. However, McCarthy saw something in Philbin and retained him as offensive line coach. Then, he quickly promoted Philbin to offensive coordinator in 2007. That year, the Packers made the NFC championship game and were one Brett Favre interception from the Super Bowl. We all know the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010 with Aaron Rodgers. Furthermore, Aaron Rodgers had his finest year as a professional in 2011, when he threw for 4643 yards and 45 touchdowns in 15 games en route to being named the league’s MVP. If you add in Matt Flynn’s statistics, Packers quarterbacks threw for 4924 yards and 51 touchdowns during 2011. Those are some pretty impressive numbers.

McCarthy gets most of the credit, and rightfully so, for Aaron Rodgers’ development and the overall Packers offensive juggernaut. He is also a magnificent football coach. But, Philbin was McCarthy’s right-hand man. While McCarthy was the play caller, Philbin’s fingerprints were all over the offensive success. Comparing offensive performance with and without him highlights that.

The Packer’s greatest rushing season (2003) and passing season (2011) were a part of Philbin’s tutelage.

Then, Philbin left the Packers before the 2012 season to become the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. He absolutely deserved this promotion, and I think all of the Packer nation wishes him well.

After Philbin left, the offense was still prolific, but not as good as it was in 2011. In 2011, the offense was ranked #3 overall. In 2012, the ranking fell to #13. The offense of 2012 was also not the championship offense of 2010. At times during 2012, they were fairly inept at running the football.  Aaron Rodgers was the team’s second-leading rusher, and those were yards when he was scrambling out of the pocket. The running backs had consistent trouble finding running lanes all season long. Offensive line play was criticized as well. In fact, McCarthy flipped his right and left sides of the offensive line for 2013 in an attempt to improve things.

This all tells me these occurrences were not coincidence. Philbin brought something to the Green Bay offense.

Philbin added some of that “it factor” to the offense. That “it factor” was missing during the 2011 heartbreaking playoff loss to the New York Giants while he was mourning the tragic loss of his son.  That “it” factor was missing during stretches of the 2012 season.

As we enter the 2013 training camp, there’s lots of talk about whether the Packers will miss Greg Jennings, Charles Woodson, Tom Crabtree, Desmond Bishop, and Donald Driver. While these losses will undoubtedly have some impact on the team, I still don’t think the Packers have recovered fully from losing Joe Philbin. Ted Thompson has shown again and again that he can restock the stable via the draft. Finding great coaches is a much more difficult task.

Mike McCarthy’s current offensive line coach is James Campen. I don’t know what goes on in the offensive line meeting rooms or on the sidelines during games, but I just don’t see Campen ever being promoted to offensive coordinator or head coach. That’s not to say he isn’t a competent offensive line coach, but I don’t think he brings that “it factor” to the Packers. The offense doesn’t go through Campen like it went through Philbin.

And that, right there, is the biggest difference in the Philbin-less Packers. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Campen, but my point is more so to highlight what the Packers are lacking in Philbin’s absence, which is has not been replaced by Campen or current offensive coordinator Tom Clements.

The Packers had something truly special in Joe Philbin. He was coach McCarthy’s right-hand man. He was like having another head coach on the sidelines. The Packers miss that. They are still waiting to fill that schematic and leadership void. Ted Thompson drafted some stud running backs this season, so this is Campen’s time to step up and show if he’s worthy of the important position on the staff. I bet he will not be as invisible to the fans this year.

Joe Philbin is a tremendous football coach, and he will have great success in Miami. Many prognosticators have the Dolphins winning the AFC East this year ahead of New England. Secretly, I am rooting for him, as a man, to win in Miami. But, my vocal side selfishly wishes he was still coaching in Green Bay.

Joe Philbin will be missed in Green Bay for some time. I just hope a title run this year by the Packers makes us miss him a little less.


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