Commanders new coaching staff lacks familiarity, but that’s all ‘by design’


ASHBURN, Va. — Kliff Kingsbury knows what he wants at the NFL’s most important position. “The Chiefs quarterback,” quipped the Washington Commanders’ new offensive coordinator.

It’s a funny line because everyone would want the three-time Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes under center. Kingsbury isn’t speaking in hypotheticals; he was Mahomes’ college head coach at Texas Tech. Therefore, Kingsbury knows plenty beyond the never-ending highlight clips because of their work together.

That’s not a luxury he’ll have with much of the Commanders’ offensive staff.

The same applies to defensive coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. Though he followed defensive-minded head coach Dan Quinn to Washington, there’s scant previous overlap with others tasked with teaching the linemen, linebackers and defensive backs.

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Even with the offense and defensive groups in the name-tag stage of these relationships, collaborative uncertainty is not a bug but a feature.

“We have a lot of coaches that come from different trees,” Whitt, a longtime assistant getting his first coordinator job, said Thursday at his introductory news conference. “And we did that by design because we want to have ideas outside of what necessarily I’ve done in my past.”

Even less familiarity exists with the offense, where Kingsbury, former Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn and ex-Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Brian Johnson are teammates.

“It’s always a challenge, but it’s exciting,” Kingsbury said of assembling a new set of coaches.

This tact veers wildly from the previous setup where most coaches worked together or had formidable links.

The straightforward approach on defense would be for Quinn and Whitt to implement the plan that helped Dallas rank fifth in points and yards allowed last season. Or for Kingsbury, the Arizona Cardinals’ head coach from 2019 to 2022, to load up his staff with various disciples from previous stops. But this Washington brain trust, including first-year general manager Adam Peters, sought a big tent worth of ideas rather than gather assistants with similar experiences.

Football coaches aren’t splitting the atom when designing plays. Said Whitt, “Everybody really plays the same coverages to some point defensively,” and offensive minds find tweaks and variations to known attacks rather than reinventing the wheel route. Eventually, evolution in thought occurs, or those coaches become extinct.

Kingsbury’s background as a college quarterback and coach is with the up-tempo “Air Raid” scheme popularized by his former Texas Tech mentor, Mike Leach. Kingsbury adjusted that wide-open approach for the NFL game (“I wouldn’t categorize anything we do under that name”).

Expect more changes in his return to the pro ranks after spending the 2023 season at USC along with the projected first pick in the 2024 draft, quarterback Caleb Williams. That’s a combination of studying Trojans head coach Lincoln Riley, incorporating views from a new staff and “being able to just focus on the offense” without head coach responsibilities.

“I think any time you get a chance to reinstall your offense, you can be more efficient with your processes, and your verbiage, and your play calls and your scheme,” Kingsbury said. “We’re going to all dive into it and figure out kind of what we do best personnel-wise and grow it from there.”

Along with Quinn, the overall group includes three former head coaches and others who have reached the coordinator level. Lynn, Washington’s new run-game coordinator and running backs coach, fits into both buckets.

Like Kingsbury, the ex-Chargers head coach and multi-time coordinator went to Texas Tech. “You can’t have enough of those rocket scientists on staff,” Kingsbury said wryly. Even with that personal background and citing the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers’ assistant head coach as a “huge” get, Kingsbury wasn’t prepared to define how Lynn meshes with his approach.

“(Anthony has) had a tremendous track record with running backs and run schemes,” Kingsbury said. “That’ll be a big part of his role. But once again, this will be collaborative. We’re still figuring out how it all fits in that way.”

Johnson, the assistant head coach and offensive pass-game coordinator, went from a rising star with the Eagles positioned for strong head-coaching consideration to losing his job following Philadelphia’s late-season collapse. The assistant head coach title means getting insight from Quinn and experience with any behind-the-scenes duties.

Johnson is also part of the staff, along with Kingsbury and quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard, that’s focused on developing the likely young passer Washington selects with the No. 2 pick in April’s draft.

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Williams isn’t likely to slip past the Chicago Bears with the first pick, and who knows if Washington would part with valuable roster assets to move up one spot. Still, the connection with Kingsbury brings out the conspiracy theorists and the curious.

Kingsbury deflected inquiries into Williams on Thursday beyond basic platitudes. “He’s a great kid,” Kingsbury said, “there’s no doubt.”

Another new name, David Blough, offers a very recent player perspective. The quarterback went from starting two games for Kingsbury at Arizona in 2022 to the Detroit Lions’ 2023 practice squad to Commanders assistant quarterbacks coach.

Then there’s Quinn. The former Atlanta Falcons head coach turned Washington’s offense over to the coordinator whose career he followed but never worked with. Quinn won’t be shy about sharing his opinions from the defensive vantage point. Kingsbury hopes that’s what happens.

“He’s the head coach,” Kingsbury said of Quinn, “so however he wants to do it, we’re gonna do it that way. I understand that. He understands that. As much input as we can get from him, the better.”

Quinn’s natural bent will continue his working relationship with Whitt that began in Atlanta and thrived the past three seasons with the Cowboys. Having his former secondary coach become the primary defensive voice will help Quinn run the entire team and a Washington defense that allowed the most points in the league last season.

“I would say (Joe’s) superpower (is) of the detail, the coverage, the play style,” Quinn said earlier this month. “(Also), the ball hawking, the tackling and the fundamentals.”

Whitt didn’t dwell on what type of packages Washington would primarily run during his Q&A, which displayed his passion and energy. The Cowboys led the league in takeaways for the 2021 and 2022 seasons by adhering to Whitt’s mantra, “Ball is life.” When asked about the team’s system, he emphasized “play style (more) than anything else.”

“We’re gonna get that right first,” Whitt said. “One thing that we’re going to do is we’re gonna be a run and hit defense. … We’re gonna run and put our bodies on people in a violent manner.”

One coach preaching won’t get the message through. It takes a village to raise the standard. Former Raiders assistant Jason Simmons is the new defensive pass-game coordinator, while Tom Donatell is the defensive backs coach after three years with the Chargers. Linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. and senior defensive assistant John Pagano were coordinators earlier in their careers.

Whitt’s purview is the entire defense, but he knows deploying fixes isn’t a one-person job.

“Every day, when we go out there on the (practice) field, the standard is the standard,” Whitt said. “I know that’s thrown around a lot, but … the reason that we got the coaches that we got was because they hold people accountable. They’re great teachers first, but if you don’t do it (correctly), you’re gonna get called out on it.”

The plan for both sides of the ball is for players to hear more than one voice preaching a cohesive message, no matter the structure or the coach’s origin story.

(Photo of Kliff Kingsbury: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)





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