GREEN BAY — Jim Leonhard played 10 NFL seasons. He spent six of them with new Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
So when the University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator — having been with Pettine with the Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns — says Packers head coach Mike McCarthy got a good one to run his defense, he’s uniquely qualified to do so.
And Leonhard indeed believes the Packers got a good one.
“I think the cool part about it (is), I went through the process of a lot of different steps with him — as a position coach in Baltimore, a coordinator in New York, coordinating away from Rex and truly having his own say on everything (on defense) in Buffalo and then as a head coach in Cleveland,” Leonhard said during an appearance on ESPN Wisconsin’s “Wilde & Tausch” Wednesday morning.
“To me, two words come to my mind when I think of him: Flexibility — his system will be flexible to find the most talented playmakers and the matchups week in and week out. And then creativity — to be able to put those guys in position to make plays on a consistent basis.”
Pettine, 51, is a coaching descendant of ex-Jets and ex-Bills head coach Rex Ryan, now an NFL analyst at ESPN. Pettine broke into the NFL with the Ravens in 2002, serving as a coaching assistant for two years (2002-03) and spending 2004 as the team’s assistant defensive line coach — helping Ryan — before spending four seasons (2005-08) as Baltimore’s outside linebackers coach while Ryan was the defensive coordinator.
“The more I talked to him, I realized, ‘Holy cow, this dude knows everything. He’s a real football guy,’” Ryan told ESPN.com. “So when we had the chance, we made him quality control coach, and then outside linebackers and then defensive coordinator. He was my right-hand man forever.
“He’ll be the best coordinator in the league. That’s how good he is. I think the big thing is, the fan base ought to be super excited about him because this is a good get. There’s other names out there or whatever, but this is the best coach out there that they could’ve got.”
When Ryan became the Jets’ head coach in 2009, he brought Pettine with him, and Pettine spent four years in charge of the defense, which finished No. 1 in the NFL in scoring defense (14.8 points per game) and total defense (252.3 yards per game) in 2009; sixth (19.0) and third (291.5) in 2010; 20th (22.7) and fifth (312.1) in 2011; and 20th (23.4) and eighth (323.4) in 2012.
When Ryan overhauled his staff after the 2012 season, Pettine went to Buffalo, where the Bills finished 2013 ranked 20th in scoring defense (24.3) and 10th in total defense (333.4).
Leonhard was with the Jets for three of Pettine’s seasons in New York. And after spending 2012 with the Denver Broncos, Leonhard signed with the Bills after they brought Pettine in as their defensive coordinator. Asked about the Packers’ younger players seemingly having communication issues under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who was fired on Dec. 31 after nine seasons, Leonhard said Pettine will tailor his creativity to fit his personnel.
“I think it comes back to knowing your team and knowing who your playmakers are — and your weaknesses,” Leonhard said. “With youth, you can’t do everything. And obviously going from Baltimore to New York, there was a very veteran group there, so you were able to take that system along very quickly. And then, he went to Buffalo and there was a ton of youth.
“Creativity, I don’t think that always necessarily means doing a thousand things. The creativity (in Buffalo) was, ‘How do you get (your pass rushers) 1-on-1s?’ The thought process was, ‘If we get two of those guys 1-on-1s, one of them is going to win. Every time.’ Sometimes that was all the creativity that was needed. Not necessarily, ‘We’re going to run 1,000 pressure packages and this and that.’ It’s being smart in how you’re creative.“A lot. That whole group of guys, whether it was Rex, Pettine, Jim O’Neil, I was around them for six years. To me, it’s the flexibility — understanding, week to week, depending on injuries or matchups, your playmakers are going to change. And enough creativity. Obviously in college it’s a little different than the NFL. Just to have enough creativity to create some matchups and find ways to help guys make plays. A lot of my thought process and how I approach the game comes from these guys.”
Pettine has said his defense can’t be classified as a true 3-4 or 4-3 scheme, and Leonhard said that approach changed with each opponent.
“I think that’s the beauty of the system he was brought up in with Rex and what he’s taken over. What’s the difference between a 3-4 outside linebacker standing up or putting his hand on the ground? In a lot of cases, there’s nothing schematically different and it allows you to use guys to the best of their ability,” Leonhard said.
“In a lot of ways, your talent can go back and forth.”
Pettine was hired as the Browns’ head coach in 2014 and went 10-22 in two seasons. The Browns started the 2014 season 7-4 under Pettine before losing their final five games. Cleveland then went 3-13 in 2015.
“If you just look at Mike, he looks like an intimidating guy. He can command a team, a defense, just by his look,” ex-Packers cornerback Tramon Williams, who played for Pettine in Cleveland, told PackerReport.com. “But, man, when you get to talking to him, he’s just such a nice guy. It’s as simple as that. You look at him and you’re intimidated but then you start talking to him and it’s, ‘Oh, man, this ain’t who I thought I was talking to.’
“I love Mike. (He was) one of the reasons I actually ended up signing with Cleveland. Really great guy. As a coach, very, very smart. Very smart and articulate. Obviously, his resume shows over the years that he’s done a good job as a defensive coordinator.”
Leonhard agreed Pettine’s public image — with his bald head and goatee — belies how he is with players.
“He demands a lot of his players. He does. He’s a guy who has certain expectations on what football should look like, what your level of effort (should be) and what wins at that level,” Leonhard said. “If he needs to be a screamer and a yeller, he will. But he wants the game to be fun. That’s not fun for coaches, it’s not fun for players, so if you handle your business and you’re a professional, he’s going to allow you to be yourself. He’s going to allow you to show all the character you want to show. But you’ve got to put the work in. And if you do that, he’s a lot of fun to be around.”
Comings and goings
In a not-so-surprising move, the Packers lost director of football operations Eliot Wolf to the Browns.
General manager John Dorsey gave Wolf the title of assistant GM in Cleveland, where he joins another ex-Packers exec, Alonzo Highsmith. Highsmith left the Packers last week to become Dorsey’s vice president of football operations.
Wolf, 35, was a finalist for the Packers’ GM job that went to Brian Gutekunst. While Wolf interviewed with the Browns on Tuesday, Gutekunst was hoping to keep him in Green Bay as his “right-hand man,” which might’ve meant an assistant GM title with the Packers, too. Instead, Wolf opted for the Browns and helping rebuild that franchise, much like his Pro Football Hall of Famer father, Ron Wolf, did for the Packers in the 1990s.
“I’m so thankful for this opportunity and I’m really excited about joining the Cleveland Browns organization,” Eliot Wolf said in a statement. “I really like the direction of where leadership is headed. We’re going to build this team the right way and to be a part of that from the ground up is going to be special.”
Meanwhile, a league source confirmed that cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, one of the three in-house candidates to interview for the defensive coordinator position, is staying with the team with a promotion and a new title. Whitt, a highly regarded assistant who has been with the team since 2008, delivered a strong interview when he met with McCarthy last week.
Also, the Packers’ offensive coaching staff picture is getting clearer. While the return of Joe Philbin as offensive coordinator — or with another high-level title — has been known since last week, the Packers reportedly are hiring ex-Giants quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti for the same position. Cignetti served as the New Orleans Saints’ quarterbacks coach in 2000 and 2001 under coach Mike McCarthy, who was the team’s offensive coordinator.
The NFL Network reported the Packers were also interviewing Jim O’Neil to coach linebackers. O’Neil was the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive coordinator in 2016 and served as Pettine’s defensive coordinator in Cleveland.