Vikings search across the border for new offensive line coach

 

On Wednesday evening, January 9th, Bob McGinn first reported that the Green Bay Packers granted permission for the Vikings to interview Joe Philbin to become the permanent offensive line coach after the Packers passed their interim head coach for their head coaching vacancy.

Soon after, James Campen’s name emerged as another candidate to fill the vacancy left by the passing of Tony Sparano last summer. Campen most recently served as the Packers offensive line coach and run game coordinator, the same title Sparano held in Minnesota.  Packers beat writer Tom Silverstein reported that it is still unknown if new Packers head coach Matt LaFleur will bring Campen back, but if not, he too is a strong candidate for the Vikings.

Campen has been a coach for the Packers for the past 15 seasons while Philbin has held several positions from assistant line coach to head coach with the Packers, Dolphins, and Colts since 2003.

Philbin’s collegiate successes

Prior to joining the Packers in 2003, Philbin was a offensive line coach and offensive coordinator for nearly two decades in the college ranks. He held offensive line coach positions at a variety of collegiate levels from Division III WPI to Ohio to Harvard to Iowa. He helped develop several NFL lineman including former Vikings star Matt Birk. After he left Iowa to take an assistant line coach position in Green Bay, Philbin had several of his former players drafted to the NFL including Robert Gallery who was the second overall pick in 2004 by the Oakland Raiders who undeservedly has been called a bust after an unsuccessful move from right to left tackle in his third pro season (he gave up just 6.5 sacks in his first two NFL seasons.

Philbin-coached college lineman in the NFL:

  • C Matt Birk: 6th round pick by Minnesota in 1998
    • 187 career starts in 14 seasons played
    • 6 career Pro Bowls
    • 40 career penalties
  • G Eric Steinbach: 2nd round pick by Cincinnati in 2003
    • 124 career starts in 8 seasons (only one game played but not started, only three games missed in career)
    • 33 career penalties
  • G Bruce Nelson: 2nd round pick by Carolina in 2003
    • 1 career start and 15 games played in 1 season
    • Did not play in 2004 and ultimately retired due to hip injuries
  • T Ben Sobieski: 5th round pick by Buffalo in 2003
    • 1 career game, no starts
    • Struggled with injury in college and NFL
  • T Robert Gallery: 2nd overall pick by Oakland in 2004
    • 103 career starts in 8 seasons
    • Moved from RT to LT after second season then to LG after third season
    •  63 career penalties
  • T Pete McMahon: 6th round pick by Oakland in 2005
    • Injured in first season, bounced around practice squads through 2008

Philbin’s NFL experience

Joe Philbin was hired by the Packers as an assistant OL coach in 2003. In 2004 he took on an additional role as tight ends coach. He was named offensive line coach in 2006 and offensive coordinator in 2007. Miami hired him as their head coach in 2012 and after being fired in 2015, Indianapolis hired Philbin as assistant head coach and offensive line coach. In 2018 he rejoined the Packers as offensive coordinator and was named interim head coach partway through last season. The striking point about Philbin’s success with offensive lines is the difference between line success when he is a line coach vs when he is a coordinator or head coach as well as the differences in success when blocking for pocket passers vs mobile quarterbacks.

From 2003 to 2006 Philbin was strictly coaching offensive lineman and tight ends. In those seasons he employed his zone blocking scheme to protect Brett Farve, who was notorious for refusing to scramble (very similarly to current Vikings QB Kirk Cousins). The 2003 Packers allowed just 19 sacks (3.9%) and rushed for 5 yards per carry and 159.9 yards per game with Ahmad Green rushing for 1883 yards and 15 touchdowns. They sent both Mike Flanagan and Marco Rivera to the Pro Bowl. For comparison, the 2018 Vikings allowed 40 sacks (6.2%) and rushed for 4.2 yards per carry and 93.3 yards per game. Dalvin Cook led the team with 615 yards and Latavius Murray added 578.

In 2004, the Packers allowed just 14 sacks and sent Rivera to another Pro Bowl before allowing 27 in 2005 during a 4-12 season. In 2006 his line allowed 24 sacks. Even in his worst seasons as the Packers’ line coach, his lines did better in protection than the Vikings last season.

In his first season as offensive coordinator in 2007, the Packers allowed 19 sacks and send Chad Clifton to the Pro Bowl.

Once Aaron Rodgers took over as starter, Phiblin’s lines suffered. A pattern that endured with other mobile QBs like Ryan Tannehill and Jacoby Brissett. From 2008 to 2011 the Packers gave up an average of 41 sacks per year although they did send Chad Clifton and Scott Wells each to a Pro Bowl.

As Dolphins’ head coach, Philbin’s teams gave up an average of 46.5 sacks per year, including sacks given up in the 2015 season after Philbin was fired after 4 games. In two seasons with the Colts as assistant head coach and offensive line coach, his teams game up 44 and 56 sacks.

 

Overall, Philbin has worked best in the NFL under two conditions: an ability to focus on the offensive line without greater responsibility and having a quarterback who stays in the pocket more than one who tries to scramble often.

Notable Philbin-coached NFL Linemen

  • Mike Flanagan (only career pro bowl under Philbin)
  • Marco Rivera (two of three career pro bowls under Philbin)
  • Chad Clifton (both career pro bowls under Philbin
  • Scott Wells (only career pro bowl under Philbin)
  • Richie Incognito (first of four career pro bowls under Philbin)
  • Mike Pouncey (first three of four career pro bowls under Philbin)

James Campen’s first hand experience

James Campen was an undrafted center from Tulane in 1986. He signed with the New Orleans Saints where he was a backup for his first two seasons before joining the Packers as a backup in 1989. He became the starter in 1990 before retiring after playing just 4 games in 1993 and suffering a torn hamstring. He rejoined the Packers as an offensive quality control and assistant offensive line coach in 2004 (co-assistants with Joe Philbin). He became the assistant offensive line coach under Philbin in 2006 and became the offensive line coach in 2007 when Philbin became he offensive coordinator. In 2018 he took on the additional role of run game coordinator.

Campen has worked with many of the same players as Joe Philbin, including Flanagan, Rivera, Clifton, and Wells. Additionally, Campen has worked with lineman like Josh Sitton who made 3 of 4 career pro bowls under Campen and David Bakhtiari, who is routinly listed among the top left tackles in the NFL.

Campen’s work with lineman who were not highly drafted is also impressive. Sitton was a fourth round pick. Bakhtiari was a fourth round pick, as was T.J. Lang. Evan Smith was an undrafted player. Corey Linsey was a fifth round pick. Lane Taylor was undrafted. The only first round lineman picked by the Packers that Campen has ever coached since taking over as offensive line coach is Bryan Bulaga.

Since Campen became offensive line coach, the Packers have allowed 19, 34, 51, 38, 41, 51, 45, 30, 47, 35, 51, and 53 sacks. It is worth noting, though, that the lowest sack total came in Brett Farve’s final season as a starter and that since then, Green Bay has relied on Aaron Rogers, whose propensity for holding the ball while scrambling around  leads to sacks, along with backups like Brett Hundley and Scott Tolzien.

Conclusion

Although it is clear that neither Philbin or Campen are perfect candidates for the Vikings offensive line coach position, both are clearly qualified with the ability to develop overlooked players and coach dominate units under the right conditions. Particularly in Philbin’s case, limiting responsibility to the offensive line and the run game seems a necessity given the historic drop in play when he has responsibility for a whole offense or team. It is also worth mentioning that the best season from either of them came when working together with a pocket passer. This bodes well for the Vikings with Kirk Cousins who showed an unwillingness to scramble last season.

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