Gunther's Excuse Questionable

In the wake of Gunther Cunningham's departure, I'm amazed at all the excuses being made for the lack of success in his second stint as coordinator.

The key excuse, which is even being passed along by Gunther himself, is that working under the confines of Herm Edwards' Cover Two scheme essentially handcuffed him from running a better defense. Cunningham has backed away from actually saying those exact words – that the defense would have been better if they'd done things his way – but the implication of the comments he has made are obvious.

Before we delve into the specifics, though, it's surprising he's even claiming such a thing in the first place

Let's take a brief look around the league for a moment. Jim Bates, who was most recently the defensive coordinator in Denver, has just been hired for that position in Tampa. Prior to his brief stint in Denver, Bates spent time in both Miami and Green Bay.

What do Denver, Miami, and Green Bay have in common? None of those teams run the Tampa Two. But the Bucs certainly do – Monte Kiffin might be gone, but the ascension of secondary coach Raheem Morris is expected to keep their famed defensive scheme intact. It would appear that Bates isn't too worried about adapting to that particular defense, even though it's not what he's run in the past.

How about San Diego coordinator Ron Rivera? During his time in Chicago, he ran the Cover Two defense that propelled the Bears to the Super Bowl. Now with the Chargers, he's running an aggressive 3-4 scheme. Those are two completely different defenses, which is even more impressive when you consider that Rivera came up as a coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, who don't run a Cover 2 or a 3-4.

Good coordinators are able to adapt to the situation at hand. By claiming that he couldn't adjust to a different defensive scheme, isn't Cunningham basically admitting that he's a one-trick pony?

But let's put that aside and examine the claim that his hands were tied by the Cover Two. Cunningham came back to the Chiefs in 2004, two years before Edwards brought his preferred defense to Kansas City. Starting with the year before Gunther returned, here's a look at the Chiefs' defensive rankings from 2003 to 2008:

2003: 29th
2004: 31st
2005: 25th
2006: 16th
2007: 13th
2008: 31st

Just from a cursory glance, it would appear that despite his objections to the scheme, Cunningham actually had his most success in 2006 and 2007 – two of the three years that he ran the Cover Two.

Merely looking at the rankings can be misleading, though, because the rankings are a comparison of the league as a whole. A team could improve their defense from one season to the next, but their ranking may not change that much if other teams are also improving defensively.

So here's a look at the Chiefs' defense in terms of yards and points surrendered per game:

2003: 356.7 yards, 20.8 points
2004: 377.3 yards, 27.2 points
2005: 328.1 yards, 20.3 points
2006: 328.9 yards, 19.7 points
2007: 319.4 yards, 20.9 points
2008: 393.2 yards, 27.5 points

No matter which method you're judging by, what stands out right off the bat is that the Chiefs' defense regressed from 2003 to 2004. Cunningham's first year was actually worse than the previous season under Greg Robinson, as the defense allowed more yardage and almost a touchdown more per game.

Aided by some free-agent additions (Sammy Knight, Kendrell Bell), the trade for Patrick Surtain, and the drafting of Derrick Johnson, the defense bounced back in 2005. Well, they "bounced back" in the sense they were just plain bad as opposed to being remarkably bad.

It may be unfair to draw a conclusion after only two years, but as 2005 drew to a close, there was little evidence to suggest Cunningham was getting the job done. Who, for example, can forget the late-season game when the Chiefs traveled to New York and made Tiki Barber look like the second coming of Jim Brown? The Chiefs might not have had the worst defense in the league, but it was miles from mediocre, let alone average.

The Cover Two came to town in 2006, and even though the defensive ranking jumped to 16th that year, there's not much change in the actual statistical data from the previous season. There are two factors to keep in mind, however.

First, despite the change in the defensive scheme, the Chiefs didn't suffer any setbacks in 2006 like they did when Cunningham came in and changed things up in 2004. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this is the point where we have to start taking into account that the Chiefs' offense began to trail off.

In 2004 and 2005, Kansas City's offense was the best in the league. Aside from the obvious – like scoring more points – that meant more sustained drives and fewer three-and-outs that put the defense right back out on the field. In fact, in 2005 the Chiefs had the NFL's third-best time of possession ratio.

The wheels came off the offense altogether in 2007, and yet there were no significant setbacks defensively. Points allowed per game went up by just 1.2 from the previous year, and yardage per game actually decreased, posting the best numbers of Cunningham's tenure. Had the offense not fallen apart, the defensive statistics would have surely shown considerable improvement.

The statistics from 2005, 2006, and 2007 are not drastically different, as all three years are within about 10 yards and one point per game of each other. But the key item to keep in mind is the change in support the defense was receiving from the offense over that time. By 2007, the Chiefs' time of possession ratio had dropped all the way to 16th.

When you factor in how badly the offense performed that year, one could rather easily make the case that 2007 – while the Chiefs' were running the Cover Two – marked the best performance by the defense during Cunningham's five years as coordinator.

So please, let's stop all the pity for poor Gunther Cunningham. While it's true that his philosophy might not have meshed well with a less-aggressive zone defense, it's hard to make a case that it held him back when his best season came two years after the Chiefs installed that scheme.

Quite frankly, Cunningham should be praising the Cover Two. If he'd been running his own defense over the past three years, he might not have found another job so easily.

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