As soon as Sanders, 52, got the nod from McCarthy to lead Green Bay's improving defense, one of the first people he called was his old boss, Jim Bates.
"He was really, really excited for me," said Sanders.
That's somewhat of an understatement. Bates can get fired up watching paint dry, but in this case, it is a bonafide thrill for one of his ex-assistants who is more than ready to be an NFL coordinator. Sanders toiled for 22 seasons at the college level before Bates hired him to be linebackers coach for the Miami Dolphins in 2001. Over the past five seasons, Sanders learned the Bates' way, and plans to follow in his footsteps next season with the Packers. Sanders likely will implement a few minor tweaks as a way to create his own "stamp," but for the most part it will be Bates' East Coast Defense.
"Attention to detail and take away what the offense does best," Sanders said when asked what he learned most from Bates over the last five seasons. "That's what we'll continue to try to do – have attention to detail, preach turnovers, the fundamentals of being solid. That's the difference in a lot of defenses – how sound you are and working every single day from tackling, block protection, staying square in the bump and run on the line of scrimmage. Then everybody playing fast to get to the ball. Game tackling. Pursuit. Playing with enthusiasm. All of those things are what you have to do to be a solid defense in the National Football League."
With the exception of creating turnovers, all of the above worked last season for the Packers. Bates took a defense that was ranked 25th in the National Football League in total yards allowed in 2004 to No. 7 in 2005. The Packers struggled to create turnovers, but with many of the players returning to the same system for the first time since the 2003 season, the Packers are bound to increase their take-away total because of the comfort factor. As players get more confident in their roles and whereabouts within the defense, they'll be able to focus more on forcing the ball loose, or trying to make an interception.
As excited as Sanders is about getting a chance to be defensive coordinator, Packers fans should be even more excited. With a young defense that showed steady growth over the course of the 2005 season, the Packers will not have to totally rebuild and re-learn a new scheme under a new coordinator. Sanders gives the defense a familiar face and a familiar scheme. A handful of assistants who were on the staff last year will be retained, including popular cornerbacks coach Lionel Washington and defensive tackles coach Robert Nunn. McCarthy last week imported linebackers coach Winston Moss from the New Orleans Saints to help improve that position.
For those who still might doubt Sanders' ability to read and react on game days, he revealed today that he called the defense during the Dolphins' final seven games of 2004 when Bates was interim head coach. So, Sanders not only comes with the experience of having coached various positions on defense, but also an apprenticeship as a DC in Miami.
"We have a system in place," Sanders said. "For every opportunity that comes up, the system can handle every situation in which we're confronted with. The system is sound fundamentally. It is designed to create turnovers. It's designed to allow the players to play aggressively, fast and hard, which I think we improved on as the year went on last year. Hopefully, we'll continue to build on that.
"There's a base in the system. If something happens, if things go south at anytime, there's a base that our guys can hang their hat on. I think that's important to have in a system. It's very, very flexible. It is designed to take away what an offense does best, whether it's a pass or run. The flexibility that the system has allows our guys to play fast and get involved in a lot of plays."
This, in turn, could mean more victories next season for the Packers. More than if McCarthy went out and hired a coordinator with a completely different scheme. Continuity played a big role in McCarthy's decision to hire Sanders, and the coach admitted as much.
"Continuity's a factor," McCarthy said. "There's no doubt about it. The thing that was revealing to me as I watched more games from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, you can see a young defense coming together."
"Continuity was a factor in the decision, but I was looking for a partnership. I'm not going to be over there calling defenses. I'm not going to be over there putting in defensive schemes. This is Bob's defense."
If all goes well, Sanders will pick up where Bates left off.
Todd Korth is managing editor of PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at email@example.com.