The hiring of Bob Sutton was met with a healthy mix of muted approval and loud outrage, like every good Falcons hire.
Sutton is not a slam dunk hire for the job he’s been given, but he’s a strong, perfectly legitimate one given the role. The ex-Chiefs defensive coordinator was (justifiably, mostly) dragged through the mud for the performance of his Kansas City defenses over the last three seasons, culminating in a largely putrid 2018 that saw the D consistently drag down one of the best offenses in the NFL. If he was being hired to be hands-on with this defense, I’d be as wary as everyone else, but that’s not why he’s here.
I thought it would be helpful to take a longer look at Sutton to understand why the Falcons might have hired him in the first place, starting with his coaching career.
Sutton has been a coach forever. He began his career as a graduate assistant at Michigan under the legendary Bo Schembechler back in 1972 before moving into a linebackers coach job with Syracuse in 1975. He jumped from there to Western Michigan for two years as the defensive coordinator and linebacks coach, spent 1977-1979 with Illinois in the same role, and then randomly switched sides of the ball to become the offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and wide receivers coach with Western Michigan from 1980-1981. A one year stint as the running backs coach for NC State followed in 1982, and then he was back to defense for the rest of his career.
Since then, Sutton’s resume is long and varied and hints at why he was hired. He overlapped with Dan Quinn with the Jets in 2007-2008 when DQ was the DL coach and Sutton was the defensive coordinator, and he was the defensive coordinator with Army (1983-1990) and Kansas City (2013-2018) as well. The most relevant gameday experience came when he was the assistant head coach for the Jets in 2012 and (likely pivotally) with Army from 1991-1999. Given his ties to a fixture military school, his overlap with Quinn, and nearly a decade of experience as a head coach at the collegiate level, he’s actually a far more qualified candidate for the gameday/clock management role than Kyle Flood ever was.
The defensive assistant thing is a little shakier. Sutton’s Chiefs defenses were top ten units in 2014 and 2015, but he’s had mediocre-to-bad defenses at every other stop in his NFL career. Sutton was lambasted by Chiefs fans and media (as well as some players) for his inability to make meaningful adjustments throughout a season and during games, and while the Chiefs bled talent on defense in recent years and were on the field a lot opposite their productive offense, he simply didn’t do a good job as the defensive coordinator. If he’s involved in some gameday planning with Quinn, great, but I hope his sole gameday focus is not on helping to determine what the defense is going to do so much as it is watching the clock. He’s not, say, a threat to Quinn’s job as a defensive coordinator, put it that way.
In summary, Sutton’s not a defensive wizard or a chronomancer, but he’s got all the qualifications Quinn looks for in an assistant, and the head coaching experience/assistant head coach experience is particularly relevant for the role he’s stepping into. Don’t despair over his defensive chops unless we get the worrying news that he’s suddenly going to be more involved in that side of things than the team indicated when they hired him.
But let’s talk more about that role now.
Sutton is effectively taking over for Kyle Flood, who bolted for Alabama to become Steve Sarkisian’s offensive line coach. Flood was hired for a role that Quinn and fans alike identified as a major need: Someone to take a critical look at the down, distance, situation, and time on the clock and chart the best possible course forward. That means if Quinn is hot to trot for a field goal from 4th and 1 on the opponent’s 27 when the Falcons are up one point, Sutton will be expected to either challenge his thinking or support it based on something other than a strong gut feeling.
Flood was a solid hire for that gig because he had multiple years of assistant head coaching experience and five seasons spent as the Rutgers head coach, albeit five controversial years, and had been with the Falcons for two years and was thus familiar with the team. With him out of the picture, the Falcons doubled down on experience to fill the role, as Sutton coached Army for twice as long as Flood was at Rutgers and is a more experience coach overall.
I don’t know exactly what Sutton’s going to do as a defensive assistant, if much of anything, and I suspect that no one outside of Flowery Branch really does. But on gameday his role will be to counter Quinn’s natural instincts if they’re not supported by a careful read (and hopefully best practices Sutton spends his offseason compiling) of the situation at hand, something most every head coach in the NFL could use.
A final word of caution: It remains to be seen just how involved the clock management role will be, to say nothing of how effective. Whether Dan Quinn is hiring a true gameday partner who will be able to fight him tooth and nail on in-game decisions or someone with the title but without the power to actually do so is something we’ll be watching as closely as we possibly can, but the upshot here in February is that the Falcons needed to give themselves the help of an experienced coach who has been involved in stressful gameday decision-making in the past.
Sutton offers that and has plenty of experience on defense, albeit a real mixed bag, and thus is as solid a hire as you could reasonably expect to make in mid-February. Now let’s hope that the hire goes from being solid in theory to actually useful on gamedays, and the Falcons might be going somewhere.