When Joe Whitt Jr. joined the Falcons coaching staff, the move was rightly hailed as a great addition. With the team fielding a young secondary this upcoming season, good coaching is going to be critically important. Given that, and given that many of you may not be overly familiar with Whitt Jr., I thought we’d take a look at the fine work he’s done elsewhere.
Join me, won’t you?
Packers cornerback coach, 2008-2017
This is where Whitt Jr. made his reputation, really. The season before he kicked off his longer carer in Green Bay, Whitt Jr. was an assistant defensive backs coach with Atlanta on that doomed 2007 Falcons squad. After being elevated to the cornerbacks coach in 2009 with the Packers, Whitt Jr. went to work making some careers.
We’ll pause for a moment and note that he was shrewdly kept after the Packers cleaned house post-2008, one of only two coaches to survive the purge and the only one to get a promotion out of it. Over the next decade, Whitt Jr. would play instrumental roles in developing the likes of Charles Woodson (a resurgent 4-time Pro Bowler in Green Bay after dazzling early on with the Raiders), Tramon Williams (a 1-time Pro Bowler and damn good cornerback who had 27 interceptions during his time with Green Bay and Whitt Jr.), and Sam Shields (a 1-time Pro Bowler in his own right, and a former undrafted free agent). All of those guys had talent—Woodson is an all-time great—but Whitt Jr. still got more out of them.
He’d go on to do good things for Casey Heyward, Davon House, and others, but by the time he left Green Bay the team’s secondary was getting a little shaky. His generally strong work with corners, including that sterling run in the early-to-mid 2010s, earned him the passing game coordinator role in 2018.
Packers defensive passing game coordinator, 2018
The talent wasn’t as robust as it was during Whitt Jr.’s early tenure in Green Bay, but his knowledge of how to squeeze the most out of cornerbacks and his long experience coaching the secondary paid off in 2018. Despite the Packers finishing a woeful 6-9-1 and getting Mike McCarthy fired, Whitt Jr.’s passing defense went from 23rd in yardage allowed and 29th in passing touchdowns allowed in 2017 to 12 in yardage allowed and 22nd in passing touchdowns in 2018. The team didn’t snag as many picks as they had the year before, but otherwise they improved at least a little across the board.
That fine work got Whitt Jr. his next job once McCarthy was unceremoniously dumped.
Browns defensive passing game coordinator, 2019
His history and reputation, which were by this point quite sterling, helped get Whitt Jr. the Falcons job. One suspects it was his stint in Cleveland that really pushed him over the top for an Atlanta team in need of leadership, better communication, and better coaching in the secondary.
Whitt Jr. took over a Cleveland pass defense that had plenty of talent and was unusually fortunate in terms of points allowed, as they were 25th in the NFL in yards but the 3rd-stingiest in terms of touchdown passes allowed. That last piece wasn’t sustainable, but Whitt Jr. presided over a pass defense that allowed nearly 700 fewer yards and only 4 more touchdowns, leaving them ranked 7th in yardage and 17 in touchdowns for the season. There was plenty of talent on hand, but what was most noteworthy was the way Whitt Jr. once again got the most out of young defensive backs like Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams, and Juston Burris.
After that season, the Falcons snapped him up, and now we’re here wondering how he’ll fare.
What can we expect from Whitt Jr. in this role? I don’t want to sound too effusive, given that he hasn’t been here all that long, but I think it’s fair to expect improvement from the pass defense, in particular the secondary. He’s done impressive work with young corners at every stop in his career, and in Atlanta he’ll be taking over the passing game coordinator and secondary coach gig for a defense that will heavily feature three young cornerbacks, at least one young safety recuperating from injury, and some interesting young depth pieces. Few things for the immediate future of this Falcons team are more important than developing that secondary, and Whitt Jr. seems like the right man to do just that.
We know not everything will go the way we hope and dream for the Falcons in 2020—if past history is any indication, few things will—but I feel more confident about the secondary and Whitt Jr.’s tutelage than I do anything outside of the Matt Ryan-Julio Jones connection. Let’s hope that faith is well-placed.