The Falcons lured Dean Pees out of retirement to try to build a new, better foundation on defense. It’s not yet clear whether the foundation that the team has put together will lead to better days down the line, but what is clear that Pees will not be around to see what’s next.
The 73-year-old defensive coordinator has retired, per a report from NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. An official announcement from the team landed just a short time ago.
#Falcons DC Dean Pees just informed players he is retiring, per sources.— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) January 9, 2023
Pees, 73, had been weighing the decision in recent weeks. Expect a wide search for Atlanta’s next defensive coordinator. pic.twitter.com/DwjPZAOhxZ
Pees brought decades of experience as a coordinator of top defenses in New England, Baltimore, and Tennessee to bear when he joined the Falcons in 2021. Arthur Smith, who had overlapped with Pees with the Titans, brought him aboard to give the Falcons that experience and a no-nonsense approach to improving a defense that had struggled mightily over the previous two years. Pees came to Atlanta having never had a defense ranked worse than 21st in yards and 24th in points, and he had only been worse than 19th in either metric one in his long career. It was a celebrated hire for that reason.
Arthur Smith had kind words for Pees as he parts:
“You appreciate all the work and the sacrifice,” Smith said of Pees. “We all get paid to do this and we’re lucky as hell, but there are sacrifices you have to make. Dean’s a guy who has coached at every level and had success. He has impacted a lot of lives and he has impacted the game.”
The results have been mixed, with the caveat that the personnel Pees was working with in Atlanta has been more limited than at any other point in his career. The best the Falcons finished these past two years in yards with 27th, and the best they ranked in points was 26th. Young players like Ta’Quon Graham, Isaiah Oliver, A.J. Terrell, and Richie Grant have flourished and veterans including Rashaan Evans, Lorenzo Carter, and Cornell Armstrong have seen growth with him at the helm of the defense, but the overall unit remains among the NFL’s least potent. Atlanta’s scoring defense did improve noticeably down the stretch this year—the caliber of offenses they were facing was a factor there, of course—and Pees was good about getting key future pieces like Troy Andersen plenty of playing time down the line.
Adamant that the attitude around the Falcons defense needed to change so that this team would expect greatness again, Pees often fiercely defended his players and took shots at fans and local media for their criticism of the defense, which endeared him to many and earned him further withering criticism from others. Given his expectations and his long track record of running excellent defenses, the hope was that Pees would get his chance to run a defense stocked with more talent in 2023, but it’s understandable that he’s decided to retire again given his age, the difficulties of the last two years, and even the injury scare against the Saints. The hope will be that the work he’s done to this point will help his successor pilot the defense to new heights.
Who will that successor be? In-house candidates include Frank Bush, the former defensive coordinator and current linebackers coach who called the game against the Saints after Pees was taken to the hospital, as well as outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino, who coordinated the Colts defense in the mid-2010s. There are plenty of good external candidates, too, if the Falcons want to go outside the building. Cory Woodroof is currently writing up a list of worthwhile ones to consider.
If this is Pees’ final retirement, he leaves as one of the more effective NFL defensive coordinators of the past three decades, regardless of how this Falcons defense ultimately turns out. We wish him well in his retirement, and I’d expect the Falcons will announce his replacement in the not-too-distant future.