FO Interview: Tony Dungy
interviewed by Aaron Schatz
Readers may remember that back in Week 16, I had the opportunity to visit NBC's Football Night in America and watch that Sunday's games with the whole FNIA staff, including former Indianapolis and Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy. Dungy is as friendly as everyone says, and was happy to indulge us in some questions about game strategy and his personal coaching philosophies. Thanks to various members of the FO staff for helping me come up with the questions.
Aaron Schatz: With your success in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, a number of teams adopted similar coverage-based schemes to the "Tampa-2." Over the last couple years, though, it seems the scheme has been less popular. What do you think has changed? Do you think more teams should go back to more coverage-based schemes, or have changes in the league made it harder for teams to build good defenses around the "Tampa-2"?
Tony Dungy: To play that style of defense you need patience and you have to be committed to it. It's not flashy and it's not high risk/high reward. It's just basic, sound football. There are weaknesses that you have to understand and it takes a lot of discipline for the players to be able to play it effectively and have confidence in what they're doing. It's probably a system that's more conducive to the days before free agency where you could keep veteran players around and they would be familiar with it. But more than anything, just like any system, it just takes coaches who know it and believe whole-heartedly in it.
Aaron Schatz: For obvious reasons, people equate your defensive philosophy with Monte Kiffin's. However, our numbers show that while the defense was dominant against the pass both before and after you left Tampa Bay, the run defense was consistently better after you left. Was that a philosophical difference between you two, or was it merely the result of changing personnel?
Tony Dungy: It was somewhat personnel but more a philosophical thought. Monte plays more eight-man fronts and blitzes more. He is determined to stop the run and force more second-and-long and third-and-long situations. I was more tuned into taking away the big play and making offenses be perfect. The Bucs actually didn't play a lot of Cover 2 after I left.
Aaron Schatz: In Tampa Bay, you split carries with Alstott and Dunn, and the year you won the Super Bowl, you split carries with Rhodes and Addai. As teams seem to be moving to more reliance on a two-back system, does it make more sense to have players with different, complementary skills (like Alstott and Dunn) or a rotation of interchangeable backs who have good all-around skills (like Rhodes and Addai)?
Tony Dungy: I don't think it matters what type of backs you have. You have to maximize the talent of the guys on your roster. Sometimes you can do the same things with both backs and sometimes they may be completely different, as with Mike and Warrick. I do feel though, that you need at least two backs you can rely on in this day and age. Guys like Michael Turner or Edgerrin James, who can be every down runners and last a whole season, are few and far between. The defenders take a toll on running backs and splitting the carries to have your backs fresher in the playoffs is important.
Aaron Schatz: Your Colts team actually was fairly "vanilla," schematically, on both sides of the ball. We knew what we were going to see: the defense would play Tampa-2 and rarely blitz, while the offense would generally go three-wide and attack based on the stretch run and play-action off of that. You did what you did, and you did it really well. What are the advantages of using relatively simple tactics, as opposed to the variety you'll see in Sean Payton's offense or Rex Ryan's defense?
Tony Dungy: There are two schools of thought. You can be basic and spend all your time on what your opponents are going to do. Or, you can be very multiple and complex, put a lot of doubt in your opponents' minds and create problems for them with the volume of things you do. I always liked to be fairly simple because you could get more players ready to play quickly. If you lose players to free agency, injuries, etc., it is easier to get young players ready to play in a less complex system. However, you don't give your opponents as many problems when they face you. I guess I'm just old school, though. Coach Noll used to tell us the first thing you had to do to win was make sure you didn't beat yourself -- that always stuck with me.
Aaron Schatz: Since at least 2003, the Colts have played predominately no-huddle with extraordinary success. Why don’t more teams try to emulate this strategy? Are other quarterbacks not capable of doing what Manning does pre-snap, or are coaches not willing to cede autonomy and limit formations?
Tony Dungy: The no-huddle puts a lot of pressure on the defense and gives your quarterback extra time at the line of scrimmage to get to the right play. You're seeing more and more college teams going to this type of attack. I think you'll see more NFL teams use it as they get quarterbacks who've been comfortable doing it. The biggest thing you need to be successful with it is a quarterback who wants to be involved in the decision-making process and not just merely want to execute plays sent in to him.
Aaron Schatz: How must defensive coordinators adjust to the ever-increasing use of the shotgun around the league?
Tony Dungy: The shotgun really isn't that much of a strategic variance from being under center. Teams still have running plays from the gun, and they still do most of the things they do from a conventional set. The shotgun is a little tougher to blitz because the quarterback has a little bit of a cushion. However, we never treated the shotgun itself as anything different -- we always evaluated what the other team did out of it and tried to attack their philosophy, not their formation.
Aaron Schatz: You had great success coaching both a defensive-dominated team (Tampa Bay) and an offensive-dominated team (Indianapolis). How much did the relative strengths of these teams affect your game-management decisions, such as what plays to run on third-and-long, when to punt, playing at a quick or more deliberate pace, etc.?
Tony Dungy: Coaches absolutely play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. In Tampa, we were built around defense -- most of our money was spent on that side of the ball. We played a slower-paced game on offense, running the ball, taking the 40-second clock all the way down, etc. We wanted to be in low-scoring games and we wanted the other team's offense to get impatient. In Indy, it was just the opposite -- we played up-tempo and tried to pressure people into mistakes with our offense. So I think you do choreograph your team's style to fit your assets. In Tampa, we wanted to have the lead at the end of the game with our defense on the field or our offense trying to run out the clock. With the Colts, we never minded getting the ball back down by a score at the end of the game.
Aaron Schatz: Head coaches in the past were usually chosen from the ranks of coordinators, but it seems the success of Andy Reid, John Harbaugh, and now Jim Caldwell may indicate that coordinator experience might not be necessary to be a good head coach. After all, most head coaches do not actually have play-calling responsibilities. What did your long experience as a defensive coordinator teach you that a positional coach would not know?
Tony Dungy: I do not think being a coordinator is a requirement, but it does give you some advantages. You get used to working with half the team and you go through the game-planning and decision-making processes. You have to think about the good of the entire unit and blending the various skills of your players into a cohesive unit, just as you do as a head coach. You get the experience of running staff meetings and dealing with personalities of coaches who report to you. All of these provide great experience for things that will come up when you're a head coach. The biggest advantage is you interact with 20-30 players and not just the 4-10 you may have as a position coach.
Aaron Schatz: Which one player do you feel improved the most during your time as head coach in Tampa Bay, compared to how good he was when you first acquired him? Which player improved the most during your time in Indianapolis?
Tony Dungy: In Tampa, I'd have to say John Lynch. You could tell he was going to be a good player when we got there, but he had been a back-up defensive back who they experimented with at linebacker. He went from being a good situational player to one of the top safeties in the league. A lot of it was his training and studying, but some of it was due to the perfect marriage of a player's skills and the defensive system.
With the Colts, I'd have to say Reggie Wayne. Another good player our first year, Reggie developed into not only a No. 1 receiver, but one of the best in the league. Just repetitions and confidence. Probably the common ingredient for both guys was exceptional intelligence. They both really understand the game.
Aaron Schatz: Pierre Garcon had a breakout season in 2009, but he was drafted when you still coached the Colts. What did the Colts see in him that other teams missed?
Tony Dungy: Pierre played at a very small school and was extremely raw. He was so much better than the guys he was playing against in college that it was tough to evaluate. I don't think people missed him, though. We knew he was strong and fast but no one could have predicted how quickly he made the jump to big-time football -- understanding routes, coverages, adjustments, etc. That's the thing you never know.
Aaron Schatz: What's gone wrong for Tony Ugoh? Why didn't he develop as you and Bill Polian expected?
Tony Dungy: Tony is very athletic and has all the skills to play the position well. Hopefully he will get back to the form of his rookie year. I'm not sure what the problem was this year, but I know the Colts felt Charlie Johnson was playing better.
Aaron Schatz: In a playbook sense (i.e. game strategy, not management style), what is one thing you learned from Chuck Noll and Bud Carson that still applies to today's game? What's one thing that doesn't really apply today?
Tony Dungy: Back then, we didn't have to adjust to a lot of formations and personnel groups. If you studied, you could know what opponents were running and we had a lot of checks based on backfield sets or where different key players were lined up. Today, offenses do a much better job of not telegraphing their intentions. However, the key components of what they taught still are in play. You win with good, solid, fundamental football. Getting in position to tackle, playing good physical coverage and hitting receivers whenever possible are critical. And they always looked for speed and quickness over mass and bulk. It's great to have both, but if you can only have one, take the speed and explosiveness.
Aaron Schatz: What's it like watching football in television after all those years of not just coaching but also breaking down game film? Are you generally able to recognize coverages when you are watching games for FNIA, or do you feel as hamstrung by the standard TV camera angles as the rest of us?
Tony Dungy: I enjoy watching football on TV. Many times I can visualize the whole field, even on the TV screen, because I still know enough about what the teams are doing. Sometimes when I see a replay I'll realize I was wrong and say, "Oh, that's how that guy was open, or that's where that blitz came from." But most of the time I have a good idea. But I'm really enjoying my work with NBC -- especially trying to transmit some of that information to the fans and let them see some of the things teams do to take advantage of their strengths and hide their weaknesses.
Aaron Schatz: A lot of us wonder what could have happened if more enlightened coaches had left you at quarterback once you got to the NFL. What modern quarterback do you think has a style most similar to how you would have played as an NFL quarterback?
Tony Dungy: We had a lot of quarterbacks playing when I played who could have brought some things to the NFL. Quarterbacks like Seneca Wallace and Ben Roethlisberger, who could move around and put pressure on a defense by running or throwing on the run. The game has changed since the '70s as more coaches have looked at ways to make it tougher on defenses. But I'm glad my career turned out the way it did -- I would have never gotten a chance to learn the defensive side of the ball.