The Raiders have hired a defensive coordinator with no shortage of Super Bowl bling, as well as ties to head coach Jack Del Rio.
Ken Norton Jr. has been brought on to Del Rio’s staff, a four-time Super Bowl champion as a player, and one-time winner as linebackers coach with the Seattle Seahawks.
The 48-year-old has never called plays in his four years as an NFL coach or five seasons with USC, but said he’ll be groomed by Del Rio and will be calling the defensive shots on game day.
Norton Jr. flew to Oakland one day after the Super Bowl, having asked Seattle head coach Pete Carroll for his blessing to advance his career, since Norton was still under contract. Norton said he was impressed with the vision Del Rio laid out for him, and the things he wanted to get done.
The Raiders defense, while not quite in need of saving, struggled with some key fundamentals early on. It didn’t help that injuries to key players like middle linebacker Nick Roach and defensive end Lamarr Woodley occurred early, and stopping the run became difficult.
Oakland finished 22nd in opponents rushing yards, an improvement from the first half, and something aided by rookie Khalil Mack.
When asked about Mack, on a conference call with Bay Area media, Norton Jr. said:
“I’ve been very, very impressed. One thing I have with my linebackers at Seattle, we do a great job of just watching other players across the league to see what they do well. See the type of things that I can help them coach and get themselves better and just see what is going on. … Just watched his explosion, his speed, his combination of size and his strength. He’s a really smart player and he loves playing ball.”
Norton Jr. won three Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys in 1992, ’93, and ’95, and one with the 49ers in 1994. During the 2013 season, one of his understudies, linebacker Malcolm Smith, aided the Seahawks to a Super Bowl win.
Oakland’s core of linebackers, Mack, Sio Moore, and Roach, are a group with serious promise, though that promise has yet to pay significant dividends.
Known more as a motivator rather than a play-caller, Norton will be judged heavily on the development of Mack and Moore, and potentially another young linebacker, should one enter the fray this draft season.
Oakland’s mostly young secondary — cornerbacks D.J. Hayden, Keith McGill, T.J. Carrie and safety Jonathan Dowling — will also need to improve if Oakland is to rebound as an NFL contender.
Carrie and McGill showed flashes in their 2014 rookie seasons, and Hayden improved in areas during his second season, in which he completed his first 16 games.
Norton, though the task seems much taller than he or Del Rio, hopes to bring Seattle’s defensive abilities to the Raiders:
“You watch our defenses over the last few years, how physical, how smart, how dominant they’ve been up front, out-hitting, out-hustling and doing all these aggressive things. (Del Rio) has a fantastic background with his defense as well. My philosophy combined with his philosophy, we’re going to sit down in a room and just work it out and then make it the Raiders philosophy.”
Clearly, making any defense one of the best in NFL history is easier said than done. And to do so, Norton, Del Rio, and the Raiders brass have some serious work cut out for them.
Pete Carroll’s influence on Norton was certainly not understated during an introductory conversation, with Norton mentioning Carroll numerous times on the phone call. His mentor over the past few years, Carroll has led Seattle from relative obscurity into a powerhouse that will be forever etched into NFL history.
Norton has been a key piece of the Seahawks defensive leadership. And, according to Norton, his time in the Pacific Northwest has prepared him for his new role:
“I can really take my hat off to Pete Carroll. He’s really done a great job of when we’re there with him, he’s always preparing us to be coordinators, to be head coaches. He’s always having us look forward and do things that are important for us to continue our careers and keep improving ourselves. He’s always been preparing us for the next step.”
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of the Oakland Raiders.