Back in January, Alex Marvez of FOX Sports reported that Jim Washburn, former defensive line coach for the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles, would be coming to the Miami Dolphins to serve in an assistant role on the defensive side of the ball. After a few days went by, there was no official announcement from the team and we were told that nothing was being done at this time.
Fast forward to March 18 and it was officially announced by the team that Washburn would be joining as a pass-rush specialist and senior defensive assistant. There are mixed reviews about him dating back to his days in Tennessee, Philadelphia and Detroit. Some players, such as Brandon Graham, could care less for him while others, such as Ndamukong Suh and Jason Babin, consider him a father figure and one of the best coaches they've had.
To give you an idea of what kind of coach Washburn is, Bob Ford of the Philadelphia Inquirer states that he is a "no-nonsense coach who does not care if the players who come to him fit a certain physical mold or if they are all-pros or merely vagabonds looking for an elusive home. He cares whether they can knock someone down and smack around the quarterback."
With that in mind, who is the real Jim Washburn? Is he the no-nonsense, in your face but caring coach or is he the coach who doesn't listen and doesn't respect his players? The answer, as is with everything, lies in the middle.
Let's flash back to December 3, 2012, when Washburn was fired from the Eagles with four games left in his second season on the job. With the Eagles sitting at 3-9 and the season just about in the books, it was odd timing but Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Enquirer had reported that Washburn had become a cancer around the team. Reuben Frank of CSNPhilly.com reported that Washburn had become disruptive and difficult. Both of them said that he got worse when the front office released defensive end Babin, which I'll detail why shortly.
It was a stark contrast from 2011 when the Eagles were dominating with their wide-9 scheme in Washburn's first year with the team, racking up 50 sacks that season. In fact, when Andy Reid hired him at the time, Washburn was considered one of the best defensive line coaches in the National Football League. That wide-9 scheme, which Dolphins head coach Adam Gase confirmed would be a part of the Miami defense, is when the defensive ends line up out wide on the line of scrimmage and their only job is to rush the passer. While it does open up the middle of the field for opposing runners, it is mainly used on passing downs and is not a base defense.
The Eagles struggled mightily with that in 2012. Nonetheless, there was a lot of dysfunction on that team in 2012 and Washburn wasn't helping matters. When he was let go, Graham, who spent a lot of time on the bench was Washburn was there, didn't hold anything back.
"The low point was when Wash was here. That was my low point. Because Wash would make you feel bad, boy. Like you can't play at all. My biggest thing was don't break. I was almost at that breaking point where it was just like, ‘Man, stuff is not going right.' But I think what happened is when Wash left and then I took off for a minute, that kind of gave me hope that I could play in this league. Because you start to doubt yourself a little bit because the coach is on you 24/7, and you know, it was tough. But I'm just happy that everything's looking up right now."
On the opposite side of the spectrum, you look at someone like Babin who saw his best years under the guidance of Washburn. In 2011 with the Eagles, he compiled 18 sacks and made his second straight Pro Bowl. He was released in 2012 though because his production, along with the rest of the defensive line, slipped. With that said, he still led the team with 5.5. sacks in 11 games but he was inconsistent week after week.
So why was Washburn so upset? It's because their relationship dates back to their years in Tennesse. Back in 2010 when they met for the very first time, Washburn looked Babin in the eyes and told him that the best man plays
"He looked me dead in the eye, man," Babin told the Inquirer in 2011. "He said the best man plays, no matter what. And if Coach [Jeff] Fisher tried to go over his head, he said he would walk out of the building. I said to myself, 'I think I might have found my spot.' "
That season, Babin started every game and racked up 12.5 sacks, easily beating his previous career high of five sacks in a season. His performance, which included 93 tackles, earned him a spot in the Pro Bowl.
When Washburn left the Titans to go to the Eagles, Babin knew that he had to follow. That's because after being drafted in the first round by the Houston Texans in 2004, he soon found himself out of a job. He got picked up in Seattle and was released halfway through the season before signing with the Kansas City Chiefs. Then, he ended up with the Eagles before going to the Titans. His career was a mess and after finding consistent success for the first time in six years, he wasn't about to fall back down the cloudy path he was already on.
That's because Babin felt that he fit in so well under Washburn and his scheme. In an interview with Ford back in 2011, Babin gave some insight to how Washburn coaches his players on the defensive line.
"We take pride in the fact that, if we're not bringing the heat, they're going to call the blitz. We've got to prove we can get to the quarterback week after week. If a quarterback sees a blitz coming, he's going to get rid of the ball fast. That cuts into our time to get to the quarterback and get sacks. And we know that if you write sacks and put two lines through each 's,' sacks equal cash, and we're very aware of that. We're going to wear the other teams out by throwing heat all four quarters. Playing in a Jim Washburn defense is almost a lifestyle change. You live your life differently. You become an instinctual killer."
After Babin was released and then when Washburn was fired shortly after, he was hired by the Lions and was with them from 2013-2015, although he sat out the 2015 season battling major health issues. There, he worked directly with Suh and in 2013, upon accepting the job, they both immediately hit it off and they continued their close relationship until they parted ways when Suh left for Miami.
"Yes, he's up there right now," Washburn told the official Lions website in 2013 when asked if Suh could be the best he's ever had. "The best defensive tackle I ever coached is Albert Haynesworth. They are different, but shoot, Albert didn't take it near as serious as Suh does. I'll tell you this, you hear a lot of things about a lot of people, but to me, Suh is a dream come true for a coach. He wants to do everything right, whether it's eating or training. I think he wants to be the best defensive tackle in football and one of the best in history. He's a dream come true to be around and I'm really fortunate to be around him and some of the other guys here."
Suh had just as many kind words to say for Washburn, noting that he loved being around him and enjoyed the sheer amount of knowledge he gained by working with him.
"I respect and enjoy being around Washburn because within days of meeting him and being able to work with him he taught me a lot. Anybody who can come in and really just teach me a lot and give me a different perspective from Kris (Kocurek), and then now the combination of the both of them, it's something that's irreplaceable. He took the approach with me giving me a small amount of things to look at ... and some key things, that if I do these things, then I'll be able to get to the next level of where I want to be. He obviously has that idea of where I want to be, so it's something exciting and something I definitely appreciate. He's going to have a tremendous impact on our success this year."
In a media session that occurred that same month, Suh gave credit to Washburn for the way he plays the game and for how much he has improved under his guidance.
"One of my biggest improvements, and I'm very lucky to have him, is coach Jim Washburn. The chemistry him and Kris (Kocurek) bring together is something special.".
Kocurek was the assistant defensive line coach in Detroit and not coincidentally, the Dolphins tried to hire him this past offseason but the Lions wouldn't let him out of this contract. According to Justin Rogers of MLive.com, Suh would go on to explain that Washburn and Kocurek helped him better understand how opponents are trying to play him and how he can "cheat" against those match-ups.
Back in 2013, there were rumblings of Suh being a questionable teammate, much like there was this past season in Miami. However, Washburn disputed those types of reports when asked about that perception.
"Before we go pass rush every day he walks over and fist bumps every offensive lineman. Somebody said he's questionable as teammate. Are you kidding me? He's a good teammate. He has a chance to be special," Washburn said in 2013. "He's fun. He makes me want to come to work.".
Washburn and Suh are now reunited in Miami and one would expect that Suh will become even more dominant now that his mentor is back in the fold. It also is good news for the others on the defensive line such as Mario Williams and Cameron Wake, who could both benefit from a coach who knows how to get the absolute most out of his players.
This column was written by Matthew Cannata. Follow him on Twitter! Follow @FinsInsider