Mark Carrier(photo courtesy New York Jets)
Updated: 9:20 p.m.
Marvin Lewis has had his eyes on Mark Carrier for a long time, starting from when he scouted him while an assistant at Long Beach State.
Back when Carrier went to high school with kids like Cameron Diaz and Snoop Dogg at Long Beach Poly High School. Carrier graduated to the big time, too, and right near Hollywood as a free safety at USC, where the Bears took him with the sixth pick in the 1990 draft.
"No, no chance to get him," Lewis said with a laugh. "But I could marvel at him."
After seeing the same fire in his eyes that made him one of the biggest hits of the '90s in a career Carrier unabashedly calls one of the most heavily fined in NFL history until lately, Lewis signed up Carrier on Monday as his secondary coach in the first major shuffling of the defensive staff in Mike Zimmer's five seasons as coordinator. Paul Guenther moves to linebackers after seven seasons he's been all over the defensive side of the ball while Carrier takes the spot of Kevin Coyle. Coyle, the new Dolphins defensive coordinator, coached the Bengals secondary for the past 11 years.
That's how long Carrier played in the NFL with the Bears (seven years), the Lions (three) and the Redskins (one). Lewis also followed him through a career that took Carrier to three Pro Bowls, a reputation as one of the league's most fierce hitters, and four seasons as one of Baltimore's secondary coaches before he landed with the Jets two years ago as head coach Rex Ryan's defensive line coach.
Lewis, still good friends with Ryan from their days Ryan worked for him in Baltimore as his defensive line coach, asked him for some names of coaches when Coyle took first-year head coach Joe Philbin's offer in Miami.
"He said, 'You have to talk to Mark,' " Lewis recalled Ryan telling him.
"Rex hiring him away from Baltimore to coach the defensive line shows what kind of coach Rex felt like he was," Lewis said. "But he felt like he wanted to get back to the secondary."
That was good enough for Lewis and his high regard for Ryan. During Carrier's four seasons in Baltimore the Ravens defense never finished lower than sixth while picking off the second most passes in the league and in his two seasons with the Jets they offered several top five and 10 categories.
Last season the Jets finished fifth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game (312.1), fifth in fewest yards allowed per play (5.0) and seventh in fewest yards allowed per rushing play (3.9). In 2010, the Jets finished third in the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed and third in fewest yards per rushing play.
Throw in the fact Carrier played for Mike Ditka in Chicago at the tail end of "Da Bears," worked with new Colts head coach Chuck Pagano in the Ravens secondary while under head coach John Harbaugh, and coached a couple of positions, Carrier has the kind of aggressive AFC North mindset Lewis covets.
"He's been around some great young players in the league and been a part of coaching very good defenses," Lewis said. "He knows how things work in New York schematically and that can be an aide for us to bring us new ideas."
Carrier believes his two seasons with the Jets defensive line helped his development.
"It made me a better coach in many ways. It gave me perspective on a number of things," Carrier said. "One is understanding what it takes to play the front. The biggest thing I learned in that is getting off blocks. The defensive line is always engaged and I learned why it's important to stay in your gap and how to get off blocks and how that carries over into the back end. When you think of it, offensive coaches go to different positions all time. Tight ends, offensive line. Or receivers and quarterbacks, and it helps them to become coordinators.
"You can say, 'Get off the block,' but you've got to make them understand why they're doing it and how it helps them. You have to give (players) the rationale."
Carrier should know since he was a player himself in 168 NFL games. After retiring following the 2000 season, Carrier said he took a year off "to get used to every day … again," and then coached high school in Arizona before working in the secondary at Arizona State from 2004-05. His friendship with fellow USC DB Dennis Thurman resulted in coaching the Ravens secondary with Thurman in 2006 and 2007. Then he worked with Pagano back there in '08 and '09.
"I was Dennis's assistant but it wasn't like that in the room; everything was pretty equal," Carrier said. "I've been lucky to be close with excellent coaches like Dennis and Chuck. They've been big influences."
But the Ryan mantra is clearly part of Carrier's pedigree. He really first got it second-hand in Chicago as a rookie. Buddy Ryan, Rex's father and the architect of the famous '85 Bears Super Bowl defense, was gone but Carrier was playing with a lot of his stars and he roamed feeding off the offense's mistakes.
He came up with 10 interceptions that rookie season and was named the NFL's AP Defensive Rookie of the Year while getting ingrained in a philosophy.
"The way the game is played, you just can't sit back anymore; you have to force the action," Carrier said. "If you don't, the way the quarterbacks and the rules are, it's just too tough. You have to make things happen and you still have to be disciplined. I'm not saying take chances. But you can't go out there not trying to get beat. You have to go out there and make plays."
Carrier has proof of his own aggressiveness. According to published reports in September 2000, Carrier received an unspecified fine in 1996, a written reprimand from the league in 1997, and one-game suspensions in each of his last three seasons that included a $50,000 fine in 1999. All were for illegal hits, spearing with the helmet or helmet-to-helmet contact, reports said.
The way Carrier sees it and the way he believes his peers saw it, he wasn't a dirty player but an aggressive one that couldn't control what a moving target was going to do.
"I didn't have a reputation (as a head hunter) with players; that was only the league office," Carrier said. "Someone still has to tell me how you lead with your shoulder and not hit with the helmet. Isn't the head attached to the shoulder? I wasn't just putting my head down and torpedoing people. I was seeing the ball and running through it, but you have no control over a moving target."
But Carrier knows where things stand now.
"I was the most heavily fined guy until a few guys just eclipsed me," he said, yet while he can empathize with Steelers linebacker James Harrison for feeling like he's getting fined for just being James Harrison, he also knows it is a different game than 2000.
"You have to adjust. No one is bigger than the rules," Carrier said. "The target must be lower. To be safe now the target area has to be the waist."
He's also gone on record about his concern with concussions. As the man who replaced the late Dave Duerson in the Bears secondary, Carrier was stunned when he heard of his death and the connection to head trauma.
"As you get older, you start thinking about your short-term memory (loss) … and how much that is due to playing football," Carrier told The Chicago Tribune back in March. "I had about three concussions. I always joke that I only remember three, but I don't know if that's right or not. There were two for sure when I couldn't go back out on the field and play."
At 43, Carrier realizes he'll be coaching guys that didn't see him play and maybe don't know who he is. Safety Chris Crocker, one of his oldest players at 31, has played for both former NFL players and non-players.
"I know who he is. I know he played a long time in the league, but I don't know anything about him as a coach," Crocker said. "You can still be a good coach and not have played. It's just a different perspective, that's all. I know when I'm helping guys I'm showing them from experience, so I think it will be good."
Lewis just has to look in Carrier's eyes.
"Just when you talk to him, you feel the excitement in his voice; you see it in his eyes," Lewis said. "I think he's a good fit for our young guys in the secondary. I think he'll continue to help them progress forward."
Guenther, 40, has been a jack of all trades since his arrival in Cincinnati in 2005. This past season he coached the safeties while assisting Coyle as well as special teams coach Darrin Simmons. He also worked with Zimmer on blitz techniques and third-down situations in a season the Bengals came up with 45 sacks, the most in Lewis's nine seasons as head coach and three off the 2001 club record.
"Paul is very deserving of this opportunity to continue advancing and to coach a position of his own," Lewis said in a news release. "Mike Zimmer and I both have high confidence levels working with Paul, and we're excited about what he can bring our defense in this new role."