Darren Perry: A Student and Mentor of the Game
By Dan Dahlke
The competition for the starting safety alongside Morgan Burnett will be one of the most scrutinized position battles in the Green Bay Packers training camp this year – just ask safety coach Darren Perry.
Youngsters, Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings, will vie for one spot in the starting lineup on defense. The safety position is one of the great unknowns heading into the 2013 season for the Packers, and by not bringing in a safety in the draft or free agency this offseason, Green Bay is showing confidence in the young players currently on their roster.
So why are they so confident that one of their young players will develop and emerge as a legitimate starter?
Here’s an idea.
Take a look at the track record of the position coach. Not many fans may be familiar with Perry, but still only in his mid-40s, Perry has had a productive coaching career and is one of the more underrated assistant coaches in the league.
In fact, back in 2011 ESPN ranked Perry 10th on their list of up-and-coming NFL assistant coaches. In that same offseason both the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals were closely considering Perry to fill their defensive coordinator vacancy, and Perry was one of the names being thrown around for the head coaching position for the Oakland Raiders.
Since Green Bay’s poor defensive performance in the 2011 season, interest in Perry and other Packers defensive assistants have died down, but Perry is still one of the league’s more promising young coaches.
As a player, Perry was a smart, 5-11 and 196-pound starting free safety who played a majority of his career in Pittsburg’s 3-4 defense – the same defense run by Dom Capers in Green Bay. A standout player out of Penn State, Perry was taken in the eighth round by the Pittsburg Steelers in the 1992 NFL draft, and he started immediately as a rookie. Perry learned under defensive masterminds, Bill Cowher, Dick Lebeau, and Dom Capers. In a recent interview with Vic Ketchman of Packers.com, Perry said regarding his playing experience, “I’ve been blessed. I think back on my career. Bill was a defensive coach. You had Bill and Dom and Dick involved in that defense.”
August 3, 2012; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers looks on prior to the Family Night scrimmage at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Perry not only learned how to be an impact player on defense by playing safety, but also by picking the brains of arguably the best defensive minds the games has seen in recent memory. “Dom, the biggest thing is attention to detail, organization and structure. He’s going to leave no stone unturned … Dick, more position specifics: how to play the game, what to look for, the toughness he played with and demanded from his players,” Perry said referring to his mentors.
Under Capers and Lebeau’s tutelage, Perry had seven productive seasons with the Steelers, recording 32 interceptions, 448 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles. Not to mention starting on a team that went to Super Bowl XXX and played in 11 playoff games during the ‘90s.
Perry’s career was cut short due to a neck injury he suffered shortly after he signed with the San Diego Chargers in 1999. He returned the following year to play one more season with the New Orleans Saints before retiring.
Perry had a prolific playing career, but his coaching career would prove to be even more impressive.
After spending a few seasons out of football, Perry’s first coaching opportunity came in 2002 when the Cincinnati Bengals brought him in to work under his former mentor and Bengals head coach, Dick Lebeau, and coach the safety position. Perry then went on and joined the Pittsburg defensive coaching staff for four seasons (’03-’06), and worked under another former mentor of his, Bill Cowher.
Jan 1, 2012; Cleveland, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu (43) drops back in coverage during a game against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium. The Steelers won 13-9. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
During his time as a Steeler’s assistant, Perry made his mark and progressed as a coach and mentor. In his first season as a Pittsburg defensive coach, he worked closely with rookie safety Troy Polamalu. In 2004, Perry helped Polamalu develop into one of the league’s best safeties, earning his first of four straight Pro Bowl honors. Perry was also a key part in coaching a Steelers’ secondary that led one of the best defenses in the league to a Super Bowl victory in 2005.
When Perry moved on to Oakland to coach the defensive backs for two seasons (’07-’08), he helped develop young and ascending cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. In that time, Asomugha earned Pro Bowl honors, and under Perry’s guidance, became one of the elite corners in the league. During Perry’s two years in Oakland, the Raiders’ defense also finished in the top 10 in passing yards allowed in each season.
When Capers brought Perry in to Green Bay to coach the safeties in 2009, his impact in the secondary was felt immediately. Perry got the best out of his players. He pushed Nick Collins’s game to another level, and Collins put together his best two years of his career in ’09 and ’10, including two Pro Bowl appearances and an unforgettable Super Bowl performance.
In his first year as the Packers safety coach, Green Bay led the league in takeaways (40) and interceptions (30) and the defense finished second overall in total yards allowed. Perry also helped guide a Green Bay secondary that held opposing quarterbacks to a league-leading 67.2 passer rating in 2010.
Dec 4, 2011; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (88) is tackled by Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson (21) and free safety Morgan Burnett (42) after catching a pass during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
Perry’s coaching career has produced Pro Bowlers Polamalu, Collins, Asomugha and up-and-comer, Morgan Burnett. But more impressively has been Perry’s ability to deal with adversity at the safety position. In 2010, the Packers lost Burnett for the season in week four, and Perry was faced with the task of making reserve safety Charlie Peprah a viable starter. Perry would be faced with this challenge again in 2011, when Collins suffered a career-ending neck injury in week two against the Carolina Panthers. Say what you will about the Packers poor performance in the secondary that season, Perry did hold together the Packers safety position and helped Burnett become an emerging NFL defensive back.
In 2012, Perry was faced with the challenge of converting potential Hall of Fame cornerback Charles Woodson to safety. Not an easy task for anyone. This challenge was expounded when Woodson missed a good portion of the season due to injury. Perry was forced to bring young and unproven safeties, Jennings and McMillian, up to speed, and considering the circumstance, they played well throughout the season. Green Bay finished eleventh in total defense and greatly improved the amount of big passing plays allowed (from 71 in 2011 to 50 in 2012).
Compared to his track record, this year’s task of developing a reliable NFL starter at safety from a young, and relatively, unproven group of players should be a walk in the park for Coach Perry. Right?
If anyone is up for the task, it should be Perry. I don’t know if there is a better position coach that can develop young talent in the secondary.
2013 will be a crucial year for the Packers safety position. I’m glad it will be in good hands.