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Ken Norton Jr. Tremendous Hire as Defensive Coordinator for Rebuilding Raiders

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystFebruary 6, 2015

Ken Norton Jr. embraces linebacker Lofa Tatupu in 2010.
Ken Norton Jr. embraces linebacker Lofa Tatupu in 2010.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

It took until almost a week into February, but the Oakland Raiders finally hired a defensive coordinator. The reward for their patience is Ken Norton Jr.—formerly the linebackers coach of the Seattle Seahawks.

Norton is a fantastic hire for the Raiders at this stage of the offseason. If he hadn’t accepted the job, who knows who the Raiders would have hired.

The best thing about Norton is that he’s the kind of intense defensive coach the Raiders haven’t had since Rob Ryan. With Norton and head coach Jack Del Rio, the Raiders have managed to cobble together some of what would have made Rex Ryan a great hire as a head coach.

Brock Huard @BrockESPN

If you've been to a Seahawks practice you know in losing Ken Norton to OAK the Hawks have lost their loudest, proudest & most intense coach

Norton also played with Del Rio with the Dallas Cowboys from 1989-1991, and the two have remained in contact and have similar ideas about what works on defense. That kind philosophical chemistry between a head coach and defensive coordinator is important. At the same time, both have taken different paths to Oakland, so they will each bring a unique perspective.

“We kind of grew up in the same type of ideas on how to attack offenses and how to protect yourself on defense,” Norton said via conference call. “I have certain ideas that I have that I know that work. He has certain ideas that he has that he knows that work. We’re going to bring them together and obviously make them the Raider way.

“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.”

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Establishing “the Raider way” will be a lot easier if the players buy in to what Norton and Del Rio are teaching. It’s perhaps the toughest part of the job for coaches, but it shouldn’t be difficult for Norton because he is a former two-time All-Pro and has four Super Bowl rings—including three as a player and one as a coach.

Norton’s resume will give him instant credibility in the locker room. It’s credibility that former head coach Dennis Allen and former defensive coordinator Jason Tarver never fully earned. The best evidence that the players weren’t buying in was the lack of intensity on defense over the final six games of 2013.  

Mike Morgan @Mike17mo

I have been coached by Ken Norton since i was 17. He has not only been a coach but family. This is tough, but he deserves this opportunity!

General manager Reggie McKenzie almost had to bring in veterans in free agency to keep the locker room in order. Interim head coach Tony Sparano was able to hold the team together in 2014 despite all the losses in large part because of that veteran leadership.

In contrast, Norton will be able to take young players and help them develop within the scheme as he has in Seattle for the past five years. He’s confident in his coaching ability and wasn’t shy about what he could do with a player like linebacker Khalil Mack.

“He’s a really smart player and he loves playing ball,’ Norton said. “I’ve done really well with young men who have a knack of making plays and really love playing football.”

Mack and fellow linebacker Sio Moore should benefit greatly from Norton’s intensity and experience—just as they have the presence of defensive end Justin Tuck. Both are enthusiastic and talented young players, but sometimes they are bit too enthusiastic.

Norton has also been an NFL assistant coach for five years and prior to that was the linebackers coach at USC, so he has the prerequisite experience necessary to do the job. Best of all, he was a key part of the Seattle Seahawks staff and helped build their vaunted defense. Obviously, he wants to bring those qualities to the Raiders.

“We’ve had a lot of success (in Seattle),” Norton said. “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.”

Matt Miller @nfldraftscout

Summarizing what several players told me about Ken Norton: He's a rah-rah guy, but isn't Xs and Os smart.

If there is one negative about Norton, it’s that he’s still developing as a coach. His intensity is unquestioned, but it’s unknown just how smart he is with X’s and O’s. That’s the risk of hiring any first-time coordinator, but having Del Rio there to serve as his training wheels mitigates some of that risk.

“There hasn’t been a formal discussion (to who will call plays), but just in my early meetings with him, his plan is to continue to groom me and I’ll be making the calls,” Norton said.

It’s possible Norton is a lot smarter with X’s and O’s than we know, but that it’s always been overshadowed by his intensity. Norton will have to balance his intensity with X’s and O’s and teaching technique as a defensive coordinator.

Norton doesn’t have any experience coaching the defensive line or the secondary—areas he must learn on the fly. The good news is that the Raiders have Charles Woodson and defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson to help the secondary transition. The Raiders have yet to hire a defensive line coach. 

Rey Maualuga @maualuga58

Coach Norton to the Raiders? Noone is more deserving of the job than he is! Congrats coach! He told me one day he was gonna be DC (1/2)

With a passion that is infectious, Norton could help lure defensive free agents to Oakland. Former USC linebacker Rey Maualuga played for Norton and will be a free agent in March. It might even help the Raiders bring home a certain eccentric running back named Marshawn Lynch from Seattle, if they are extremely lucky.

Vic Tafur @VicTafur

And ... since some of you are already dreaming about the possibility ... Norton is tight with Lynch. #Raiders #Beastmode

We don’t ever know if any coaching hire is going to be a success, but the Raiders have at least made a hire that can excite fans that haven’t had much to be excited about in over a decade. With a truckload of cap space, the No. 4 overall pick, a roster no longer bereft of young talent and a few fiery coaches, the Raiders are well on their way to respectability.


Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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