Hardened by adversity, Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry 'really proud of my scars'

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GREEN BAY - Joe Barry wasn’t dodging his history forever. It took 12 minutes into his introductory Zoom call Tuesday, which took place 22 days after the Green Bay Packers announced him as their defensive coordinator, but his resume finally was pushed to the center. 

Barry is on his third turn as a defensive coordinator. The previous two stops have not been kind. In two seasons with the Detroit Lions in 2007 and 2008, Barry’s defense ranked 32nd in the NFL in yards and points both years. Dead last. The Lions did not win a game in 2008.

His defenses improved to 28th in yards as Washington’s defensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016.

Barry held both jobs for only two years. It isn’t the history a new coordinator would boast about. For Barry, there was no sense hiding from it.

The Packers are giving Joe Barry his third opportunity to be a defensive coordinator.

“I’m really proud of my scars,” Barry said. “I really am. And I think that in my life, I think that you’re hardened in life by tough experiences. Now don’t get me wrong, I think you can learn a lot from having success and being in a good place, but I think when true growth takes place, I think it’s when things are really, really hard.”

Barry didn’t hide from his success, either. He was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebackers coach when they won the Super Bowl back in 2002. Just last season, he was linebackers coach on a Los Angeles Rams defense that led the NFL in scoring. 

The question is whether Barry can translate the success he has found as a position coach into this third try at being a coordinator. Matt LaFleur spent 11 hours split between two Zoom interviews with Barry just beginning to unearth the answer. The interviews were conducted three days apart. In between, Barry said he and LaFleur spoke the old-fashioned way – via telephone – five or six times. That was another three hours of conversation, Barry estimated.

And this for a coach who is no stranger. Barry and LaFleur spent one year on the same Rams staff in 2017, when LaFleur was offensive coordinator under Sean McVay.

Barry is a 50-year-old coaching lifer. He’d held 11 jobs before LaFleur hired him as the Packers' defensive coordinator. Interviews are nothing new.

This one, Barry said, was a bit different – and not only because it happened remotely.

“I think it was as thorough of a process as I’ve ever been through,” he said.

LaFleur had every reason to conduct an exhaustive search. This is a seminal hire, the most important of his career. In searching for Mike Pettine’s replacement, LaFleur confirmed he spoke with nine candidates. He said Barry “earned” the job, this third chance.

Barry was light on specifics for what he’ll bring to the Packers' defense. There will be some schematic overlap to what Mike Pettine ran the past three years, LaFleur said. In base, the Packers will still align in a 3-4, which Barry said fits their personnel best. He also made a point that the Packers, like virtually every other NFL team, will spend most of their snaps in subpackage with extra defensive backs on the field. It’s the same look Pettine used throughout the past three years.

The biggest test might be how Barry directs the defense, from communication to meetings to guiding a staff. LaFleur was confident enough in the seasoned coordinator to offer another opportunity.

“As coaches,” LaFleur said, “you’re always growing, you’re learning. Obviously, that’s something we looked at when going through this process, but I got a chance to work with Joe in L.A. I know what type of communicator, I know the energy he brings. He’s learned a lot from those previous experiences. I don’t think he’d ever hide from those.

“The bottom line is that we are going to get judged on what we do moving forward and not from our past experiences.”

Evaluating King's injury history

If Kevin King ever stayed healthy, there’s no telling what kind of player might be heading into free agency this spring.

King always had the natural ability – the athleticism, the length, the strength – to be a star cornerback. He didn’t have that proverbial greatest ability. The availability.

In his four seasons, the Packers' former second-round pick played 41 of 64 games. Just two-thirds. While King’s inability to consistently stay on the field has limited a defense that’s been better when he plays, general manager Brian Gutekunst acknowledged it also stunted his early development.

“Kevin has been a really good player for us when he’s been able to be out there,” Gutekunst said. “I think the thing that has held Kevin back is just his inability to be out there on a consistent basis. I think that obviously delays your development a little bit as well. So I think it took him a little longer to get to the point he’s been at the last year and a half or so.”

Gutekunst said the Packers' defense has been better when King has served as its No. 2 cornerback behind second-team All-Pro Jaire Alexander. He also had the worst game of his career in the NFC championship game, an unsavory way for King to enter his free agency.

King’s injury history will be the biggest impediment to his market value, whether his new deal comes with the Packers or elsewhere.

“He’s a long corner,” Gutekunst said, “that I thought was really kind of growing into ’19 and into ’20 to where his level of play was becoming more and more consistent, and then obviously he struggled with some injuries this year. But he’s obviously made a big difference for us when he’s been out there. I think having him and Jaire on the corners allowed us to do some things as a defense that you can’t do all the time if you don’t have two sound corners.

“He’s a young, really good player. I think the one area he’s got to get over is just being able to stay out there all the time.”

Another uncertain offseason for Love

When the COVID-19 pandemic altered the NFL’s offseason and preseason schedule in 2020, the league’s most inexperienced players, including rookie quarterback Jordan Love, were impacted the most.

Gone were the days of in-person rookie minicamp and the four-game preseason slate. Instead, Packers rookies learned schemes over Zoom and were under added pressure to flash in training camp. The Packers even instituted a developmental period in which young players could get extra plays in competitive team situations.

As Love prepares for his second year with the Packers, he enters into yet another uncertain offseason. The league hasn’t decided the logistics of organized team activities this spring.

“It’s going to be a challenge for him,” Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “Obviously we don’t know what’s going to happen right now with how we’re going to be able to work with the players. I think being in the system for a second year is huge for a quarterback, understanding the language, understanding how we go about our everyday process, and even just being able to get out there and practice, that’s huge. So for him it’s growing more in the offensive system even more than he has already.”

Last year, the league truncated training camp to make way for an extended acclimation period as players got into shape after a long layoff. Training camp was the last time Love was able to “get after” practices and take full-speed reps, according to Hackett. If the coaches aren’t permitted to have in-person contact with players this offseason, Love will have to put plenty of work in on his own.

Additionally, the NFL is planning to expand the regular season to 17 games in 2021. As a result, the preseason would likely shrink to three games, which would mean one less opportunity for Love to take game-speed reps in his second NFL season.

“If that does transpire where we get to the three preseason games, prior to last year I probably would have told you that didn’t concern me as much,” Gutekunst said. “But after going through a season without preseason games, I realize how valuable and how important they are.

“With Jordan specifically, yeah, it was disappointing we weren’t able to get him out there in the preseason this year. Looking forward to it this year, the more the better. Guys get better playing. Practice is always important, but the live-game reps for players is something you can’t replace.”

As Love looks to supplant Tim Boyle as Aaron Rodgers’ backup, the proceedings of the offseason could have an impact on Love’s trajectory in his second year.

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