Developing the Talent: Outside Linebackers Coach Joey Porter

As I typed the title for this article I felt a great sense of anticipation. Some articles are easy to write, some are difficult. Some are slow going, but gratifying, but I have a feeling this one is going to be just plain fun. There’s something about Coach Porter that just makes me smile.

Because Joey Porter was already gone from Pittsburgh before I became a Steelers fan, I missed seeing him play. But you don’t have to have seen him play to have heard the stories. The King of Trash Talk—the baddest, most brash player around. His reputation precedes him, as a larger-than-life member of the Steelers revival, I suppose you might call it—when the Steelers finally took home a Lombardi after a 26-year hiatus.

But there is much more to Coach Porter than meets the eye, or ear.

As a player he was best known for the sort of stuff mentioned above—his trash talking, his attitude. This was obviously his style. But he wasn’t just a loud-mouth. He was a leader.

The Steelers teams, at least since the turn of the 21st century, are very conservative about their captaincies. Unlike some teams, the Steelers captains are elected for the entire season, by a vote of the whole team. (The Packers, the Lions, the Bills, the Jets, and the Eagles elect new captains each week.) It takes a while to enter the “circle of trust.” James Farrior was quite veteran when first voted a Steelers captain—he had played out his rookie contract with the Jets before the Steelers picked him up, and it was two years before he was voted a captain.

Hines Ward was on the team for seven years before being made a captain. Ben Roethlisberger’s captaincy took him four years to earn, despite the fact that on most teams the quarterback is typically either the offensive captain or the co-captain. The team then took it away when he received the suspension from the league in 2010, and replaced him with Heath Miller. It was a definite sign that the “new Ben” wasn’t just for public consumption when the team voted him a captain again in 2011.

Joey Porter was first elected as defensive co-captain [with Jason Gildon] in his fifth year, and remained co-captain with James Farrior until he left in 2007. I have often written before about styles of leadership, and there is no better way to demonstrate the differences than to think about these two men sharing the captaincy of the defense.

I’m guessing they came from very different places emotionally. James Farrior was a high first-round pick, and although he was considered a disappointment in New York he had received respect for who he was and what he brought to a team, just by virtue of the place he was taken in the draft. Porter, conversely, was chosen in the middle of the third round. He came from a small school with an unheralded football program, and came to the Steelers with a lot to prove.

He quickly began proving his worth, first on special teams and then in defensive snaps. During the final game of his rookie season he had a sack, a forced and recovered fumble for a touchdown, and six tackles. The following year he finished second on the team (to Jason Gildon) with 10.5 sacks. During his career he had two firsts—he was the first player in NFL history with 10 career interceptions and 70 career sacks, and the only NFL player to register at least five sacks in each season from 2000-10.

After the Steelers released him in 2007 he signed with the Dolphins and played three seasons with them. He followed that with two seasons with the Cardinals. In July of 2012 he arranged with the Steelers to sign a one-day contract and retire as a Steeler. He joined the Colorado State coaching staff the following year, and worked towards finishing his degree. He graduated the following springas the school announced:

Former Rams great and all-pro NFL linebacker Joey Porter, who returned to CSU as an undergraduate student assistant football coach last July, has earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal arts. Porter played 13 years in the National Football League with Pittsburgh, Miami and Arizona after completing his collegiate career at CSU in 1998.

“It speaks volumes about Joey’s commitment that he finished what he started and earned his degree,” said Head Coach Jim McElwain. “That was the goal when he came back last summer to work with our team and gain experience as a coach, to work toward completing his degree. He poured a lot into our team last season, and we’re excited he has built on that experience now as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s even more rewarding to see Joey now as a graduate of Colorado State University.”

But this wasn’t the first time Porter had been involved with his alma mater:

In April of 2005, just before earning a Super Bowl XL ring as a defensive leader on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ world championship team, former CSU star Joey Porter donated $200,000 to renovate the Rams’ football locker room inside the Moby Arena building…

“I am excited to be able to provide this gift to Colorado State football,” said Porter, an All-Pro linebacker. “My time at CSU was very special as a football player and a student-athlete. Coach Lubick provided me with an opportunity to pursue my dream of playing in college and the NFL. I am grateful for having had that opportunity, and this was a way for me and my family to invest in the future of the Rams.”

Lubick, always humble and appreciative of such an investment, was grateful that Porter thought of his former program.

“I cannot thank Joey and his family enough for contributing back to our program. During his career at CSU, Joey was always a player who worked very hard in practice and in games, and it paid off with how successful a career he has had.

It means a great deal to our coaches and our student-athletes to have Joey Porter step forward and provide this gift… I could not be happier nor could I be more proud of Joey and his achievements.”…

Marc Driscoll, then the Director of Athletics, [said]:

“During his career at CSU, Joey was always a leader on the field. Today’s announcement symbolizes Joey’s willingness to step forward and lead the way for other former student-athletes who valued their experience at CSU to give back to the program.”

Porter joined the Steelers as a defensive assistant in 2014, and last year was promoted to Outside Linebackers coach when Keith Butler moved up. Jerry Olsavsky became the Inside Linebackers coach. The job was split for the first time since maybe ever—I checked all the way back to 2000, and there has only been a “linebackers” coach on the staff since then—Mike Archer through 2002, and Keith Butler thereafter.

So how is Coach Porter doing? There is a big difference between playing and coaching, but presumably the Steelers were impressed with Porter’s coaching persona, as they would be unlikely to hire someone for the sake of old times. It’s a family business, but it’s still a business. The difficulty of determining how well a coach is doing, as I discussed in the article on Carnell Lake, is that there is no way to know whether some or all of the players would have progressed more, or less, under a different coach. And then there is the difficulty of trying to assess the level of talent said coach is working with.

So who did he have last season? Two first-round picks in Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree, two sixth-round picks in Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats (the latter signed after he played out his rookie contract with the Bills), and his old teammate and the guy who made him expendable in Pittsburgh, James Harrison. That has to be a little weird for both of them.

Every since the original hiring was announced I’ve wondered about is what it is like for the remaining veterans who played with Porter to have him as a coach. It’s different for Carnell Lake—everyone he played with was long gone by the time he started coaching with the Steelers. The same is true for Olsavsky.

Back in early 2014, I heard an interview with Ben Roethlisberger on 93.7 The Fan in which Ben was asked how he felt about Porter joining the staff. Ben quickly pointed out that Porter wouldn’t actually be his coach, but admitted it would seem slightly odd. He seemed quite pleased about the hire, though, and noted that while it might feel odd to call him “coach” he would undoubtedly come up with a name for him in the not-too-distant future. I for one would love to know what the name is, but it may never be public knowledge. If any of you out there are good at lip-reading, please take your binoculars to camp and see if you can figure out the veteran players’ nickname for Coach Porter. Given his past, it ought to be a good one. Although I suppose they probably wouldn’t use it in front of the young ‘uns.

But let’s just look at some numbers to see if we can determine any improvements in the OLB stats with Porter at the helm. There has only been one major player change since Porter came—Jason Worilds retired and the Steelers drafted Bud Dupree. All charts begin in 2013, to have a reference point. The first chart shows the Pro Football Reference AV assigned to each player. James Harrison was playing for the Bengals, Arthur Moats for the Bills, in 2013:

PFR AV

 

A few notes. Both Harrison and Moats had considerably more starts in Cincinnati and Buffalo than they did in Pittsburgh in 2014, which might explain their drop. This is also true for Jarvis Jones, in his case because of injury. Both Moats and Jones had considerably more starts in 2015 than 2014, and Harrison had less. As we saw last season, though, who was the alleged starter didn’t necessarily have much to do with how many snaps they got. If you’re wondering why you can’t see a dot for Bud Dupree, it’s because he has the same AV as Harrison, and the dot is behind Harrison’s. They both received a 3.

In terms of AV at least there seems to be a considerable improvement between 2014 and 2015 for both Jones and Moats. Harrison held steady, and the other two were rookies in 2015. So far so good for Coach Porter.

Sacks

 

Here’s everybody’s favorite stat for OLBs—sacks. For the sake of comparison I also put the 3-4 OLB sack leader for each year. In case you’re curious, it’s Robert Mathis in 2013, Justin Houston in 2014, and J.J. Watt in 2015.

Obviously none of our guys approached these lofty heights. Everyone who played in 2014 and 15 had the same sack number except James Harrison, who had 1/2 less sacks in 2015.

This does, however, not include the playoffs. James Harrison had two sacks in two games, Jarvis Jones one. None of the others had a sack in the playoffs.

So Coach Porter didn’t manage any improvement here. It is presumably meaningless but interesting to observe that the number of sacks by a single player dropped by 4.5 sacks between 2014 and 2015, which represents a 21% drop. It was also two sacks less than the high in 2013. If it means anything, that would argue that holding steady is pretty good. The question is, did it suddenly get more difficult to get sacks between 2014 and 2015? I certainly wouldn’t know.

Finally, here’s all the other “splash plays” added together—forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, interceptions, and pass defenses:

FFs etc.By this measure Porter was a spectacular success. It is, of course, a very small data set, but everyone made substantial improvement between 2014 and 2015, and both the rookies did essentially as well or better than anyone but Arthur Moats had done in 2014. This is not considering Jason Worilds, of course, but I hope everyone is taking note of how much Worilds was improving in every category but sacks.

This is an awfully small data set, and there are a lot of possible reasons for the improvements other than assuming it is all due to Joey Porter. The simplified scheme put in place by Keith Butler in 2015, rotating the linebackers, better health—any and all of these surely had an influence. But so far the numbers look good. Even time may not tell the whole story, but it’s got a nice opening chapter.

Finally, a few words about Joey Porter off the field. First, he is going to be off the field for good, because the new NFL rule, which will probably be called the Joey Porter rule, prohibits anyone but the head coach from stepping onto the field during a game, and then only in the case of an injury. Porter isn’t the only coach who will be affected here, as the video stills someone posted after the infamous Wild Card game showed something like 11 Bengals coaches on the field at one point in the game. Since they only have one head coach, there were at least 10 other coaches who didn’t belong there, according to the new rule. Just sayin’.

But actually I mean not just off the field but all the way out of the stadium. And there J. Peezy has a very different side to him. He and his wife Christy have four children, one of whom is autistic. Their daughter Jasmine is so seriously autistic that she will never talk, and will need lifelong care. As Teresa Varley wrote for Steelers.com:

The Porters had it good in some ways. They had insurance, they had financial stability, and they had resources right at their fingertips to get the help they needed. What they realized, though, was everyone wasn’t that lucky. They learned of families in their hometown of Bakersfield, California, that weren’t able to receive the same care they could secure for Jasmine. And even they didn’t have a place for Jasmine to go when they were still in Bakersfield.

With that, the Porters were on a mission. A mission of love. A mission to help through the opening of the Jasmine Nyree Day Center in Bakersfield, a place where children from kindergarten through sixth grade could get the attention, the teaching, the development they needed and not for just a few hours a day like some places, but all day. Once that was launched, a second one came about, encompassing the older kids all the way through high school. And then a third, just outside of Bakersfield, schools Christy poured her heart into.

“As we grew with it, it made you really understand what other people are going through,” said Porter. “We happen to be lucky enough to have the means and to know people to get stuff done. There are a lot of people that have it worse than we do. They don’t have anywhere to go to get help for their kids. That’s how we started getting really into it.”

They plan to open a fourth center for lifelong care. In the meantime, they served as the honorary co-chairs for the Pittsburgh International Auto Show at the Red CARpet Gala earlier this year. The event benefits the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and Allegheny Valley School, a school that services children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. (This is the school which benefits from the sale of Terrible Towels. Myron Cope had a son who resided at the school, and when the Terrible Towel phenomenon took off turned over the rights to the towel and any towel-related merchandize to the school.)

Porter spoke feelingly of how his daughter’s condition has bonded his family together:

“We are all going to do our part to take care of Jazzy. It made them [her siblings] the biggest protectors in the world. They take it so serious. As soon as they have friends come over they tell them my sister is autistic, don’t stare at her. I am upstairs and I hear them debriefing their friends, because they take it so serious. Don’t ask for help. They know how to manage her. They take her to the park, to the swings. They are so good with her. It makes them appreciate everything. There are times I catch them being lazy, and they aren’t giving their best, if they aren’t applying themselves all the way, I tell them they are missing out on an opportunity. Jazzy would love to do it just once. That always whips them back into shape and puts it in to perspective how blessed we are.

“It has made us grow closer as a family. Now we don’t worry about what she can’t do. It’s all about creating what she can do, what we can teach her next. It’s past crying and feeling sorry for ourselves. Now it’s like Jazzy can do this. She is 16 and she is learning more than what we thought she would be at this point and time. What is she doing next? That is the new thing we are doing.”

The reality is, dealing with a severely disabled child is a challenge for any family. You can either come to pieces or grow stronger, and clearly the Porter family has grown stronger. This is a testament to the relationship he and his wife have and to both of them as parents. I would think that in comparison coaching a bunch of smart, athletic, and motivated guys would be a piece of cake. Let’s hope it translates on the field. But only the players can be on the field, Coach Porter. Only the players…

One comment

  • roxannafirehall

    Well done. I can never get enough of these profiles.

    Joey is one of my all time favorites. I noticed his motor and talent during preseason of his rookie year. After seeing him, I couldn’t wait for him to get in the lineup.

    He has grown as a player, coach and as a man. He is a perfect example of why I love the Steelers.

    Like

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