In hiring Joe Barry to be his defensive coordinator, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur made an unorthodox move to find the missing piece in building a championship-caliber defense.
At age 50, Barry is neither an up-and-comer in the profession nor an accomplished coordinator. In his four seasons running a defense, Barry’s units with the Detroit Lions and Washington Football Team never finished better than 28th in yards allowed, 23rd against the run or 25th against the pass, nor did it crack the top half of the league in scoring.
Barry didn’t hide from that fact during his introductory Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday.
“I’m really proud of my scars. I really am,” Barry said. “I think in life, 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. And I’m not talking football – I talk to my kids about this all the time. I don’t want things to be easy for them. I want it to be challenging, I want it to be tough. Because again, like I said, I think that’s when true growth takes place.”
Barry believes he’s a better coach than he was in failed tenures with Detroit and Washington. And he’s taking over a much, much better group of players.
In 2007 and 2008 with the Lions, Barry’s defenses finished 32nd in yards and points allowed both seasons. One of his top players was linebacker Paris Lenon. Lenon started a total of 16 games in four seasons with the Packers but all 32 games for Barry while recording a total of 240 tackles.
The results were better, but only comparatively so, in running Washington’s defense in 2015 and 2016. In his first year, it finished 28th in yards and 17th in points as it won the NFC East for the second time in 16 years. In his second and final season, it finished 28th in yards and 19th in points. That team had massive deficiencies on the defensive line and inside linebacker.
In Barry’s defense, those units were better with Barry than they were before his arrival and after his departure. Both teams are perennial losers, too. Detroit hasn’t won a playoff game since 1991; Washington has won only one playoff game since 2000.
The Packers, on the other hand, are perennial contenders. It will be Barry’s job to take what had been a good defense under Mike Pettine and turn it into a championship unit.
“As coaches, you’re always growing, you’re learning,” LaFleur said. “Obviously, that’s something that we looked at when going through this process. I got a chance to work with Joe in L.A. I know what type of communicator, I know the energy that he brings. I think he’s learned a lot from those previous experiences. I don't think he’d ever hide from those. The bottom line is we are going to get judged on what we do moving forward and not from our past experiences. I just felt really comfortable with the person, his ability to communicate, the energy he’s going to bring, the scheme that he’s bringing with him in order to get the most out of our players.”
Barry will inherit a defense that includes Za’Darius Smith, Kenny Clark and Jaire Alexander – all Pro Bowlers in 2019 and/or 2020. He’s sticking with the 3-4 as the base defense, and all of last year’s position coaches are back.
“It’s a really good situation, and I’ll define what I mean by a really good situation is that the foundation has been set here,” Barry said. “There’s an incredible foundation, and I think when you have pieces in place, when you have an MVP at quarterback, when you’re coming into a situation where you’re back-to-back NFC Championship Games, that’s awesome. It’s a phenomenal situation for me.”
Barry spent the last four seasons as linebackers coach and assistant head coach with the Los Angeles Rams. In 2020, the Rams finished No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed despite losing Pro Bowl linebacker Cory Littleton in free agency.
“I’ve won Super Bowls, I’ve coached in Super Bowls, I’ve won division championships,” Barry said. “But I think, just like anything in life, if you do something long enough, you’re going to experience the highest of highs and you’re also going to experience the lowest of lows. I think the No. 1 thing, when you do experience those lows, when you do get those scars, shoot, if you learn from it and you grow from it and you expand, you don’t have to wear sleeves and cover them up. You can wear them and say, yeah, that was a tough experience. That was brutal. That one hurt. But I learned from it, I got better. I grew. And I would hope to think that 36-, 37-year-old Joe Barry is a lot different than 50-year-old Joe Barry.”