Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.
MIAMI BEACH, FL
If the Browns had chosen San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to be their next head coach, Kyle Shanahan was prepared to elevate Joe Woods, the team’s defensive secondary coach and pass game coordinator, to replace him.
But Saleh will stay on with the 49ers another year no matter what happens against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 54 on Sunday.
And it will be Woods, instead of Saleh, heading to Cleveland.
Woods all but confirmed that he will rejoin new Browns coach Kevin Stefanski as defensive coordinator in an interview at the 49ers Super Bowl hotel on Wednesday.
“You’d always be excited to get an opportunity like that with any NFL team, especially with somebody that you trust and that you’ve worked with in the past,” Woods said.
Betting on himself
Stefanski and Woods joined the Vikings at the same time in 2006 on the staff of Vikings coach Brad Childress. Stefanski was assistant to the head coach and Woods was defensive backs coach.
Woods, 49, stayed in that capacity through 2013 under Leslie Frazier; Stefanski ascended the ranks to offensive coordinator before being named Browns coach on Jan. 13.
“I just feel he’ll be a great head coach,” Woods said. “Just because of his ability to communicate with people, and I think his ability to create a culture. He’s going to tell guys the truth. He’s not going to tell guys what they want to hear. He’s going to tell guys what they need to hear. He’s going to be very honest, very straightforward with everybody. And I think everybody’s going to see that and eventually he’ll get everybody in that organization to follow him.”
Woods broke into the NFL with Tampa Bay in 2004 when Mike Tomlin was the team’s defensive backs coach. Shanahan was on that offensive staff at the time.
So when Shanahan went looking for a replacement last year for Jeff Hafley, who left to become Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator, Woods jumped at the chance to rejoin Shanahan in San Francisco.
But Woods agreed to only a one-year contract.
“I was basically betting on myself,” he said.
That was a safe bet.
With Saleh coordinating a talent-laden defensive front seven, Woods fine-tuned the secondary.
En route to the Super Bowl, the 49ers finished first in passing yards allowed per game, first in passing first downs allowed and first in completions of 20+ yards allowed. They were second in total yards per game allowed, seventh in average defensive completion percentage and seventh in average defensive passer rating.
His time has come
“He’s been outstanding,” said cornerback Richard Sherman, who returned to Pro Bowl form at the age of 31 in his second season with the 49ers.
“He’s been just very, very focused on technique. It’s not really been schematic stuff because we’ve had the scheme here. It’s been technique, the footwork, the hand placement, the body position.
“I’d be happy for him if he got another chance to coordinate a defense. He deserves it. I’d just be happy for him for getting the respect and the money that he deserves.”
Woods was defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos two seasons under Vance Joseph prior to coming to San Francisco. Even though the defense was Joseph’s 3-4 system, Woods said he called the plays.
The 49ers run a 4-3 defense based on the Seattle system brought by Saleh. Woods said he could run either, but would tailor his system to his players. Thus, he will keep the 4-3 base alignment in Cleveland.
“I think it’s too hard to acquire the personnel you need to have success [in a particular system],” Woods said. “So wherever I go, I would do it just based on the personnel I have, whatever their personnel is best suited for.”
As Sherman pointed out, the root of any Woods defense will be in fundamentals and sound technique.
“I really had great mentors growing up with Mike Tomlin [in Tampa] being probably the biggest one,” Woods said. “He taught me to look at the game a different way and I kind of took off from there. But I put a lot of time in on trying to teach proper technique and then let the talent show from there.”
Woods said he has been too focused on the 49ers’ task at hand to devote any time to evaluating the players he’d inherit on the Browns defense. He caught a glimpse of them when the 49ers manhandled the Browns, 31-3, in October.
The 49ers sacked Baker Mayfield four times, limited him to a season-low 100 yards passing on 8 of 20 completions, and intercepted him two times.
“In any great season you have, you get some lucky breaks … some things that happen and the ball just bounces your way,” Woods said. “This year, we grinded and really made those things happen.”
He said he won’t have any problem leaving a Super Bowl team for one known for dysfunction and constant turnover.
“You know what, I don’t even look at it that way,” Woods said. “I think every organization, every job you take, when you get there, it starts Day 1. You can’t worry about anything that’s happened in the past. That’s always been my mindset. I go in with open eyes and it’s like ‘This is my opportunity to be the best I can to get this team where it needs to be.’ That’ll be my approach with the next job I take.”