New 49ers head coach Chip Kelly has put together his staff of assistants, and one key hire doesn’t exactly have a glowing resume.
New defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil has been the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns the past two seasons. He replaces Eric Mangini, who held that position under Jim Tomsula in 2015, and reportedly is Kelly’s Plan B, after Texans linebackers coach Mike Vrabel was offered the job and declined.
In 2015, the 49ers ranked 29th in total defense, and O’Neil’s Browns didn’t fare much better. His unit ranked 27th in the NFL in 2015 and 23rd in 2014.
Because Kelly’s fast-paced offense spends less time on the field than most offensive units in the NFL, it’s important for his defense to be stout. And, under O’Neil, the Browns were anything but stout over the past two seasons.
Chris Pokorny, who writes about the Browns for SB Nation, wrote a story this week with the headline, “49ers Make Big Mistake in Hiring Jim O’Neil as Defensive Coordinator.”
In his story, Pokorny pointed out that Browns head coach Mike Pettine was a defensive-oriented coach who essentially oversaw the defense, along with O’Neil, in his first season in Cleveland. Then, last season, Pettine stepped aside and gave more autonomy to O’Neil, “Allowing O’Neil a chance to grow into his role.” Instead, wrote Pokorny, “pretty much every facet of the defense was terrible.”
In addition, Pokorny said O’Neil didn’t seem to be able to develop and get the most out of some talented young players, such as linebackers Barkevious Mingo and Paul Kruger.
Under O’Neil, 37, in 2015, the Browns defense ranked 29th in scoring (27 points per game), 30th against the run (128.4 yards per game) and 22nd against the pass (250.8 yards per game). In 2014, the Browns had been ninth in scoring defense (21.1), eighth in pass defense (224.5) and 32nd in run defense (141.6).
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee wrote this week that O’Neil “has been described as a high-energy coach who often seems ready to bolt onto the field and play a few snaps.”
But will that enthusiasm spark a new energy and effectiveness into the 49ers defense in 2016?
As columnist Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote this week, O’Neil appears to be a far less successful and experienced defensive coordinator than might be expected, with so much of the 49ers’ success in 2016 hinging on the performance of the defense.
Wrote Killion: “You’d love to have seen Kelly hire a coordinator to whom he could turn over the defense completely, the way Jim Harbaugh did with (Vic) Fangio. Can O’Neil be that man?”
Certainly, many have doubts.