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What Do Greg Schiano and Rutgers Have to Do With the Patriots’ Defensive Dominance?

Schiano parted ways with Ohio State, went to New England, and left the Pats within the span of a few months this offseason. A recent report may explain the last of those moves … and perhaps the early NFL and college football title pictures.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sometimes I am filled with existential dread by the completely disordered nature of the world. Bad things happen to good people, bad people rise to power, there’s seemingly a total disregard for facts and reason—how are we supposed to act when nothing matters? Other times that burden is lifted, and I can’t stop laughing at the completely disordered nature of existence. One of those times: when I realized this season’s college football and NFL championship races could be decided by one subpar coach’s reported desire to return to a job at the worst college football program in a Power 5 conference.

The subpar coach is Greg Schiano, and the college football program is Rutgers. And yes, the Scarlet Knights have the worst power-conference program, a distinction they earned for the foreseeable future by losing to Kansas 55-14 last year. Schiano is by far the most successful coach in the modern era of Rutgers football, by which I mean that the team went 68-67 under his watch from 2001 to 2011. No, seriously, that’s really impressive. His predecessor, Terry Shea, had an 11-44 record with the Scarlet Knights; his successors, Kyle Flood and Chris Ash, have gone 7-38 in conference play since the school’s financially savvy, athletically disastrous decision to join the Big Ten in 2014. Schiano secured the first bowl-game win in program history and caught the eye of the greatest football coach of all time when Stephen Belichick, son of Bill Belichick, played lacrosse at Rutgers and joined the football team during his senior year.

After his son went to Rutgers, the elder Belichick made a habit of drafting players coached by Schiano, like Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan, and Duron Harmon. He raved about the way that Schiano ran his program. This is noteworthy, because Belichick doesn’t rave about much besides left-footed punters. And when the greatest coach in football history starts raving about someone, people tend to listen. The year after Stephen Belichick graduated from Rutgers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Schiano to be their new head coach.

It did not go well! Players compared the experience of being coached by Schiano to living in a communist dictatorship. Opponents criticized him for ordering unnecessarily dirty plays, the NFLPA investigated him for leaking confidential information about his quarterback, and the Bucs experienced an infectious disease outbreak. (On the plus side, Schiano got the Patriots to come to town for joint practices! Neat!) On top of that, Tampa Bay went a combined 11-21 during the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Schiano was fired and spent two seasons coaching in the high school ranks. Then, in 2016, Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, Chris Ash, left that job to coach Rutgers. (We’ll check in on how that went later.) Ohio State brought in Schiano to replace Ash. It’s not common for coaches who are fired in disgrace and go back to coaching in high school to suddenly get hired to fill one of the most important positions for one of the best teams in college football. But I guess Urban Meyer agreed with Belichick’s assessment of Schiano’s abilities.

This also did not go well! In 2017, Ohio State missed the College Football Playoff primarily because of a blowout loss to Iowa in which the Buckeyes allowed 55 points. Specifically, they allowed 55 points to an Iowa team that finished 66th nationally in points per game but morphed into a juggernaut against Schiano’s defense. In 2018, Ohio State missed the College Football Playoff primarily because of a blowout loss to Purdue in which the Buckeyes allowed 49 points. That Ohio State team had an elite offense, ranked fourth in offensive SP+; it had a good-not-great defense, ranked 26th in defensive SP+. Thanks largely to Schiano, the Buckeyes had half of a title contender instead of a whole one.

At the end of the 2017 season, Tennessee reached an agreement to hire Schiano as its new head coach, but the move was so unpopular that the Volunteers fan base revolted. They protested the hire, pointing to a 2015 deposition by Penn State whistleblower Mike McQueary, who testified that he’d heard that Schiano had witnessed Jerry Sandusky “doing something with a boy” and done nothing. Schiano has denied that he had any knowledge of Sandusky’s abuse. I believe many Tennessee fans genuinely did have moral objections to Schiano; I also believe there would have been fewer moral objections were it not for Schiano’s “giving up 55 points to Iowa” thing. The Tennessee administration quickly backed out of its agreement, and Schiano returned to Ohio State for the 2018 season instead.

Despite his poor performances at Ohio State and the wrath of Vol Nation, one person continued to back Schiano: Belichick. After Brian Flores left his role as Patriots defensive coordinator to accept the Dolphins head-coaching job in February 2019, New England hired Schiano to take his position. You know, since that’s the common next career move for guys who keep their teams from winning championships and also inspire angry on-campus demonstrations. This was an unusual hire by the Patriots. The vast majority of New England’s assistants are lifers: In 2018, the Pats had six titled coaches who had been with the team for at least a decade, and seven of the 12 in total hadn’t worked for another franchise. Every New England coordinator hire since 2001 had been a promotion from within, while Belichick’s first two coordinator hires (Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel) worked with him at prior stops. But after losing Flores to the Dolphins, along with a slew of assistants who Flores took with him, the Patriots were left with just one remaining defensive coach on staff … Stephen Belichick, the former Rutgers long snapper who now coaches safeties for New England. Instead of promoting his 31-year-old son, Belichick hired Stephen’s former coach.

But less than two months after arriving in New England, Schiano abandoned ship. A March statement said that he wanted to focus on “faith and family.” Belichick provided no good answers for why Schiano left. (Maybe try asking him about punters.) The Patriots opted not to replace Schiano and headed into this season without a defensive coordinator.

Now, seven months later, it seems like we’re finally getting answers as to what happened: On Sunday, Football Scoop reported that Schiano left the Patriots expecting that a coaching change would happen at Rutgers. He reportedly told Belichick that he believed the Scarlet Knights job would open during the 2019 season, and that he would accept the job if it was offered to him. According to Football Scoop, Belichick did not want his coordinator to leave during the middle of the NFL season, and the two reportedly agreed that Schiano should resign.

Sure enough, Rutgers fired Ash this past weekend, following a 52-0 loss to Michigan. This ended a three-plus-year stint that included eight wins and eight shutout losses by at least 30 points. (To be fair, the Scarlet Knights showed improvement over his tenure: In his debut campaign, Rutgers lost 78-0 to Michigan. It’s 26 points better now!) According to college football insider Brett McMurphy, the Rutgers administration decided to fire Ash two weeks ago, after a 30-0 loss to Iowa. It’s conceivable that Schiano could have been aware of rumblings that Ash was on the hot seat.

There’s a chance that Rutgers will hire somebody else to replace Ash. If the reports are accurate, though, Schiano’s plan seems to be coming to fruition. It all appears to line up: Schiano had intel that Rutgers was willing to fire Ash, and Ash did indeed get the ax. Now, virtually all the writing about the program’s upcoming coaching search revolves around Schiano.

Of course, the question is why Schiano would covet this job. Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels infamously reneged on an agreement to take an NFL head-coaching job with the Colts so he could stay in New England. Charlie Weis and Bill O’Brien left the Patriots for head-coaching jobs at Notre Dame and Penn State, respectively, but this is Rutgers. Belichick assistants typically leave for only the best jobs in the entire coaching profession, and sometimes don’t even consider those to be compelling enough to leave. Is it really possible that Schiano ditched the defending Super Bowl champions for the team with the “0” in a million 49-0 shutouts?

What’s clear is that the teams Schiano left in his wake now boast two of the best defenses at their respective levels of the sport. After ranking 26th in defensive SP+ under Schiano in 2018, Ohio State has skyrocketed to third through the early part of the 2019 season. The Buckeyes have allowed just 43 points in five games, and 28 of those were scored when the team was running out the clock in the second half. Last Saturday’s showdown against Nebraska was supposed to represent Ohio State’s toughest test to date; the Buckeyes picked off Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez three times and rolled 48-7.

And the Patriots defense has been incredible, the best in the NFL and in New England’s 20-year dynastic run. It’s allowed one offensive touchdown and scored two defensive touchdowns. It ranks first in turnovers (10), yards per play allowed (4.1), points allowed (27), opposing completion percentage (52.0), and sacks (18). Every other team in the NFL has allowed at least three passing touchdowns; the Pats have allowed none. New England’s opponents have gotten into the red zone just four times in four games, and scored at a lower rate on those trips than against any other defense. The Patriots’ schedule is worth noting—their first three opponents are a combined 1-11—but the numbers are otherworldly nonetheless.

There is another universe in which Schiano is in charge of Ohio State’s defense, and in which the Buckeyes allowed between 45 and 60 points against Nebraska. Instead they look dominant, and could bring the program its first national championship since the 2014 season. There’s another universe in which Schiano is in charge of New England’s defense, and the Patriots are coming off a rare loss to the Bills. Instead they look better than almost every other Pats team in the Belichick era, and, well, there have been a lot of really good-looking Pats teams in that span. It feels impossible to pick anybody else to win the Super Bowl.

Sometimes the disordered nature of the world is overwhelming, and other times it all comes back to Rutgers. A butterfly with more wings than wins flapped, and the title races in the two highest levels of football shifted.