Kozora: Keith Butler Must Be Fired

It feels like I’m the last person to tell you this, especially given everything that happened over the weekend. Other tardy statements I plan on making in this article. Water’s wet. The Titanic better watch out for that iceberg. Have you guys heard of Bird Box? It’s pretty good! 

Yes, Keith Butler needs to go.

Embarrassing as it was, this isn’t about the Tyler Eifert gaffe. That’s far from the reason the Pittsburgh Steelers need to make a change. A momentary lapse like that is simply the cherry on top of this dumpster fire. The symptom, not the root cause, from four years of frustration, dissatisfaction, and stagnation.

It’s true, at least in part, that Butler hasn’t had the best talent around him. In a nutshell, the issue has been a lack of talent unable to overcome coaching and a lack of coaching to overcome talent. Still, talent doesn’t absolve coaching completely. You can have bad ingredients AND a bad cook. Butler is the Swedish chef from The Muppets. I imagine all his playcalls come in as Bork Bork Bork. Given some of the communication busts the past few years it’s as good a guess as any.

Problems like these have existed since Butler’s first ever game as defensive coordinator. 2015, Week One against the New England Patriots. Defensively, Pittsburgh was a hot mess, barely able to consistently trot out 11 players and cover everyone. Rob Gronkowski trolled them for three touchdowns, New England simply throwing jump balls into the end zone. That is, if the Steelers even realized where he was lined up.

Things evened out the rest of the season and it was reasonable to give Butler a pass. Big shoes to fill, replacing a Hall of Famer in Dick LeBeau, and aside from one brief season in 1998, he hadn’t been a defensive coordinator before. He had earned the right to see if he would sink or swim.

Ultimately, he’s become another example of the Peter Principle. Butler kept rising up the ranks until he reached a level that demanded more than his skillset had to offer, like the manager you hated working for when you were 22 and wonder how he ever got the job in the first place. Butler was an excellent linebackers coach, he deserves to quickly find work there again, but simply not good enough as a coordinator.

His issues aren’t just results-oriented, though clearly, this defense has always left plenty to be desired and largely speaking, has been dragged along by the offense. Effective coaching, in my definition, is about process. Putting players in position to succeed. Butler has failed to do so time and time again. It’s his biggest sin while running the defense.

This year has been a perfect example of that. An inability to come up with a proper check to defend empty. That’s how T.J. Watt covered Sammy Watkins on back-to-back plays in Week Two, the latter of which should’ve gone for a long touchdown (the pass was overthrown). Beyond just empty, linebackers continually matched up on receivers throughout the year, even on non-blitz calls. Opposing offenses know Pittsburgh hasn’t figured out a response when their top receiver moves to #3 in the slot. It may have first gotten major exposure in the loss to Los Angeles but it didn’t start or end there. Curious decisions, if we’re being kind, to “mismatch” personnel groupings, like playing dime against heavy personnel on the goal line. Blitzing quarterbacks like Drew Brees, an impossible task for anyone off the ball, and getting carved up in the process. Butler adjusted but not until New Orleans did a couple of laps around the track.

Prior to 2018, he spot dropped far too much, his blitz packages were too predictable, and his lack of tendency breakers and inability to self-scout made life too easy on offenses who by nature and rulebook, enter with the upper hand.

All situations where you can’t blame the player because they were unable to execute an impossible task. Those are moments you can specifically point to coaching as the reason for the failure. Let’s make it simple. I don’t have trust in Butler to consistently have the right gameplan, right playcall, right decision in the game’s most pivotal moments.

That doesn’t mean it’s all been bad. Butler has his strengths, like any coach, and ignoring those entirely is swinging the pendulum too far in one direction. His inside linebacker blitz schemes have been excellent, confusing offensive lines and getting his backers one-on-one on running backs or even better, scot free up the middle. There are individual games of impressive gameplans, like this year against New England, where he neutered the impact of Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. I may have been critical of him many times but I doubt you’re going to find any other website that specifically praised him – when deserved – as much as we did.

Butler isn’t an idiot. Anyone who thinks so because of that southern drawl is the actual dunce. The guy has forgotten more football than I’ll ever know. I’m the guy who, this is 100% true, once accidentally grabbed a stick of deodorant instead of his wallet (Dollar General doesn’t recognize Old Spice as currency, FYI). But the bar isn’t me. It’s seeing what the rest of the league is doing, even in a year where offenses are given more freedom than ever before. At the least, other groups are in better position, are more disciplined, and give their players a fighting chance.

Who should be the next defensive coordinator? No idea. Not yet anyway. I don’t believe you have to have a replacement ready. Organizations sure don’t. Coaches can be judged by their own merits, if they’re living up to the duties of the job, and if not, you move on. Figure out the rest later. If and when the Steelers make the change, we’ll come up with a list. Promise.

All I know is that Butler isn’t the right guy for the job. If Pittsburgh sticks with him, they’ll get the same results. His loyalty should be commended, his part in helping the Steelers win a pair of Super Bowls not go unnoticed, but it’s unquestionably time for a change. The scheme will – and arguably should – stay relatively the same.

But the man running the show’s gotta go.

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