TEMPE – After leading a linebacker group that was part of the best-passing defense in the NFL, Nick Rallis was introduced Wednesday as the next defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals, with plans to bring a similar approach to the defense that Jonathan Gannon hopes to bring to the roster.
Rallis – who is 29, making him the youngest coordinator in the NFL – used words like “adaptable,” “explosive” and “violently” to describe the defense he hopes to install, echoing phrases Gannon said during his introductory press conference on Feb. 16.
Barely a week after Gannon took over the Cardinals’ helm, he lured Rallis away from the Philadelphia Eagles, where the two worked together from 2021-22, Rallis the linebackers coach, Gannon the defensive coordinator. As Gannon continues to piece together his staff – he also brought on former Cleveland Browns quarterbacks coach Drew Petzing as Arizona’s new offensive coordinator – the look and attitude Gannon wants from his Cardinals is becoming crystal clear.
“Having worked with him for two years and knowing him for about six now,” Gannon said during a press conference to introduce his new coordinator. “The vision of how I want to play defense, how I want the defensive players to act and the coaches to serve the players, he had that vision. He shared that vision with me. Very high capacity, very high character, which those were the two most important parts of pieces for me hiring coaches.”
After playing football for the Minnesota Gophers from 2012-2016, Rallis became a graduate assistant at Wake Forest in 2017, helping him land a spot on the Minnesota Vikings’ coaching staff as a defensive quality control/assistant linebackers coach from 2018-20.
Rallis and Gannon spent two seasons working together, building chemistry organically and resulting in a comical interaction when discussing Rallis’ new position at his young age.
“No,” Gannon said in response to a question about Rallis’ new role at 29 years old. “…What’s my quote that I use?”
“Experience is not synonymous with knowledge,” Rallis responded.
Gannon: “Correct. So, [it’s] like he knows me.”
Rallis: “Or he stole my quote, one of the two.”
Gannon: “I might have [stolen] his quote.”
Despite Rallis’ young age, Gannon was drawn to his defensive strategy, including adaptability, explosiveness and violent football for his game plan, which are metrics Gannon used to describe the team in his introductory press conference.
“I’m gonna repeat exactly what you heard Jonathan say before, and that’s being adaptable,” Rallis said. “And more specifically, be adaptable to the players that you have, right? And being able to utilize our guys’ skill sets that put them in the best position to win games.”
Philadelphia, the losing team in Super Bowl 57 earlier this month, was considered a top defense in 2022, holding opposing offenses to 5,125 yards, 4.8 yards per play and grabbing 17 interceptions – all of which ranked in the top five of NFL defenses. But arguably the Eagles’ biggest strength was their passing defense, limiting the air attack to 3,057 yards through the entire season.
Arizona’s defense struggled last season, finding itself around the bottom half of the NFL in most defensive categories. Rallis said he is still going over what pieces he plans to use from last year’s squad, but stressed there are still players who can have an impact on the Cardinals defense.
One player Rallis singled out was defensive back Budda Baker, who recorded 111 tackles and two interceptions in 2022.
“There’s a lot of players that play extremely hard, fly around,” Rallis said. “One that comes to mind, obviously, Buddha sets the standard on how you play this game. It is violent, it is high motor 24/7. And I’m just picking one guy out, there’s all kinds of guys on this defense that play to that standard. And we’re going to continue to demand to push that even further. And for everyone to be at that standard of playing violently and being explosive.”
Rallis’ age has been a talking point since the Cardinals revealed him as their new defensive coordinator, but Rallis doesn’t see any “advantages” or “disadvantages” with his young age as a defensive coordinator. Gannon feels differently about the situation, disclosing the extensive interview process applicants endured. The first-time head coach also revealed owner Michael Bidwill and general manager Monti Ossenfort helped him navigate the hiring process.
The timetable of the hires has prompted some observers to wonder if the staff was rushed to be completed before the NFL Combine, which begins on Tuesday. However, Gannon is more concerned with getting the right pieces in place.
“It might seem quick to you guys, but it’s like there’s three days there (when) I was on a Zoom from 7 a.m. till 11 p.m.,” Gannon said. “’I was like, ‘Holy cow. Are we ever gonna get anybody hired?’ But no, it’s been a good process.
“And ultimately, honestly, the people that I’m close with that are head coaches that can pick up the phone and [I can] call right now – advice was all over there – the one thing that was consistent, they said, ‘Do not rush the staff because you got a good chance to hire the right people and get the people that you want in there. Don’t rush it.’ And I haven’t felt like – I don’t know, whatever timeframe you’re thinking – I haven’t felt like we were rushed at all.”
The Cardinals and Gannon still have positions open on the coaching staff, leading to discussion about potential candidates. Although Gannon hasn’t hired a coach connected to Kliff Kingsbury’s regime, Gannon hasn’t ruled out the possibility of adding someone from his predecessor’s staff.
“I talked to all those guys,” Gannon said. “We’re still in discussions with some of that, but there are going to be a couple guys that we’re going to keep, because they fit the mold of what I was looking for. And it was a pleasure to talk to all those guys. … There’s some guys that we’re going to keep that when you see the final list put out that you’ll know why I kept him.”