For a man who draws up plays for a living, this certainly wasn't in James Bettcher's game plan. Luckily, as an NFL defensive coordinator he is used to needing adjustments to overcome the unexpected.
Bettcher, 39, came to the New York Giants three years ago, an up-and-coming assistant with aspirations to be a head coach. He would be their defensive coordinator after adding three strong years to his résumé in the same role with the Arizona Cardinals. He didn't anticipate that two years later he would be spending a season at his new home in Arizona without a job during a global pandemic.
The NFL and its unpredictable nature sure does come at you fast.
Bettcher, now 42, is expected to be a defensive coordinator candidate for several teams. He had units ranked in the NFL's top six in each of his three seasons running Arizona's defense, but it didn't go as expected in his two seasons with New York, where with marginal talent the Giants ranked 24th and 25th overall, respectively.
This season the Giants added seven new starters to their defense, but Bettcher wasn't around to reap the benefits. He was among the casualties when the Giants fired coach Pat Shurmur after the 2019 season, and new coach Joe Judge brought in his own guy, Patrick Graham, as defensive coordinator.
Bettcher found himself without a team when the musical chairs stopped spinning during the last hiring cycle.
"If there is regret, it's just wanting to finish [the job] and see things through," Bettcher said in his first in-depth interview since the departure. "I'm a small-town guy. Lakeville, Indiana. A town of hard-working people. My dad was a farmer, welder, mechanic. Mom worked a couple jobs. That is just what we did. That is what my brothers and sisters do. They're hard-working people. And you just want to work hard and finish what you started."
Owning his tape
Bettcher had big plans to spend the off year visiting NFL training camps and colleges. He scheduled professional development sessions/consulting visits that were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
So he did the next-best thing -- a thorough self-assessment that included digging deep into the tape at the "lab" he built in his home. There he scribbled constantly on dry erase boards while consuming NFL and college film that seemed to be on an endless loop on the big-screen TV connected to his computer.
"First thing I did was sit down and just evaluate," he said. "All of us that coach, one of the most important things we always look at is that we own our tape. I can't talk to our players about taking ownership for their work or their play if I don't take ownership for the tape."
Bettcher spoke of redoing his playbook a bit, getting rid of plays the same way his wife, Erica, regularly sheds the living room of toys their young children (Colton, Addison and Brooks) outgrow. His focus was on his foundation, player development and schematics. He regularly spoke with the coaches he's closest with, such as Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians (Bettcher's former boss in Arizona) and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, and Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. Bettcher also studied the defensive schemes of five major conference college teams.
"It's neat to see different people's ways to defend different offenses," he said.
Bettcher came to New York with an exotic 3-4 defense designed to produce pressure. His Arizona teams ranked in the NFL's top 10 in blitz percentage each of his first three seasons.
"Lives and dies by the blitz," said one personnel executive familiar with Bettcher's defenses. "You need to have good personnel, especially in the back end."
His Giants' defenses couldn't be so aggressive. They weren't especially talented on the back end, finishing the 2019 season with cornerbacks DeAndre Baker, Corey Ballentine, Sam Beal, Grant Haley and Antonio Hamilton -- none of whom played much for any team this season. It was an aggressive coach with misfit toys, and his defenses with the Giants ranked 16th and 19th, respectively, in blitz percentage, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
There is belief from the executive and some of Bettcher's former players he can still be the fast-rising assistant he was before coming to New York.
"Absolutely, yes. Especially if he can get his style of football players. His style of [defensive backs] specifically or his style of pass-rushers to go along with his coaches that can explain exactly what he is trying to do," said safety Michael Thomas, now with the Houston Texans after two years with the Giants. "I think Bettch can definitely be a top DC in this league."
This week was about firings. Next week is about hirings, and Bettcher's fate is dependent on who lands where as a head coach. He might be a match with hot candidate Arthur Smith (Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator) or with the Los Angeles Rams or Bucs if Bowles or Rams D-coordinator Brandon Staley get head-coaching jobs.
Wherever he lands, Bettcher has a clear vision of what his defense will look like.
"No. 1, it's a fast-playing, relentless, tough, smart [unit]," he said. "That is all it has ever been about for me. ... Schematically that can look like whatever it needs to look like because we're multiple. That's what we have to be to defend ever-changing offenses."
His next team will be getting an invested coach. Even though he relished the opportunity to spend extra time with his family, he's excited to return to the sidelines.
"It's certainly my identity. Some people say I'm not defined by what I do, but I'm a little bit different from that standpoint," he said. "I want my kids to know their dreams, chase them.
"What I do is highly important to me. It matters that my kids see that ... whatever you decide to do in life, I hope it matters to you. I miss it. Miss it a ton."
But probably not for much longer.