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The Case for Joe Philbin

Joe Philbin is rumored to be Iowa football’s new offensive coordinator. Does he have what it takes to improve the struggling Hawkeye offense?

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Detroit Lions v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Iowa’s decision to part ways with embattled offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz was one of the biggest stories of the team’s 2023 season, and the search for his successor has been front of mind for nearly every Hawkeye fan since the Big Ten Championship ended. While several intriguing candidates for the job have been mentioned including former Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst, Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, and former Nebraska and UCF head coach Scott Frost (which would be hilarious if true), one name has seemingly vaulted to the top of Kirk Ferentz’s list: Joe Philbin. On Friday, Pat Harty of Hawk Fanatic tweeted that the former Miami Dolphins head coach and Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator had emerged as the favorite for the job and was expected to be hired to replace Brian Ferentz.

Not all Iowa fans were excited about the prospect of Philbin’s hiring. Philbin is a 62-year-old coach with an offensive line background who, despite being a successful NFL offensive coordinator, was rarely tasked with play calling duties during his time working with former Packer head coach Mike McCarthy. While many Hawkeye fans have hoped for Iowa to bring in a young, pass-happy coordinator to help modernize Iowa’s passing attack and serve as a counterweight to Kirk Ferentz, it is easy to cast the more senior Philbin as coach with an outdated approach to offense whose relationship to Ferentz (Philbin served on Kirk’s Iowa staff from 1999-2002) could prevent him from giving this offense the shakeup it so desperately needs.

However, these criticisms of Philbin ignore both the coach’s accomplishments as well as what he could bring to the table as Iowa’s offensive coordinator. Philbin is a Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator with two decades of experience coaching in the NFL, including 3+ years as a head coach. During Philbin’s first run as offensive coordinator of the Packers, his offenses never finished outside the Top 10 in the NFL in scoring, including his league-leading 2011 offense which averaged 35 points per game, produced nearly 6,500 yards of total offense, and is often discussed as one of the greatest offenses in league history. Regardless of whether Philbin was the primary play caller for that offense, he was widely credited with laying the groundwork for the potent Packer attack (which had ranked 22nd in the league in scoring before Philbin took over) and turning McCarthy’s offensive vision into a well-oiled machine. Throughout his career, Philbin has been described as a terrific personnel manager, an excellent communicator, and a “master teacher” who can help develop offensive talent (with that last quote coming from none other than Kirk Ferentz), all traits which Iowa desperately needs to help improve an offense that has been a black hole in recent years. Furthermore, Philbin was credited with helping to simplify the Packers offense upon returning to the team in 2018, which would be a welcome sign after years of Hawkeye players commenting about how complicated Iowa’s offensive scheme is to pick up. Given the depths of Iowa’s offensive misery, tasking an experienced coach who is arguably overqualified for the job with designing and implementing a full rebuild of the offense may be Iowa’s best chance at finally improving on that side of the ball.

Furthermore, Philbin is an excellent fit for the Hawkeyes due to his familiarity with both Ferentz and the program. As a former Hawkeye coach, Philbin understands Ferentz’s basic approach to offense and desire to execute a balanced attack, limit turnovers, and play complimentary football. Whether he hires Philbin or not, the chances of Kirk Ferentz choosing an Air Raid coordinator or a Sean McVay disciple are slim to none, and some of the names being lobbied about by Hawkeye fans (49ers passing coordinator Klint Kubiak or Washington Huskies offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb) were never realistic possibilities.

In Ferentz’s 25 years at Iowa, the Hawkeye offense has gone through three offensive coordinators, but has had roughly the same pro-style structure despite Iowa having hired coordinators like Ken O’Keefe and Greg Davis who made their careers running wildly different types of offense than Iowa’s. Iowa is not going to hire a revolutionary offensive wunderkind to turn the Hawkeyes into a high-flying no-huddle attack; for better or worse, Kirk Ferentz is too risk-averse and set in his ways to make a move like that. However, hiring Philbin would give the offense a proven, experienced, and successful coordinator who can build and implement a coherent scheme that can competently execute the type of offense Ferentz wants to run. The fact that Philbin has worked with Ferentz before, knows how to speak his language, and is viewed and respected by the head coach as a peer may also position him to help sell Ferentz on making bigger structural changes more effectively than other potential hires. Philbin, who was at Iowa in 2002 when the program had one of the best offenses in college football, could instantly win the adoration of the fans if he could recreate the formula that made that offense so successful, including the presence of a dual threat quarterback that Iowa has been without for several years.

Speaking of 2002, Philbin’s past work with Iowa’s offensive line is also wildly encouraging when evaluating him as a potential OC hire. Philbin was the mastermind behind Iowa’s 2002 offensive line, a dominant unit that bulldozed over the competition all season and was arguably the greatest line in the history of the program. Philbin was instrumental in molding former tight ends Robert Gallery and Bruce Nelson into All-American linemen and in recognizing their potential to flourish at their new positions. Iowa’s best offenses have all been powered by elite line play, but the program has failed to live up to its reputation as an offensive line factory in recent seasons. Hiring Philbin would be a clear sign that Iowa is committed to rebuilding up front and would give the Hawkeyes an invaluable asset to help mold that position group in the years to come.

Finally, Philbin’s NFL background would be a massive boost to Iowa in recruiting on the offensive side of the football. Philbin’s experience as an NFL head coach and coordinator would give him credibility in telling recruits that he knows what it takes to prepare them for success at the next level. Iowa has struggled to recruit skill position talent for years now, but Philbin would be able to point to elite, Pro Bowl-caliber offensive players he has coached at every position on offense when making his case to recruits that his tutelage is the clearest path to help them reach the NFL. Think high school quarterbacks would wouldn’t be tempted to come play for a coach who helped Aaron Rodgers win the MVP and to whom the QB credits much of his success as a professional player?

The biggest potential criticisms of Philbin’s candidacy are his lack of experience as a quarterbacks coach and play caller, but these are manageable if Iowa does hire him. First, Philbin is more pass-happy than his offensive line background might suggest; while his offenses in the NFL regularly ranked near the bottom of the league in rushing attempts, he had five seasons inside the Top 10 in the league in pass attempts. Having been around several successful quarterbacks such as Rodgers, Brett Favre, Ryan Tannehill, and even Iowa’s own Brad Banks, Philbin should have a clear vision of the type of QBs he can build his offense around and how to ensure their success in Iowa’s passing game. Furthermore, while most of Philbin’s play calling background comes from his pre-Iowa days, he did call plays as the Packers’ interim head coach in 2018, and Packers fans seemed generally pleased with how he performed in that role. The best way to make the Philbin hire work might be for Iowa to complement him by also hiring a dedicated QB coach who can also assist Philbin in managing the passing game. Whether that hire is Jon Budmayr (a former quarterback and OC with play calling experience who is currently an analyst with the Iowa program) or someone with a similar resume, bringing in a QB whisperer to support Philbin’s strengths as a coordinator and offensive line guru and contribute to the play calling process could give Iowa the best of both worlds as it seeks to balance Philbin’s experience with the need to be more hands-on in improving its quarterback play.

Joe Philbin’s frontrunner status remains a rumor at this point, and several of the remaining candidates (including Chryst, Ludwig, and even Frost) would also bring a lot to the table. However, if Iowa does select Philbin for the job, it will be a strong hire that would position the Hawkeyes to make meaningful improvements on offense going forward. Philbin’s incredible experience, familiarity with the head coach and the program, and proven ability to get the most out of the offensive talent he is surrounded with could make him the best chance the program has to fix the offensive woes that have plagued it for several years.