Jets coaches Dennis Thurman and Tim McDonald have long relationship
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Dennis Thurman has about "10 different looks."
Each facial expression has a meaning, a purpose. And in the course of their decades-long friendship, Tim McDonald has figured out just about all of them.
That's because Thurman has used most of them on his former pupil.
"You know when you're screwing something up," McDonald, the Jets' new secondary coach, said in a sit-down interview along with Thurman, the team's new defensive coordinator. "He just gives you that look, so you've got to get it fixed.
" . . . I've noticed they've changed over time. They've gotten a little grumpier," he added, eliciting a laugh from Thurman. "And it just depends on how he tilts his head and which eye goes up, or which eyebrow goes higher."
Thurman -- who possesses a rare talent for delivering blunt honesty and a well-timed one-liner at the same time -- ran the Jets' secondary the past four years. But now, after his promotion to defensive coordinator this offseason, he's happy to fade into the background. Now the stage is set for McDonald, 48, to improve upon the foundation laid by Thurman and Rex Ryan.
On the surface, the personalities of the seemingly reserved McDonald and the straight-talking Thurman appear to clash. "But once he gets to know you, we're much more alike than we are different," Thurman said. "He thinks he's a comedian, actually, and he doesn't realize he'd be starving if that was his job."
Jets players are quick to point out that it's impossible to compare anyone to Thurman. But McDonald's NFL credentials speak for themselves: 13 seasons, six Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl championship in 1994 with the 49ers.
"He commands immediate respect," second-year safety Josh Bush said. "Whatever he says, you're going to listen to right off the bat."
But before McDonald was hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, he was in St. Louis and Tempe, Ariz., under the tutelage of Thurman, a position coach for the Cardinals starting in 1988.
The Cardinals traded defensive back Leonard Smith to Buffalo that year in order to get McDonald, the 34th overall pick in the NFL draft, into the starting lineup.
"Not saying Leonard wasn't easy to coach," Thurman said. "But Tim was easier."
And from there a bond was born.
Teacher & student
Asked to share what he's learned from Thurman over the years, McDonald smiled and replied, "The game, pretty much."
When Thurman, 57, describes his friendship with McDonald, two simple words come to mind.
"Powerful. Inspirational," he said. "He listens. It's important that if you're going to talk to someone that they're listening and your conversation can go back and forth. It's never been one-sided."
After coaching two years at his alma mater, Edison High School in Fresno, Calif., McDonald coached Fresno State's secondary in 2012. But when former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine left to join the Bills, McDonald called Ryan to interview with the Jets. In January, he was hired.
Soon after, McDonald called Thurman to tell him the good news. "I'm coming to New York to take a bite out of the Apple," he said.
But Thurman is adamant that McDonald was on the Jets' radar because of his credentials, not their friendship.
"It wasn't just, 'OK, we're friends. You get the job,' " said Thurman, who helped mold future Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott during their playing days at USC. "He had to go through the process, and in going through the process, he didn't just impress me. I knew what he was made of. But he obviously impressed Rex and the new GM and the other people he had come in contact with. So he earned the job."
Though the Jets' defense ranked second against the pass (189.8) and eighth overall in 2012, McDonald has inherited a secondary with only three players (Antonio Cromartie, Kyle Wilson, Isaiah Trufant) with three years of experience in the system.
The new position coach also doesn't have the luxury of a healthy Darrelle Revis at his disposal.
"Don't get me wrong; Darrelle Revis is a great, great player and will go down in history as one of the best players to ever come through here. But this defense was pretty good last year," McDonald said. "There's some good football players here and we will respond in the ways that we need to respond.
"But you know," he added with a laugh, "I thought he would be here. I thought [safety] LaRon Landry would be here. But I do understand this: In the NFL, the only thing that stays the same is change. No one is immortal . . . As long as we can get the most out of the guys, I really believe that we have a chance to be pretty good."
They think rookie Dee Milliner does, too.
It's Miller time
Although the former Alabama standout has been sidelined since his March shoulder surgery, the coaching staff sees potential in the 21-year-old.
"Talent, athleticism, the ability to do all the things that you want done," Thurman said. "Some guys that go out now and play corner, they just want to cover people. He doesn't mind tackling, he doesn't mind getting involved in the run game . . . When you look at him, you have the thought in your head that this guy can become one of the better corners in this league because he has the ability."
Milliner won't be the next Revis, McDonald cautioned, but "he's going to be a special player in his own right. The kid can do it all. He was the No. 1 corner in this draft for a reason: He's long, he's rangy, he's cat-quick and he'll make his share of plays. And eventually, we'll be talking about, hopefully down the road, somebody trying to replace Dee Milliner."
As Thurman had a hand in molding Revis' career, McDonald will serve in the same capacity with the rookie cornerback. And Thurman already has taken a step back, allowing his successor to shape the secondary as he sees fit.
"The most important thing I can do to help Tim is to back away," said Thurman, who also stands off to the side while Ryan leads the defensive installs during practice. "If I'm hovering over in his meeting room or hanging around every one of his drills, then it'll look like I'm still doing it. I don't want that. I want them to understand who their coach is."
But every now and then, Thurman shoots McDonald one of those "looks." And it feels just like old times.
Said Thurman: "Whether we're working together or apart, we're still going to be great friends."