It was a trying season for the Baltimore Ravens. Injuries decimated them from start to finish on both sides of the ball, ultimately costing the team a playoff berth.
One area, however, has remained remarkably constant: special teams coached by Chris Horton.
“I think everyone understands that when the roster starts to get affected by injuries, that special teams are really the unit that sometimes takes the brunt of it because the guys you were playing with now are playing defense,” said Horton. “You have to adapt and be able to put a new guy in there. What these guys have done this year, and for us to play the way we’ve played – really just a testament to how hard we work and really on what we focus on.”
Horton, 37, just completed his third season in charge of Baltimore’s special teams. A former NFL safety, he started in Baltimore as an intern coach eight years ago, and worked his way up to become the special teams coordinator for a franchise synonymous with excellence in that part of the world. game. His rise is already impressive and it looks like his coaching career is just beginning.
Horton was drafted in the seventh round by Washington in 2008. After his playing career, he ended up at UCLA, his alma mater. He worked as a quality control coach under Jim Mora in 2012. The following year, he served as a trainee coach with the Seattle Seahawks during training camp before spending the 2013 season again with UCLA.
Steve Jackson, who had been an assistant at Washington when Horton was there, told Horton he could come watch him at the Senior Bowl. Horton eventually interviewed with Washington for a special teams assistant position, but when he didn’t get it, he was back to square one.
So Horton wrote a cover letter, compiled a resume and contacted all 32 NFL teams.
His big break came when the Ravens called him for an interview for an internship program. He served as an intern coach in 2014. The following year, he served as a staff assistant alongside special teams coach Jerry Rosburg. He has worked with special teams ever since.
“It’s the only role where I get to communicate with all the players on the team, and not just my side of the ball, or not just my positional group,” Horton said.
Horton took over for Rosburg after retiring in 2019, and the Ravens have remained strong on special teams. And it’s not just because they have one of the best kickers of all time in Justin Tucker.
Baltimore ranked No. 1 in the NFL this season in special teams DVOA — a Football Outsiders stat that measures team effectiveness. The Ravens finished No. 2 in DVOA special teams in 2020.
This season, returning sophomore Devin Duvernay was an All-Pro. He was the only returner to rank in the top 10 in punt return average and kickoff return average.
So this season should only help Horton’s stock.
“He’s a great coach,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said. “I think the players identify with him very well. He’s detailed. He’s passionate. The only thing he can’t do is beat me on the Peloton, really. That’s about the only thing thing he can’t do, but other than that he’s big in my mind.”
There are now five minority head coaches in the NFL. About 70% of players are black. As a young black assistant, Horton said the NFL’s hiring record didn’t deter him from pursuing a coaching career.
“I don’t think it was ever discouraging,” he said. “Growing up, I was challenged all my life. My mother always instilled in us, just take your opportunities, run with them and do a great job. And then whatever you’re supposed to get, you’re going to. And then sometimes everything you’re supposed to get you might not get, but you just keep your head down and keep going.
Although the kicking teams coordinator is often overshadowed by the offensive and defensive coordinators, there is precedent for coaches with special teams backgrounds moving on to bigger things. Bill Belichick first joined the New York Giants as a defensive assistant and special teams coach more than four decades ago.
Horton’s current boss, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, served as special teams coordinator for Philadelphia from 1998 to 2006.
“You understand how to manage a team,” Horton said. “You have to learn to adapt when you don’t have players.”
Horton’s work with Baltimore’s special teams is therefore the type of experience that could serve him well in the future.
“I want to be a head coach,” he said. “When that opportunity comes around, it’s like hey, it will happen. But until then, I’m going to make sure the area I’m responsible for is well taken care of.”
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