It felt “different” when Justin Bethel, the Ravens’ freshly-added veteran special teams ace, sat down with new Ravens special teams coach, Chris Horton, for lunch on Friday.
Bethel is 28 years old. Horton is 34.
“When I was talking to him, it felt more like I’m talking to a big brother than a coach,” Bethel said. “Great guy, and I’m really excited to see what we can cook up coming into this new season.”
Young coaches are nothing new in the NFL. Heck, Los Angeles Rams Head Coach Sean McVay is 33 and he’s doing just fine. But the Ravens’ shift at leader of their special teams unit is a dramatic one.
Jerry Rosburg, 63, is retiring after 40 years of coaching overall, including 18 in the NFL and 11 with the Ravens. Horton’s coaching career was launched with the Ravens five years ago after his NFL playing days ended in 2012.
Rosburg was a highly-respected, highly-experienced tactician who helped make Baltimore one of the best special teams units of the past decade. Horton is the up-and-comer and former player who was in high demand elsewhere, Rosburg said. And now Horton will have the responsibility of carrying the torch.
“I want you all to know that the Ravens’ special teams are going to be in very good hands,” Rosburg said.
“For the past four years, Chris Horton has been a skilled, diligent, faithful assistant and been very important in our success. He has shown a great deal of initiative that led to improvements in our systems and improvements in our players. He has an excellent rapport with our players. It’s now his time.”
Horton was a seventh-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins in 2008 – the same year Head Coach John Harbaugh was hired in Baltimore. The UCLA safety started 10 games as an NFL rookie, making 76 tackles and three interceptions.
But where he really stood out – and caught Harbaugh’s eye – was on special teams. Horton had dreads then, so he looked a little different, but he had the same traits he values today in the players he coaches.
“We had to go against this guy … we had nothing but respect for him,” Harbaugh said. “Flying down the field, knocking people over, playing hard.”
He’s always been a worker, instilled in him from growing up with a single mom, born in Los Angeles and then attending high school in New Orleans.
“Chris played the game the right way when he was a player, and he is going to continue to coach the game the right way as he takes over the special teams,” Rosburg said.
Horton said special teams is about two things: good fundamentals and high energy.
“I can guarantee you, when you watch the Ravens’ specials teams play, that’s still going to be what we stand on each and every week,” Horton said.
“A lot of different places, they build their identity on different things. Some guys try to lean on technique and some guys just go out and play. But here, it’s so detailed out, it helps you become a better player.”
A special teams coach is in a unique position where they work with almost every player on the roster, and often the rookies. They are responsible for first breaking most players into the league, for turning them into hard-nosed football players ready for more responsibilities on offense or defense.
“I was once asked, ‘Why special teams, of all phases? Why not defense?’” Horton said. “My answer was that special teams is made up of special players. It takes unselfish players to go out there and play one play and give all you’ve got for one play.”
Horton knew as soon as he finished his NFL career that he wanted to start coaching. He went back to UCLA and sent every general manager, head coach, defensive coordinator and special teams coordinator an email. The Ravens had just started an internship program, and when they called, Horton knew it was an opportunity to learn from the best special teams coaches (Harbaugh included) in the business.
Horton said Rosburg gave him a wider lens to see the game through. Now he has married that coaching viewpoint with his playing experience to give him a better understanding of the game. Horton called Rosburg “The Encyclopedia” and said he’ll still be a text or phone call away in retirement.
“From a special teams standpoint, the foundation has been laid,” Horton said. “It’s my job to come in here and get the most out of the guys and uphold the standard.”