In a league of offensive masterminds, this NFL coach stands out

In a league of offensive masterminds, this NFL coach stands out
In a league of offensive masterminds, this NFL coach stands out

Todd Monken has been predictable enough for the Baltimore Ravens coaches and players to know what was coming next. So after John Harbaugh handed his new offensive coordinator a game ball following a 38-6 victory over the Detroit Lions in Week 7, the Ravens’ longtime head coach stepped aside and gave Monken the floor.

Monken can command a room. He’s the son of a longtime high school coach, after all, and has been listening to booming locker room speeches all his life. He’s delivered quite a few of them himself. The Ravens braced for the latest one.

When Monken finds his rhythm, his raspy voice rises steadily. The expletives, most of them beginning with the letter “f,” flow freely. Spicy language and all, Monken’s every sentence is delivered with enthusiasm and purpose.

As he clutched a game ball in the middle of the locker room following the blowout of the NFC North-leading Lions, Monken did something he rarely does: he paused. His voice then crackled with emotion.

“It’s only a start,” he told the players.

Nine months earlier, Monken was in a locker room at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., celebrating the University of Georgia’s 65-7 thrashing of TCU and the program’s second consecutive national championship. The offense Monken directed racked up 589 yards in the game.



How Todd Monken ‘opened up’ UGA’s O while sticking to its principles

Monken, 57, would worry about trying to replicate the game and the season once he came down from this high. He can’t sleep after bad offensive performances. The dominant ones, he tries to savor for as long as possible.

Monken knew how good he had it at Georgia and wasn’t looking for a lifeline. Yet, there was an allure about coaching in the NFL. Monken’s father, brothers, uncles and cousins are coaches. In all, there are 13 football coaches in his extended family, most doing it at the high school level. Monken was the one who reached the NFL, first as a wide receivers coach and then as an offensive coordinator.

His most recent NFL experience before Baltimore, as the offensive coordinator with no play-calling responsibilities for the Cleveland Browns in 2019, was regrettable enough that Monken doesn’t like to talk about it. However, it didn’t temper his enthusiasm to coach again at the highest level. His plan to do it differently the next time may have driven it.

When Harbaugh called in January to gauge his interest in replacing offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Monken reviewed the potential opportunity. The Ravens were one of the most stable and respected organizations in football. They were perennial contenders. Harbaugh was an established Super Bowl-winning head coach who let his coordinators do their jobs. What Monken didn’t know was whether the Ravens would have a long-term franchise quarterback on their roster as the team was in the middle of a contract standoff with Lamar Jackson. Monken, though, was unfazed. He had made it work with quarterbacks far less talented than Jackson.

“I had a great job and I was only going to leave it for an elite opportunity. This was that — from an organization on down, from ownership to personnel to head coach to hopefully having Lamar, but I didn’t know that,” Monken said. “I saw that as a challenge in terms of what we could do from an offensive standpoint. It’s been everything I hoped it would be.

“That doesn’t mean we’ve accomplished everything we wanted to or we’ve been as clean as we’d like or we haven’t had drag. That’s a part of being with a new staff, new players, new system, all of those things. Those aren’t excuses. Those are facts. Nobody gives a s—, but it is what it is. Now, we just have to finish down the stretch and continue to get better.”

Todd Monken left Georgia following back-to-back national championships to take the offensive coordinator job in Baltimore. (Nick Wass / Associated Press)

The 11-3 Ravens rank first in rushing yards per game, and fourth in overall yards and points per game heading into their Christmas night showdown with the NFC-leading San Francisco 49ers. Consistency has been elusive, but they’ve made strides this year offensively and Jackson is one of the league’s leading MVP candidates. Yet, to Monken, there’s still a little too much “drag,” the word he uses to describe factors slowing down his offense.

Monken’s lexicon during his weekly news conferences has become a source of amusement at the Ravens facility. While Roman was buttoned up and rarely showed his personality, Monken is more the crazy uncle who drops by the family holiday party, cracking jokes, telling stories and looking for a good time. Instead of bringing gifts, he carries his call sheet and tucks it into his baggy sweatpants.

“He just speaks from such an authentic place that whatever is on his mind, he just kind of voices it. That’s all it is,” said Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley. “I appreciate authenticity.”

“When it’s time to shoot the breeze, he’s good at it,” said former NFL head coach Dirk Koetter, who coached with Monken with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars. “He’s a funny guy and he makes it fun to be around him. He’s got a lot of good stories.”

Monken’s own story felt destined for a career coaching football. His father, Bob, coached 30 seasons at Lake Park High in Illinois. The school’s football field is now named after him. Monken grew up going to his dad’s practices and idolizing his dad’s players. He saved articles and pictures from the newspaper’s coverage of his dad’s teams.

He’d spent hours with his father breaking down game film. The conversation at the dinner table and family gatherings almost always turned to X’s and O’s. Monken got a first-class football education in just about every way.

“It starts from your family and what you grew up around and what you saw, and then you go from there as a player and to who you played for,” Monken said. “You build based on the guys that you coached with and you coached for. You learn from great players and great coaches and you kind of make your own style. But I wouldn’t be where I’m at today and be who I am without my family, my father and uncles who are coaches.”

Monken was once a pretty good player, too, but he challenges anybody to find highlights that support that. A quarterback at Division III Knox College in Illinois, Monken led the nation in 1988 in pass attempts, completions and completion percentage. He was a Pizza Hut All-American and all-conference quarterback. He’s well-represented in the Knox record books.

His calling, though, was coaching. He knew that when he was in high school and he and his father would have detailed conversations about play concepts and designs. There was never much ambiguity about his post-college career plans. A year after graduating from Knox, Monken took a job working under Tom Beck at Grand Valley State. Two years later, Monken followed Beck to Notre Dame, where they both served on Lou Holtz’s staff.

Monken’s coaching career has spanned 34 years and includes a dozen stops, eight with college programs and four with NFL franchises. It’s been defined by adaptability and emboldening of players.

“He’s a very good teacher,” Harbaugh said. “He expresses things really well. He’s a great communicator. He makes it very clear what he’s looking for, and he does it in a real energetic kind of way. It’s a fun way. The players have latched onto it and they appreciate it.”

Monken’s first experience as an offensive play caller came with Eastern Michigan in 1998. In his first game, the Eagles went three-and-out on their first seven drives.

“You talk about wanting to quit calling plays? I mean, my goodness,” Monken said. “That was awful. You can’t complain about the play caller. You’re that guy.”

His first game with NFL play-calling duties went much better. The Buccaneers started the 2018 season by beating the New Orleans Saints, 48-40. Monken’s unit racked up 529 yards of total offense with Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing for 417 yards and four touchdowns, and Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson combining for 293 receiving yards and three scores. Afterward, Fitzpatrick presented Monken with his signed jersey in the locker room.

“I basically wrote, ‘Congrats, thank you and there’s nowhere to go but down from here,” recalled Fitzpatrick. “He loved it.”

Todd Monken’s first NFL season with full-time play-calling responsibilities was in 2018 with the Buccaneers. (Cliff Welch / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With the Buccaneers, Monken directed an offense that led the league in passing yards. While he was at Louisiana Tech (2000-2001), the Bulldogs ran a spread offense and prioritized getting the ball on the perimeter. In his first stint at Oklahoma State (2002-2004), Monken embraced coach Les Miles’ power running game. His second stint with Oklahoma State (2011-2012) under Mike Gundy featured a version of the “Air Raid” offense, which averaged nearly 50 points and 550 yards per game. As the offensive coordinator at Georgia (2020-2022), Monken relied heavily on his running backs and tight ends. His cousin, Jeff Monken, is the head coach at Army, so Monken is plenty familiar with the triple option, too.

Monken’s history of adapting his system to his personnel is one of the reasons he was such an attractive candidate to Harbaugh, who didn’t want to lose the power running game that was front and center in Roman’s offense. And the Ravens haven’t.

Baltimore is still running the ball, more and better than any other team in the NFL. What Monken has brought is a little more balance with the passing game and an ability to challenge different parts of the field through the air. The Ravens’ pass game is still very much a work in progress, but it’s more reliable and dangerous than it has been in the recent past.

“They’re doing a great job of running the football. In rush yards per game, they’re No. 1 in the league,” said Fitzpatrick, now an NFL analyst for Amazon Prime. “Todd, historically, his background is throwing, passing the ball — Air Raid offense, and the things that he did when we were in Tampa together. He has done a wonderful job of figuring out all these little tools and pieces and how they best fit in his offense. Todd puts players in position to be successful. That’s one of his greatest traits.”

At times, Monken has corrected reporters who refer to this as “his offense.” He clarifies that it’s the “Ravens’ offense,” built around the vision of Harbaugh, Monken’s offensive principles and Jackson’s skill set, along with the rest of Baltimore’s personnel. One of Monken’s first moves was giving Jackson more say in what the Ravens are running and more freedom to make changes at the line of scrimmage.



How the Ravens’ revamped offense will unlock a more complete Lamar Jackson

“If I see something on the field, I can go to Coach and I’ll be like, ‘Coach, I feel like we should do this,’” Jackson told The Athletic last week. “He’s listening and he might make a change depending on how he feels, if he likes it, if he’s seeing the same thing I’m seeing. It’s great. I’m having fun with it.

“He’s a great coach, a fun coach to be around. Knows his stuff, wants to win, is willing to listen. That’s every quarterback’s dream, just to have a guy who is willing to listen to you and wants to win with you.”

Fitzpatrick spoke to Monken at length on the field before the Ravens-Cincinnati Bengals game at M&T Bank Stadium last month. One of his biggest takeaways was about the unique relationship between the offensive coordinator and his quarterback.

“I think Lamar has already learned a lot from Todd in viewing the game a different way, but also, Todd has learned a ton from Lamar in the way that he plays and in having to adjust his offense to really accentuate some of Lamar’s strengths,” Fitzpatrick said. “Todd’s really excited. I think he’s enjoyed being back in the NFL, but like any coach, especially the really good ones, you’re not satisfied. You’re always trying to call that perfect game and you’re always trying to build and get better as the season goes on.”

In many ways, Monken is the quintessential players’ coach. He solicits their opinions and asks about their families. When he was the head coach at Southern Miss from 2013 to 2015, he arranged the purchase of suits as gifts for his departing seniors, buying them with donations to the football program so as not to run afoul of NCAA rules. Monken wanted the players to have something to wear for their first job interviews, whether it was with the NFL or somewhere else.

“That’s your job, to make people feel special,” Monken said in his introductory news conference with the Ravens. “That’s why you have a job, to create the best version of them. The moment we forget that, we’re wrong — we’re dead wrong.”

“That’s your job, to make people feel special.” — Todd Monken (Brent Skeen / USA Today)

Yet, Monken is also extremely demanding of players. Los Angeles Chargers guard Jamaree Salyer, who played under Monken for two years at Georgia, remembers the offensive coordinator calling players out in front of their teammates if they weren’t taking notes in meetings. Then, there were times when Monken caught a few Bulldogs dozing off.

“He’d make them stand up in front of the meeting and watch it in front of everybody,” Salyer said. “He was a character for sure.”

Salyer said some of his Georgia teammates weren’t necessarily a fan of Monken’s methods at first, but they quickly came around when they started having so much success. They learned to understand why details were so important to Monken.

“You definitely wanted to understand the game conceptually. You didn’t want to just focus on your route. You wanted to understand the whole concept. If you didn’t, he would make sure you did,” said Atlanta Falcons tight end John FitzPatrick, who was also with Monken at Georgia. “I really enjoyed my time with ‘Coach Monk.’ He challenged me and made me a better player and a better man.”

Several Ravens acknowledged they were initially taken aback by Monken’s boisterous and high-energy coaching style. During training camp, Monken’s voice rose above all others as he corrected receivers for not running a precise enough route or threw his hands up in the air in frustration when a play broke down.

In meetings, he takes it to another level. Whether it’s morning, midday or afternoon, Monken’s energy level hasn’t tapered. Quarterbacks coach Tee Martin described Monken’s coaching style as “animated,” saying he fits Harbaugh’s mantra to “confront issues, not people.”

“Man, he’s up,” Jackson said. “He’s so detailed out. He wants everything run the correct way.”

And if it’s not?

“I was trying to hold off on that, but he’s going to curse,” Jackson said. “Every meeting, guaranteed.”

Monken was once embarrassed and annoyed that his vocabulary and word choice became a talking point in a 2011 ESPN behind-the-scenes look at the Oklahoma State football program. Now, he jokingly touts the versatility of swear words. A few Ravens veterans had injured rookie offensive lineman Andrew Vorhees tabulate how many expletives Monken used in certain meetings. The task proved tedious.

“When we got to 1,000, we wanted to have those popper things go off,” said Ravens right guard Kevin Zeitler. “He was on a record pace, so we stopped keeping track. Whether it’s celebrating or correcting, he’s always going to bring the energy.”

Monken talks to players often about a few of his tenets: attitude, energy and body language. It’s in those areas where he felt he wasn’t consistent enough in his previous stint as an NFL offensive coordinator in Cleveland. He worried about certain things that were beyond his control. He didn’t always feel like he carried himself with the “attitude, energy and body language” that was required to get the most out of players each week.

When he thought about what he’d need to do better when he made his next coaching stop, Monken concluded that he just needed to be himself. For the Ravens, that’s been plenty good enough.

“I think it’s important to be authentic and to be you,” Monken said. “Is that difficult through the ups and downs of a season, from a personnel, confidence, excitement (standpoint)? Sure. It’s a lot easier when things are going well. But in general, I think it’s important to be connected with the player. I do believe that. I think it’s important for them to see who you are and to try to show them the belief in them and the belief in what we do.”

The Athletic’s Daniel Popper contributed to this story

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos: Nick Cammett, Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)

“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, is on sale now. Order it here.