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How he got here: Matt Canada’s career shows promise, and raises questions

Who is the Steelers offensive coordinator and what does he bring to the team?

Maryland v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Matt Canada was born in New Palestine, Indiana in 1972. A football fan from the age of three, he would attend football games with his dad. They would sit in the end zone and break down what the defense was doing. Canada played football, starting at quarterback for 2 years in high school, leading his team to a 20-3 record. He was recruited to play at Indiana University, but a knee injury ended his football career, at least on the field.

Canada enrolled at Indiana University, majoring in finance, his football career was done. Before his Sophomore season Football Coach Bill Mallory asked him to join his coaching staff. He had to drop from 5 graduate assistants to 2 for the 1992 season and filled the gap with student assistants. In 1994 when Matt Canada graduated he transitioned from doing the work of a graduate assistant to actually being one, while he earned his masters degree in sports administration, a program for grooming front office personnel.

Canada graduated in 1996, and Bill Mallory retired. Matt Canada got a job as the quarterbacks and running backs coach at Butler University, who had transitioned to Division 1 AA in 1993. In one season at Butler Matt Canada helped the team to its best passing season and their record improved, with 6 wins after the team won 5 games in the last two seasons combined.

That same season, Northern Illinois University went 0-11 under second year head coach Joe Novak, who had been an assistant at Indiana University for 12 years. He was there when Canada was a student and graduate assistant. Novak hired Matt Canada to be the running backs coach in 1998. In 1997 the NIU Huskies had the 110th ranked offense in the NCAA (out of 112). Matt Canada moved up to quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator in 2003, by that time the team was a top 30 offense in the NCAA and in his one season as offensive coordinator the Huskies went 10-2, their first 10 win season since 1983, when Bill Mallory was the head coach.

While in Northern Illinois Matt Canada ran a pro-style offense with a good balance of running and passing.

With a season of successfully running an offense under his belt, Matt Canada was hired back to Indiana to be their quarterbacks coach. Gerry Dinardo, who hired Canada, was fired at the end of the season and the new coach added passing game coordinator to Canada’s title. In 2007 a new head coach, Bill Lynch, took over and promoted Canada to offensive coordinator - quarterbacks coach. The passing game improved each year Matt Canada was in charge of it, and when he took over the entire offense, the run game improved by 45 yards a game and .8 yards per carry. The offense would average over 5 yards a play for the entire time Matt Canada was the offensive coordinator.

Despite the improved offense, Indiana wasn’t winning, and after the 2010 season coach Bill Lynch was fired, and this time Matt Canada didn’t survive the firing of his head coach. Matt Canada left Indiana with his last three quarterbacks all sitting at the top of the school single-season record books for yards and touchdowns.

In 2010 Jerry Kill led Northern Illinois University to 10 wins and the MAC conference championship game. After they lost that game Kill took the head coach job at Minnesota, leaving the team without a head coach or most of the staff for their bowl game. NIU won that game, and hired Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren for their head coach. The first offensive coach he contacted was Matt Canada, whom he had coached against the last 5 years.

The NIU offense was led by returning quarterback Chad Harnish, and the team had overcome massive coaching turnover to win a bowl game. For the first time in his career Canada took over an offense with an established quarterback. Harnish would go on to have the best season of his career, and later said of that season, “He made sure we both knew he was in charge. Once we got on the same page, it was smooth sailing.” Healso stated that his previous coach “took me to a certain level. Then Coach Canada took me past that level and to greatness. I think he’s a fantastic coach.”

That year the Huskies started out rough, losing 3 of their first 5 games before going on a 9 game win streak that involved winning their first MAC championship game and a bowl win.

After the 2011 season the University of Pittsburgh hired Paul Chryst to be their head coach, and Wisconsin head coach Brett Bielema hired Matt Canada to replace him. Bielema cited Canada’s first stint at NIU, when he used a pro-style offense as his reason for wanting Canada. With Russel Wilson no longer the quarterback, and no real quarterback on the team, Canada turned to the running backs. Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon along with fullback Derek Watt made up an incredible group of running backs. The offense featured Ball as the primary runner, White as a versatile runner and receiver and Melvin Gordon often playing wing back. The Badgers got a combined 3526 yards and 39 TDs from those running backs. The team finished the regular season 7-5, but with undefeated Ohio State and 8-4 Penn State both ineligible for the post season, the Badgers got to play in the Big Ten Championship game against Nebraska.

The first drive of the game Melvin Gordon took a jet sweep 56 yards for a touchdown, and the Badgers route was on. Wisconsin ran for 539 yards and 8 touchdowns with their three main backs all gaining over 100 yards. A 70-31 blowout win and Matt Canada’s motion heavy-old school inspired-wingback heavy offense was thrust into the spotlight.

After that season Bielema left for Arkansas, and Dave Doeren hired him to be the offensive coordinator for NC State, who had just hired him away from Northern Illinois.

After a 2013 season with little talent on the roster, Jacoby Brissett came to NC State in 2014 and with Canada’s offense, had the team scoring over 30 points a game. The only other times in the last 20 years that NC State averaged 30+ points a game was with Russell Wilson or Philip Rivers at quarterback. After the 2014 season Tennessee interviewed Canada, but a three year contract from NC State convinced him to stay. The next season the Wolfpack scored 33.2 points per game, one of the highest numbers in school history, and then fired Matt Canada.

This firing didn’t make sense, and has a lot to do with the rumors that Matt Canada is hard to work for. According to a Sports Illustrated article from 2019, Dave Doeren and Canada were discussing offensive staff decisions for 2016 one morning, and that afternoon Doeren called to tell Canada that “They have decided to make a change.”

As a hot offensive coordinator, Canada was hired by the University of Pittsburgh. In that 2016 season, Canada’s offense led to Nathan Peterman recording the best passer rating in school history and the 4th most TD passes in a single season. The Panthers would average over 40 points a game, ranking tenth in the NCAA in scoring, the most points in school history, and the highest ranking since Dan Marino was the Panthers quarterback. They also beat the eventual national champion Clemson Tigers on the road, scoring 43 points. That offseason Canada was a finalist for the Broyles award, given to the best assistant coach in college football. The award was given to Clemson’s defensive coordinator, who had given up 43 points at home against Matt Canada’s offense.

That offseason LSU made Matt Canada the highest paid offensive coordinator in college football. It didn’t go well. part way into the season Ed Orgeron took some of the play calling autonomy Canada had been promised away, and simplified the motions Canada used. After the season they parted ways with Orgeron calling the hiring a mistake and a bad fit.

Matt Canada would end up back in the Big 10 at Maryland, where an offseason player death led to the firing of the teams head coach and Canada being promoted to interim head coach. With massive upheaval and a roster that wasn’t looked at as very good, Canada took the Terrapins to a 5-7 record while scoring 28.5 points per game. That season is best known for another big matchup game, this time falling short in double overtime to Ohio State 51-52.

When the team wanted a fresh start after the scandal of 2018 Matt Canada sat out a year from football. Three years from being the hottest offensive coach in college football, and two years after a premiere SEC team made him the highest paid offensive coordinator in the game, Matt Canada was out of a job.

This story from Sports Illustrated was written during that year, and they brought up the rumors that Canada was hard to work with, asking former coaches that worked with Canada and players that played for him. They all say they can’t imagine him having that reputation, that his offense was brilliant and he was a great teacher. I find it interesting that the article quotes Eddie Faulkner, who worked with Canada for 5 years discussing how it felt to see the Chiefs using things he was doing with Matt Canada 7-8 years prior.

The Steelers connections to Matt Canada in their running back room are well documented, with Derek Watt, James Conner, Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland all having played for Canada in college. It makes sense that they would overlook a stigma on a coach that none of his players or fellow coaches are willing to corroborate.


What kind of coach is Matt Canada?

There are some very interesting things to gather from his coaching career. First, he likes to be fully in charge of the offense. From Chad Harnish’s statements about his return to NIU, to the stipulation that he would be given free reign with the offense at LSU, which was reigned in during the season and ended with both sides agreeing to part ways, it appears to point to a man who doesn’t like people messing with his offense.

We also see him excelling in situations where there was little hope. Canada’s offense doesn’t require a lot of talent to succeed, and has shown that a team of good players who buy into the system can pull off some amazing games. There are also a few question marks that need to be answered.

Matt Canada’s one year on a premiere team with loads of talent and the egos that go with it didn’t go well. The head coach simplifying the offense when Canada ran that offense at so many other places raises in my mind questions about Canada dealing with players whose ego doesn’t mesh well with putting the system above their talent.

There’s also room to question if Canada is an offensive coordinator that can take a team to the top of their game. In basketball we talk about players being floor or ceiling raisers. Some players can make a bad team much better, while other players can take a team with stars on it and make them that much better, because their skill set works really well with someone else controlling he ball.

I think that distinction applies well to thinking about Matt Canada. We know he is a floor raiser, he’s taken terrible offenses and made them very good, and he’s shown the knack to deliver “Signature wins” that get a lot of attention in college. But in the NFL you don’t get a pass on an 8-5 season because you beat the eventual champions at home. and while Canada’s offense wins games 76-61 and 43-32, they also lose games 24-31.

Some games it seems like Matt Canada has the opponent’s defense solved, while other games it looks like the opposite. Dick LeBeau’s last years in the NFL, both with the Steelers and Titans, showed that his defense could stop the run and the deep passes, but it failed horribly when facing Tom Brady or his doppelganger Jimmy Garoppolo. Being a strength versus most teams, but a huge weakness against a few specific teams doesn’t cut it in the NFL.

So while Matt Canada is a brilliant offensive coach, and likely the best candidate to bring the current NFL trends to the Steelers offense, it will be interesting to see if he can become as good of an NFL coordinator as he showed in college.