Andy Reid’s greatest accomplishment could be leading the team to the Super Bowl in 2004. Or his development of Donovan McNabb. Or the job he did in turning Michael Vick’s life and career around. Or just building the Eagles into consistent winners during his reign as coach.
Or it could be putting together his initial coaching staff. Back in 1999 the Eagles assistants were:
Rod Dowhower – Offensive Coordinator
Brad Childress – QBs
Ted Williams – RBs
Pat Shurmur – TEs
David Culley – WRs
Juan Castillo – OL
Tom Melvin – Off. Quality Control
Jim Johnson – Defensive Coordinator
Tommy Brasher – DL
Ron Rivera – LBs
Leslie Frazier – DBs
Steve Spagnuolo – Def. Quality Control
John Harbaugh – Special Teams
Look at that. Harbaugh, Spagnuolo, Frazier, Rivera, Shurmur, and Childress are/have been head coaches. Simply amazing.
Those guys have big names now, but were hardly household names then. Childress might have been the most accomplished guy, having run the Wisconsin offense for a few years when that school was building up into a football power. The other coaches had odd backgrounds.
We might even take the hiring of Jim Johnson for granted. Reid initially wanted Marvin Lewis, but he thought about the offer and declined it. Reid then went after Johnson, who was the LBs coach for Seattle in 1998. Johnson was known in coaching circles, but the average football fan had no idea who the guy was.
Johnson came to Philly and fit like a glove. Reid wanted him because of his “fire zone package”, what the rest of the world calls zone blitzes. Johnson had run the Colts defense when the Packers faced them a few years back and JJ gave the Packers fits in the game, as the Colts pulled off a stunning upset.
The Eagles had a somewhat passive defense under Ray Rhodes and Emmitt Thomas. The 1998 team put up a respectable 42 sacks, but only had 9 INTs and 17 total takeaways. Johnson stepped in with a very aggressive style of defense and changed that.
The 1999 Eagles only had 35 sacks, partially due to Hugh Douglas being hurt and missing most of the year. The defense did attack constantly and that led to some big rewards. The 1999 Eagles finished first in the NFL in takeaways with 46, including 28 INTs. New scheme, major difference.
Johnson wasn’t just an X’s and O’s guy. He looked at his personnel and figured out how to use them. The two biggest impact players on the ’99 defense were FS Brian Dawkins and MLB Jeremiah Trotter. Both had been on the team in 1998. Trotter was a rookie that barely sniffed the field. Dawk was used in a conventional FS role most of the time and then as a slot cover guy at other times.
JJ saw a pair of chess pieces that needed to be used creatively. He unleashed Trotter as a blitzer. Trot was about 260 pounds, huge for a MLB. He would line up right over the C and attack him at the snap a lot of the time. Trot had the lower body strength to drive back OL. This was unique and disruptive. Trot was the ultimate downhill LB. He could blow up OL, RBs, or whatever was in his way.
JJ saw in Dawk a player that had rare ability. In Dawk’s first 3 seasons combined, he had 2 sacks, 2 FFs, and 27 PDs. In 1999 Dawk had 1.5 sacks, 6 FFs, and 24 PDs. JJ let Dawk play centerfield sometimes, and then in the box at others. He unleashed him as a blitzer. Why let Dawk cover a guy and let the QB avoid him when you could blitz him and make the QB deal with him? Dawk was a good player for 3 years, but became a special player when Jim Johnson turned him loose.
Having the two unique chess pieces led to some of JJ’s best defensive ideas. Jim is credited with developing the double A-gap blitz. This is when you have a pair of blitzers that line up on both sides of the C, right on top of him. They try to shoot the A-gaps at the snap. If one gets free, the QB is going down or running for his life. If the blockers get them, it might free up an edge rusher. We now see all kinds of teams using the double A-gap blitz.
With Dawk, the idea became not to limit what a player could do. We watch Troy Polamalu line up all over the field and it’s no big deal. I don’t think that happens if not for JJ/Dawk. It takes a creative coach to acknowledge that he has to create a role for a player. Dawk wasn’t a FS. He was a one-man defense. He played FS, SS, CB, and LB, depending on where he lined up and how he was used on a given play. Charles Woodson does a similar thing now up in Green Bay.
Jim did some crazy things with his blitzes. In the 2001 season opener the Eagles faced the Rams and their dynamic passing attack. The Eagles had a great trio of CBs in Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, and Al Harris. Those guys could cover the Rams great set of WRs. But JJ came up with a great wrinkle. The one thing the Rams wouldn’t expect is for us to blitz multiple CBs. And that’s just what he did. Vincent and Taylor blitzed on the same play at least a couple of time. Kurt Warner was sacked 4 times and threw 2 INTs. Taylor got one of the sacks. One of the hits in that game hurt Warner’s thumb, which led to an injury that plagued him for the next 5 or 6 years.
Jim brought his Okie Package to Philly, where the MLB was called the Joker. That role was handled by a few guys over the years. The best game by a Joker was Jevon Kearse against the Vikings in Week 2 of the 2004 season. Kearse drove Daunte Culpepper nuts because Daunte never knew where Kearse was blitzing from…or if he was covering.
Jim was creative with his personnel. Bobby Taylor was a poor run defender. When teams would go to a 1-WR set, JJ took Taylor off the field and put SS Rashard Cook in his place. Cook was almost like a LB with his physical style of play and that made it tough to run with him in the game. Jim adjusted that later in his career. Sheldon Brown was such a good hitter and tackler that Jim didn’t want to take him off the field. When teams went to a 1-WR look he would move a Safety down to Brown’s corner spot and then put Brown up at FS.
Brandon Whiting was a DT in college. He was drafted as a DT and played there early in his career. Jim moved him to LDE to get a bigger player at that spot. Whiting was a good LDE for a couple of years, before shoulder injuries ruined his career.
Jim loved to tinker with the defense and the lineup. Not all of his ideas worked, but he was willing to try things to see what did. In 2006 he decided to move Dawk to LB in the Nickel defense. The Safeties were then Michael Lewis and Sean Considine. That didn’t work as expected.
In 2007 Jim threw us all a curveball and shifted from 1-gap DTs to 2-gappers in order to help the run defense, which had been atrocious in 2006. That worked well. The defense was Top 10 vs the run for 3 straight years.
In the early part of his time here JJ wanted a defense built on speed. His great 2008 defense was built more on size. The DTs were bigger. DEs Trent Cole and Victor Abiamiri bulked up. Cole was over 270 and Abiamiri over 280. The LBs were Chris Gocong (255), Stewart Bradley (255), and Akeem Jordan (240).
Jim Johnson was a great coach and an innovator, but most of that happened after he got to Philly. It wasn’t on his resume when Reid hired him.
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One of the problems with building a great coaching staff is that they get other jobs and leave. That’s exactly what happened to Reid and the Eagles.
Andy then had the challenge of replacing the guys who left. This was one of Reid’s bigger failures.
The coaches who came into Philly between 2005-2010 weren’t necessarily bad coaches. The problem is that they weren’t as good as the people they replaced. In some cases, they were bad coaches. Rory Segrest wasn’t meant to be coaching in the NFL. That’s no insult to him. He was just in over his head. Ted Daisher ran the STs for one year before being let go. He was a smart coach, but not a people person. He rubbed players the wrong way and you can’t do that on STs.
In the last couple of years I think Reid has realized that change was needed. He hired some elite assistants in Bobby April, Jim Washburn, and Howard Mudd.
Just as important, he brought some new blood into the team. He hired Doug Pederson to help on offense. He’s now the QB coach. Mike Caldwell was hired to coach the LBs this year. Mike Zordich was hired to coach the Safeties. Duce Staley is helping out with STs and anywhere else he can. Barry Rubin was promoted to head strength coach.
We don’t know if these moves are going to work out, but I like Reid’s thinking. Previously he had mixed in assistants to a solid, veteran staff. Those guys joined the organization at a time when life was good. They didn’t necessarily understand the building process.
Go back to the early days. The Eagles won as much on coaching and character as they did talent. Those teams weren’t always pretty, but they got the job done. Staley was the RB on those teams. Caldwell was a LB and STer on them. Pederson was Reid’s first starting QB in Philly (and somewhat of a sacrificial lamb). These men know what the teams of 1999-2001 had. They know what made them good (and bad).
If you study your football history you see that teams, college and pro, fall apart at a certain point. I think one of the problems is the legacy mentality. Florida State wasn’t great in the late 80s and throughout the 90s because of anything other than a mixture of talent and hard work. Those teams competed at a high level, every single day. They practiced like other teams played. They played like nobody else. The FSU teams of the last decade lost the edge. They expected to win because of the uniform. Doesn’t work that way.
Just being an Eagle and playing for Andy Reid means nothing. It is up to the players and coaches to make it mean something. Reid, his great assistants, and his underdog players did that in the early days.
Now Reid is trying to re-create that. The Eagles have added a lot of young guys in the past few drafts. Reid has revamped the coaching staff. This isn’t 1999 all over again, but there are some similarities.
You have new assistants, new schemes, and new players. That means a lot of teaching and learning. The 1999 team started out 0-4, before figuring some things out and finishing 5-7. That team lacked talent in a big way.
The current Eagles team is in a hole at 2-4, but there is no lack of talent. There are some Super Bowl pieces in place. It is up to Reid and his new assistants to do a better job of solving problems and making adjustments. Some of that started already with the Washington game.
The 2nd half of the 2011 season will give us some strong clues as to whether Reid hired the right guys. Part of this is X’s and O’s, but I think part is intangibles. Are the coaches keeping the players focused and working hard? How is team morale? Are there any locker room issues? In order for the Eagles to turn the season around the players need to be a team. You see things getting weird down in Miami. Heck, things are weird with the Jets and they have a better record than us.
There hasn’t been any fighting amongst the players. Guys are taking the blame upon themselves for the mistakes that have plagued the team. The players have openly and privately defended Coach Reid. I like the vibe this team is giving off in that regard. It would mean a lot more if that vibe started to show up on gamedays and the guys played a more complete game.
Ted Williams, David Culley, and Juan Castillo were coaches on the early Reid teams and know what that time was like. April, Mudd, and Wash have all been around the block and know how to handle just about anything. The coaching resumes of the new guys aren’t so great, but that’s okay as long as they are hungry and they work well with the players. That’s the formula that helped build this organization into what it is.
If the 2011 Eagles could find half of the grit and toughness the teams had in the early days of the Reid era, the rest of this season would turn out pretty well.
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I didn’t want to turn this into a Castillo piece so I intentionally downplayed that angle. I’ve got some thoughts I’ll be posting on him in the next few days.