Forget about the D-line. Forget about the linebackers. Forget about the secondary. The Eagles defense, more than anything else, needs stability.
The 2008 Eagles defense finished Top 5 in almost every major category. That group was largely homegrown.
DL; Juqua Thomas, Mike Patterson, Brodrick Bunkley, Trent Cole
LB: Chris Gocong, Stewart Bradley, Akeem Jordan
S: Brian Dawkins, Quintin Mikell
CB; Sheldon Brown, Asante Samuel
Things looked pretty good. Until the 2009 offseason. That’s when Jim Johnson died of cancer and was replaced by Sean McDermott.
While McDermott had been mentored by Johnson, Sean had his own ideas that he wanted to incorporate. In his mind, he was taking something good and making it better. In retrospect, he was taking something good and changing it when it really wasn’t needed.
One of the big problems is that McDermott wasn’t as good of a teacher. Not only did he switch from some of JJ’s ideas, but McDermott failed to do a good job with teaching them. Think about the young players under McDermott and how they either flatlined or flat out regressed in 2009.
S Quintin Demps – played as a rookie in 2008 and showed promise, but lost his job in 2009
LB Akeem Jordan – played very well down the stretch in 2008, but struggled in 2009
LB Chris Gocong – looked like good young SAM in 2008 and was being phased out in 2009
MLB Joe Mays – got a chance to play in 2009 and looked awful
DT Brodrick Bunkley – played very well for parts of 2008, but regressed in 2009
DE Chris Clemons – showed flashes in 2008, but failed to build on them
S Macho Harris – rookie who played a lot in 2009, but failed to develop
Victor Abiamiri and Stewart Bradley were hurt and struggled solely for those reasons.
McDermott wasn’t dealing with ideal circumstance since he took over in the spring/summer, but that is still a lot of players showing no growth or heading the wrong way. I think McDermott made things overly difficult by trying to make changes. That was his first chance to run a defense and he was excited to implement his own ideas. I get that. But…part of being a smart coach is knowing when to leave things as is. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The defense wasn’t terrible (19th in Pts, 12th in Yds), but took a huge step back from 2008. McDermott was hurt by the loss of Brian Dawkins and Bradley, but Sean’s failure to find or develop replacements is on him. McDermott didn’t have to replace them with stars. He failed to have even adequate players to fill those jobs.
The 2010 defense posted similar numbers, but McDermott did a much better job with young players (Brandon Graham, Nate Allen, Keenan Clayton, Kurt Coleman, Jamar Chaney). Unfortunately the Red Zone defense was historically bad and the overall defense regressed as the season went along so Andy Reid decided to make a change.
The 2008 defense was built around being physical. McDermott wanted more speed and coverage ability. Both groups asked the DTs to play a 2-gap style that ate up blockers and kept pressure off the back seven in the run game.
2011 saw the arrival of Juan Castillo, Jim Washburn and the Wide-9. This meant a 1-gap system where players would attack up the field and the DBs would need to be more active vs the run. Some players loved the change, but plenty of others struggled in the new system. The lockout put the coaches in a tough situation and we hoped 2012 would bring different results. Oops.
The defense was erratic and that led to Castillo’s firing at the bye week. The defense fell apart after that and played awful as Todd Bowles tried to make some changes to the secondary and how they played. Eventually Washburn was fired and the Wide-9 was scrapped.
I haven’t even gotten into all of the assistant coaches who the Eagles have had in recent years. I think the list would be longer than the number of drummers in Spinal Tap. This may not seem critical, but it is a big deal. Each coach teaches a bit differently. Players go from learning one way to another to another. That absolutely affects their performance. It takes time to perfect a way of doing things. When you have multiple teachers, you’re constantly learning and never perfecting.
And now Chip Kelly comes in with a new scheme and new staff. The only thing I ask is that Kelly give it 3 full years. Give the coaches time to develop the players and adjust the system. Give the players a chance to figure things out. Give the personnel staff time to find players for the system. Give it a real chance.
All the changes from 2008-2012 made it impossible for the organization to have a truly good defense. Buddy Ryan got here in 1986. He ran the defense until he was fired and Bud Carson took over in 1991. Carson tinkered with the scheme, but left it mostly the same. That allowed the 1991 Eagles to be one of the all-time great units. Ray Rhodes took over in 1995 and put in a more conservative system, but one that allowed holdover players like Andy Harmon, William Fuller, William Thomas, Bill Romanowski and Mike Zordich to still play at a high level. Jim Johnson took over in 1999 and his system brought out the best in holdovers like Hugh Douglas, Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, and of course Brian Dawkins.
From 1986-2008 the Eagles had one of the best defenses in the NFL. Heck, they might have the most overall sacks in that period. They ran an attacking 4-3 that punished QBs and made lots of big plays. There were systematic adjustments when the coaches changed, but the changes always seemed to make sense and bring out the best in the existing players. Since then, chaos has reigned.
One reason I do have a bit of optimism is that the new coaches are veterans. McDermott was a first time DC. Castillo was new to defense in the NFL. Bowles was a first time DC and mid-season change. Bill Davis takes over now with a long NFL history and 4 years of DC experience. His numbers aren’t good, but he does know how things work and what the NFL is like. Jerry Azzinaro is a long time DL coach. Rick Minter is new to the NFL, but has been a head coach, DC, and LBs coach in college. Bill McGovern is new to the NFL, but has been a DC and LBs coach in college. John Lovett has a year of NFL experience, but is mostly a college guy. He’ll be working with Toddy Lyght, a former NFL player.
Some of you may wonder if the defensive coaches lack of NFL experience is a major issue. No. Jimmy Johnson’s great staff in Dallas had little to no NFL experience. The Steel Curtain was run by Bud Carson, who came there from Georgia Tech. The 1992 Steelers hired our own Bill Davis and Marvin Lewis straight from college. The 1999 Ravens, run by Marvin Lewis, hired Mike Smith, Rex Ryan, and Donnie Henderson straight out of college. Ryan had a bit of NFL experience working under Buddy in the mid-90′s. You need to hire the right guys. Experience is nice, but not a must.
The coaches may not be NFL experts, but they know defense and they know how to teach. Another important aspect of the staff is that they have some ties to each other. That should help them get along and lead to a more cohesive staff. There will be none of Washburn’s “Juanita” crap this year. It will be easier for the players to respect and follow the staff if they see a group of coaches that works well together and gets along.
Stability. Who in the world ever thought that would be something a defense needed?
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