Buddy Ryan has passed away. He is gone. He will never be forgotten.
Buddy was one of a kind. He was part of great defenses from the 1960s to the 1990s. He believed in attacking QBs in a way that seemed almost over the top, but you can’t argue with the results. He had Top 5 defenses in Minnesota, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston and Arizona. He won Super Bowls with the Jets and the Bears. His 1985 Bears unit is arguably the greatest defense in the history of the NFL. His 46 Defense proved to be a juggernaut that changed the game of football.
Buddy took over as head coach of the Eagles after the 1985 season. He came in promising great teams and Super Bowls. Neither happened. Buddy built good teams and a great defense, but couldn’t get the Eagles over the hump. They went 0-3 in the playoffs from 1988-1990. Losing him was devastating to the players and plenty of fans. Making matters worse, promising young assistant Jeff Fisher was passed over so Rich Kotite could become the Eagles coach. That infuriated fans and players alike.
If you judge Buddy simply on results, he did fail as Eagles coach. I think that is way too simplistic. You need context to understand the impact Buddy had. The NFC East was the best division in football when Buddy arrived. Dallas won the division in 1985 and had controlled the NFC East for most of the previous two decades. The Giants were building a great team and went to the playoffs in 1984 and 1985. The Skins had played in a pair of Super Bowls in recent years, winning one, and had some great teams.
Buddy didn’t see the point in coming into a lion’s den like that quietly. He wanted everyone, especially the Cowboys, to know that the Eagles were going to kick some ass and win some games. While that attitude didn’t deliver results in 1986, the Eagles did finish the season on a 2-1-1 run. They lost a close game to Dallas early on and beat them late. The Giants won the Super Bowl that season. They whipped the Eagles 35-3 in the first meeting, but only won 17-14 in the rematch. Buddy’s team got better as the season went along.
The 1987 season was marred by a strike. Buddy sided with the players and absolutely hated coaching the replacement players for 3 games. The Eagles went 0-3 in those games and 7-5 for the rest of the year. The real players loved the support Buddy showed for them and that helped make them incredibly loyal to him.
From 1988 to 1990 the Eagles were highly inconsistent, but man were they fun to watch. Randall Cunningham led the high-flying offense and delivered some amazing highlight plays. The defense got better each year and punished offenses on a regular basis. Reggie White proved to be a defensive lineman unlike anything the NFL had seen. 300-pound men just weren’t supposed to be that athletic.
The Eagles personified their coach’s attitude. They were the NFL’s bad boys. They wore black cleats, which the NFL didn’t allow. The defense blitzed relentlessly and played with a real edge. Andre Waters was feared throughout the league and is the one player that Emmitt Smith was scared of. The House of Pain Game and the Body Bag Game were both on Monday Night Football and provided plenty of evidence that the Eagles should be feared due to their extremely physical style of play. QBs, RBs and receivers were at risk and more than a few left the field on a cart or getting help from the trainer.
Even defensive players weren’t safe from the Eagles. If Keith Byars saw someone looking the wrong way, he unloaded on them.
Wow. Just wow.
While Buddy did a great job of building the defense and putting together an exciting offense, the team had some fatal flaws. Randall Cunningham was the running game. He led the team in rushing from 1988-1990. The O-line didn’t do a good job of opening holes for the runners and was even worse when it came to protecting the franchise QB. Buddy specialized in building great defensive lines over the years, but he struggled to find good blockers in Philly. There were draft picks, trades and signings. There were also flops, misses and injuries.
Randall didn’t help matters. He was more concerned with becoming a star than being a great QB or Super Bowl winner. Randall idolized Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall more than he did Terry Bradshaw or Joe Montana. Buddy never did have an offensive coach who could really help mold the unit into anything special.
Buddy the head coach never lived up to Buddy the defensive coordinator. He still went 43-35-1 as coach of the Eagles (and 3 of those losses were with the replacement players in 1987).
The 46 Defense is Buddy’s legacy. It changed the game of football and still is influential today.
What made Buddy special wasn’t his ability to draw up X’s and O’s or create complex gameplans, but rather it was his ability to connect with players. He could be an incredible jerk when he wanted to, but once you proved yourself to Buddy, you were a made man. You were in for life. His players were incredibly loyal and speak about him with a kind of reverence to this day.
I have written about ESPN’s 30 For 30 film on the 1985 Bears. Buddy’s relationship with his players was a focal point of that and was very moving. The bond that Mike Singletary and Buddy had was special. They were like father and son. That wasn’t just a player who liked his coach. They almost had a spiritual connection. Buddy pushed Singletary hard, which made him a great player. Singletary’s brains and versatility were exactly what Buddy needed to make the 46 a base defense instead of just a package.
I can’t stress enough that you should watch the 30 For 30 special on the Bears. If you don’t find that moving, you’re probably reading the wrong blog.
It was really odd to see Buddy so frail and vulnerable since we all think of him as the wild, boisterous coach who feared nothing and talked as if he had the world by the tail. Father Time catches up to all of us, even the greatest defensive coach in modern football history.
Buddy is the reason I’m an Eagles fan. I’ll write a separate post on that.
The Eagles drafted LB Joe Walker in the 7th round. At the time, I hadn’t watched enough of him to have a thorough opinion. Since the draft I have gone back and re-watched several games, including his 15-tackle performance against USC. I am a lot more comfortable with Walker as a general prospect and Eagles fit since then.
Walker was a 2-year starter at ILB in Oregon’s 3-4 scheme. He was a STer and key backup prior to that. Walker was a good college player, but not great. He finished with 207 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 FRs and one INT. He was productive, but only a limited playmaker. Walker wasn’t invited to the Senior Bowl or the Combine. He did boost his stock with a strong showing as his Pro Day. Per Gil Brandt:
Linebacker Joe Walker — 6-2 3/8, 236 — was not at the combine. He ran the 40 in 4.56 and 4.58 seconds. He had a 37 1/2 vertical and 10-foot-4 broad jump. He did the short shuttle in 4.31 seconds and the three-cone drill in 6.81 seconds. He performed 23 reps on the bench. Walker could be a sixth- or seventh-round selection in the draft.
Those are terrific numbers. Brandt later listed Walker as one of his draft sleepers. For some perspective, Patrick Willis was 6-1, 242. He ran 4.56, jumped 39 inches and did 22 reps. Willis was a substantially better player, but it is impressive that Walker is that kind of an athlete.
One of the first things that jumped out at me from Walker’s game tape is his tackling. He tries to wrap up his targets and generally goes for the legs. Some LBs try to hit targets to deliver a blow. Walker is a tackler and that’s what you prefer from the MLB. Punishing runners/receivers is a good thing when you are the second defender on the scene, but the primary focus should always be getting the player down.
Walker was protected by Oregon’s front for the most part. All LBs have to take on blockers here and there. Walker can shed blocks, but loves to avoid them using his movement skills. That wasn’t a huge issue in college. It would be more of a factor in the NFL. If you duck away from a blocker and the RB cuts to the other side of the O-lineman, you’ve taken yourself out of the play. Walker has the arm length and upper-body strength to engage and shed blockers. I’m sure that’s something the coaches will focus on in Training Camp. Walker isn’t shy about contact. He will stick his nose in and help shut down inside runs. He is a solid run defender.
I was impressed with Walker as a pass defender. First, he is comfortable playing in space. Some LBs panic a bit when they get out wide or down the field. They want the comfort of being in the tackle box and surrounded by traffic. Walker did something that DeMeco Ryans used to do very well. Walker would hit receivers in their route to try and throw them off. In the NFL, Ryans could only do this in the first 5 yards. College let Walker do it anywhere, as long as the ball wasn’t in the air yet. By hitting the receiver, you can knock him down and take him out of the play completely or throw the timing of the route off. Either way, that’s smart pass defense.
Walker gets good depth on his pass drops. When he’s covering someone man-to-man, Walker can get in the guy’s hip pocket and stay tight. When he’s in zone, Walker will keep things in front of him and then attack when the ball comes that way. I saw one play where he lined up over the slot receiver and covered him tightly until the ball was thrown elsewhere.
Oregon at times would move Walker up on the LOS in some Nickel/Dime looks and then have him blitz or drop. Walker is an effective blitzer. He can shoot gaps or come off the edge. You will see his athletic ability on the field. He’s not just a workout warrior.
Smart. Athletic. Good tackler. Good cover skills. That sounds like the modern NFL LB. You can see why the Eagles wanted him.
The big challenge for Walker is adapting to a scheme that is so different. Instead of reading plays and running laterally a lot, Walker will now be attacking up the field on a regular basis. He will take on blockers quite a bit. The players in front of him will be attacking rather than occupying blockers. Walker’s head was really swimming in minicamp and the OTAs, as the coaches put it. He was learning a lot of information and then having to deal with that on the field and it overwhelmed him a few times.
That’s okay in the spring. That is the time to learn and to make mistakes. It is a classroom on the field. Training Camp is when the players need to know the scheme and to be able to perform at a higher level. There is still plenty of teaching and learning, but you aren’t installing the scheme or basic concepts of the defense. TC is more about execution than knowing assignments and things like that.
Initially I had my doubts about Walker making the team this year. He felt more like a practice squad kind of guy. I’m starting to wonder now if the Eagles aren’t going to take a chance on him. Walker is young and cheap. There is value in that for a backup LB and STer. Obviously the Eagles need Walker to play at a minimal level to consider keeping him. If he struggles this summer, he’ll be headed to the PS. I think the team wants him to make it so they are more likely to grade on a curve, so to speak.
One other reason to like Walker is that I think he can play any of the 3 spots…MLB, WLB or SAM. He’s got the size/speed/strength to handle any of the spots.
Here is some video of him from 2013, as a backup and STer.
This is Walker as a Senior.
I don’t know that Walker ever becomes a starter in the NFL, but I think he can be a good STer and role player.
Walker got a lot of reps at OTAs and minicamp, which makes sense, as the Eagles severely lack depth at linebacker. Walker is a good bet to make the team, and he could be “thrown to the wolves” should the Eagles suffer some injuries at his position. He could also contribute immediately on special teams.
The Eagles are giving Walker every chance to show what he can do. We’ll see if that helps him to impress the coaches and make the team.
The secondary has been a trouble spot for the Eagles in recent years. In 3 of the past 4 seasons, opposing QBs finished with a rating of 91 or higher against the Eagles. That’s not good. Even more troubling, the Eagles have had a decent amount of INTs in that span. Take those away and the rating would be even higher. The Eagles have not covered well.
That might be changing.
Might is the key word, of course. I like what the Eagles have done with the secondary this offseason and wrote about that for PE.com. There are no guarantees this group will pan out as expected, but the moves this year feel so much smarter than some in recent years. Byron Maxwell was overpaid last year and the pressure of that contract affected his play. That won’t be the case with Leodis McKelvin, who got an appropriate deal for his age, talent and production. He just has to be himself.
It would help a great deal if one of the young players plays well. Eric Rowe, JaCorey Shepherd, Jalen Mills and Denzel Rice all have NFL talent. Rowe has some starting experience. Somebody needs to step up. Mills seemed to be that guy this spring. Training Camp will be a whole other challenge and will give us a better idea of who is ready to help this year
Mills was the pleasant surprise at Eagles OTAs and minicamp, impressing the media as well as established veterans. Malcolm Jenkins, for example, went as far as to say that Mills will be competing for a starting spot in 2016. It feels like Mills all but has a roster spot on lock.
That said, training camp is a very different animal when compared to OTAs. At training camp, the Eagles will be putting on the pads, and all indications say that Pederson intends on running a physical camp. Mills was good in coverage at OTAs. He’ll have to show that he can be physical in training camp. I would bet on Mills playing a reserve slot corner role, but any talk of him starting is far too premature.
Mills is good for 15 INTs this year and will clearly be a first-ballot HOF’er.
Some people continue to question why Connor Barwin is playing DE in the new scheme. He is a talented, versatile athlete who would make a lot of sense at SAM. And that’s just where the Eagles might have used him 15 years ago. Football has changed and the SAM position is the defensive equivalent of Fullback. With all the 3-WR sets, something has to give. FB is the spot on offense and SAM on defense.
Barwin is a good player. You want him on the field. Putting him at SAM would be a waste in this defense. You could play him there in some downs and then at DE in others, but that’s not ideal. You have him reporting to a pair of position coaches at that point and trying to do a lot of different things on gameday. The beauty of what Jim Schwartz does is that he tries to keep things simple. He wants LBs to be LBs and DL to be DL.
Schwartz has a group of DEs that now have LB experience. Brandon Graham, Barwin and even Marcus Smith can be used to drop into coverage on the occasional zone blitz. They can do a reasonable job in coverage for the odd play here and there. For the most part, they’ll just be attacking off the edge.
The key to Schwartz’s defense is the DL. He needs a minimum of 5 or 6 legitimately good players up front. The Eagles had Vinny Curry, Graham, Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan. Add in Barwin and you’ve got 5 good DL. The hope is that one or two more will emerge from Marcus Smith, Mike Martin, Taylor Hart, Destiny Vaeao, Beau Allen, Alex McAllister and the rest of the backups. Barwin has real value as a DL in this scheme.
For a football team that has been left standing out in the cold for the past decade or so, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz was taking quite a chance standing in a driveway at 11 p.m. on a chilly Thursday night.
Schwartz was in Tennessee, visiting the home of former Titans’ defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, the Lions’ primary target in free agency.
Because NFL rules stipulate a team can’t make contact with players until midnight, Schwartz flew down to Nashville and drove to Vanden Bosch’s house without the player’s knowledge.
“I was shocked,” Vanden Bosch said. “I was kind of gearing up all day, waiting for 11 o’clock (Central time) and wondering what was going to happen.
“Coach Schwartz called me at 11:01 p.m. and said ‘I’m a block from your house, can you give me a minute?’ He said, ‘I could be anywhere (in the country) right now, but I’m coming to talk to you because you’re the guy I want.’ That meant a lot to me and set the tone for getting the deal done this morning.”
Three years later Vanden Bosch, Schwartz and the Lions pulled off a 10-6 season and advanced to the playoffs as an NFC Wild Card team.
“Having played for coach Schwartz in Tennessee I knew what he was capable of,” said Vanden Bosch. “He’s not only a great X’s and O’s guy. He relates well to players. He motivates players. He challenges the leaders of the team and gives them a lot of responsibility. I knew he was the right man for that challenge and I was honored that he picked me to be part of that turnaround.”
Schwartz was the defensive coordinator in Tennessee when they signed Vanden Bosch back in 2005. Vanden Bosch had 35.5 sacks and 12 FFs in the 4 years that he played DE for Schwartz with the Titans. When Schwartz took over the awful Lions, he knew he needed help on and off the field. That’s why he went so hard after Vanden Bosch as a free agent in 2010.
Vanden Bosch was a good DE. He was an incredibly hard worker on and off the field. He made a ton of hustle plays in his career. And he worked extremely hard in the weight room and on the practice field to make the most of his ability. Vanden Bosch did his part to help the community. He was a strong leader that other players respected.
Does any of that sound familiar?
Vanden Bosch was 6-4, 278 at one point in his career. I’m not sure he kept on all that weight. Barwin was 6-4, 256 when he came into the league. I’m guessing he’s still in that same range. Maybe he will bulk up in the 260-pound range this year. I think Vanden Bosch is the better pure pass rusher and is a bit quicker off the ball, but Barwin is more versatile and a better overall athlete.
Barwin isn’t an explosive pass rusher. He does have good quickness, but he is at his best when using his strength to get blockers off balance. That’s when you see those highlight plays were Barwin tosses OL around.
I think some people too often see a player’s success or failure as strictly on him. Circumstances do matter.
Joe Montana went to the perfect situation when Bill Walsh drafted him. Montana had good talent, but that turned out to be the ideal system for his skills and athleticism. And Walsh was a good teacher who could be tough when needed. He wasn’t a butt-kisser or a tyrant. He was able to push the players firmly, but fairly and that helped them to thrive under him.
If Montana went elsewhere he almost certainly wouldn’t be thought of as a Top 5 all-time QB. He might have been Jake Plummer, a flawed star who had some special moments. Or he might have just been A.J. Feeley, the backup and spot starter who looked good enough at moments to make you think (wrongly) he could be your full-time starter. Montana could have been a total failure had he gone to the wrong team and been put in really bad circumstances.
Mike Vrabel was a 3rd round pick by the Steelers. He played in 51 games, but never started for them. He was a backup and STs player. Vrabel just didn’t fit what they did and had 7 sacks over his 4 seasons there. Then he went to New England and became one of the key players on a dynasty. Vrabel won 3 Super Bowls. He was incredibly versatile and was a clutch player. His stats are pretty good and still don’t come close to telling the impact he had. What does his career look like if Bill Belichick didn’t sign him?
I bring all of this up because Brandon Lee Gowton wrote a piece for BGN that got me to thinking about Brandon Graham and his career to this point. BLG focused on Graham and his relationship with DL coaches.
“The low point [of my career] was when [Washburn] was here,” Graham said last summer. “That was my low point. Because Wash would make you feel bad, like you can’t play at all. I think once they broke him up and they finally gave me the opportunity, I was kind of in a better mood of just trying to go out there and do what I can.”
Graham moved to 3-4 outside linebacker the season after Washburn got fired but now he’s back to being a defensive end in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 scheme. The good news for Graham is that he appears to have a much better relationship with his new defensive line coach than he did with Washburn.
“I love him, man,” said Graham when asked about his initial impression of Eagles defensive line coach Chris Wilson. “I think he’s a guy that’s going to get us better. He’s all about the basics and all about the little, tiny things. For us, that’s all we can ask for, is a coach that’s going to coach us on the little things as far as footwork, hand placement, things like that. All the little basic stuff you tend to forget when you get to this level because people expect you to know and do it on your own. With him, he’s definitely a technician.”
Jim Washburn was a great DL coach, but also an incredible jackass and mean SOB. Some players he loved (Jason Babin, Albert Haynesworth), others not so much. I never got the feeling he was a huge fan of Vinny Curry. It doesn’t sound like he cared much for Graham. There is nothing wrong with being hard on players, but you do need it to help them. If being too hard is counter-productive with that player, change things up. Washburn didn’t know how to do that.
Washburn is long since gone and Graham has liked the coaches he’s dealt with since then. His level of play has gotten better, which is crucial. If you complain about a coach hurting your performance, you sure better improve when he’s gone. Graham backed up his words with actions.
I’m excited to see what BG can do this year. He’ll be turned loose. He’ll be playing 4-3 DE (no more LB!!!) and can go get the QB on a regular basis. I’m not expecting him to turn into Reggie White, but this should be the best year of his career.
It really is amazing that Graham made himself into a solid LB. The way he looked back in 2013, you thought the Statue of Liberty would have made a better OLB than him. Kudos to BG for making the best of an awkward situation. Now he’s back to being a DE and doing what the Eagles originally drafted him for.
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