More on Character

Posted: July 2nd, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 35 Comments »

There were some interesting questions and comments after yesterday’s post on character.

I wrote that you wouldn’t want a team full of choirboys. Someone asked why not. Football, even modern football, is a violent game. You are asking men to attack each other for 3 hours. You can find some intelligent, well-adjusted people to do this, but not 53. At some point you are going to have to take chances on questionable character types if you are trying to assemble a talented team to win games.

There is no way the 53 best players available to you are high character guys. You can pass on them, but that talent will go elsewhere and then your team of choirboys has to deal with teams that have more talent. You have to take some chances to have a realistic shot to compete with the best teams.

The Eagles took a chance when they drafted DeSean Jackson. He fell to the 2nd round because of character concerns. Most of those concerns didn’t come true in the NFL. He was a good risk.

King Dunlap got benched in his Senior season at Auburn. The coaches were frustrated with him and sat him to play a freshman. That killed Dunlap’s draft value. The Eagles took a chance in the 7th round and he has had a solid NFL career.

There were character questions with Winston Justice as a prospect. Character was never an issue with him in the NFL. Getting married and becoming a father helped him to mature. His issues were all football related.

Both Lito Sheppard and Freddie Mitchell had maturity questions coming out of college. Both players had maturity issues in the NFL.

You have to take some chances. The key is to limit those chances and be smart about them.

I think a big problem is that we tend to hear “character” and immediately think of a rapist, wife-beater or drug user. Character isn’t always that extreme. Sometimes maturity is the question. Maybe a player has a huge ego and that’s a concern. Maybe a player’s temper makes him a potential problem. With Danny Watkins, the problem was dedication to the game. He just didn’t love football. To many coaches, that’s the biggest sin of all. They can live with other issues if a player lives and dies to get on the field.

Someone brought up my Michael Irvin example and mentioned Irvin would be getting suspended in today’s game. I agree. I wasn’t mentioning Irvin as someone I liked, but he’s a great example of the true problem of talent vs character. He produced. He was a team leader. He helped his team win big. It is easy to talk about not wanting or getting rid of unproven or marginal headaches. Greg Hardy wasn’t that good on the field last year. Not bringing him back wasn’t an overly tough decision. Coaching someone like Irvin or Lawrence Taylor would be so much tougher. Great players with serious issues. It is much harder to do the right thing when that guy is a star player with a Super Bowl ring on his finger.

I don’t think you can make a permanent rule. I think you must judge things on a case-by-case basis. What kind of a team do you have that year? What are the concerns with a prospect? Is the risk worth the reward? And so on.

*****

NFL.com ranked Doug Pederson as the league’s worst coach. I can live with that, but not their logic. Go read Jimmy Bama’s post. He breaks down the situation perfectly

It is fair to rank Pederson last, but that logic is terrible.

*****

RIP Buddy.

Dave Spadaro wrote a nice piece on Buddy’s funeral.

I love the fact that so many former players are so loyal. Speaks to the bond Buddy had with his guys.

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Bad Boys

Posted: July 1st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 40 Comments »

Talent vs character. You don’t want a team full of choirboys, but you also don’t want players you can’t trust. Finding the right balance is incredibly challenging. When you get it right, you often have a championship team. Get it wrong, and success will come and go because high talent/low character players can’t be trusted from week to week, let alone year to year.

The Eagles have made character a key in player acquisition for years. Howie Roseman took that up a notch in 2010 and then Chip Kelly made it The Point of Emphasis. You can argue the merits of just how important character is. I think it is important that a team not draw any lines in the sand. There are exceptions to every rule. If you can find the right exception, you might have one heck of a player.

The tougher question really involves what good character is. Michael Irvin used drugs. He partied like a madman. He made sure hookers weren’t going hungry. That was Irvin the person. Irvin the player was a hard worker that gave maximum effort every Sunday. He took practice seriously and worked his tail off during the week.

Would you rather have Irvin or Jordan Matthews or Jason Avant?

I mention Matthews and Avant because both were high character players. They weren’t as talented as Irvin, but that’s the trade-off. If you have talent and character, you obviously take that player. Usually you lose some talent when you pass on a player with character issues.

I think it is okay to take some chances on players, but you have to be careful. Have you been paying attention to Dallas?

Ouch.

Dallas has taken a lot of chances recently. They signed Greg Hardy last year. They signed LB Rolando McClain the year before. They drafted DEs Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. That’s a lot of resources spent on turds. And those guys have all been suspended or caused significant problems. Their performances have not been worth the headaches.

Rex Ryan had a saying in Baltimore that a bunch of ants could carry a cockroach. The Ravens were willing to take a chance on a player, but only because they had a good nucleus of hard workers and strong leaders to help deal with the questionable player. Dallas did not have a strong core of players who could bring out the best in troubled guys. And really, I’m not sure a good core can deal with that many questionable guys.

The Eagles took a chance on Jalen Mills and Alex McCalister this year. Mills is playing in a secondary with strong character guys like Malcolm Jenkins, Nolan Carroll and Chris Maragos. Other players like Eric Rowe, JaCorey Shepherd and Rodney McLeod seem to be high character guys.

McCalister is a DE playing with Connor Barwin, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry. Barwin is a great team leader. Graham and Curry are hard workers that have done enough to earn second contracts with the Eagles. They will set a good example for McCalister on what he needs to do to succeed.

One of the other keys here is the investment. Mills and McCalister were late round picks. Dallas spent good money on Hardy. Lawrence and Gregory were high picks. Those players were expected to deliver big results because of the resources used to acquire them. All were expected to be starters or key players. When they screw up, it really hurts the team.

Another factor to consider is long term trust. McClain signed with Dallas in 2014 and had a terrific season. He played up to his talent level, which is considerable. The Cowboys were impressed enough to bring him back last year. McClain was then suspended for the first 4 games of 2015 for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. When he came back, McClain was up and down. Dallas decided he was worth bringing back again. Oops. Now he is suspended for 10 games. I assume they’ll get a steal when they sign him for 2017.

Think about a guy like Jason Pierre-Paul. The Eagles were one of several teams that didn’t have him on their draft board due to character concerns. JPP wasn’t a criminal or anything like that, but there were issues about his partying and work ethic. He had a solid rookie season in 2010 and then exploded in 2011. He had 16.5 sacks and looked like a dominant figure for years to come. JPP’s play fell dramatically in 2012 and 2013. He was better in 2014 and then had the dreadful fireworks accident prior to last season.

One of the reasons that JPP’s play fell off was that he quit working as hard in the offseason. He let success get to his head. He partied more than he should have and didn’t handle his business. The fireworks incident last year was dumb. You’re a professional athlete. Why take the chance on playing with backyard explosives?

JPP was a great player for one season and helped the Giants win a Super Bowl. Since then, he’s been erratic at best. In the end he’s probably a smart pick because he helped you win the title, but he’s also fool’s gold because you can’t trust him.

I think Jerry Jones was too relaxed on character and I think Chip Kelly was too strict. There has to be a bit of a middle ground, where you take a chance here and there. And all chances are not equal. Jalen Mills was involved in an incident. He doesn’t have a history of being a troublemaker. He hasn’t been a regular at the courthouse. That makes you more comfortable with taking a chance on him. McClain has a slew of events in his past. Relying on him was dumb.

Would Denver have won it all last year without Aqib Talib and Von Miller, who have each had issues? Would Seattle have won without Marshawn Lynch, who was let go by the Bills in part because of his off-field issues? Remember that Percy Harvin was also part of that team. This isn’t just about recent years either. Brett Favre was chugging beer and popping pills when the Packers won the title. We all know what Dallas was doing when they won 3 titles.

Sometimes bad boys win.

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The Importance of Jim Schwartz

Posted: June 30th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 42 Comments »

Marion Campbell is an underrated defensive mind and was a terrific defensive coordinator. He helped the Eagles reach the Super Bowl in 1980.

Buddy Ryan helped build the Eagles from a team that couldn’t win into a team that was on the verge of being an NFL powerhouse.

Bud Carson took over the defense in 1991 and helped the team win a playoff game after the 1992 season.

Jim Johnson became the defensive coordinator in 1999 and helped the Eagles reach 5 NFC title games and one Super Bowl.

Since Johnson passed away, the Eagles have had Sean McDermott, Juan Castillo and Bill Davis serve as the full-time DC’s for the team. And in that span the Eagles have been to just 3 playoff games. They have lost them all.

For whatever reason, it seems the Eagles are an organization that needs a defensive guru to run that side of the ball. Thankfully Doug Pederson did not try to go find an up and coming coach, but instead hired a proven DC who can deliver strong results. There is no guarantee that Schwartz will deliver great results, but he’s got a strong track record and should do a good job here.

All of these defensive gurus were tough, demanding coaches. They could be hard on their players. They also were great motivators. Players wanted to excel for them. There was a line in Tim Kawakami’s great piece on Buddy Ryan that really resonated with me.

What I learned from watching Buddy Ryan’s teams, and talking to Buddy, and to his players: Fear is a part of every NFL game, and if you can instill fear in your opponent, you cannot lose.

Now, sometimes Ryan and his teams went over the line. But pro football players–especially defensive players–want to be pushed, want to be on the attack, and want to intimidate their opponent.

Because they know that this game isn’t for the meek. Really, no professional sport is about that at all.

I don’t think it has ever occurred to me to focus on the primal nature of defense and defensive players. Defenders want to inflict pain. They don’t want to injure opponents, but they want to make them hurt at the end of every play. You aren’t going to get players to go out and punish opponents by being nice and encouraging them. You need someone who can push buttons and really drive his players to the edge. Not over the edge, but to it.

This isn’t just about being tough and macho. All of these defensive coaches could put together complex gameplans. Players had to be smart if they were going to succeed in those schemes.

Jim Schwartz runs a simpler system than the defensive gurus we’re talking about here, but don’t be fooled into thinking Schwartz just rolls the ball out there and yells “Attack!”. He will design creative blitzes. He will use stunts and loops with his DL. He will mix up coverages to keep offenses from knowing exactly what to expect.

Schwartz will tailor his system to the players he has. If the Eagles can run a basic system and get the best of offenses, so be it. If Schwartz needs to be more creative and aggressive, he will do that. The key is that he wants his players to attack. Rather than focus on being creative, he wants to find the best way to get his players to make plays, especially behind the line of scrimmage.

Chip Kelly and Bill Davis always talked about the need to confuse opposing QBs. Maybe. If you are Greg Maddux and can get batters out with movement and deception, so be it. If you are Nolan Ryan and can overwhelm them with 99 mph fastballs, why the heck would you worry about confusion? Do what you do best. The point isn’t to outsmart the opponent, but rather to pound him into submission.

Over the years, Schwartz has shown that he has a good feel for the appropriate balance of brains and brawn. You want players to be smart, but also fast and physical. Too much thinking can be a bad thing.

Think about Mychal Kendricks. He has the ability to be a good LB. He was in Pro Bowl consideration after the 2014 season. Instead of building on that, he took a step back in 2015. Kendricks didn’t lose speed or strength. Something got into his head. He lost his confidence and began guessing while out on the field. That led to him getting out of position on even some basic plays and having some rough moments.

Schwartz is going to tell Kendricks to quit thinking. Instead, go attack a specific gap. If the ball is there, tackle it. If not, find it and go hit the QB/RB/TE/WR who has it. Seek and destroy.

I don’t know that Schwartz will be dusting off Ray Rhodes speeches that began “Imagine an intruder is in your house and has a gun to your wife’s head…”, but I do expect Schwartz to do a much better job of connecting with these players on a primal level and motivating them to perform better than in recent years. He was able to get players to buy into his ideas in Buffalo, Detroit and Tennessee.

The days of toolboxes and dinner with the Matthews family are over. Schwartz is going to tell the Eagles defense to go knock the crap out of the opponent, over and over and over. If the players listen and buy in, the defense can produce some really impressive results.

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Unforgettable

Posted: June 29th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 68 Comments »

Buddy Ryan has passed away. He is gone. He will never be forgotten.

Never.

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.

Mike Singletary Chicago BearsJanuary 27, 1986S 587credit:  Bill Smith - spec

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.

*****

Some good links.

Chicago Tribune on Buddy

Dan Pompei’s personal memories

Great piece by Tim Kawakami

Good stuff from Roob

Bill Lyon shares his thoughts

Les Bowen on how Buddy made Philly an Eagles town

PE.com on Buddy’s passing

Dave Spadaro on Buddy

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Joe Walker

Posted: June 27th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 106 Comments »

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.

*****

Jimmy Bama’s take.

Joe Walker, LB, 7th round

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.

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