When hiring someone regarded as an innovative, offensive mastermind as head coach, its fair to expect plenty of attention to be paid to the offensive side of the ball. This is especially true as Chip Kelly inherits an Eagles offense loaded with polarizing and explosive players such as Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy along with several other quality starters and backups. There are a million different items to discuss about the Eagles’ offense under Chip Kelly and what will become of it, but here I want to focus attention the defense, a unit I believe will surprise some people this season.
The 2012 Eagles’ defense wasn’t just poor, it wasn’t just bad, it was downright awful. The combination of questionable coaching, a gimmicky defensive line scheme, the decline of several key players, and terrible individual attitudes on defense contributed to a 4-12 implosion and a great deal of embarrassment for the organization and fans. Change was imminent, and change meant a complete uprooting of everything we had been watching the past two seasons.
Out are Juan Castillo, Todd Bowles, Jim Washburn, and all the other defensive names that Eagles fans never want to hear again. In is Bill Davis. It is easy to be underwhelmed by him and concerned about him leading the defense. Despite being a defensive coach in the NFL since 1992, Davis has an underwhelming track record. The Eagles are his tenth organization in the NFL. He has served as a position coach for the first twelve years before being hired as Mike Nolan’s defensive coordinator in 2005 with the 49ers. Davis served as defensive coordinator for the 49ers from 2005-2006 and for the Cardinals from 2009-2010. Davis’ 49ers defenses finished 32nd and 26th in the league, respectively, and his Cardinals defenses finished 20th and 29th, respectively.
The optimist points to the fact that Davis worked with very limited talent, and that is a valid point in his days in San Francisco. He had nowhere near the talent to work with that the 49ers have now. His Arizona defense was much better talent-wise, but in the end they failed to make the league’s top 20 defenses. Davis brings to Philadelphia a 3-4 defensive scheme that he says will also include elements of the 4-3. It sounds great, but I believe eventually he will commit to just one, which will be the 3-4. That is what he has known and coached for two decades.
This Eagles defense has definitive talent. The 3-man front has two strong pieces in veteran at nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, and an emerging star at defensive end in Fletcher Cox. DeMeco Ryans (below) is a star in this league at inside linebacker, as well as team leader and strong presence to rely on. He teams inside with Mychal Kendricks, who had a formidable rookie campaign and will get to move back to the position where he starred at the University of California. 26-year-old Connor Barwin will be one of the outside linebackers as he looks to return to 2011 form where he had 11.5 sacks for Houston. It remains to be seen if Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, or anyone else can fit the bill at the other outside spot.
I believe the secondary will be hit or miss, so to speak. They will have games where they are spectacular and games where they are awful. No matter who wins the starting cornerback jobs, the Eagles will sport young, talented, but inexperienced corners. In Patrick Chung, Kenny Phillips, and Nate Allen, the Eagles have plenty of young talent at safety that just can’t seem to stay on the field.
The front seven will be the anchor of the defense. Davis specializes in coaching linebackers and lineman, and the Eagles have some real underrated talent at those positions. In the next 2-4 years, I truly believe the Eagles defense can be one of the most feared units in the league. Can they do that behind a largely unsuccessful coordinator in Bill Davis? Yes. This is not saying it will happen, but it certainly can.
Before being hired as Andy Reid’s defensive coordinator in 1999, Jim Johnson had a largely unimpressive resume. He had failed in a brief head coaching stint in Indianapolis. Outside of than that, he had floated around several other organizations and colleges as a position coach. Johnson, however, went on to become one of the greatest defensive coaches of this generation. He produced a coaching tree that will continue to impact the NFL for years to come, with the likes of Ron Rivera and John Harbaugh coming from Johnson’s tutelage.
This is not a definitive prediction that Bill Davis will match the success of and/or leave behind the legacy that Jim Johnson did. However, what should be taken from the comparison is that it is too early to judge Davis is a coordinator. He has been in the league for many years and has a lot of experience under his belt, and Philadelphia might be where he achieves true success as a defensive coordinator. He may not find that success this year or he may never find extended success with the Eagles. However, this Eagles defense quietly has pieces in place to surprise some people this year and potentially carry the team while Chip Kelly sorts out the pieces on offense.