Philly's Inferno

A sports fan’s opinion through the lens of Philadelphia’s seventh circle of hell.

Month: January, 2013

Jim Leavitt – The Eagles Defensive Coordinator Candidate Lurking in the Shadows

At the end of Chip Kelly’s first season as the University of Oregon’s offensive coordinator, he found himself standing on a Sun Bowl sideline in El Paso, Texas.  For a moment he scratched his head.  This South Florida team is pesky.  Oregon had opened the scoring in the first quarter when QB Justin Roper, filling in for injured star QB Dennis Dixon, threw a seven yard touchdown pass to Garren Strong and converted on a two-point conversion.  Kelly set the tone.  But the Bulls wouldn’t go away.  Their defense was good.  After the teams traded field goals, South Florida QB Matt Grothe orchestrated a drive that resulted in a touchdown, then tossed a pass to convert the Bulls’ own two-point conversion, tying the game at 11 midway through the second quarter.  It was a gutsy move by the South Florida coach.  But, Lot of game left, Kelly thought…

***

The Philadelphia media have followed meticulously both the Eagles head coach search and the subsequent hiring of Chip Kelly’s coaching staff.  It’s been a frustrating search for fans because of Kelly’s refusal to announce his staff until it is complete.  This has led to a lot of conjecture, assumption, and speculation.   By all accounts, the highest profile position that needs to be filled on Kelly’s staff remains defensive coordinator, a position linked at one time to University of Georgia DC Todd Grantham, and most recently to San Francisco 49ers secondary coach Ed Donatell and Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach Ted Monachino.  Grantham’s name has since been removed, but reports indicate that the Eagles have waited this long to hire a DC because, like Donatell and Monachino, he currently resides on a staff playing in the Super Bowl.  But judging by the frequency of erroneous reports surrounding Chip Kelly’s hire, and given the Eagles’ current cloak of silence, the media may have missed a coaching candidate or two.  And if we have learned anything during this whole process, it’s that the Eagles have a proclivity for surprises.  It’s quite possible then, that there is a yet-to-be known defensive coordinator candidate on a current Super Bowl team lurking in the media-cast shadows, and if there is, his name is Jim Leavitt.

The 2007 Sun Bowl matchup between Oregon and South Florida may represent the first meeting between Leavitt and Chip Kelly.  At the time, Leavitt was the head coach of a South Florida team that didn’t even exist ten years prior.  Kelly’s offense eventually adjusted to Leavitt’s defensive scheme, overpowering South Florida on its way to a 56-21 victory.  But Leavitt made an impact on Kelly that day.  Kelly has said that he wants smart people on his staff, the right people, and Jim Leavitt has since demonstrated that he is smart, and might be right.  He is credited with not only building an NCAA Division I-A (FBS) football program from scratch, but also fielding a competitive team with a quickness envied by more established, floundering schools.  South Florida began playing in division I-AA in 1997 and finished the season with five wins and six losses, amazingly the only year aside from 2004 in which the Bulls finished with a losing record.  After four seasons in I-AA, South Florida jumped to I-A in 2001, playing as an Independent for two years before becoming a member of Conference USA.  Then in 2005, South Florida moved to the Big East, where they played in six consecutive Bowl games until Leavitt’s departure for the NFL in 2010.

Leavitt is a defensive coach.  Under his reign, South Florida’s defense was often ranked as one of the top 25 defenses in college football.  But before leading South Florida, Leavitt was defensive coordinator at Kansas State, where he is credited with developing one of the top five defenses in the country, if not the best.  During the 1995 season, Leavitt’s squad recorded three consecutive shutouts en route to a ten-win season and a victory in the Holiday Bowl over Colorado State.   Today, Leavitt has for two years overseen the fearful linebacker corps for the San Francisco 49ers, a unit that includes Patrick Willis (120 tackles), Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks), and NaVorro Bowman, the third year player from Penn State who leads the team in tackles.

However, despite his successes, Leavitt does not come without baggage.  His departure from South Florida was rather unceremonious.  In 2010 Leavitt was fired for an incident during halftime of a 2009 game against Louisville in which he was accused of striking a player.  Leavitt claimed he was consoling the player, but South Florida officials found that he may have been lying.  Leavitt was given several opportunities to admit to what actually happened, but stuck to his story.  He was eventually fired, not for the incident itself, but primarily for the manner in which he handled it afterwards.  So the question becomes, does this black mark on his resume overshadow his college and NFL successes?  Leavitt has otherwise established that he has the rising-star potential the Eagles seem to covet, the intelligence that Kelly desires in an NFL defensive coordinator, and perhaps the passion and fire sought by Eagles fans on the defensive side of the ball.  At the very least Leavitt seems to be as intriguing a candidate as any other.  So it should be no surprise if he makes the transition from Eagles candidate to coach.

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From Bryzzly Bear to Barely Bryz and Back Again

For whom Paul Holmgren gave up, Ilya Bryzgalov needed to be worth it.  Holmgren, whose stone-chiseled jaw, flattened nose, graying hair and intense eyes illustrate the rigors of an NHL career, both on ice and off, traded away two of the Flyers’ best contributors, Jeff Carter and captain Mike Richards to Columbus and Los Angeles in order to free enough cap space to sign Bryzgalov.  Given the risk, the gamble needed to pay off.  But on October 27, 2011, after a home game against Winnipeg in which the Flyers lost 9-8, it didn’t appear it would.  Bryzgalov gave up four goals in a period and a half before getting pulled by Peter Laviolette, and afterwards Bryzgalov was confusingly insecure, “I have zero confidence in myself right now.  I am terrible.”  Despite his personal uncertainties and unique philosophies on the universe, Bryzgalov eventually settled in and peaked in March when he posted three consecutive shutouts and set a franchise mark for longest scoreless streak.  Yet he regressed and could not carry that success into the playoffs, where, in two series, Bryzgalov was 5-6 with a 3.46 goals against average and an .887 save percentage.  Along with the fans, Holmgren was rightfully disappointed, admitting that Bryzgalov’s job “is to stop pucks and help us win games.  It’s not Comedy Central.”  Adding salt to the wound was the fact that Jeff Carter was reunited with Mike Richards in Los Angeles, the team that claimed Lord Stanley’s Cup.  Homgren’s gamble seemingly failed at the outset.  But really, why the disappointment?  Bryzgalov’s maddening play is demonstrative of his past, and should have been expected.

That Bryzgalov has talent is undeniable.  During the 05-06 season when he filled in for injured Anaheim Ducks starting goalie Jean-Sebastian Giguere, he also recorded three consecutive shutouts in two playoff series against Calgary and Colorado.  However, as has often become the case, he cooled off and eventually was replaced by Giguere and the Ducks lost to Edmonton in the semi-finals.  After the Ducks re-signed Giguere to a four-year deal that resulted in Bryzgalov seeing limited ice time in the ’07 season, he was placed on waivers and picked up by the Phoenix Coyotes.  During that 07-08 season on a Phoenix team with some weaknesses, Bryzgalov was adequate, finishing the season with 28 wins and 25 losses, ranking fifteenth in goals against (2.44) and tenth in save percentage (.920).   But his 08-09 season in Phoenix was disappointing.  Bryzgalov played in 65 games and failed to lead his team to the playoffs, winning 26 games again, but losing 31.  Bryzgalov ranked 38th in goals against (2.98) and 30th in save percentage (.906).   It wasn’t until the 09-10 season that the Bryzgalov rollercoaster returned to the form that Phoenix expected.  He posted career bests in wins (42) and goals against (2.29) with a .920 save percentage, leading the Coyotes to a fourth-seed in the Western conference.  He saw similar success during the 10-11 regular season, but where Bryzgalov faltered was during the playoffs.  In seven games during the 2010 post season, he posted a 3.44 goals against average and a .906 save percentage, only to be worse during the 2011 playoffs, when in four first round games against Detroit, he struggled mightily, saving only 4.36 goals per game and blocking 88.7% of the shots he saw.  Following that season, Bryzgalov’s rights were traded to the Flyers, a team that waffled between three goaltenders: Sergei Bobrovsky, Brian Boucher, and Michael Leighton.  It’s questionable why Holmgren, in desperate need of consistency, thought Bryzgalov, with his numerous lows,  would be the one to provide it given his inconsistent past.  It’s questionable that is, until you witness his highs.

Those highs were on display for the Flyers Saturday night against an outmatched Florida Panthers team.  Philadelphia sports columnist Bill Lyon once wrote this of hockey net-minders:  “By temperament and tradition, goaltenders have tended to be, for the most part, quiet eccentrics, dealing with their demons alone.”  However, that was well before he met Ilya Bryzgalov.  He is of a different mold, in a different time, freely offering his opinions of self and philosophies on life.  It’s hard to get inside the head of a mad man.  And by psychological definition he could be mad, judging by his bi-polar tendencies.  But it’s amazing to see how Bryzgalov can morph from a near incompetent and personally defeated “Barely Bryz” to the supremely indominatable “Bryzzly Bear”.  Against Florida, the Bryzzly Bear was on display and was magical.  Thirty times the puck met his pad, glove, stick or body.  Only once did it meet the twine in the back of the net.  Bryzgalov was playing with anticipation, playing with his defense, and fueling confidence to his teammates.  This was the Bryzgalov Holmgren’s steely stare envisioned in 2011.  But enough gambling.  Enough hedging of bets.  Now, as they are frequently required and not so fond of doing, Holmgren and Laviolette must find a way to keep the Bryzzly Bear going, possibly an easier task given this shortened season.  But a warning… History shows Barely Bryz may be peering around the bend.

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Fleeting Bits of Tid: On Delmon, Donatell, and Hopeful Fevers

I often have ideas for stories that aren’t very substantive.  Bill Lyon called them “Sudden thoughts and second thoughts”.  So here you go…

Ruben Amaro’s signing of Delmon Young is a very low-risk, high-reward proposition for a player with baggage and potential.  A one year contract for a guaranteed $750,000 is a small gamble for a player who was 10th in AL MVP voting as recently as 2010.  But what he possesses in potential he may lack in heart, hustle, and attitude; necessary requisites for a successful Philadelphia pro-athlete.  If anything this signing could be an attempt by the Phillies to push Domonic Brown into some increased level of adequacy.  However, good ol’ Rube does not have a successful history of these kinds of off-season signings, especially recently.  See Willis, Dontrelle.

***

Like everyone, I was surprised by the Chip Kelly hire, impressed by his press conference, and sold on how he seems to have embraced the Eagles franchise (and not just the task at hand).  However, I am not as impressed with the reports of interest in San Francisco defensive backs coach Ed Donatell as a candidate for defensive coordinator.  He has been attributed with building a formidable secondary for the 49ers (ranked 4th in the NFL), but in his seven years as a defensive coordinator with Green Bay and Atlanta (2000-2006) his pass defenses have ranked (in chronological order) 19th, 15th, 3rd, 23rd, 22nd, 14th, and 29th.  I didn’t see how Chip Kelly could possibly be impressed with that resume, so I transposed those results to the 2012 season.  If the passing yards for Donatell’s defenses occurred during this 2012 season, his 2000-2006 passing defenses would rank 9th, 3rd, 2nd, 8th, 11th, 3rd, and 18th.  Quite different.  Looking at this another way, here is how Pittsburgh’s 2012 number one-ranked passing defense would rank from 2000-2006: 7th, 6th, 3rd, 8th, 7th, 9th, and 4th.  The point here is that the NFL has indeed become more of a passing league, even since 2006.  And let’s not forget Donatell was Green Bay’s scapegoat after being victimized by “4th and 26”.  But maybe Kelly is taking stock in Donatell’s recent success with the 49ers, if not looking at his resume a little more differently than most.  Admittedly, it would be pretty cool to see teenage mutant turtles sporting Eagles jerseys at home games.

***

Philadelphia has a basketball team playing poorly, but don’t pull the plug just yet.  Philly basketball still has a heartbeat and a strong pulse.  Thanks to Villanova and LaSalle, Philly basketball is alive.  Wednesday night LaSalle (13-5, 3-2 A-10) came away with a great home win over ninth-ranked perennial field-of-64-nuisance Butler.  After the victory, the students left their seats for the court to celebrate LaSalle’s first win over a top-10 opponent since 1980, and Philadelphia’s first win over a top-10 opponent since… well… since Villanova’s (10-7) win over fifth-ranked Louisville a week ago that resulted in another court-storming.  Alert… February Fever is about to sweep the city.  If left untreated, the potential exists for an increase in severity to March Madness.

***

Speaking of, the Flyers are playing feverish hockey… and that ain’t a good thing.  After Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils (ugh), the Flyers are now 0-3 to start a season for the first time since 1995.  But wait, there was another, more recent time the Flyers were 0-3.  In May 2010, the Flyers dug themselves into a 0-3 series hole against the Boston Bruins only to win the series in an incredibly memorable Game 7 instant classic (who can forget Laviolette’s timeout, “We need one goal!”).  That seemed to turn out “OK”, and that 0-3 start in 1995 didn’t turn out so bad either – the Flyers eventually became the one-seed in the Eastern Conference.  Yes, this lockout-shortened season is different, especially with a schedule heavily laden with divisional opponents.  But hey, this is Philadelphia, where misery loves company and hope springs eternal.  And history repeats itself, right?

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On God and Ray Lewis – Is God not an Eagles Fan?

I followed Jerome onto the cold, hard AstroTurf field.  It became dark, still and silent.  The echoes that I once heard, for a moment, ceased.  Ahead of us a light formed in the area of the fifty yard line.  Football players on bended knee appeared in a circle, first a few, then many, perhaps dozens, perhaps one hundred or more.  They wore many uniforms.  Some were Eagles, some Giants and Cowboys, and Broncos and Browns.  One man stood amongst them, surrounded.  He wore the green and silver and his deep raspy voice spoke with conviction about Christ and thankfulness and humility and moral responsibility.  He wore the number ninety-two, and the men kneeling before him listened intently.

***

Sports often serve as a reflection of society.  They mirror society’s rules and corruptions, victories and defeats, successes and failures.  As a result, spirituality will always have a place in sports, and football is no exception (Note: I use the term “spirituality” here rather than “religion” in order to encompass all religions, as well as faith in God outside of religion).  This was illustrated Sunday when Ray Lewis was interviewed by ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio after Baltimore’s win over New England.  Lewis, who reached the Super Bowl for the second time in his career by overcoming a torn triceps and is retiring at the end of the season, was overwhelmed with emotion: “When you sacrifice something for God, he will give you anything your heart desires… No weapon formed against me shall prosper.  No weapon formed against this team shall prosper.”  Aside from the fact that people sacrifice for God daily and receive nothing in return (nor do they expect it), it is wonderful that Ray Lewis is an extremely spiritual man and lives by his faith in God.  Does this mean that God is a Ravens fan?  If God is backing the Ravens based on either Ray Lewis’ or the team’s collective level of spirituality, then…

… Ray Lewis is more spiritual than Tony Gonzalez (poor guy).

… The Ravens will win the Super Bowl (place bets now).

… Reggie White must have been more spiritual with the Packers than with the Eagles.

… When Freddie Mitchell jokingly thanked God for his hands, he cost the Eagles a Super Bowl (asshole).

… God is not an Eagles fan.

… Tim Tebow should be on the Eagles roster yesterday so he can out-pray the NFL and lead Philadelphia to the “Promised Land”.

Obviously, these are silly.  But historically, humans have used God to explain the unexplainable, until the unexplainable is eventually explained, like the weather, electricity, or taxes (yes, the weather… even though we can’t forecast it correctly 100 percent of the time, we can still explain it).  And perhaps nothing is less explainable than the outcomes of football games (how else to explain the Ravens improbable victory over the Broncos?).  It’s also why we apply spiritual connotations to incredible results, like the Hail Mary, Miracle in the Meadowlands, the Motor City Miracle, etc.

Reggie White often used the field as his pulpit, and he may have opened the door for many other players to express their own spirituality on the field.  White was steadfast in his beliefs and the means by which he spread them.  However, he later regretted it.  After he retired and shortly before his death, White did an interview with NFL Films in which he said, “He [God] doesn’t need football to let the world know about him.  When you look at the Scriptures, you’ll see that most of the prophets weren’t popular guys.  I came to the realization that what God needed from me more than anything was a way of living instead of the things I was saying.  Now I know I’ve got to sit down and get it right.”  White recognized that his spirituality is a personal thing.  It wasn’t meant to be preached or, in his words, prostituted.

When in college, I used to pray to God before final exams so he (or she) could help me do my best.  If I received an ‘A’ I didn’t thank God for favoring me over my peers.  I recognized that I did my best, thanked God for it, then had a celebratory beer or three.  Ray Lewis is a spiritual guy, and although his belief that “no weapon formed against his team shall prosper” is misguided, the strength he and his team draw from that belief is indeed dangerous.  San Francisco better prepare for it… and pray for the best.

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Chip Kelly is Embracing Eagles History and Tradition

A guy from New Hampshire by way of Oregon is not obligated to embrace Philadelphia.  It can be too easy for the new head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles to focus entirely on the job, bury himself in the smallest details, and begin establishing his legacy.  Chip Kelly is not that guy.  I admit I was fearful he would be.  The Philadelphia Eagles franchise is inescapably rich in history and tradition and needs a head coach willing to embrace that.  Thankfully, Chip Kelly has.

As he walked down the aisle during his introductory press conference, enveloped by shades of green, gray, and silver, he not only walked by the reporters eager to hear from him.  He passed large images of Chuck Bednarik, Wilbert Montgomery, and Tommy McDonald, the presence of which, in some ways, loomed larger than the media’s.  Bednarik’s crushing hit on Frank Gifford still reverberates, the 1960 NFL Championship leaves fans ever-thirsty for a Super Bowl, and of course, Andy Reid’s legacy lingers.  After introductory remarks from Jeffrey Lurie and Kelly, Sal Paolantonio asked Kelly about how confident he was coming into an organization with as much history as the Eagles.  It was the question I had been waiting for.  Kelly responded deftly and decisively, with eagerness and enthusiasm:

“From Tommy McDonald to Chuck Bednarik to Reggie (White), there (have) been some unbelievable people here. I have a saying that I learned a long time ago that is, ‘We can see farther than other people right now because we stand on the shoulders of the people who came before us.’ When you just walk into this building and you see these pictures, it really makes you do a double take. But it also makes you understand that every time you come to work there’s a standard of excellence that this organization stands for. And I’ve got to hold that up and I’ve got to live up to that every single day. It kind of keeps you on your toes and it makes you understand what this place is all about. That’s what excites me. I don’t know what the future holds from that standpoint but I know that this organization is one of the top organizations in all of sports, not just football. I don’t take that responsibility lightly.”

Later that evening, Brian Dawkins was being honored at the Chickie’s and Pete’s in South Philly.  Again, it would have been easy for Kelly to remain in his office and work on rounding out his first NFL coaching staff.  Instead, he paid Dawkins a visit and offered his congratulations.  It was not lost on Kelly that Dawkins represented the kind of defense Kelly would like to see return to Philadelphia.  Known for his aggressive and attacking offensive philosophy, Kelly expects the same from his defense:

“We’re going to be an attacking style defense. It’s going to be a group of people who dictates the tempo of the game. What that spacing is in terms of is it a 4-3 spacing or 3-4 spacing, I think it’s, again, looking at our roster and understanding who I have the opportunity to bring here. I can’t tell you that we’re going to be this or going to be that, but I know the style of football that we’re going to play and I know the style of players that I want to have out there. We’re going to play fast, we’re going to play hard, and we’re going to finish plays.”

Often in education you hear the concept, “withitness”.  To be “with it” means to have an awareness of what’s going on in all areas of the classroom at all times, as demonstrated by the behaviors and actions of the teacher rather than just words.  It’s an apt concept because of Kelly’s teaching style of coaching.  In just one day on the job, Chip Kelly has demonstrated that he is indeed with it.  More importantly, in an organization ripe with history and tradition, in a city thick with culture and hungry for a championship, Kelly has shown us that he actually “gets it.”

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Howie Roseman, Chip Kelly, and The Art of War

Buddy Ryan was preparing his team for war.  So it was odd that for a few cold, winter weeks in December 1988, the Philadelphia Eagles called Phoenix home.  Buddy had planned the trip at the beginning of the season as a reward for clinching the playoffs, but by the time the team had played the Cardinals in Phoenix, the Eagles had not clinched a playoff spot and the sojourn was still scheduled.  So the hell with it, thought Buddy.  The team remained in Phoenix and was given an 11PM curfew, just like in training camp.  They practiced at Phoenix East High School before playing Dallas in the season finale, and after clinching a berth, the team practiced there again when preparing for their divisional playoff game in Chicago.  The Eagles were 0-11 against the Bears in Chicago, and Buddy wanted to beat the Bears.

Buddy’s team was confident and had swagger.  When he became coach two years earlier, he released many established veterans.  He wanted his team to have his players.  With guys like Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Keith Jackson, and Randall Cunningham, now it did.  He wasn’t the only former Bear on the Eagles coaching staff.  Jeff Fisher was a defensive back for the Bears and became the defensive backs coach for the Eagles.  According to Fisher, “Philadelphia’s a team to be reckoned with.  I’d rather go to war with a young team that’s going in the right direction than a team that’s been there before.”

***

Football is often analogous with the tactics, strategies, and art of war.  Undoubtedly many franchise owners, presidents, general managers and coaches have read The Art of War by ancient Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu.  After the Eagles announced the hiring of Chip Kelly, I’m beginning to think Howie Roseman has as well.  The manner in which Kelly’s name retreated from many teams’ searches reeks of a Tzu-like deception: “Hold out baits to entice the enemy.  Feign disorder, and crush him.”   Reports leaked that Roseman himself was seen as a roadblock to any high profile coaching target.  Local and national media reported regularly that Roseman was an unproven general manager, a money man not worth entrusting with the responsibility of providing talent.  This baited belief lulled other teams into a false sense of security.  Ten days ago reports surfaced indicating Chip Kelly would remain as head coach of Oregon.  Since then, the Eagles continued interviewing candidates and seemed prepared to offer the job to Seahawks defensive coordinator and Monte Kiffen protégé Gus Bradley, to the near euphoric excitement of a fan base initially intrigued by a potential Kelly hire.  As reports of Kelly’s disinterest in the NFL surfaced, other pro teams that also expressed some interest in Kelly (Cleveland, Chicago, and Buffalo), began hiring from further down their candidate lists.  Then, the Eagles feigned disorder by letting Gus Bradley go to Jacksonville with no reported job offer.  As a result, there was a social media furor.  Not only was Roseman serving as a roadblock, he was downright incompetent.  Yet during this time, no one other than Roseman was talking to Chip Kelly and a few hours after Gus Bradley boarded a plane for Jacksonville, the Eagles announced Kelly as their head coach.  The hammer had fallen.

Buddy Ryan was often too brazen for deception, content with telling you what he was going to do, how he was going to do it, just try and stop him.  It may be a small reason why his Eagles team left Phoenix for Chicago and eventually lost to the Bears on what became the foggiest day in sports history.  But Howie Roseman just proved that he can be a strategist, a tactician, a solid arranger of chess pieces, and maybe a little foggy in his own right, a man capable of smoke screens.  If he and Kelly are working from a playbook written nearly 2500 years ago, then expect them to follow this Tzu-ism: “These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand.”  In other words, expect Roseman and Kelly never to tip their collective hand.  Regardless, Kelly has never been here before, so he better head in the right direction.

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What Losses by Denver and Seattle Mean for Mike McCoy, Gus Bradley, and the Eagles

Sometimes football is just too poetic, the gods too cruel.  This was the case yesterday.  With the game tied at 21 on a frigid, face-numbing type of day where points were as precious as they were plentiful, Peyton Manning and his Broncos offense were ready to hike the ball from their own 20-yard line, 36 seconds on the clock and three timeouts remaining.  But Manning took the ball from center and quickly handed off to running back Jacob Hester for minimal gain… the offense jogged off the field as the clock ran down to zero.  The Ravens defense was undoubtedly thankful.  Then, at the end of the game, an opportunity for redemption presented itself.  Tied at 35, the Broncos had the ball at their own 20-yard line with 31-seconds remaining and a chance with Manning to prove Elway was even more a genius than we realize.  Broncos fans, long suffering from inadequate QB play at the hands of Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton, and Tim Tebow,  were anticipating magic.  Even Paul Domowitch tweeted, “Manning with 31 seconds is like Patton with 100 tanks.”  If this is the case, then Manning with 31 seconds and two timeouts is like Patton with 100 tanks and a nuclear arsenal.  But this time, Manning took the ball from center and then took to his knee.  The Denver coaching staff was decidedly content on attempting to win the game in overtime, which ultimately they did not.  Confused Denver fans were left to wonder what could have been.

It turned out, what could have been actually happened a few hours later.  Faced with an eerily similar situation, Atlanta possessed the ball on their 28-yard line with 31 seconds and two timeouts remaining.  The difference between Atlanta’s situation and Denver’s was that the Falcons were down by one point and could not afford to sit back and wait for overtime.  It’s perhaps a point-of-view that Denver should have assumed.  In three plays and 23-seconds, Atlanta moved the ball into field goal range and ended up winning the game on a 49-yard field goal.  Again, Denver fans were left to wonder what could have been.  Perhaps Jeffrey Lurie was as well.

The decisions by Denver coaches Mike McCoy and John Fox to go the conservative route with an elite quarterback in all likelihood reduces the chance that Mike McCoy will coach the Eagles next season.  They were poor decision that contradict Jeffrey Lurie’s quest for an innovative leader.  However, Gus Bradley’s day was only slightly better, if not more optimistic.  Seattle’s defense gave up an average of 15 points per game this season, yet found themselves giving up 20 points to Atlanta in the first half Sunday.  Gus Bradley’s unit could not stop the run, or Atlanta’s efficient attack.  However, where Bradley excelled was with his second half adjustments.  Recognizing that the zone coverage that characterized Seattle’s first half failures wasn’t working, Bradley switched to a man-to-man scheme that effectively limited the Falcons offense in the second half and allowed Russell Wilson to lead an admirable comeback.  It was a performance that showed heart in a situation that could have easily been deflating.

Poetic justice and cruelty aside, two coaching candidates lost Sunday.  While neither McCoy nor Bradley did much to endear themselves to Philadelphia, Mike McCoy severely hurt his chances to become the Eagles next head coach.  And with both candidates out of the playoffs, Lurie will decide soon who he will like to command his tanks.

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Nailing the Head Coach Bullseye – Chucking Darts with Eagles Brass

Jeffrey Lurie is a pretty good dart player.  Well, about as good as your average corner bar-frequenting Eagles fan.  But you wouldn’t know it by looking at him now.  “Dammit,” he mumbled.

“So close,” said Eagles’ President Don Smolenski.

“Bob Kraft would’ve made that shot.”

“Good news.  Bob doesn’t have to.”

Deep within the confines of the Novacare complex, Lurie and Smolenski stand in Lurie’s office, facing a wall that looks a lot like something you would see in a CSI episode.  There is a large map of the United States with multi-color pushpins and pictures of what look like potential head coach candidates… Bill O’Brien, Mike McCoy, Lovie Smith, Gus Bradley, and dozens more.  There are blue pushpins for defensive coordinators, red for offensive coordinators, yellow for college coaches, white for prior NFL coaches, and so on.  Some pictures are in color, some in black and white, some look wrinkled and folded and others crisp, like they were still warm from the printer.  And some, like O’Brien’s and Chip Kelly’s, are marked in red with a big “X”.  There are also blue and red strings connecting silver pushpins, all converging on an oversized pin pushed on the city of Philadelphia.  And of course, the map was littered with dart holes.

Lurie turned toward Smolenski and asked, “Where is Howie with that picture of Chudzinski?  I need that picture of Chudzinki so we can put it on the board and X him out.”

“He’s coming.  He had an issue with the coffee machine,” answered Smolenski as he handed Lurie three darts.

“Haha… He wants to buy a new one, but I told him it’s not in the budget.”

“Very funny, sir.”

Lurie faces the wall and raises his arm, ready to throw when Howie Roseman runs into the office, hot coffee dripping from the Eagles mug onto the carpet.  “Here you go Mr. Lurie, just the way you like it.  And the picture of Chudzinski.  There’s a little coffee stain on it.  Sorry.”

“Ugh.  Fine.  Pin the picture on the map, will you?  And put the coffee down on my desk.”

“Thank you sir.  I also brought a picture of John Gruden, just in case.”

“Dammit Howie!” said Lurie angrily.  “No!  No John Gruden!  You know Christina had a thing for him.  He’s off the board!”

“Sorry, sir. I forgot.”

“It’s a good thing you make better coffee than Banner.  Ok, back to business…”

After Roseman pinned the picture, Lurie resumed his pose.  Facing the wall he raised his arm, bent back at the elbow, and flung his first dart at the board.  The dart landed in Canada.  He threw his second dart… it landed in Lake Superior.  His third dart hit the red-X’d face of Bill O’Brien squarely in the jaw.

“How’d I do,” asked Lurie.

“Not great,” answered Smolenski.  “Maybe we should take off the blindfold.”

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Why Gus Bradley should be the Next Eagles Head Coach

Chris Clemons knew he had it in him.  An undrafted rookie free agent, he floated on the Redskins roster for two years without getting a chance to really prove himself.  Finally, with the Oakland Raiders, he was a major contributor on defense with eight sacks in a limited role.  At season’s end he was rewarded in free agency by the Eagles, who gave him a five-year contract with the hope that he could duplicate his production on a defensive line that included Trent Cole, Juqua Thomas, and Victor Abiamiri.  It didn’t happen.  He could not get on the field for enough plays and never had more than four sacks or 15 tackles in each of his two seasons.  Then, prior to the 2010 season, the Eagles traded Clemons to the Seahawks in a package for Darryl Tapp.  And that’s when Clemons met Gus Bradley.

Gus Bradley was a fan of Clemons.  Bradley recognized his talent and production and, like the Eagles, recognized his potential at the leo/elephant position, a hybrid stand-up defensive end rushing from the weakside in a 4-3 scheme.  After the signing, Bradley said of Clemons that he liked “his length and speed.  As you can imagine, if he’s always on the end you need a guy who has great speed coming off the edge and great pass rush.  So I think his length and speed are great assets for him.“  Under Bradley’s tutelage Clemons produced.  A lot.  He has at least eleven sacks and 40 tackles in each of the last three seasons, as well as three forced fumbles in each of the last two.  Unfortunately, Clemons tore his ACL in the Seahawks’ victory against Washington, but it’s Clemons’ growth in Seattle that demonstrates why the Eagles need Bradley as their head coach.

***

In a 2009 Seattle P-I article, Clare Farnsworth recounts how then new Seahawks head coach Jim Mora hired Gus Bradley:

Mora said it was a call from [Monte] Kiffin that got Bradley an interview for the defensive coordinator job, even though Bradley has been in the NFL for only three seasons. Re-creating the call from Kiffin, Mora slipped into his high-pitched, rapid-delivery impersonation: ” ‘Hey, J.L., J.L., I got to talk to you about this guy Gus Bradley.’ “

Mora worked for Kiffin with the New Orleans Saints, when both were on the staff of Mora’s father.  Kiffin still calls the younger Mora “J.L.,” and it’s relevant because the younger Mora has repeatedly been referred to as “Jim Mora Jr.” by the national media in recent weeks.  He is not a Junior, but Jim L. Mora (for Lawrence). His father is Jim E. Mora (for Earnest).  But it was more what Kiffin said about Bradley than the way he said it that prompted Mora to bring the Tampa Bay linebackers coach in for an interview.  “Monte says, ‘J.L., listen to me. I have got a guy here in Tampa that is one of, if not, the finest football coaches I have ever worked with. He’s an A-plus. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime coach. You need to talk to him,'” Mora recalled.  “He said, ‘J.L., this guy is special. You have to bring him in. You have to talk to him.'”  

Once in the building, Mora took Bradley to the limit. From 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. last Wednesday, they talked about everything from ways to generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks to how they like to spend those rare moments of downtime.  “I spent 15 consecutive hours with Gus,” Mora said. “Because I felt that was an incredibly important decision to make: Who was going to be our defensive coordinator? Who I was going to put in the room with that group of men, so that they can reach the level of play that they need to reach for us to bring a Super Bowl (title) to the city of Seattle.  “Through the course of the day, I realized, boy, Monte is dead on. This guy is special.”

Even though Mora’s stint with the Seahawks was short-lived, Pete Carroll, who became the Seahawks coach in 2010, was impressed enough with Bradley’s leadership and ability to retain him, significant because Carroll is a defensive-minded coach with his own philosophies.  According to Carroll, “He’s the best teacher I’ve ever been around.  He’s so thorough, so thoughtful, and he’ll go to such lengths to find ways to make sense of the information so the guys can understand it in practical ways. It doesn’t matter how good we teach.  It’s how well they learn.  I think that connection is really clear with Gus.  He’s great at it.”  An example of one of those connections is Bradley’s message to “be allergic to the big meal.  Eat the crumbs.”  It’s another way of saying be humble and stay hungry.  He gave his players plates full of crumbs for emphasis.  And his players have responded.  In his fourth year as Seattle’s defensive coordinator, the Seahawks have the top scoring defense in the league.

***

The Eagles have a recent lineage of top defensive coaches upon which fans draw much pride: Buddy Ryan’s Gang Green defense, Jim Johnson’s bend-but-don’t-break-get-after-the-quarterback approach… the city of Philadelphia enjoys it’s defense.  What Jeff Lurie needs to recognize is that Andy Reid’s best teams were not defined by his offense, but by Jim Johnson’s defense.  More often any criticisms or weaknesses of his early playoff teams were offense-related: time management, play-calling, McNabb’s poor throws, etc.  Chris Clemons’ emergence should illustrate to Lurie how another (possibly better?) coach corrected a mistake of his previous one.  Jeff Lurie is fond of Eagles history, so he should recognize this fact.  Or, he can look back no further than Buddy Ryan, a hot-shot defensive coordinator who developed and coached the league’s top defense before becoming a head coach of the Eagles.  Sound familiar?  If history is any indication, once Bradley and Lurie are in the same room talking football together, Lurie will be sold.  Granted, despite the competitiveness of Ryan’s teams, they never won a playoff game.  But what good is history if we cannot learn from and improve upon it?  How hungry is Lurie?

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The Perception that Defense Loses Championships and its Impact on the Philadelphia Eagles’ Head Coach Search

The scenes change.  Ghostly images appear and disappear both on the field and in the stands.  Murmurs, whispers, yells, moans, sighs, passionate cheers, and boos are all mashed together in a chaotic broth of noise.  This is what the Vet has become; this is where Philly sports history remains alive.  Jerome and I walk the steps up to the 700 level and look downward.  The view cannot be unlike Dante’s as he entered the gate of hell.  However, there is no inscription, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”.  Quite the contrary, hope is the Philly fan’s curse.  There always exists hope and expectation and pride, and because of these, misery as well… when hopes and expectations are not met, when pride is wounded.

Jerome directed me to section 734, adjacent to the end zone on the visiting side.  It was far from much of the action on the field, but one could imagine that 734 could still be heard.  In the fifth row stood a man in disbelief, hands on head, jaw dropped, eyes almost full of terror.  I turn to Jerome and ask, “What did he see?”

“Joe Jurevicius being chased down the sideline.”

***

It was the 2002 season’s NFC Championship game.  The Eagles were ahead 7-3 in the first quarter, with a confident defense that didn’t allow Tampa Bay to score an offensive touchdown during their meeting earlier in the season.  The Buccaneers faced a third-and-two when Brad Johnson took the snap from center and threw a four yard in-route over the middle to Joe Jurevicius.  Jurevicius caught the ball in stride and sprinted through the middle and down the sideline for 71 yards before getting tackled at the five yard line.  The game-changing play set up a Mike Alstott one yard touchdown run and injected life into a Tampa team that thrived on it.  After taking the lead, Tampa never looked back and went on to win the Super Bowl.  For Eagles fans it was like a nightmare, however, the image of Levon Kirkland chasing Jurevicius illustrates a culture shift in the NFL, one that contradicts that long-lasting and basic tenet: “Offense wins games. Defense wins championships.”

Yes, franchises have been built on the premise that “offense wins games; defense wins championships.”  In fact, Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl XXXVII winning season is a fine example.  That Buccaneers team was defined by their powerful defense and won games with their adequate offense.  However, switching points of view from the victor to the victim, defense can just as easily, and just as often, lose championships.  It was the Eagle’s defensive lapse that turned the tide against Tampa.  And since then, we the fans of Philadelphia have become Levon Kirkland.

Since Tampa Bay won with Brad Johnson at the helm, the Super Bowl winning quarterbacks have all been elite (or elite performing).  Here is a comprehensive list: Tom Brady (twice), Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Peyton Manning, Eli Manning (twice), Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers.  Of their teams, only one (2008 Steelers) finished the regular season as the top-ranked defense.  Two others (2005 Steelers, 2010 Packers) finished in the top-five, but three – 2006 Colts (21st), 2009 Saints (25th), and 2011 Giants (27th) – finished the regular season ranked in the bottom third.  During this time there were also three top-five defenses (2006 Bears, 2007 Patriots, and 2010 Steelers) that each lost the Super Bowl to lesser ranked defensive teams.  These results suggest that offenses (at least those with elite-performing quarterbacks) win games and those offenses increase the likelihood of winning championships.  On the other hand, defenses, regardless of statistical ranking, can potentially lose championships.  Jeffrey Lurie’s head coach wish list for the Eagles supports this new philosophy.  Bill O’Brien, Chip Kelly, Mike McCoy, and Dirk Koetter are all well-regarded offensive-minded coaches.  But does Lurie have the right idea?

Actually, what these results illustrate is another NFL tenet, “Any given Sunday…”  More important than developing a top five offense or defense is the ability to develop, lead, game plan, execute on game day, and make adjustments when necessary.  Yes O’Brien, Kelly, McCoy, and Koetter are offensively inclined, but are they able to win on any given Sunday more often than available defensive-minded candidates like Mike Zimmer?  Since Tampa Bay’s victory, five of the nine Super Bowl winning coaches have come from the defensive side of the ball.  Here is the list with their respective offensive (OFF) or defensive (DEF) mindedness: Bill Belichick (DEF), Bill Cowher (DEF), Tony Dungy (DEF), Tom Coughlin (OFF), Mike Tomlin (DEF), Sean Payton (OFF), Mike McCarthy (OFF).  Given that Lurie’s top candidates are from the offensive side of the ball, Philadelphia fans should be fearful that he may be limiting his candidate pool.  The perception that “offense wins games; defense wins championships” may be obsolete, but Lurie needs to hire the coach capable of winning on any given Sunday, regardless of inclination.

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