In Billy Davis, Chip Kelly Hires his Jim Johnson
by Jerome's Friend
Cameras often caught Jim Johnson on the sideline peering at his defense, smacking those lips. After making his call, he had an emotionless poker face, but also a subconscious tell. Those smacking lips meant that he had a full house, aces over queens, that he was all in and the house was a’comin’. A linebacker in the gap, a safety on the wing, a cornerback in hiding, all could chase at once, and those smacking lips let you know it. Jim Johnson had a reputation for chasing the quarterback. He knew that if you applied enough consistent pressure, the guy receiving the ball from the center will be forced to make mistakes. He knew this because he was a defensive convert, a quarterback himself and a damn good one for the University of Missouri. How many times did I eat dirt or toss a duck because of pressure, he thought. Most quarterbacks respond negatively to pressure, so Johnson was going to salivate at the opportunity, smack those lips, and bring it. Of course with the Eagles, he became one of the most revered defensive coordinators in the league and a coach the team still has not replaced with any semblance of success. However, with news that Chip Kelly has hired Browns linebacker coach Billy Davis as defensive coordinator, the Eagles may be able to fill that void.
It’s easy to forget, but when Johnson was hired by Andy Reid to command his defense, Johnson’s resume was far from pretty. It was indeed rather ugly. As defensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts, his 1996 unit ranked 18th in points allowed and 22nd in yards allowed (28th in sacks, 26th in takeaways), and his ’97 squad ranked 27th in points allowed (22nd in sacks, 24th in takeaways). After being fired following that 1997 campaign, he became linebacker coach for the Seahawks, where his 1998 Seattle defense ranked 27th in total yards allowed. Johnson became available to Reid only because he was let go from Seattle’s coaching staff after Reid’s mentor Mike Holmgren took over the team. His hire in Philadelphia wasn’t extremely popular (not surprising, given his results), and eerily, much of the same reaction heard then you can apply now to Chip Kelly’s hiring of Billy Davis.
In a January 23, 1999 Philadelphia Inquirer article, Phil Sheridan wrote after Reid’s hire of Johnson that a few patterns emerged regarding Reid’s staff: “First, it is clear that Philadelphia is not the NFL’s No. 1 hot spot these days. Second, Reid has hired solid and hard-working coaches with reputations as decent guys. They may not be as glamorous or well-known to fans as other candidates, but they are well-respected.” Sheridan added, “While the exact order of Reid’s wish list for various positions isn’t known, there are signs he has had to settle for second and third choices. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t gotten good coaches, just that the process has been more difficult.” However, Andy Reid’s comments on Johnson at the time served as an accurate allusion, “The Seahawks actually hired Jim last year for his expertise with the fire-zone principles. That’s part of the package I’m talking about. He’s able to combine fire-zone concepts with base concepts, with blitzes, with two-gap and penetration techniques up front. He’s able to take that whole package and make it work.” Make it work, did he ever.
It’s interesting though, the comparisons that can be drawn between Davis and Johnson. Davis is also a former quarterback (University of Cincinnati), a defensive convert who has come to the Eagles as a linebacker coach (Cleveland) by way of defensive coordinator (Arizona and San Francisco) with an unimpressive resume. As defensive coordinator in San Francisco, Davis’ units ranked no better than 26th in yards allowed. In Arizona, they ranked no better than 15th in points allowed. But as Cleveland’s linebacker coach in 2011, he helped develop a top ten unit (5th in points allowed, 10th in yards allowed). It’s fair to say, however, that Davis’ teams have not always been the most talented, or that results have been circumstantial at best, belittled by politics or riddled by injury. What needs to be clear is that Kelly did not settle for Davis any more than Reid settled for Johnson. It’s easy to imagine Chip Kelly hiring a well-known, more glamorous A-lister: a Lovie Smith, a Monte Kiffin, or a Bud Carson back from the dead. But too often in the NFL does success on one team not translate to another. And too often does a lack of success on one team reap future success on another. Each decision is a calculated gamble based on the hand dealt. What’s important is ensuring the decision is the right one. Billy Davis is not yet Jim Johnson, but Davis has been an NFL grinder, a football lifer, a hard-working, well-respected coach with experience teaching both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. In Davis, Kelly has hired someone to facilitate his vision, just as Reid’s hire of Johnson did the same.
On a Sunday afternoon in South Philadelphia, Davis will have his chance to peer at his defense from the Eagles sideline and call his play. It could be a play based on what he learned when he, like Johnson, was a quarterback. That quarterback will never be able to read this defense, he might think. It’s unknown yet whether he is a lip smacker, a mad scientist, or an Eagles-legend-to-be, but if Kelly is correct and history gives any indication, Davis should be a decent poker player who is charged with shuffling the deck. It would help if the Eagles could also stack it. That way, if Davis possesses a tell like Johnson’s, it too won’t matter.
You can follow Philly’s Inferno on Facebook and Twitter (@JeromesFriend).