Sunday's loss to the Titans was miserable. That was the worst fourth quarter we've had to sit through in a long time. The meltdown has suddenly put defensive coordinator Sean McDermott in the crosshairs of many fans and media members. Sal Paolantonio, who never met a dumb rumor he didn't like, went on the radio and told people that he thinks McDermott is in danger of getting fired.
Ugh. I'm not sure why Sal doesn't understand there's a difference in the opinion of angry fans and the leadership of the Eagles organization. That would seem to be common sense. But why let logic get in the way of a good rumor, right? That is SalPal 101.
Let's examine McDermott's situation for a minute. His defense is 9th in the league in yards allowed. We're 5th in sacks. We're tied for 2nd in interceptions. We just went through a 3-game stretch where we held Frank Gore, Michael Turner, and Chris Johnson to a combined total of 163 rushing yards. There is a lot to be happy about with the defense.
There are problems, the biggest being scoring defense. The Eagles are down at 20th in the NFL in that category. That's not good enough. Scoring defense was also a problem last year. This is the area where McDermott must show progress going forward.
The defense has a troubling trend with allowing fourth quarter comebacks this year. Detroit, San Francisco, and Tennessee all erased big leads. We were able to hold leads against Jacksonville and Atlanta. Good NFL defenses don't allow teams to comeback that often. You know there will be a game or two during a season when a quarterback will get hot and pick you apart, but three times in seven weeks is unacceptable.
No one, including McDermott himself, is happy with the way things stand. Still, the notion that the defense is so bad that he should get fired at midseason is just ridiculous overkill. You fire a coach because he's grossly incompetent. That just isn't the case here. I've already listed the positives for the defense. There is plenty going right. Incompetence is when a unit can't perform at a reasonably adequate level.
Go back to the Titans game. We shut down their elite tailback. We got burned by a young wide receiver who is emerging as a star. Kenny Britt now has a touchdown catch in five straight games. This isn't a case of us not stopping James Mungro (go back to 2002 for that nightmare game). Also, Tennessee averaged 27 points a game coming into the contest. The defense basically gave up 27. The late field goal was a gift from Jorrick Calvin and the final touchdown was a gift from Kevin Kolb. The final score of 37-19 was deceptive.
I'm not trying to excuse the horrible fourth quarter defense. Again, that's unacceptable. You must be able to protect leads. I do think you have to keep things in perspective. The real problem in that game was the play of a cornerback (who looked gimpy) and a rookie free safety (who looked like a rookie). McDermott mixed up what he was trying to do. We blitzed some plays. We played coverage on some plays. One suggestion brought up by fans was to have Asante Samuel shadow Britt. That just isn't something we do normally. It has been done in the past, but it was either built into the gameplan or done as a halftime adjustment. And we're only talking about a few times in the Andy Reid era.
McDermott was giving Hobbs safety help over the top. That's what you do to slow down a hot receiver. You get one player to play underneath and one to stay deep. The coverage wasn't working because Hobbs couldn't stay reasonably close to Britt. Hobbs looked hurt. If you watch the plays, he really struggled to change directions. He had no burst. He moved very gingerly. We haven't heard any reports, but I would guess that he had a groin issue based on what I saw. If he was in fact hurting, Hobbs should have told the coaches. Unfortunately the NFL code tells players to tough it out and stay on the field at all costs. McDermott is at fault for not seeing the issue and getting Hobbs off the field. Reid did go talk to Hobbs at one point, but I doubt he got true answers to his questions. Players don't want to come off the field at all.
The point of this column isn't to sing the praises of McDermott. He's definitely got some issues that he needs to work on. Frankly, I'm not sold on him as the long term answer at defensive coordinator. I'm undecided right now. I like some of what I see and hear, but I still don't have a good feel for McDermott and exactly what he's trying to do.
We knew Jim Johnson. He was a bend, but not break coach. That drove some of us crazy, but it worked. Once the offense got to our 40-yard line he went from safe to aggressive. He attacked all out and made you earn every last yard. The whole point in his thinking was to avoid giving up big plays. Once the opponent was at the 40, big plays weren't something to fear. The team was already on the fringe of scoring range.
Think about other coaches/schemes. Lovie Smith focuses on hustle and turnovers. His defense plays harder than any other group in the league. They fly to the ball. They always seem to have a knack for coming up with turnovers. Dick LeBeau is the master of the zone blitz. His schemes keep smart quarterbacks guessing all year long. The Ravens have had a slew of coordinators over the years. The one constant is that you won't run on them. You might throw for 350 yards, but you won't run. And they will try to pound your quarterback into submission. Look at the unit Bill Parcells built in Miami. He wanted a 3-4 defense with big players and big cornerbacks. He's not coaching them, but that was his design going in and we all knew it. There was a specific plan in place.
With McDermott I'm not exactly sure what his plan is. We've focused on run defense in recent weeks. During the offseason we added players with better cover skills. There are times when we do a lot of zone blitzing and other times when we go all out. I like the fact that we're versatile, but I wish I knew what the foundation of our scheme was. What is the one thing we focus on, first and foremost?
It seems like McDermott is a typical young coordinator. He's trying to do a bit of everything. A good coach knows his limitations. You can't be everything to everybody. You can't shut down the run while also focusing on coverage while also blitzing while also focusing on turnovers. You have to balance things out.
McDermott is learning on the job. He hadn't run a run a defense prior to 2009. The first instinct is to say "fire him" and bring in someone who is experienced. That guarantees nothing. Bill Belichick is a defensive genius, but the Patriots are near the bottom of the league in yards and points allowed. Jim Haslett's 3-4 scheme is struggling in Washington. Veteran coaches Mike Zimmer and Dom Capers run defenses that are middle of the pack after coming off great years in 2009.
McDermott will not be fired during the season. That will not happen. Andy Reid is fiercely loyal to his assistants. It takes special circumstances for them to get replaced. How many years did we all bemoan receivers coach David Culley and the fact he kept a job? He's now doing a good job and we're developing guys left and right. We've turned into a receiver factory. The days of Na Brown, Gari Scott, and Freddie Mitchell are a distant memory.
I think McDermott's defense would have to really struggle for him to get fired even in the offseason. Reid seems to really think highly of him. Reid will likely give McDermott at least one more year to show what he can do. If we still have the same struggles after three years, that's a serious trend and one that could lead to a change.
Reid has shown more of a willingness to be aggressive in recent years. It is possible that the problems on defense will lead him to go hire a new coordinator. I don't see that as likely, but then again I didn't think there was a chance that Michael Vick would be named starter over Kevin Kolb. Never say never, even with Big Red.
For now, McDermott is safe. Firing him halfway through the year would accomplish nothing except to give SalPal something to talk about. We're more likely to get better by McDermott staying in place and making adjustments. I'm sure he spent the bye week figuring out what areas need work. This year McDermott is able to talk to a veteran coach like Dick Jauron for ideas and advice. That has to help.
Put simply, McDermott controls his future. If his defense plays better, he's safe. If they continue to be up and down, McDermott leaves himself vulnerable to public criticism at the least, and possibly losing his job in the offseason. Results will dictate the outcome of this story.