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Assessing Sean McDermott

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Andy Reid says Sean McDermott will run the defense in 2011. What has gone wrong over the last 2 years? Is there hope for 2011?

Now that the season is over the hot topic seems to be Sean McDermott.  A lot of fans want him fired.  Andy Reid came out Monday and publicly said McDermott will be back in 2011.  While it is possible that Andy could change his mind if the right coach became available, I don't think that will happen. 

I'm ambivalent about the return of McDermott.  Part of me definitely wants him to succeed.  He seems like a good guy and he's been part of the Eagles for a long time.  I also know that there were quite a few times in 2010 when players were in the right spot, but simply couldn't make plays.  The scheme worked, but not the execution.  Another part of me is skeptical that he can turn things around and wonders if we aren't just delaying the inevitable - finding someone new to run the defense.  After all, part of McDermott's job is to get players to execute his ideas correctly. 

My biggest problem with McDermott is that I still haven't figured him out.  I've closely watched all 34 games that he's run the Eagles defense and I'm not sure that I could give a good description to someone who asked about it.  Are there any regular trends that we've seen over the last two years? 

Let's go back to Jim Johnson for a minute.  We knew certain things.  He liked to blitz, but actually wasn't as reckless as his reputation would lead you to believe.  Johnson could be almost conservative at times.  He feared big plays.  The notion of giving up a 20-yard run or 30-yard pass drove him nuts.  He built his schemes to stop big plays.  Once an opponent got to the Eagles 40-yard line or deeper, Johnson figured there was no reason to fear the big play.  The other team was almost in scoring position.  That was when the defense went into attack mode.  Teams were blitzed relentlessly.  Johnson's signature blitz was attacking the A-gap with his middle linebacker.  Jeremiah Trotter would slam into opposing centers like a freight train.  He knocked them back and let the quarterback know that pressure was coming up the middle. 

I can't describe the current Eagles defense anything like that.  McDermott says that "we're a pressure defense", but it doesn't consistently seem that way to me.  Here are sacks by non-defensive linemen in a few different seasons:

2010 - 8
2009 - 6

2008 - 13.5
2007 - 5
2006 - 9
2004 - 13
2002 - 15

Johnson hit a low point in 2006 and 2007 when the defense was being rebuilt.  Maybe McDermott is just hitting the same kind of thing.  The difference is that Johnson had built up goodwill by being so successful prior to that.  Also, while sacks weren't piling up, teams still didn't have great success throwing the ball. 

2010 - Allowed 31 TD passes.  Opposing QBs had a rating of 80.8
2009 - Allowed 27 TD passes.  Opposing QBs had a rating of 77.6
2007 - Allowed 16 TD passes.  Opposing QBs had a rating of 80.3
2006 - Allowed 17 TD passes.  Opposing QBs had a rating of 73.6

Look at those numbers.  Teams threw for 33 TDs in '06 and '07 combined and 31 this season alone.  Not good. 

I don't doubt that what McDermott is trying to do makes sense to him.  I'm sure he's got a brilliant set of ideas.  X's and O's on paper don't mean anything.  Players have to bring them to life.  A coach must bridge his ideas and resources into reality.  Buddy Ryan ran the 46 Defense to perfection in Chicago with Mike Singletary at MLB.  Singletary was smart enough to run the complex scheme, but also talented enough to handle the challenges of stuffing runs, blitzing, and covering.  Ryan came to Philly and had Mike Reichenbach at MLB.  He was smart enough to run the scheme, but didn't have the skills necessary.  Ryan couldn't do everything he wanted.  Byron Evans was drafted and then took over at MLB.  The 46 Defense suddenly operated a lot better and Ryan could back to full attack mode. 

A coach must put his players in position to succeed.  I think this is where McDermott needs to table some of his ideas and focus on perfecting a few specific areas of his defense.  It seems like McDermott would really like to do a variety of things in terms of coverage.  That requires cohesion by the back seven (or eight in some prevent looks).  A cornerback and safety must be on the same page when a receiver comes into a certain zone.  Which defender needs to go get him?  Defenders need to know how to play bracket coverage and work together to shut down an elite receiver.  Simply having two guys go against one doesn't guarantee success.  The two must handle the situation correctly or a player is wasted.  Getting defensive backs and linebackers on the same page can be even tougher.  They must see the same thing and carry out assignments correctly or there will be gaping holes in the secondary. 

McDermott hasn't been helped by injuries.  Think of the sheer number of starters he had at MLB, corner, and safety in the last two years (excluding the meaningless finale vs Dallas a few weeks back). 

MLB - Stewart Bradley, Omar Gaither, Joe Mays, Chris Gocong, Akeem Jordan, Jeremiah Trotter, Will Witherspoon, Jamar Chaney

CB - Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown, Ellis Hobbs, Dimitri Patterson, Joselio Hanson

S - Quintin Mikell, Sean Jones, Macho Harris, Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman

It is safer to be a drummer for Spinal Tap than MLB for McDermott.  Crazy, huh?  Those are just the starters.  We're not taking into account the other players who saw time in Nickel and Dime packages.  That's a lot of bodies.  Those players are supposed to work as a unit.  How well do you think that went?  You can't blame McDermott for the injuries, but you do hold him responsible for how he handled the situation. 

I didn't see things get simplified.  Maybe they did and I just don't know.  My eyes told me the defense was more of the same - complex ideas lost on young players who hadn't mastered the basics of NFL defense.  The fact that so many spots had a revolving door magnified the problems. 

Think about when things were worst.  3rd down defense and Red Zone defense were major struggles.  That is when offenses get their most complex.  They spread the field and use their best plays.  The Eagles made mistake after mistake and kept drives alive or let teams score touchdowns.  Our players looked slow or hesitant.  They sometimes were out of position. 

The defense succeeded more than it failed from an overall perspective, but it failed at critical times.  That's what killed us.  The Lions almost pulled off a miracle comeback in Week 2.  Recovering an onside kick is what saved that game.  Late in the loss to the Skins, the defense couldn't get off the field soon enough.  The defense really struggled against the Bears.  Their offense was super efficient that day.  They ran only 53 plays, but had over 300 yards and scored 31 points.  In-freaking-sane.  In the first meeting with the Giants they only had 208 yards of offense.  Mistakes by our offense set them up with good field position a couple of times.  Both possessions resulted in touchdowns.  The defense needs to pick up the offense after a mistake.  That didn't happen very much in 2010. 

The very worst situational defense came in the loss to the Vikings.  We allowed a rookie quarterback to get his offense into the end zone twice without big plays.  When we did cut into the lead in the second half, the defense could not get a stop to give the ball back to Mike Vick and the offense.  That was flat out torturous. 

The very next week McDermott used a band of backups and castoffs against the Cowboys.  Dallas quarterback Stephen McGee was making his first start, but still had Miles Austin, Roy Williams, Jason Witten, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice as weapons.  We held them to seven offensive points.  How?  McDermott kept things simple and had his young players attack.  I enjoyed watching them play.  The players had good emotion and intensity. 

I understand that McDermott wants to be creative and complex.  He tried mixing in more stemming this year (pre-snap movement by the defense).  I'm not sure if it confused the offense or our guys more.  McDermott mixed in the zone blitz frequently.  This had very mixed results.  All too often it wasn't executed properly and the quarterback was able to get the ball out to the open receiver with no problem.  Again, there is nothing wrong with the idea in theory, but if your players can't execute it, why call it? 

Johnson took over the Eagles defense and was handed 3/4 of a great secondary.  He had a talented, young MLB in Trotter that was perfect for his system.  Johnson had an impact pass rusher in Hugh Douglas.  McDermott hasn't had quite the same tools.  The problem is that I don't think he's adjusted his thinking to realize that. 

I do think McDermott can be a good coordinator.  I like some of the things he's done.  He moves Trent Cole around more than Johnson did.  Cole has had some success on rushing up the middle.  McDermott seems willing to play rookies if they earn the playing time.  He embraced Nate Allen from day one.  I like the fact that Antonio Dixon kept the starting job this year instead of it automatically going back to Brodrick Bunkley.  Get the best players on the field.  McDermott can be very aggressive with his blitzing.  He's willing to roll the dice.  McDermott's defense finished 12th in yards allowed in both seasons so it isn't as if he can't coach.  I loved the gameplan he put together for the Colts game this year.  That shows you he can be creative and gets the players to execute his ideas. 

I see some Bill Belichick ideas in what McDermott does.  That's great, if you have the right personnel.  Belichick needs veteran players and top notch linebackers for his schemes to really thrive.  We've got a young group of players and haven't had an impact linebacker in a while.  I haven't heard McDermott talk about getting ideas from Belichick, but they certainly appear to be things that the Patriots do. 

Surely McDermott knows his coaching life is on the line in 2011.  He must make changes and get better results.  My advice to him would be to figure out what you do well and then do more of that.  Be aggressive, but be smart.  Realize that you don't have to mix in all your ideas at once.  I think identifying what kind of players he wants is crucial.  McDermott got Ernie Sims because he wanted speed and coverage ability at linebacker.  Unfortunately he got the least instinctive linebacker I've seen in a while.  Ernie has no feel for the game.  If you want to do complex things, find guys who have the brains and versatility to do them.  Darryl Tapp proved to be a good fit for the defense.  He wasn't an impact player, but did a lot of subtle things well and was a player that could help in a variety of ways. 

I know one of the biggest criticisms with McDermott is zone blitzing.  We all hate to see Trent Cole dropping into coverage.  You do have to remember that the reason Jim Johnson got the job from Andy Reid in the first place was his fire zone package (zone blitzing).  Andy wanted that.  And Cole isn't the first defensive end to drop back.  Hugh Douglas and Jevon Kearse both dropped back on some zone blitzes.  I think McDermott used Cole too much in that package, but let's not act as if JJ didn't have Trent going back in their four seasons together. 

2011 is going to be a crucial year for the future of Sean McDermott.  If he can make the right adjustments and changes to his scheme, the defense could thrive.  He'll have some solid pieces in place.  He has shown the ability to put together good gameplans.  The key is to be smart about balancing what he wants to do and what his players can do.  If McDermott runs a unit that continues to break down in the Red Zone and struggle in critical situations, he'll be headed to some other team as a positional coach.  I'd tell Sean to think of 2011 as 4th and Goal for his career, but that probably wouldn't be such a good idea.