The Eagles went to the NFC Championship in 2008 and came painfully close to going to the Super Bowl. That was Jim Johnson's last game ever. He died in July of 2009. Since his death, the Eagles are 32-26 and 0-2 in the playoffs. The Eagles are going to be making a lot of changes this offseason and it is critical that the team finds the next Jim Johnson.
Sean McDermott was promoted to defensive coordinator after Johnson had to step down in the spring of 2009. McDermott had been on Andy Reid's staff for a long time. He knew the defensive playbook inside-out. He knew the players. McDermott was very highly regarded and he was a natural fit as Johnson's replacement.
There is an old saying in sports...never follow "the man". Be the person who follows the man who followed "the man". Following a legend is hard. You're held to an incredibly difficult standard. George Seifert replaced Bill Walsh in San Francisco. Walsh had won three Super Bowls and was a legend. Seifert won two Super Bowls in eight years. He never won less than 10 games. His .766 winning percentage is incredibly impressive. And yet, the Niners pushed him out the door after the 1996 season. He wasn't officially fired, but they made it clear they wanted a different coach. Seifert was very good, but he wasn't Bill Walsh.
McDermott ran into a tough situation in Philly. He had to repleace a beloved coach and defensive legend. McDermott's results weren't terrible, but they also weren't Johnson-esque. McDermott also had some self-inflicted issues that came with trying to replace a legent. No one questioned McDermott's ability to devise a gameplan. He did some very creative things with the Eagles defense. In his first game, McDermott had Trent Cole line up like an inside linebacker and blitz up the middle. The Carolina Panthers had never seen this look and didn't know how to block it properly. Cole got a sack once and pressure other times.
McDermott had a good gameplan for the Colts in 2010. Indy "only" got 338 yards and 24 points. That doesn't sound all that great, but consider that they lit up Johnson in 1999, 2002, and 2006 for 44, 35, and 45 points respectively. They gained more than 400 yards in all of those games. Seeing the Eagles hold Peyton Manning to 24 points made me think I was watching the '85 Bears.
McDermott did have some problems. His ideas were great, but he wasn't a great teacher or communicator. You can't just draw up brilliant X's and O's on a sheet of paper. You must be able to teach them to the players. After all, it is the players who bring them to life. Dick Lebeau isn't a defensive genius because he can be more creative than offensive coaches. He knows how to devise a gameplan, how to teach it and then how to use it on gameday.
Eagles players did not always understand McDermott's ideas. Think about the two games I mentioned above. One was a season opener. The other came after a bye week. McDermott had extra time, which enabled him to be thorough with getting the gameplans installed. McDermott the schemer was much better than McDermott the teacher.
Bill Belichick is a defensive genius. He's come up with some incredibly crazy defenses over the years. His players can switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 midseason and make it work. Belichick isn't just a master of X's and O's. He's also a great teacher. The thing so many people fail to understand is Belichick's background. He was the defensive coordinator of the Giants from 1985-1990. They did some creative things, but not that much. Offensive football was much simpler back then. The focus was on execution more than exotic packages. Belichick was than the head coach in Cleveland for five years. He got fired and became an assistant for the Jets for another three years. It wasn't really until he got to New England in 2000 that the really exotic defensive looks became part of Belichick's regular arsenal. Belichick spent 16 years running a defense or whole team before he became enamored with the fancy stuff. Belichick had mastered the art of the basic defense. That allowed him to teach the exotic packages and make players understand how to execute them.
McDermott also suffered from the fact he changed who he was. I've not heard him say this publicly, but my guess is that McDermott felt that he had to act differently as defensive coordinator than he did as a positional assistant. Some might say power went to his head. I think it was a calculated move. Instead of being their buddy Sean, he was now the defensive coordinator and that changed the dynamics of the situation.
So McDermott had the schematic knowledge, but not the teaching skills. Andy Reid then hired Juan Castillo, who was just the opposite. I don't think I need to go into his background and that whole bizarre situation. The key here is that Reid wanted someone who he felt had the right personality and could teach players. The results were mixed. This led Reid to fire his long time assistant and promote Todd Bowles from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator.
It is really hard to judge Bowles. If you go strictly off results, he's been awful. If you factor in the circumstances, it is harder to judge him so harshly. This isn't Bowles scheme. He got the job at midseason. Also, the pass defense has suffered since he took over the whole defense. He can't do both jobs at once and perform at a high level. Something has to give.
Reid wanted Marvin Lewis to be his defensive coordinator initially. Johnson was a backup plan. Both guys were very accomplished at that point. Lewis was younger and the hotter name. Johnson wasn't a star in the coaching community, but he had a great resume in college and pro football. Reid wanted a defensive guru to run his defense. That was wise for a young coach.
It is funny that after Johnson's death Reid hired three guys that were young and/or inexperienced. That was a big risk and it blew up on him. There is no guarantee that a veteran coach would have made a substantial difference. Just look at the coaches at the bottom of the NFL's defensive rankings. Steve Spagnuolo is in last place. Jerry Gray is a couple of spots above him. Jim Haslett is a couple of spots above him. Belichick and Dave Wannstedt are next in line. Those are some brilliant coaches with great resumes, but they aren't getting the job done very well this year and some have struggled for a few years.
While you don't have a guarantee, there is the potential for big success. Wade Phillips has been a godsend for the Houston Texans. They were 30th in defense in 2010, which led to him getting the job. In the last 2 years, Phillips has turned the Texans into a really strong defense. Vic Fangio took a pretty good Niners defense and put them over the top. They've been a juggernaut for the last couple of seasons.
Veteran coaches have the X's and O's knowledge. They have the experience to draw up good gameplans, some simple and some complex. They can evaluate personnel and find ways to use players. Experienced coaches are valuable in part because they have made mistakes in the past. They know what works and what doesn't because they've seen it up close. Failure can be a great teacher. Hiring the young coach means you have to deal with the failure. The veteran coach learned his lessons in the past. Well, you hope he learned.
I don't think you can definitively say the Eagles "must" hire a veteran coach, but I sure would advise them to do it. Over the last four seasons Eagles players have been wildly inconsistent. I think many of the young guys would greatly benefit from having a veteran coach run the defense. Players like Nate Allen, Brandon Graham, Kurt Coleman, Jamar Chaney, Casey Matthews, Phillip Hunt, and the rookies would learn a lot from a veteran defensive coordinator. Not all would be able to succeed, but if the veteran coach can have a significant impact on a couple of players, it is worth it.
The Eagles had great success with veteran coordinators over the years. Marion Campbell, Bud Carson, and Jim Johnson all delivered high rankings and playoff wins. The team got to the Super Bowl under Campbell and Johnson. Buddy Ryan was a defensive genius that the team hired as the head coach. He hired younger guys like Jeff Fisher and Wade Phillips to work under him, but they turned out to be great assistants as they helped Buddy build Gang Green into an all-time great defense.
It doesn't matter if the Eagles hire a defensive guru to be the head coach or coordinator. Either way can work. The key is that they need someone with a strong track record. They need someone who knows how to run the show and deliver excellent results. No more experiments. No more hoping a young guy turns out to be the right choice. Go find the next Jim Johnson.