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Monday, January 17, 2011

Thoughts on the Eagles' Firing of Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott

When Buddy Ryan coached the Eagles (and failed to win a single playoff game despite how good his defense was), many fans wondered why Buddy had such an aversion to offense. When the stat wonks get to football the way they've dissected baseball, they'll probably come up with stats that compel the conclusion that Eagles' then-QB Randall Cunningham was one of the ten best quarterbacks of all-time and warrants a perch in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Why, you ask?

Because he had a limited offense line, no running game (RB Keith Byars was known for his ability to catch the ball), receivers who did not command double coverage (even if Fred Barnett made the Pro Bowl once) and a tight end who, despite all of the advanced hype (Keith Jackson) tended to drop the ball in key situations. Put differently, Randall had almost no supporting cast, and Buddy did little to improve upon it during his tenure as head coach. That Randall didn't have his career shortened is testimony to his creativity on the gridiron. While some might summarize the Buddy Ryan years in Philadelphia as the era of his dominant defense (and, yes, they were very good), others would note that the team's offense was its (and Buddy's) Achilles' heel and that it was Buddy's fault for not making it better.

Fast forward to the 2010 Eagles. Now, it's not fair to say that Andy Reid's solely an offensive coach. He took a risk bringing in Jim Johnson as his defensive coordinator (Johnson was the Seahawks' linebackers coach at the time and had failed in his one stint as a defensive coordinator in Indianapolis), and he also was instrumental in drafting or bringing in some pretty good players, among them Troy Vincent (as a free agent), corners Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, and so forth. But, the team hasn't had good linebackers during Reid's long tenure, and its interior defensive linemen aren't memorable. Sure, there has been good play at defensive end (Hugh Douglas and Trent Cole), but free agent Jevon Kearse played more like Mike Mamula (egads) than either the 2010 version of either Jason Babib (Tennessee) or Chris Clemons (Seattle), both of whom had over 10 sacks in 2010 and both of whom the Eagles let go after hardly playing them in 2009. So, while it might be reasonable to sack the defensive coordinator -- if not for his 12th-rated defense but for the fact that that defense was the 2nd-worst in giving up TD passes, it also might be reasonable to question the head coach for a) personnel decisions on defense, b) never making certain positions a priority and c) being steadfast in not looking to balance out his West Coast passing attack with more running plays.

Which brings us back to the 36 year-old McDermott, who was put in a difficult position replacing the dying and then deceased Johnson in 2009. Johnson was innovative and creative, and he did a very good job with the personnel he had (typically good outside rushers and defensive backs). He was popular with the fans, got good marks with the press, and then thrust into the situation was McDermott, who a) wasn't Johnson and couldn't have been at the time and b) didn't necessarily have the personnel or lack of injuries that Johnson did. Sure, there were comments in today's papers that Reid didn't like what went on with the defense in 2009 and that he took more of a role with it in the second half of the season, but all of the team's problems cannot be put on McDermott's doorstep.

The Eagles were a young team this year.

It was even money whether they'd make the playoffs.

They did so a) because of the resurgence of Michael Vick and b) because the rest of the NFC East, well, played worse. By season's end, other teams had figured out Vick, and the defense was depleted in the secondary and its lack of good linebacking when compared to the teams still in the hunt was obvious. Was all of it coaching? Doubtful. Some of it? Sure, because good coaches adapt their schemes to the personnel they have and the Eagles' weaknesses at times looked glaring. That said, I believe that this is the first time during his tenure that Andy Reid has sacked this significant a coach (other than his special teams coordinator after last season). This move, in and of itself, speaks volumes regarding the state of the Eagles' defense and Andy Reid's confidence in it.

Is this a crisis? No.

Is Reid a bad coach? Hardly.

Is McDermott a bad coach? No.

Was McDermott in a difficult situation? Yes.

Do the Eagles need better players on defense? Yes. (They also need a right side of the offensive line to protect Vick's blind side, too).

Was Sean McDermott in the wrong place at the wrong time? Yes.

Will we hear from Sean McDermott again? Probably.

What should Eagles' fans make of all this? That on occasion changes need to be made, that this is the nature of the business, and that decisions like this are a reflection of many things, such as the GM's decisions about personnel, the head coach's emphasis on defense and his mentoring of his coordinator, and the development and acumen of the coordinator as this stage of his career.

Put differently, finish the year poorly on defense, and the ownership and head coach will make changes. In this regard, the Eagles are no different from anyone else.

The best here is that both Sean McDermott and the Eagles turn this situation into an opportunity for themselves.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a close relative of Sean McDermott. I have been doing a lot of reading on his recent situation with the Eagles. He loved and I'm sure still loves Philadelphia, he's pretty much a home boy there. I know he worked probably harder then any of the other Eagles coaches for Philly, due to his love for the game. He was the only one that stayed so late he slept in his office during the season for at least 10 years. If someone would go back and ask his college coach, "what was it that made him good" he would say that guy came in early and stayed after the rest of the team to BE THE BEST HE COULD. For his sake I hope he hooks up with the right team and head coach so the NFL can truly see what he's all about. Unfortunately, he even sacrifices family relationships to give the NFL and the team he works with the best he can. 4AM to 12AM is too much to give ANY JOB, ask Andy what hours he worked!

7:19 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for your comment.

I think that many of us have weighed at times the quest for excellence with the balance that we seek in life. We all have to make touch choices, and I do wonder how productive someone can be working 20 hours a day. At some point, there are diminishing returns -- both professionally and personally. That's not to knock Sean McDermott's commitment -- he made many sacrifices, that's for sure. I hope that he finds success, happiness and, yes, balance, down in the great state of North Carolina. He only gets to live one life, and I hope that as he progresses in his career he gets to spend more time with his family.

4:34 PM  

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