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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Replacing a Legend is Hard -- But Things Work Out

Several years ago during the Andy Reid era in Philadelphia, defensive coordinator Jim Johnson passed away.  Johnson came to the Eagles from Seattle, where he had been the linebackers coach.  He created a defense that was much admired; he became a legend in Philadelphia.

And, sadly, then he passed away.  As the Eagles' version of a poor man's dynasty started to fade, position coach Sean McDermott was faced with the unenviable task of replacing his coordinator.  His stint didn't go well, even as the talent at various positions waned (the Eagles were famous for having bad linebackers and undersized defensive tackles).  McDermott's tenure proved unfortunate, and I, for one, didn't think he got a fair shot.  But the defense didn't perform the way Jim Johnson's did, and McDermott took the fall.  So desperate was Reid that after he jettisoned McDermott and replaced him with what seemingly was his last choice, his offensive line coach, Juan Castillo (former linebackers coach and Giants' defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was available after a failed stint as head coach of the Rams, but he opted to go elsewhere).  Castillo's hiring was perplexing, so much so that it prompted the infamous "WFT" headline from the Philadelphia Daily News.  Castillo's tenure proved to be even worse than McDermott's, proving that Reid's grip on his defense has slipped, to the point where defensive line coach Jim Washburn, he of the infamous "Wide 9's" defense, seemingly had become insubordinate to Castillo and, correspondingly, Reid.  Got all that?

In the meantime, Ron Rivera was named head coach at Carolina, and he hired McDermott as his defensive coordinator.  Clearly, McDermott had something to do with Johnson's success, and while he might not have been the second coming of Johnson, he also couldn't have been as awful as many made him out to be (and much of that derived from a) that he was not Johnson and could not be him and b) that his personnel wasn't what it had once been).  To make a long story short -- and the story has a happy ending -- McDermott is now the defensive coordinator of the #2 ranked defense in the entire NFL.  Which is a nice ending, I think, for a a good, relatively young coordinator who had a difficult task ahead of him.

Reid, meanwhile, has landed well in Kansas City and is playoff bound.  Castillo landed as a run-game coordinator in Baltimore, well deserving of a second chance (and it was somewhat ironic that while Castillo's defenses looked discombobulated enough to prompt his dismissal, statistically they had fared better than offensive coordinator Marty Mohrningweg's offense did).  It's funny how coaches can recycle in the NFL and in college -- sometimes they are in the wrong places at the wrong times, but Sean McDermott's story is a good one -- of faith in himself, and of a relatively newly minted head coach overlooking a struggle in a football-crazy town to hire a guy his gut told him could really produce.  So kudos to Ron Rivera for hiring Sean McDermott, and kudos to Sean McDermott for rebounding from a difficult time to emerge as one of the best defensive coordinators in the game.

It's hard to replace a legend, almost as hard as it is for a Super Bowl-winning coach to reprise his success in another city.  McDermott failed primarily because he wasn't Johnson, but also because his head coach, who doubled as his personnel guy, failed to adapt quickly enough to support a defense that had become suspect because the whole world knew that it didn't value linebackers.  And once the defensive backfield started to slip and the defensive line failed to improve, that defense became vulnerable and predictable -- it just didn't have the talent to get the job done.

There's a lesson in all of this regarding succession planning and its successes and failures.  McDermott was the obvious choice to succeed Johnson -- he just needed a better on boarding plan to succeed in Philadelphia.  Failing that, he found a coach who gave him a second chance, and he's made the most of it.  It wasn't fair to expect him to be the next Johnson, but one could argue that he's getting pretty close to that pinnacle in Carolina.

And that's a good story.


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