He is in the role of defensive coordinator for the first time in his coaching career, and yet Jonathan Gannon exudes the kind of infectious confidence and enthusiasm that captures you. He is a coach who wants to do right for his players, for his fellow coaching staff, and for the Eagles organization. Ask him a question and he will tell you how "super excited" he is about, well, pretty much everything, and so as we look forward to Training Camp 2021, we examine the defense with great curiosity.
Gannon has a plan, built upon the mentors he's met and the knowledge he has gained since entering the NFL in 2007. What that plan entails, exactly, is part of what will reveal itself through Training Camp, the three preseason games, and the joint practices against New England and the New York Jets into the regular season. How quickly it all comes together is the fascinating question, because the Eagles have a unique defensive roster constructed through a combination of holdover players on the roster, 2021 draft picks, and creative acquisitions as they navigated a salary cap picture that offered little wiggle room when free agency started in March.
Which makes this defense ... what ... exactly?
"I was a defensive GA (graduate assistant) at the University of Louisville in 2006, and I started thinking about that. Knowing that I wasn't ready at that time to be a defensive coordinator," Gannon said in the spring. "I think, as you go along the way and how my career went, I have worked under a lot of really good people, I feel. I've learned a lot of different things. So you just kind of piece that together as you go along.
"The main thing, though, when I got here, I didn't drop a book on the table and say, 'Hey, this is what we're running.' If you actually ask the head coach, when we first talked about this when he interviewed me, it was, 'Hey, what scheme are you going to run?' I said, 'I don't have a scheme.' And I believe that you have to be adaptable.
"But the first thing is we've got to figure out what our players can do, and then we've got to put them in those situations as much as possible to utilize their strengths. The main thing for us is it's not what we play; it's how we play. And if you asked our players that, I think they know that from the jump as far as we're going to run to the ball, we're going to outhit people, we're going to take it away, and we're going to be smart. Those four things – hustle, intensity, takeaways, smart. The acronym for that is the HITS principle, and that's what we're going to hold our hat on.
"Everyone runs the same stuff for the most part. It's not what you do; it's how you do it. I think the players have done a really good job of absorbing that and seeing the standard that we want from them and can't wait to get on the grass in August and show people."
Welcome to August, coach. Show us what you've got.
That's going to take some time, of course. Gannon hasn't even seen his players in pads, hasn't seen a single ballcarrier taken to the ground, and understands, much more than all of us, that a lot of heavy lifting is required to integrate all of these new players – among them edge monster Ryan Kerrigan, linebacker Eric Wilson, some new cornerbacks including recent addition Steven Nelson, and safeties Anthony Harris and Andrew Adams – on the same page and ready for Atlanta on September 12.
Nelson is the latest add, a player who has been a starter for much of his NFL career and who is expected to put his best foot forward and challenge for a starting job outside opposite Darius Slay. Nelson has been around enough in the league to have the ability to adapt quickly to the X's and O's – it's the language of a scheme that is the challenge, not necessarily the concepts – but there is a lot of teaching involved here as well. That's the main task for Gannon and his staff – they have to "coach up" the defensive side of the ball and get everyone on the same page in a relatively short period of time. And that makes the "watch the defense" part of August so fascinating: How quickly are we going to see this defense come together?
It certainly helps Gannon that Wilson and Harris have an understanding of the defense, having played under Mike Zimmer in Minnesota, and Zimmer is one of the coaches that Gannon cites as a mentor. And it helps that Kerrigan has played in multiple schemes and that Nelson has been on multiple teams and that, frankly, every single one of those new veterans is here on a one-year contract and has a "prove it" mentality heading into 2021.
What it really means, though, is that Gannon and the coaches and the players have a lot of "coming together" to do. They've got to build chemistry and trust quickly. They have to be on the same page mentally as Gannon evaluates his best options and rotations of players. A great defense is far more than a collection of great talent – making sure everyone is in lockstep on the checks and the calls is the most important priority. Defensive busts can easily result in six points for the other sideline.
Add all of this up and combine it with Gannon's "let's go" disposition and the defense is a must-see at Training Camp this summer. The collection of players acquired in so many ways and cast together with little breathing room to spare makes for an enormous undertaking for Gannon.
"I definitely think with four weeks of practice (in the spring), we'll get there," Gannon said before the pre-Training Camp break. "You know, with that question, it just goes back to they have to understand where they fit within the call, and from there, we give them a little flexibility to move around pre-snap. Now, when we first line up and play, we won't do that, but as we get going, I see it going that way because I truly do think that it's hard for the offense and it's good for our guys because it gives them – it allows them to use some of their tools in their tool belt.
"I could tell you right now, just from being in meetings with these guys, I've been extremely pleased with the mindset of our guys. ... It speaks to the character of the team and the defense. I told them today that I was thankful for them being here because the best part about our jobs is the players. It was really cool this week, and I'm looking forward to the next two weeks (from the spring) of what we can get done before we get back here at the end of July."