The Eagles are one of the premier franchises in the NFL. There have been a lot of great players and coaches in the team's history. You can argue Ron Jaworski vs. Randall Cunningham vs. Donovan McNabb all day long. You can debate whether Steve Van Buren, Brian Westbrook or LeSean McCoy is the best runner in team history. Is Chuck Bednarik still the greatest Eagle of them all? Who is the greatest coach in team history? Andy Reid has the most wins. Dick Vermeil got the team to its first Super Bowl after years of losing. Greasy Neale led the Eagles to a pair of NFL titles.
One thing you can't debate is the Mount Rushmore of defensive coaches.
Marion Campbell, Buddy Ryan, Bud Carson and Jim Johnson are the four greatest defensive coaches in team history and four of the best all time. They are special men. Campbell was the defensive coordinator for six years and the Eagles gave up the fewest points in the NFL in that span. Ryan created the 46 Defense in Chicago and then came to Philly and built Gang Green. Carson is the man who coached Gang Green during the great 1991 season when they finished first against the run, the pass and total yards. The last time any other NFL team did that was 1975. Johnson was a zone blitz guru who did amazing things in his decade with the Eagles, including helping the team to get to the Super Bowl in 2004. Those were truly special coaches.
Now, Jim Schwartz has his chance to make history.
Schwartz has already had a good career and he's run some terrific defenses. He had top-10 units in Tennessee in 2007 and 2008. Schwartz had the Bills finish in the top five in 2014. This situation is different, though. Schwartz has a chance to do something special.
The first part of the equation is that he will get all the credit if the defense is great. Doug Pederson has an offensive background. He won't ignore the defense, but has publicly stated that Schwartz will run that side of the ball. Schwartz has autonomy. He chooses who plays. He decides when to blitz and when to cover. The success of the defense will be on Schwartz. Things were different in Tennessee. Jeff Fisher was the head coach and he's got a defensive background (he was the Eagles' defensive coordinator under Ryan from 1988-1990). Schwartz took over the defense from Gregg Williams, who had the team ranked first in yards and second in points in 2000. Schwartz was given a very talented unit that was coming off a great season.
Think how different that is from this situation. The Eagles finished 28th and 30th in points and yards, respectively, last year. Players like Cedric Thornton, DeMeco Ryans, Kiko Alonso, Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond are gone. There is a major scheme change from the 3-4 to the 4-3. Schwartz will be able to take credit if the Eagles play well this year. If that happens, is anyone going to argue, "Yeah Schwartz did a good job, but those are all Bill Davis' players." I don't think so. People will rave about what a good coach Schwartz is and what a difference he made in just one year.
The other key here is that Schwartz is in position to succeed. His scheme is built around the defensive line, a spot where the Eagles are loaded. Schwartz wants to rush the front four and then let the back seven do its thing. There will be some blitzing, but only on a limited basis. When Schwartz had his best defenses with the Titans, he had great players like Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch up front. In Buffalo, Schwartz had Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes. That defense had 54 sacks. Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of just 74.5. That tells you the pressure worked even when it didn't result in a sack. The pressure helped the back seven to cover effectively, and forced quarterbacks into bad decisions and errant throws. That's the power of a dominant defensive line.
Schwartz has quite an impressive group to attack with this year. Fletcher Cox is one of the best players in the NFL and he's in his prime. Bennie Logan is just hitting his prime and is a great fit for the new scheme. Edge rushers Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham are ready to be turned loose on every play and they are in their prime. Connor Barwin is the old man in the group. He's about to turn 30, but has played the best football in his career in the past two seasons. This group could potentially stay together for a few years and grow into an absolutely dominant unit.
All defenses must be strong up the middle. Jordan Hicks showed great potential as a rookie. The Eagles have one of the best safety duos in the league in Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. This is another group that could be together for several years. There is plenty of other young talent on the defense. We need to see Mychal Kendricks bounce back from an inconsistent 2015 and play more like he did in 2014 when many thought he was headed to the Pro Bowl. Cornerback Eric Rowe was up and down as a rookie, but certainly flashed good potential. Rookie Jalen Mills performed at a high level in the spring. We have to wait and see if he can continue that in Training Camp and then into games. He's generated quite a lot of buzz, especially for a seventh-round pick.
Schwartz didn't just get a job when Pederson hired him. Schwartz got a chance to mold a dominant defense. It won't happen in one game or one month. There will be some growing pains. A new scheme means everyone is learning on the fly. There will be some missed assignments and blown coverages early on. At some point, things will click. The front four will penetrate and make plays up front. The linebackers will become gap-sound and limit run plays. The secondary will learn to play as a unit and limit big plays, on the ground and in the air. A mediocre defense will do this once or twice a season. You know the theory that even a broken clock is right twice a day, right? A good defense will do this on a regular basis. A dominant defense will do this almost every game.
In order for a unit to become dominant, you need the right combination of coaching, talent and age. The Seahawks have been great in recent years. The scheme fits the talent they have. The coaches do a great job of maximizing the talent within the scheme. Most of the best players are young. They are fast, physical and have stayed relatively healthy. The players are very confident and very aggressive.
Schwartz inherited a lot of talent. He also got young, hungry players. These guys have been trapped in a read-and-react scheme for three years. They want to attack. I expect them to play with an edge, something all good defenses do. If Schwartz and this group can stay together for several years, this could turn out to be a special defense. Maybe, just maybe, Schwartz will be able to make his case for a spot on the Mount Rushmore of Eagles defensive coaches.