Growing pains. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis knew there would be many when he accepted the job as the Eagles' defensive coordinator. He also knew that head coach Chip Kelly valued Davis as a teacher, as a hard worker and as a coach who would stop at nothing to achieve success.
And so Davis laid out his plan: He would take the personnel assembled and teach them all together bits and pieces of the scheme. He would be a teacher, he would be patient, and at the same time he would push the players as far as they could go in a very short period of time.
There were moments in training camp, frankly, when the defensive inadequacies were so glaring that the concern from the outside was urgent. Why not, some fans urged, switch back to the 4-3 and ease into the 3-4 over a period of a season, or even longer?
Davis never wavered. He remained positive. He feed the system bit by bit to a collection of players that included some who returned from the 2012 struggle, some who were acquired in the offseason and some who were familiar pieces fitted into new places.
Here we are now, a couple of weeks out from the end of the 2013 season, and the view in the rear-view mirror of the Eagles defense -- where it has been, where it is, and where it needs to be -- is vastly different. Davis proved his scheme works after so many early questions. His ability to reach the players is not even a shred in doubt. Davis exhibited a great feel for the game and for dialing up pressure at the right time, and the scheme --one that featured a 3-4 front most of the time, but also employed some 4-3 looks and certainly was not predictable -- proved sound.
It was, then, a tremendous job by Davis and the defensive coaching staff. The Eagles know that they have a foundation of X's and O's from which to work.
The personnel part is the next step to lift the defense to a new level.
That's all ahead, of course. Change is going to happen, as it does every offseason. The Eagles are going to address every area of the defense and challenge the roster. That's just the way business is conducted in the NFL.
Who stays? Who goes? The months ahead will tell us. The Eagles saw some extremely positive progress for some of the young players on that side of the ball -- the young players up front like Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, Bennie Logan, and others -- played very well. They're a group in place that will improve and can provide some solid footing as the defense moves forward. The linebackers, across the board, were vastly improved from a season prior. New cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher teamed with Brandon Boykin to match up nicely against the wide receivers on the schedule.
The safeties? Much improved from a season earlier, and the difference in Nate Allen was dramatic. Patrick Chung battled injuries and was up and down, and rookie Earl Wolff showed promise when he was healthy and on the field.
It's coming together, then. The puzzle isn't yet complete, but 2013 was a strong place to start. Davis showed his mettle moving so many pieces around -- Fletcher Cox became a two-gap defensive, Trent Cole a stand-up pass rusher, Mychal Kendricks moved inside at linebacker after playing the SAM position in his rookie season -- and making the kind of strides that helped carry the Eagles into the postseason.
It's difficult to say what Davis will unleash when the Eagles add to the roster on defense, but he's very aware that the Eagles must be physical throughout and aggressive. The takeaways were there in 2013. The performance in the red zone was better than in recent seasons, but there is plenty of room for improvement. The pass pressure was inconsistent, and probably the phase of the defense that kept the Eagles from being closer to an elite unit.
Davis wants to bring pressure. He isn't afraid to call blitzes coming from every part of the defense, and he's very confident that the communication in place and the understanding from every man on the field, will compensate for the hot reads.
Year 1 of the defense was a positive experience, a plus. There is a lot of work to be done. Davis is going to tweak his scheme and expand his approach. He understands the need to take a critical, honest approach to what he has and what he needs and where he needs it to make this defense better, the best.
The scheme, though, has proven itself to be a winner, and Davis has the right touch. Davis and the defense made nice strides in 2013, a great building block for the future.