- After transforming the Bills into of the best defenses in the league—and then being run off by Rex Ryan—the Eagles’ coordinator has done the same in Philly. He should be a hot head coaching candidate in the next few months, but for now he’s got the Rams and 2017 on his mind
COSTA MESA, Calif. — Brash. In your face. These are some of the adjectives Jim Schwartz has used to describe himself.
Two weeks ago he ripped into his defensive line on the sideline. He didn’t care that the scoreboard read Eagles 24, Bears 3—three of his defensive tackles had jumped across the line early on a single defensive series. He won’t hesitate to drop four-letter words on the practice field, and he’s known for a Belichickesque practice of showing lowlights on film in the meeting room, sometimes even going so far as to shine a pointer on the player who screwed up.
But after the Eagles lost just their second game of the season, a 24-10 defeat in Seattle, Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator turned the pointer on himself. On Tuesday, at the Orange County hotel where the Eagles are bunkered down for the week between back-to-back West Coast games, the defense met for game corrections and a walkthrough. Schwartz began by telling the players he was challenging himself to do better, starting this week against a Rams offense that’s leading the NFL in scoring.
“He wished he could have certain calls back, just like we wish we could have certain plays back,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “When he holds us accountable, and he also holds himself accountable, that goes a long way.”
Schwartz, in his second season running the Eagles defense, has guided the unit so far this season to a level of performance not achieved here since the late, great Jim Johnson was at the helm. The Eagles are yielding less than 300 total yards per game, good for third in the league (they’re first against the run), and they currently rank sixth in scoring defense. The Seattle performance was marred by penalties, missed tackles and blown assignments—but in a game that many Eagles would consider their worst outing of the season, the defense still gave up just 310 total yards and 24 points. “It shows you a little bit about where our guys are,” Schwartz noted, “that that’s considered a bad performance.”
Carson Wentz has received much of the credit for the Eagles’ 10-2 mark, and understandably so. But the defense has had a strong hand in the team’s success as well—and, while the Eagles have other plans for January, Schwartz will be a prominent name considered during the upcoming head-coach hiring cycle. He was fired as head coach of the the Lions in December 2013 after five seasons, with a 29-51 record and one winning season; since then he coordinated the second-ranked Bills defense in 2014 and has now replicated that success in Philadelphia. Does he aspire to be a head coach again, he was asked on Wednesday?
“I’ll pass on that question,” Schwartz said. “We have enough to get ready for the Rams, and I think it does nobody any good to mention that. There is really no right way to answer that. If you answer it and say, ‘Yes,’ then your eyes are on the wrong thing. You answer it and say, ‘No,’ then people…”
Schwartz didn’t finish that thought, but the point he was trying to make was clear enough. Most 51-year-old coordinators who have served a term as a head coach would not say no to that question. “It’s about that time for him to have another opportunity to be a head coach,” said Nate Burleson, the retired receiver and NFL Network analyst who played four seasons for Schwartz with the Lions.
Schwartz’s brash, in-your-face nature was certainly front and center in Detroit—most notably when he got in Jim Harbaugh’s face in 2011 after the then-49ers coach bounced across the field for a particularly gleeful post-game handshake following a win against the Lions. Schwartz chased Harbaugh down, sparking an inter-squad brouhaha. Burleson, who was right in the middle of the chaos, loved it. He says he appreciated playing for a coach who would enlist veteran players like himself to stir things up at practice if the intensity was lagging, or publicly defend Ndamukong Suh during the height of criticism that dubbed him a dirty player.
“Will he dial it back if he gets another head coaching job? I hope not,” Burleson said. “I want him to do the fist pumps; I want him to look across to the other sideline; I want him to run to the middle of the field and shake the opposing coach’s hand firmly after we get the win. We all see that; we all pay attention to that. We want a coach that can feel the way we feel and embody the same passion. If people find that abrasive, it says more about the other individual.”
In Philadelphia it took a year for Schwartz’s approach to take hold among the defense. This season more than last, the Eagles defense reflects the personality of its coach: aggressive. Other than a play last week when some pre-snap machinations by Russell Wilson resulted in the Eagles defense tipping its hand, Schwartz has sprinkled in the cover-zero blitz—a gutsy call to pressure the quarterback with no defender deep—with good timing and effectiveness. And Graham, who already has a career-high 8.5 sacks with four games to play, has come alive as a 4-3 defensive end in Schwartz’s system.
It’s somewhat ironic that the wide-9 defensive front, once a trigger word for Eagles fans who witnessed its failures during the end of the Andy Reid era, has now played a role in Philadelphia’s defensive revival. The Eagles have some different personnel now, but they also have a different person—Schwartz—teaching the pass-rushing alignment in which the ends line up well outside the offensive tackles. “It wasn’t the same, because you didn’t have Schwartz,” Graham says. “You’ve gotta have the head man that can trickle down and talk to the other position coaches and explain what you are trying to get out of it.”
The Eagles defense has benefitted from Schwartz, and Schwartz in turn has benefitted, too. It’s no surprise, though, that he demurred from answering a question about his coaching future. The former head coach, working under a first-time head coach, has been wary of being perceived to be overstepping his role as a defensive coordinator.
Unlike past Eagles coordinators, Schwartz declines to talk to the media after games. After Wentz was drafted, he raised eyebrows with his answer to a question about how to handle a rookie quarterback drafted in the first round—something he experienced firsthand as a head coach, with Matthew Stafford—and since then has taken care not to weigh in on anything to do with the other side of the ball. Said one defensive player, wary of upsetting a dynamic that’s working right now: “I could see him as a head coach, but it’s always kind of dangerous to say that as a player…I don’t want to cause any sort of ripples.”
The more success the Eagles have, of course, the more likely it is Schwartz has opportunities elsewhere next season. “A lot of [our success on defense] has to do with him,” says linebacker Nigel Bradham, who followed Schwartz to Philadelphia after playing for him in Buffalo. “Hopefully we both stay here for a while. That’s the goal. But, you never know."
First, there’s plenty of business to handle this season, starting with a game against the Rams that could be critical in determining playoff positioning. The Eagles have to bottle up Todd Gurley. They have to crack the most prolific offense in the league. On Tuesday, Schwartz told his players he was challenging himself to do better this week. On Wednesday, he’ll be right back to challenging them.
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