Rich Hofmann: Washburn trying his best to ground high-flying quarterbacks

Eagles' defensive line coach Jim Washburn, after 4 decades, agrees that the game is pass first, run second. YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Eagles' defensive line coach Jim Washburn, after 4 decades, agrees that the game is pass first, run second. YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: July 26, 2012

THE FIRST NFL quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards was San Diego's Dan Fouts. The year was 1979. Joe Namath had done it for the 1967 New York Jets in the AFL, but this was the first time after the two leagues merged. It was a round, magical, freakish number, but few saw it as the future.

In the entire decade of the 1980s, 14 more quarterbacks threw for 4,000 yards. Then, people started to believe. Well, some people. Buddy Ryan was still referring to the wide-open "run-and-shoot" offense back then as the "chuck-and-duck."

There were 22 4,000-yard quarterbacks in the 1990, as the momentum built. There were 46 of them in the 2000. Now, the thing has exploded: there were 10 of them in 2011 alone.

There is no hint of a retreat, either.

"Third-and-1, in the old days, gol-dang, you might even put your goal-line defense out there," said Jim Washburn, the Eagles' defensive line coach. (But you already knew who was speaking, from the gol-dang.)

"Third-and-1 is 48 percent pass [today]," he said, insisting that he isn't a stats guy but needing to share his amazement at the numbers. "Third-and-2, there was no question that it was still run. Third-and-2, it's 67 percent pass. Third-and-3 is 88 percent pass ...

“It's unbelievable," Washburn said. "It's just a passing league."

The Eagles made their defensive position coaches available for interviews on Tuesday, something they have begun to do for the first time under coach Andy Reid. As Washburn joked to reporters at one point, "Talk to you next year."

His business is teaching people how to rush the passer. It has been so for decades. After graduating from college, he started in the coaching business and made stops in the states of Texas, North Carolina and Alabama before landing as the defensive line coach at New Mexico in 1980.

"I went to California, recruiting, in 1980, and they were doing all of these passing things and this guy went and said, ‘Wash, you're seeing the future of football,'" he said. "I started coaching in the Western Athletic Conference at New Mexico, and they were throwing, and back home they were running the wishbone and killing each other."

His first WAC game was against BYU. Jim McMahon was the quarterback. Andy Reid was on the offensive line. The Cougars threw the ball all over the place that year and every year. McMahon finished the season with 4,571 passing yards

"All my buddies back home said, ‘How is it out there?'" Washburn said. "I said, ‘It's crazy, man.' And now it's evolved to that."

Crazy is normal. Balance is unnecessary. Running the ball is a situational, sometimes thing — 7-3 is a baseball score. The days when Ryan schooled his young defensive coordinator, Jeff Fisher, with aphorisms like, "You've got to be able to run the ball when the snow flies," are over. Washburn heard them all when he worked for Fisher in Tennessee.

"Jeff would say, ‘You've got to run the ball and stop the run,' and that was in 1999, and that was true," he said. "But right now, you can stop the run all you want but if you can't stop the pass, you're dead."

The Eagles tied for the league lead with 50 sacks last season, but they still allowed way too many touchdown passes (ninth in the NFL) and plays of more than 40 yards (tied for second), and had too-few interceptions (tied for 17th). And some of it was just so hard to figure. Running backs killed them in the passing game, for instance — miss tackles much? — but they did a great job against tight ends. Top wide receivers were handled better than the rest of the wideouts. The Eagles were pretty good overall against the pass, but still maddeningly inconsistent.

This year, the only certainty is that the NFL is full of teams that will keep on chucking. (That and the irony that Reid and Marty Mornhinweg are more balanced than they have ever been with Shady McCoy in their backfield).

New secondary coach Todd Bowles laughingly acknowledged that the league is unlikely ever again to adopt a rule that helps cornerbacks or safeties. Linebackers coach Mike Caldwell said, if they let him be offensive coordinator for a year, he'd like to be able to run in short-yardage situations but that, "If you have a quarterback and a receiver, I'm throwing."

Washburn, too.

"I'd throw it," he said. "I'm sorry. I'm an offensive lineman [as a player], but I'd throw it a bunch. I'd be able to run the ball but I'd throw the ball."

Pass the ball. Stop the pass. Throw the ball when the snow flies. Aphorisms for a new day. n

Contact Rich Hofmann at hofmanr@phillynews.com, read his blog, The Idle Rich, at www.philly.com/TheIdleRich, or follow @theidlerich on Twitter. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/RichHofmann.

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