Ex-Eagles O-line coach Howard Mudd proud of his charges' play

Howard Mudd wanted linemen to be athletes first. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff
Howard Mudd wanted linemen to be athletes first. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff
Posted: January 05, 2014

Howard Mudd was trying to think of the free-agent tackle, the one the Eagles were forced to sign after Jason Peters ruptured his Achilles tendon before the 2012 season.

"The guy from Buffalo . . . Demetress Bell," Mudd finally recalled. "Oops, that didn't work out."

The former Eagles offensive line coach, now retired, was going through some of the combinations of linemen he was forced to insert into the lineup after four (!) of five starters were injured last season.

Mudd wasn't complaining. He didn't make a peep last season about the hand he was dealt. But the Eagles' injury-marred 2012 stands in sharp contrast to this season, when all five of the linemen started every regular-season game.

And Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans, and Lane Johnson are slated to start again when the Eagles host the Saints in the first round of the playoffs on Saturday night.

Their health and the near-seamless returns of Peters and Kelce from major injuries have been one of the main reasons Chip Kelly was able to turn last season's 4-12 misery into a 10-6, NFC East-winning success.

And Mudd, who coached four of those five for two seasons and was instrumental in their development - especially Mathis and Kelce - has been like the proud papa, watching most of the Eagles' games from his retirement home in Leisure World, Ariz.

"Personally, I'm very proud because they learned how to play with each other," Mudd said during a telephone interview this week. "They know each other. I don't know about the new guy [Johnson]. He looks like he's doing fine. But all those guys know each other so well, and they respect one another, and they play very well together."

Mudd still texts with the four. The messages are mostly words of encouragement and congratulations. He doesn't want to step on new Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland's toes.

But while Mudd refused to take any credit for the line's impressive play, it's hard not to look at the unit and think what might have been had he not emphasized acquiring athletic linemen and introduced an aggressive blocking technique.

Kelly has never said it, but the fact that the Eagles had linemen who were ideally suited to his spread offense had to be a bonus when he took the coaching job. The zone-combination schemes, the space blocking, and the pulling linemen are tailored to Mudd's prototype lineman.

"He's asking them to do the same stuff I was asking them to do when I got there," Mudd said of Kelly. "And that's the way the West was won, as far as I'm concerned. In Indianapolis we had four athletic guys. That's what I was used to. When I got there, we had these pieces."

'Be an athlete'

Looking back, it is remarkable how much Mudd turned over the line after he arrived in 2011 - lured out of his first retirement by Andy Reid after more than a decade of producing some of the NFL's best units with the Colts.

By the start of the season, left tackle Jason Peters was the only remaining starter still at his same spot from the previous season. Todd Herremans had been moved from left guard to right tackle because Winston Justice was slow to recover from a knee injury, and fill-ins Ryan Harris and King Dunlap didn't pan out.

Mathis, signed as a free agent after six journeyman years, arrived that summer amid the Dream Team hysteria virtually unnoticed. But Eagles general manager Howie Roseman and his staff had been plowing through tape looking for Mudd-type linemen.

Mathis had previously played in Cincinnati, and Ryan Grigson, then the Eagles director of player personnel, had a close relationship with Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander. Grigson, now the Colts GM, was drafted by the Bengals in 1995, and Alexander was his first position coach.

"Ryan Grigson brought in Evan Mathis," Mudd said. "He told me, 'You're going to like this guy.' I said, 'OK.' He knew what I was about."

Mathis, after being misused at various stops, arrived at Eagles camp in tip-top shape. But he still had tendencies that Mudd said they would butt heads over.

"You look at him and you see this freaky guy that could lift the whole side of the building - a weight-lifter-type guy," Mudd said. "Not a body- builder. Yeah, he likes to look good, too, but here's this real powerful man that could muscle people around. The struggle that he had with me was, 'I don't want you to be a power guy. I want you to be an athlete.' "

Mudd wanted Mathis to use his quickness and his ability to change direction as leverage. It didn't take long for Mudd's methods to work, and when Herremans was shifted to tackle, Mathis seamlessly stepped into left guard.

"I always wish I would have had him way before I got him," Mudd said. "He's exceptional at the nonphysical things. He's really smart. He questions everything. That didn't bother me. I didn't give a [shoot]. If I don't have an answer for it . . . then what I'm telling you must not have a real good foundation for it."

Despite being snubbed by the Pro Bowl, Mathis was essentially rewarded for three years of all-pro level play when he was selected to the Associated Press' first team on Friday.

"I'll always give him tons of credit for teaching me so much new information at that point in my career," Mathis said of Mudd.

It's safe to say Kelce wouldn't have been drafted by the Eagles if it weren't for Mudd. The team got him in the sixth round out of Cincinnati, pretty much where many draft analysts had him pegged.

"His size - the conventional scouting fraternity was like he's a little small, and this, that, and the other stuff," Mudd said. "And I just watched his film. I didn't give a [shoot]. I just liked him."

The Eagles brought Kelce in for a predraft interview.

"I was very prejudiced when he walked into the building," Mudd said. "He would have had to do something really silly for us not to like him. . . . But he didn't."

Despite the NFL lockout that wiped out spring practices, Mudd said he had Kelce "earmarked" to start not long after training camp had started, even though longtime starter Jamaal Jackson was still on the roster.

"It was right after the third practice, and Howard pulled me aside and was like, 'You want to play this year?' And I was like, 'Yeah, I want to play this year,' " Kelce said. "And he was like, 'Well, just keep learning the offense. Keep working like you're working and just know there are a lot of people excited with what you're doing.' "

Kelce won the job and played all 16 games as a rookie. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the second game of last season, but returned and had what many considered to be a Pro Bowl-caliber third season.

'Will to be dominant'

Peters, despite having to return from two Achilles tendon injuries, was voted to his sixth Pro Bowl last week and his third all-pro team. Mudd said the left tackle is on the path to greater achievements.

"I keep saying 'HOF' to him," Mudd said. "The kind of people that belong in the Hall of Fame are the ones that dominate their position in their time, and he's done that."

Peters had already been to four Pro Bowls when Mudd arrived, but he had arguably his best season with Mudd as his coach.

"He has the will to be dominant," Mudd said. "It isn't just, 'I'm a good athlete, I'm a freak,' and all that stuff. It's, 'I want to kick your ass.' And he sets out to do that every play if he can."

Johnson came with the reputation of being a "freak" athletically. Mudd agreed that the rookie right tackle would have thrived working in his blocking system.

"After the draft, Howie Roseman sent me a DVD, [and] said: 'Hey, this is the guy we drafted. You'd really like this guy,' " Mudd said. "At the beginning of the year, of course he's a rookie, and he's going to struggle with certain things. I've just watched him grow through the whole year."

Not all of the linemen associated with Mudd panned out. Guard Danny Watkins, selected first in the 2011 draft - five rounds ahead of Kelce - struggled during his two seasons and was released by Kelly in August.

"Very disappointed with the outcome, not with them getting rid of him," Mudd said. "I knew that was going to happen. To look at the potential that was there and then what actually transpired were two totally different things. There was some kind of disconnect psychologically because it had nothing to do with the physical."

Watkins, after he recovered from an ankle injury, never got back in the lineup last season. By the end of the year, the starting group consisted of center Dallas Reynolds, tackles King Dunlap and Dennis Kelly, and guards Jake Scott and Mathis.

"We were always shuffling people around. 'This guy's got to play here, and that guy's got to play over there,' " Mudd said. "When Watkins got hurt we put big, old Dennis Kelly in at guard. Then we bring Jake Scott in off the street. And then we got better!

"I'm just glad they didn't have to go through that this year."



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