Pederson's big decision: Who'll direct Eagles defense?

Posted: January 19, 2016

If Doug Pederson learned anything from Andy Reid - and the Eagles had better hope it wasn't only time management - it should be how to select a defensive coordinator as a new head coach.

Reid got it right with the Eagles and the Chiefs when he tabbed Jim Johnson and Bob Sutton, respectively, to run his defense. In both cases, he went with veteran coaches who had mild success as NFL coordinators but impressed Reid when his teams faced their defenses.

Johnson and Sutton were also beyond the point of being considered future head coaches. They had strong personalities and were beloved by their players, but they would never do anything - consciously or not - that could be viewed as a threat to Reid.

Pederson, who will officially become the Eagles' next head coach this week, needs to find his Johnson or Sutton. He can't just blindly go with one of the big-name coordinators who are available.

Jim Schwartz and Mike Pettine have been the two most prominent coaches who have been linked to the Eagles thus far. They're both good coaches, but neither has had so much success as to be make him a no-brain hire. That isn't to say they couldn't work.

But Pederson needs to interview both and set ground rules. Both were head coaches and both are relatively young enough (49) to get second chances. It is more than likely they'll want that opportunity.

The suggestion here isn't that they would attempt to undermine Pederson. But Schwartz and Pettine are known for their fiery, no-nonsense demeanor. Pederson is a different type of leader. He's measured and even-keeled. Being a head coach could turn him into a disciplinarian, but he isn't the type of coach that players fear.

And that isn't necessarily a bad thing. But if his defensive coordinator - or his offensive coordinator, for that matter - overshadows him, it will become a problem. Pederson is an offensive-minded coach, so his first defensive coordinator will be the most important coaching hire of his Eagles tenure.

He should make his choice based upon his schematic preference and the Eagles' current personnel, but he shouldn't be married to either. He needs to find some middle ground. Chip Kelly, for instance, was bringing a two-gap 3-4 defensive front to the Eagles no matter what.

He knew the coach he was bringing in to direct his defensive line (Jerry Azzinaro), but it took him weeks to find someone who was schooled in the scheme, and he ended up selecting a mediocre coordinator in Bill Davis.

(A brief reminder that Reid did something the same to ill effect by hiring defensive line coach Jim Washburn before naming Juan Castillo coordinator, but only after Johnson died and Reid fired Sean McDermott.)

Kelly preferred a two-gap, 3-4 front probably because it was often the defense (see: Stanford) that gave his Oregon offense the most trouble. And there's nothing wrong with that. When he hired both coordinators, Reid recalled Johnson's Colts forcing the Packers, when he was there as quarterbacks coach, into three turnovers in 1997, and Sutton's Jets holding the Eagles to 16 points in 2007.

But Kelly's defense was also designed to offset his up-tempo offense, particularly in the first two seasons. It was predicated more on stopping the run partly because the Eagles couldn't afford to allow opponents to control the clock more than their tempo offense had spotted them.

Given those constraints, Davis, to some extent, did the best he could. But his coverage calls were sometimes so wrong they were mind-boggling.

Pederson needs to find one of the best defensive minds out there, someone preferably with coordinator experience. He needs to identify a coach who can work with multiple fronts and run several man-zone concepts in the secondary and be able to disguise looks and blitzes before the snap.

The Eagles have enough versatile talent in their front seven that they could transition back into a one-gap 4-3. Fletcher Cox is an ideal three-technique defensive tackle. Vinny Curry is an explosive edge rushing defensive end. Mychal Kendricks is probably best suited to play weakside linebacker.

Schwartz is a 4-3 guy. He did have his ends line up in the wide-nine, but it was only one tool in his box during stops with the Titans and Bills as coordinator and the Lions as head coach. He got his NFL start working as a scout under Bill Belichick and as a linebackers coach under Marvin Lewis.

That's some pedigree. He took a break from coaching for a year. He's obviously looking for the best situation.

Pettine is a Rex Ryan protégé. He's a 3-4 guy, but he's flexible enough to switch his fronts based on down, distance, the opponent and his personnel. He's aggressive, but his blitzes are exotic and can be deceiving.

Schwartz or Pettine would be solid choices. But would they be the correct ones?

Steve Spagnuolo is also a former head coach and a Johnson disciple. He had great immediate success after the Eagles, but his defenses have been among the league's worst over the last five years and the New York Giants may not be willing to free him from his contract.

It might make sense to find and promote an up-and-coming assistant, but only if the Eagles counter him with a veteran offensive coordinator who has head coaching experience. But Pederson, like Reid, will likely hand the reins of the defense to one man.

A veteran like Ed Donatell or Mike Nolan or Kevin Coyle or Lovie Smith might make the most sense. There's probably someone out there who hasn't even been named who only needs another chance.

When Reid hired Johnson many asked, "Who?" or joked that he was the lesser Jim Johnson. How did that turn out?

jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane 

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