PHILADELPHIA -- It is obvious that players have to learn a coach's system in order to succeed in football. That was a major hurdle for the Eagles as they switched from a 4-3 defense to new coordinator Bill Davis' 3-4 scheme.
The Eagles' remarkable progress over the past few weeks, though, has as much to do with Davis learning his players as with the players learning the defense. As Davis has figured out players' strengths and vulnerabilities, he has been able to come up with formations, coverages and pressure schemes to suit them.
“It's always players over scheme,” Davis said. “Players are making the plays. Nothing to do with scheme.”
That is one of the principles that eroded with the Eagles in Andy Reid's latter days. Reid brought in Jim Washburn to coach the very specific “Wide 9” defensive line formation without making sure there were players, especially linebackers, capable of supporting it. And he brought in the equally idiosyncratic offensive line coach, Howard Mudd, which created a steep learning curve and some turnover at that vital position.
Putting scheme over players did not work, not for the 2011 and 2012 Eagles.
There is learning involved here, too, of course. One of the big questions going into this season was whether defensive ends Trent Cole and Brandon Graham could make the transition to outside linebacker. And it is a change. They have different pass-rushing techniques and different responsibilities in the run game. They have to drop into pass coverage at times.
Each of them had two sacks in Sunday's 24-21 win over Arizona. Both of Cole's came when he had his hand on the ground and rushed like the defensive end he was for eight seasons. Graham stood up on both his sacks, but he was in a low crouch in a defensive end formation on one, and he slid over and rushed between the guard and center on the other.
“It's definitely nice that he plays into our strengths and tries to maximize them the best he can,” Graham said. “Coach Davis is a great coach, a great coordinator. I think he's utilizing us the best way he can in his scheme.”
It probably helps that it's not exactly Davis' scheme. The Eagles defense is more of a collaborative effort being created and developed on the fly.
“Right now,” Davis said, “you're not looking at my defense. You're looking at the Philadelphia Eagles defense. You're looking at our staff, our personnel group. We built the playbook as a group. I didn't just bring my playbook and put it down and say, `Hey, that's what we're running.' That's not how this defense has been built.
“It's been built through a collection of great position coaches and we built it from scratch. We named things the way we wanted to name it and call it and verbalize it, and then from there, we have built to our players strengths and weaknesses as we as a group see what they can do well and what they can't do well.”
Head coach Chip Kelly said Davis' scheme wasn't the reason he hired him.
“I looked at what does he know from a football standpoint, how intelligent is he and what type of teacher is he,” Kelly said.
Kelly also brought defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro with him from Oregon. Azzinaro is one of those position coaches Davis mentioned with great input into the defense.
Watching the defense evolve has been almost as entertaining as watching Kelly's innovative offensive ideas unfold. Connor Barwin is a 6-foot-4, 264-pound linebacker who lined up as a cornerback at times against Larry Fitzgerald Sunday. Inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks lined up outside Cole, who was back at defensive end in some formations. Davis has been blitzing different defensive backs, trying to get a feel for who can get to the quarterback and who can't.
The progress through the first three-quarters of the season has been impressive. It makes you wonder how good this defense can be as Davis, Kelly and GM Howie Roseman identify and acquire players who are even better suited to it.