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Bill Davis is the Eagles' fourth defensive coordinator since the start of 2009. (USA Today Images)
It’s not easy being the defensive coordinator in this city, not since the beloved Jim Johnson passed away in the summer of 2009. Johnson’s attack defenses sustained the pulse of a defensive-minded fan base that still clings tightly to the mantras once preached by Buddy Ryan, Wade Phillips, Jeff Fisher, Bud Carson and Emmitt Thomas.
None of Johnson’s three successors -- Sean McDermott, Juan Castillo and Todd Bowles -- came close to grabbing the baton. Instead, the defense progressively worsened until finally bottoming out in 2012.
Bill Davis, the Eagles’ fourth defensive coordinator since the start of 2009, is familiar with Johnson’s legacy and with the faded image of defense in this town. During a sitdown interview this summer, Chip Kelly’s hand-picked defensive leader marveled at Johnson’s mastery of exploiting protection schemes and ability to maximize talent.
“Talk about using your own personnel,” Davis said. “Who was the middle ’backer? [Jeremiah] Trotter. Trotter wasn’t great in coverage, he was [blitzing] in the A gap and he was taking the interior and the run fit in between the tackles.
“It was Jimmy using his talent in the best way, and Trotter up in the A gaps because of his size really did pose problems. So if he lined up there a lot and popped him from there, well that changes protection. They have to account for that.”
This is extremely relevant because Davis, in his third stint as a defensive coordinator, is being asked to perform an overnight makeover of a defense that hasn’t accounted for much since Johnson died from cancer in the summer of 2009 while away from the team to undergo treatment.
The Eagles are distancing themselves from the failed wide-nine scheme that tarnished the end of the Andy Reid era and inching toward a hybrid 3-4 scheme that both Kelly and Davis employed at their respective posts before coming to Philadelphia.
It’s even more significant for Davis, one of the many branches from the Bill Cowher coaching tree who has yet to mirror the success of other Cowher acolytes.
“I’m determined to prove my worth as a coordinator in this league, determined to be,” Davis said. “I feel like I’ve done that as a linebackers coach and now I’ve got to get to where I’m mentioned in the top part of the coordinators. That's my personal goal. I’ve got to get to that point, and in the process bring a great defense to Philadelphia.”
His blueprint to elevate the Eagles’ defense back to mid-2000s form is crafted straight from the Cowher manual, the same script authored by Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau and Marvin Lewis. Whether or not his plan can be carried out hinges on Trent Cole still being able to hit quarterbacks, Brandon Graham likewise adjusting to an outside linebacker role and the continued progress of young defensive linemen Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, Bennie Logan and Cedric Thornton.
“I know this: to take an offense out of their rhythm is probably the No. 1 thing that the great defensive coordinators that I’ve studied under and talked with [do],” Davis said. “Taking away what they do best and getting them out of what they do best on offense, because offense is really rhythm.”
Davis cautioned against the notion that he’s a mad scientist in the lab, mixing and matching to formulate toxic blitzes and pressures.
“That can get you whipped just as fast,” he said, recalling a 45-14 divisional playoff loss to Drew Brees and the Saints when he called Arizona’s defense in 2009. “I was pressuring him every other snap. I was almost 50 percent pressure, which is high. I might have hit 60. You couldn’t tell by the game, because we had unblocked guys coming and Drew just kept dumping and dumping and it really wasn’t the right thing to do in that game.
“The right thing would have been to fall more back and rush less because of what they were doing. I figured it out too late. But those were things that you kind of take with you and you grow and learn. It’s being able to balance yourself and keeping them off balance.”
Davis insisted that his pedestrian numbers in two separate stints as defensive coordinator tell only half the story. In his first stop, with the 49ers in 2005 and 2006, Davis didn’t call plays. That responsibility went to head coach Mike Nolan, who maintained autonomy over the defense. The Niners finished with the NFL’s worst scoring defense in ’05 and improved just slightly in ‘06, to 26th overall.
In 2009, Davis was given full control of the Cardinals' defense, working alongside head coach Ken Whisenhunt, another extension from the Cowher line. Arizona placed 12th in scoring defense (20.3 points per game) and top 10 in sacks and interceptions.
Then Kurt Warner retired and so went the Cardinals’ offense, a burden too heavy for the defense to compensate. The Cards sunk to 30th in scoring defense (27.1) and Whisenhunt fired Davis afterward.
“I wasn’t restricted in any way in Arizona. And we didn’t have a great year that second year,” he said. “We didn’t have a great team that year and we didn’t overly perform on defense. I just believe you hang with people a little bit longer and work through it as a team, but anyway, there’s no excuses there.”
Davis spent the past two seasons coaching linebackers for the Browns but found himself unemployed again when new management, headed by former Eagles president Joe Banner, cleaned house after the season. Banner fired head coach Pat Shurmur and almost all of Shurmur’s assistants were let go.
In an odd twist, Kelly, the former Oregon coach who had first met with the Browns and turned them down before accepting the Eagles’ offer, hired Shurmur as his offensive coordinator just a few week into his new job.
Davis’ name first appeared on Kelly’s radar when Ohio State coach Urban Meyer called Kelly to vouch for an old friend. Davis and Meyer are former college teammates at Cincinnati, and Davis was the best man at Meyer’s wedding.
The two talked during the Senior Bowl and Davis went on to interview for other jobs, including the Jets’ linebackers coach vacancy. Eventually, on Feb. 7, Kelly offered the job to Davis, asking him to resurrect a downward spiraling defense that would likely have six new starters.
“There’s not stability anywhere. So am I confident? Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve got everything down to where I know all the mistakes I’ve made and how to overcome them this time around.
“The wide nine and getting out of that, no matter where you go from there is a big transition. That’s a different style altogether. And the flipping of the roster that we’ve done, I’ve got to bring a large group of men together, both coaches and players. I’ve got to get them on the same page as quickly as I can.
“That is my main challenge. That’s what I’m working my tail off to [do]. And when the Washington Redskins hit that Monday night, we’ll see where we are. And from there we will just keep trying to go forward.”