Billy Davis knew the questions were coming.
Is the Eagles’ newest defensive coordinator scrapping the old way and switching to a 3-4 alignment, is he keeping the 4-3 look or is he blending the two schemes to create a hybrid front?
“Question of the day, eh?” Davis said Monday as he sat down for his first media session since being hired Friday.
His answer didn’t do much to alleviate the suspense.
Davis could say only that his alignment would fit his personnel. And since he and his staff face weeks of evaluating the current roster, sizing up the college crop and scouting the free-agent market, Davis doesn’t know enough yet about the personnel that he’ll be trying to create schemes for.
“I know it’s a vague answer, guys. I know that,” Davis said. “Everybody wants to know -- is it a 3-4 or is it a 4-3? I wouldn’t be a very good coach if I just said, ‘It’s a 3-4.’ It’s who we have and what we can do with that. And if it’s a 3-4, then it will be. If not, then it won’t be.”
Davis promised that he wasn’t “tied to one particular scheme” and said the 3-4 fronts he employed as defensive coordinator in San Francisco (2005-06) and Arizona (2008-09) were determined by the players on the roster more than his own personal preference.
But he agreed that a 3-4 design is more confusing for opposing quarterbacks to dissect and that his defense in Philadelphia would capitalize on the trend of versatile college athletes who can play multiple fronts and coverages.
“There was a time when the 4-3 dominated. Now it seems to be switching back,” he said. “We don’t know where we’ll end up being … right now we are building the Philadelphia Eagles' defense and we are building it as very teachable, very learnable so our guys play fast, aggressive, and are tough. And our tackling is something we’ll work on every day.
“We’re gonna try to keep the opponent’s offense on their heels instead of sitting back and letting everything be dictated to us. We will, as a staff, grind every way to keep them off balance.”
Davis coached linebackers in Cleveland for the past two seasons but was fired with the rest of the Browns’ staff when new CEO Joe Banner took over and cleaned house. He has also worked in Green Bay, Carolina, Atlanta and with the Giants, and coached under Bill Cowher, Mike Nolan, Wade Phillips and some other legendary defensive minds.
Davis, whose father, Bill Sr., once worked in the Eagles’ front office, interviewed for the Eagles’ vacancy on Jan. 27. Kelly waited about two weeks before deciding but said Davis had immediately impressed him.
“Billy came in and did an unbelievable job,” Kelly said. “Really, sometimes when you interview people, sometimes it's like you're pulling teeth. There is not a great rapport. But there was a great rapport. We kept going over different situations, different scenarios and just talking football.
“It felt like what I want our meeting rooms to feel like, because it wasn't an interview. It was just a bunch of guys talking football, and some really intelligent questions, and really intelligent answers.
“I felt like after interviewing him, he was the guy I wanted to work with. And I also knew instead of jumping at the first thing, to make sure we had an opportunity to look around. I explained that to Billy. When I did talk to other people, it just reaffirmed that Billy was the guy.”
The Niners and Cards were hardly dominant defensive teams when Davis called the shots, although Arizona went to the Super Bowl in 2008. None of his defenses ever ranked in the top half of the NFL.
In his two years with San Francisco, the 49ers were ranked 30th and 32nd in points allowed and 32nd and 26th in yards allowed. In his two years as Cards’ defensive coordinator, Arizona ranked 14th and 30th in points allowed and 20th and 29th in yards allowed.
Kelly said the numbers didn’t concern him.
“Meet him, you'll make that determination and understand why I hired him,” Kelly said.“ I think sometimes coaches get labeled. You have no idea really what goes on. And sometimes it's kind of like being the quarterback, because the quarterback gets probably too much credit and too much blame. I know when I talk to him, in terms of him being a teacher and understanding the game of football, he's outstanding.”
Davis didn’t try to sugarcoat his record or point an accusatory finger at his former staff or personnel. He said he learned from each stop in his 15-year career and looks forward to carrying over those insights into his new job.
“When you talk about yards stats, the No. 1 stat I’m concerned with here is points allowed and we will constantly grind on points allowed,” he said. “In my past I’ve got good stats and I’ve got bad stats, like most people. I have no excuses for any of them. Everywhere I’ve been I’ve had good people I’ve learned lessons from. And I think I’ve gotten better because of it and it’s something I’m bringing to the Eagles now.”
Kelly had already hired his defensive position coaches and assistants before naming Davis as his first defensive coordinator. Davis said he had no problem with those hires and called the staff “a positive.”
“I don’t think I could have put together a staff this good,” he said. “I really mean that.”
Both of his linebackers coaches -- Bill McGovern and Rick Minter -- along with defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro and secondary coach John Lovett have either served as college coordinators or head coaches or both.
And though none of those four has NFL experience, Davis acknowledged that each has more experience in game-planning against the trendy college option and spread offenses that are sprouting at the NFL level.
“I know they’re unknowns to a lot of people, but I’ve been around a long time,” Davis added. “These guys have so much experience. I’ve got three or four coordinators in there ... and that is such a help when you coordinate to have all those ideas and now we’re building a playbook together from the start.”
McGovern had never met Davis, but had heard from mutual acquaintances that Davis was an excellent defensive mind.
“Guys that I know in this profession that I’ve talked to that have worked with him speak the world of him and I hold their word in high regard,” McGovern said. “They went out of their way to call me and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got a great one.’ Guys that have gone to my wedding, that’s how well I know those guys. They’re not just telling me, trying to give me lip service, so I’m excited about the opportunity.”
In discussing the new staff and the formation of a defensive identity Davis frequently reflected on his first NFL coaching stop in Pittsburgh in 1992. Bill Cowher brought him in as a defensive quality control coach to learn under then-coordinator Dom Capers, then-defensive backs coach Dick LeBeau and then-linebackers coach Marvin Lewis.
Surrounded by guys who are now considered some of the game’s brightest coaching minds, Davis belonged to a coaching staff that not only set the stage for Pittsburgh’s ascent into a preeminent franchise that has since won two more Super Bowls but also formulated the blueprint that other teams would borrow from as Cowher’s coaching tree branched out over the NFL.
“We are building a Philadelphia Eagle playbook to stand the test of time,” Davis said. “We built a playbook that first year [in Pittsburgh], and there are a lot of teams using that playbook right now.
“We’ve got to be physical tacklers. Physical defenses win. San Francisco, look at them right now. That is a physical defense. They don’t beat themselves. They don’t make a lot of mistakes. That’s a goal and where we’d like to go. It’s gonna take work and time and we’ll get there as quick as we can.”
Billy Davis knew the questions were coming.