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Billy Davis isn’t hiding from the truth or throwing out fancy cliches to sugarcoat the difficulty of the task ahead of him.
The Eagles’ new defensive coordinator is in his third go-around at the most important position on the coaching staff next to head coach. He has several impact players changing positions. He has an entirely new scheme and defensive line alignment being implemented. He may very well have four new starters in the secondary.
Davis also has limited practice time and reps this spring to settle out this organized confusion, and none with the privilege of pads and contact and other elements that make football real.
This alone puts him behind the 8-ball compared to the other 20-plus NFL defensive coordinators whose schemes and personnel have long ago been established and installed.
This, he admits, complicates an already complicated situation.
“Oh, absolutely. The learning curve with what we’re going through -- and any new staff goes through -- we’ve done a complete roster flip defensively pretty much,” Davis said Thursday. “There is a huge roster change, and then there’s a scheme change.
“We’re not going to run the wide nine, 4-3 [front]. We’re moving away from that with players that were picked for that and built for that. Well, now we’re kinda retraining that. So this year is absolutely the hardest transition year we’re going to have.
“Like the Pittsburgh Steelers, for instance. They’ve been running that defensive system for 21 years. Twenty-one years of veterans training young guys and personnel departments knowing what [the system] is. They’ve had the same playbook for 21 years versus these guys with all new language, so it’s a huge learning curve.”
Davis, sitting down with reporters for the first time since shortly after the entire staff was announced in February, spoke candidly about the obstacles in reshaping and resurrecting a once-proud defensive franchise that embarrassed itself last year in finishing with the NFL’s third-worst scoring defense.
With his assistants still in “teach-and-learn” mode, which Davis said would stretch deep into training camp, the product may not necessarily be finished by the time Sept. 9 rolls around and the Eagles travel to face the Redskins.
“Yeah, you might be able to say that,” Davis acknowledged. “You may be able to.”
His intention wasn’t to temper expectations or make preemptive excuses for the product that will be unveiled in September.
Quite the opposite, actually.
Of Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, his top pass rushers adjusting from hand-in-the-dirt defensive ends to rush-and-cover linebackers, Davis said they’ve “been outstanding.” Of others tinkering with new positions and having their versatilities maximized, Davis suggested that the Eagles were “a little bit more forward thinking” than other clubs.
He also praised the defense’s dedication to harping on tackling fundamentals as much as possible without pads and contact, but the most glaring take from Davis’ sitdown was his willingness to admit that the road ahead promises to be bumpy at times.
But for Davis and his staff to truly gauge how quickly his personnel is handling the new workload, the pads must come out and the hitting must commence. That won’t happen for another eight weeks, at least.
Very little can be learned from spring practices in which players are, as assistant head coach Jerry Azzinaro deadpanned, “just out there practicing in our underwear.”
“When we bring in the pads, that’s going to add another degree of separation that’s going to come with it,” outside linebackers coach Bill McGovern added. “We’re going to find out more about guys when it gets hot, when they’ve got aches, when they’ve got bruises, what they can do, what they’re willing to do. We’re just kind of in an evaluation process.”
Fortunately for the Eagles, two of their first four opponents -- the Chiefs and Chargers -- have also undergone head coaching changes and will likely be enduring similar growing pains at the start of the season.
But assuming that Robert Griffin III is healthy for the season opener, Davis will be game-planning early for three of the game’s elite quarterbacks, with a Week 4 showdown against Peyton Manning and the Broncos followed by a Week 5 clash against two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning of the Giants.
“I know this: When the season hits, nobody wants to hear any excuses or anything, but [they] want to see good defense,” Davis said. “Right now we have our head down as a collective staff and players and [we are] working our tail off.
“And when the Washington Redskins come Monday night and the lights come on, after that game we’ll know where we are, and that’s our starting point. We’ll see where we are there and then every day after that we’ll be working our tail off to see how good we can get and how quick we can get there.”