January 25, 2021
The Eagles reportedly hired Jim Schwartz' replacement at defensive coordinator, with former Colts secondary coach Jonathan Gannon joining fellow Indy assistant Nick Sirianni (turned head coach) in getting a big promotion to run the defense in Philadelphia.
With position coaches, it's often hard to really know what you're getting. In Gannon's case, since he was not responsible for scheming the entire Colts defense, we don't know if he will run a 4-3, what his philosophy is on blitzing extra guys and how often, how many safeties he likes to keep over the top, and so on.
We do know that reports from NFL insiders said that he was a "highly coveted" candidate, and that multiple other teams were interested in him. So that can be spun as a victory for the Eagles (and likely will, when they finally have a press conference to discuss their recent staffing decisions).
But there is some information we can gleam right now from the hiring, as we dig into recent stories written upon the news that he will come to Philadelphia.
Here's what they're saying about the new, youthful coach:
The first thing that is abundantly clear when breaking down the decision the Eagles made is that, like they need to with their players, they are going young. That seems to be a deliberate decision. With Sirianni still not over the hill (he's 39), his defensive coordinator is about the same age (and their reported offensive coordinator, Shane Steichen is just 35) and none of the three have any experience at their current jobs. Is that a wise way to go?
Like Sirianni, Gannon has never been in charge. That means the Eagles’ primary play-callers on both sides of the ball will be inexperienced. With the Eagles heading toward a rebuild, that could lead to some serious growing pains. Obviously, the Eagles’ brass has bought in on a long-term renovation, or else Sirianni would have probably been paired with a veteran defensive coordinator. Gannon will be learning on the job, which could lead to inconsistent results in his first year at the helm. [NJ.com]
With such a lacking track record, it's hard to really know much about what Gannon's defense will look like. We'll dive into that a little more in just a bit, but there is one case study that is encouraging for Eagles fans. In two different locations, Gannon has had a huge role in helping one of the league's best cornerbacks develop.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO RHODES: While he was in Minnesota, Gannon worked with three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who was released by the Vikings after the 2019 season. Rhodes signed with the Colts, where he was reunited with Gannon and had a bounce-back season this past year. According to the Indianapolis Star, Colts General Manager Chris Ballard credited Gannon for Rhodes’ development: “Xavier had a heck of a year (and) really bought into what we are doing. I give Jonathan Gannon a lot of credit for that. He had a relationship with Xavier from Minnesota. Xavier worked and bought into everything we’re doing.” For the record, Rhodes is a free agent. [NBCSports.com]
It's also worth mentioning, for Eagles fans' knowledge, that yes, Gannon was on the sidelines during the 2017 NFC Championship game, a 38-7 blowout that sent the Eagles to the Super Bowl. Gannon was an assistant defensive backs coach for Minnesota.
As an NFL secondary coach, the best area to make informed extrapolations about Gannon from is obviously with his use of cornerbacks and safeties in his former coaching gigs. Over at the FanSided blog "Section 215," there is a deep dive into what the coach did with his players in the defensive backfield in Indianapolis, and what kinds of players he preferred. It's extremely interesting and gives a lot of insight, and a little concrete information as we patiently wait to see exactly what scheme Gannon will chose to run when he becomes a DC.
Over his three-year tenure as the team’s defensive backs coach, the Colts didn’t draft a single cornerback/safety in the first round and didn’t sign a single marquee player at either position in free agency – unless, of course, you count a 30-year-old Xavier Rhodes.
Gannon did, however, consistently find ways to make the most out of the players he was tasked with coaching, turning Temple second-round pick Rock-Ya Sin into a legitimate starter on the outside, Rhodes into a serviceable option across from him a year removed from looking washed in Minnesota, and Kenny Moore into one of the best nickels in the entire NFL.
What do Sin, Rhodes, and other outside cornerbacks Gannon has coached like Pierre Desir and Quincy Wilson have in common? Well, they are all quicker than fast, have long arms, and measure in at 6-foot-1 or taller. Assuming the Eagles opt to run the same scheme, it’s not hard to imagine Darius Slay absolutely eating as a man-pres corner deployed on the line. Heck, with some additional help over the top, Slay may be able to play more aggressively and attack the ball more frequently than he was able to in 2020.
And as for the other cornerback spot? Well, assuming he’s back, Jalen Mills is actually a near-prototypical cornerback for a cover 2 look, as he’s tall and aggressive but lacks the deep speed needed to hold up against the pass without help coming from over the top. [section215.com]
Here's a tweet from Moore a few days ago.
they are getting one of my favorite coaches of all time. man, what a 3yr run we had. 1ove. 🥲 https://t.co/JXT29pRmbq— Kenny Moore II (@KennyKennyMoe3) January 23, 2021
That's as effective an advertisement for Gannon as you can get.
Based on his body of work coaching in Indianapolis, it's the assumption of many, including Inquirer.com's EJ Smith, that the Eagles' defense will in large part resemble what Schwartz ran in Philly. Here's a bit more on the likely similarities:
Considering Sirianni’s offensive focus, Gannon will likely have a good amount of leeway to run the Birds’ defense. He’s spent the last three years as the defensive backs coach for the Colts and was the Minnesota Vikings’ assistant defensive backs coach for four years before that.
Based on the scheme Gannon has most recently coached in, it’s safe to assume the Eagles’ defensive front won’t undergo too many wholesale changes. Colts’ defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus runs a 4-3, although the Colts’ defense puts more value in the linebacker position than the Eagles have in recent years. Indy’s defense is anchored by All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, along with defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.
On the back end, the Colts have been known to make drastic swings in coverage usage, employing a man-coverage heavy scheme one week and a zone-heavy approach the next. Last season, the Colts’ passing defense ranked seventh in defense-adjusted value over average, Football Outsider’s efficiency metric that takes in quality of opponent and game situation into account. [Inquirer.com]
The terrific trio of NFL writers who pitch in for Eagles coverage at The Athletic each gave some initial thoughts on the decision to bring in Gannon, and just as they said when assessing the team's head coach hire, there isn't a ton of analysis to provide from the limited track record, as we mentioned. However, it sounds like the philosophy of hiring a young and optimistic (but unproven) DC may be a strategy that pays off, if he can continue some of what he started as an NFL position coach.
Sheil Kapadia: Gannon seems like a fine option. Sirianni needs someone he can hand the keys over to. I thought he might opt for a defensive coordinator with more experience — like what Doug Pederson had with Jim Schwartz — but I have no issue with him opting for some new blood. Sirianni has to feel like he can just give the defense to Gannon and not have to micromanage him. He’ll have enough on his plate as a first-time head coach.
Bo Wulf: Generally speaking, I appreciate the bold swing for a defensive coordinator. More than ever, it seems there is little value in a defense being middle of the road, and if Gannon has some creative ideas on how to rework the Eagles, that sounds like fun. But it’s fair to be a little concerned that the two most important coaches on this staff will have to adjust to significantly increased responsibilities for the first time. Sirianni, of course, has never called plays, let alone run a program. And Gannon has been only a position coach (though his scouting background is notable).
Zach Berman: What initially stands out is Gannon’s lack of coordinator experience. It’s not necessarily a negative — just a departure from how the Eagles have approached a job that is critical for an offense-minded coach. The past three Eagles head coaches came with offensive backgrounds, and they all hired coordinators who had experience running a defense (Schwartz for Pederson, Bill Davis for Chip Kelly, Jim Johnson for Andy Reid). So to hire Gannon, who has never risen above position coach and has served in that capacity for only three seasons, is a notable break from form. There’s no formula for finding the best defensive coordinator. Three of the top five defenses in DVOA in 2020 were run by defensive coordinators with head coaching experience (New Orleans, Washington, Tampa Bay). However, the two defensive coordinators who have been hired as head coaches this cycle (Robert Saleh and Brandon Staley) were both first-time NFL defensive coordinators with their former teams. [theatheltic.com]
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