If you are frustrated with the NFL’s coaching status quo, you’re going to love the expansion of Eagles Incorporated.
The Indianapolis Colts just named former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich as their new head coach, albeit after top choice Josh McDaniels was recalled to the Patriots mothership and left the Colts at the altar.
Last week, the Minnesota Vikings gobbled up former Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, who helped develop Carson Wentz into an MVP candidate and rebuilt Nick Foles into the hottest thing since Jimmy Garoppolo, to be their new offensive coordinator.
On the surface, the hiring of Eagles assistants is just business-as-usual NFL copycatting and old-boy networking. You can almost hear Jim Irsay growling typical owner logic into his phone: Phooey with Josh McBelichick. Get me the other guy—the one who goes for all the fourth downs and runs that hot new play, the BTO or whatever.
Sure, the Vikings and Colts are pulling branches from the latest Super Bowl family tree. But that’s just the Trojan horse. Copying the Eagles means much more than filling the playbook with run-pass options or running new versions of the Statue of Liberty play at the goal line.
Teams that hire Doug Pederson’s assistants and sign on to Eagles Inc. may be getting something much better than what they bargained for: a whole new mindset for player development and team management; a refreshing new (wait for it) culture.
Four days prior to Super Bowl LII, I picked DeFilippo’s brain about working with different types of quarterbacks, and asked him the difference between working with a young scrambler and a veteran pocket passer. His response was enlightening and exciting.
“You never want to make a quarterback a robot,” DeFilippo said. “You want to use whatever that guy’s skill set is to his advantage.”
“Now, case in point: Johnny Manziel,” continued DeFilippo, who was Manziel’s offensive coordinator in 2015. “Our mantra with Johnny was: If there’s a throw in the pocket to be made, make it. But if there’s not a throw to be made, use your God-given ability to escape the pocket.
“But say you’re coaching a guy like Carson Palmer (whom DeFilippo worked with in Oakland as the Raiders quarterbacks coach). Now, his game is that he gets off the first progression a little bit sooner and uses his vision to get back to his No. 2 and No. 3 receivers a little bit faster than a Johnny Manziel would, because he’s got more experience and he’s more of a pocket guy.
Ron Schwane/Associated Press
“Coaching is tailoring your game plan to what your quarterback and your players do well.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, starting with the fact that DeFilippo gave an honest, detailed answer to a general question instead of mumbling something about “the process” and scowling.
DeFilippo likes to build scrambling into the structure of his offense if he has a scrambler in the huddle. He even described drills he would run in Browns practices where he would shout “Scramble!” so receivers could practice adjusting their routes, and linemen could learn to avoid grabbing defenders who pulled away to chase Manziel.
DeFilippo’s “system” is not an attempt to be Doug Pederson Jr., but rather to orchestrate game plans that make sense for the available talent.
Sure, some offensive coaches think that way. But we’ve all heard enough “STRUCTURE GOOD, SCRAMBLE BAD” reasoning from NFL decision-makers to know that many offensive coaches (and seemingly all defensive coaches) like turning quarterbacks into robots. They’ll talk about tailoring the game plan, then end up handing a Tom Brady playbook to Tom Savage.
Eagles Inc. is all about actually doing it.
DeFilippo will help the Vikings sort out their sticky quarterback situation. He won’t squeeze Teddy Bridgewater, Case Keenum, Sam Bradford(whom Flip coached for a season) or a fourth-party candidate into a Wentz/Foles (or Palmer, or Manziel) costume.
Based on what I saw in the Eagles’ quarterback drills last offseason, he will also design a training regimen that emphasizes moving around the pocket and throwing from different launch points. DeFilippo, unlike coaches who assume they can make everything work perfectly, knows that his quarterbacks won’t always have eight seconds to scan the field from a pristine pocket.
The Reich era in Indianapolis, meanwhile, begins as a potential tragedy transformed into a comedy.
You have probably seen the team-released Twitter photos of Reich and Irsay posing with a copy of the Indianapolis Star, providing proof that Reich, unlike McDaniels, really did report for duty. Irsay antics may not be your bag, but how many NFL coaches would even accept second-choice status and play along with such a gag?
Imagine if the situation were reversed: Would a Belichick disciple begin his tenure by lampshading his status as the last-minute replacement? Do Belichick disciples even allow themselves to be photographed?
Reich, like his former boss Pederson and former assistant DeFilippo, comes from an exciting new school of football thought.
After firing Chip Kelly late in the 2015 season, Eagles owner Jeff Lurie described what he sought from his next coaching candidate: “I would call it a style of leadership that values information, all the resources that are provided and, at the same time, values emotional intelligence.”
The “emotional intelligence” phrase resonated at the time because: (a) Kelly treated his employees like both he and they were androids; (b) Lurie is an intellectual, touchy-feely guy by the standards of NFL owners; and (c) the phrase sounds utterly out of place in the hyper-macho NFL culture, which strives to make the ancient Spartans sounds like a bunch of wimps.
Lost in the snickers around the league was the fact that Lurie wanted someone who was able to blend analytics with traditional methods (hence valuing information and resources), and that he sought a “collaborative approach” to team-building.
Pederson, the Eagles’ second choice as head coach (they initially preferred, gulp, Ben McAdoo) turned out to be just the master collaborator they were seeking.
As Doug Farrar reported before the Super Bowl, the playbook which flummoxed the Patriots was full of plays imported from Pederson’s Chiefs, Reich’s ideas, stuff they picked up from low-level assistants along the way and even Chip Kelly concepts that many coaches would have burnt in a symbolic bonfire minutes after taking office.
That willingness to embrace whatever will help the team is what the Colts are getting by becoming part of Eagles Inc.
It’s not about Andrew Luck (or someone else) running the RPO. It’s about creating a coaching staff and managerial structure that values ideas and innovation and adjusts to adversity. It’s also about allowing players (and the owner) to have a little fun and having confidence that the team won’t slide into last place if someone cracks a smile or the coach speaks in specifics once in a while.
Alex Brandon/Associated Press
If Reich and DeFilippo succeed, and the Eagles’ tree takes root successfully (Matt Nagy in Chicago and Steve Wilks in Arizona are also offshoots of the same very fecund coaching tree), we may see a whole new generation of adaptive head coaches: ones who can both relate to 21st-century athletes and tailor their schemes to meet the realities of the modern NFL—in which quarterbacks don’t have three years to master a playbook, and Orlando Pace won’t arrive in the draft to play left tackle.
Tactics will become more innovative and successful, press conferences will be more informative and less grueling and the sight of a backup quarterback will no longer be a trigger to automatically change the channel.
All it took was providing the copycats with something worth copying: not just a new gimmick, but a whole new mindset.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.