Scrutiny is ratcheting up on the Eagles’ coaching staff, with the team underperforming at 5-7 heading into Monday night’s encounter with the visiting New York Giants.
In the NFL, the easiest place to make changes is with position coaches. You don’t have to change your overall philosophy, or your offensive or defensive scheme, if you fire a position coach.
The implication there nearly always is that the methods and philosophy favored by the head coach and the coordinator are not being taught effectively, that young players aren’t progressing, and that older players aren’t flourishing.
This year with the Eagles, the bullseye there would be on first-year wide receivers coach Carson Walch, and maybe on second-year quarterbacks coach Press Taylor, but possibly on defensive backfield coach Cory Undlin as well, given the ups and downs of the Eagles’ (once again) injury-challenged secondary. Undlin came here in 2015 as a Chip Kelly hire, from having coached the Denver secondary.
Doug Pederson was the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach from 2011-12. Pederson was asked this week what makes a good position coach.
“In thinking about myself, obviously you have to be prepared, you have to have answers for the questions that the players might have, whether it be a game-plan question or maybe a concept question offensively … you have to be dialed-in,” Pederson said.
“Obviously, if you don't have the answers, you have to be up front and say, ‘Hey, let me get the answer for you.’ I think you have to pay attention to detail. Then it has to carry over onto the field through drill work, putting your players in position through that drill work that's going to transpire in a game. … But the detail is the biggest thing.”
Pederson said when he evaluates his coaches at the end of the season, “you hold them accountable by the way their position plays, No. 1.” He added that there is some allowance for injuries, but that he makes that message clear to his coaches from OTAs on.
Carson Wentz said Taylor’s personality is different from that of John DeFilippo, the QB coach for the 2017 Super Bowl season, but that both know how to “garner respect,” and they tend to emphasize the same things.
“Flip was a little more high energy and upbeat. Press is a little more calm. But both understand the game well, both are smart and can communicate the game well,” Wentz said.
Backup quarterback Josh McCown estimated he has had 14 or 15 QB coaches, on the nine teams he has played for, since he entered the NFL in 2002.
“There’s always a delicate balance with position coaches, between giving too little [coaching] and giving too much — overcoaching,” McCown said.
He said the effective position coach is “the guy that can find that right balance, say that right thing at the right moment … be able to give you that ‘mind tap’ — ‘Hey, remember we talked about this on this play,’ can kind of help you in that regard.”
The best QB coaches McCown has played for share “attention to detail and consistency about what they coach,” he said, “the ability to coach that over and over again, and demand that from you and expect that from you … so that you understand where you stand, and there’s a baseline of expectation every play, and you can then grow from that baseline because of the consistency with which they coach you.”
Right guard Brandon Brooks had four offensive line coaches in his four years with the Houston Texans, but he has had just one with the Eagles — Jeff Stoutland, who came here with Kelly in 2013. Brooks said Stoutland’s players can sense his complete dedication.
“It’s one thing to coach and be into your work. It’s another thing when guys can see that this is your life calling,” Brooks said. “I don’t know if ‘Stout’ can do anything else. This is what he loves, and you can see it every day. There hasn’t been a day since I came in, in almost four years now, where Stout had a down day, where his volume level wasn’t on 12. He comes in every day, he loves what he does, and he literally gives his heart and soul to game and to the players, every day, every year, every week.”
Safety Malcolm Jenkins said he looks for depth of knowledge, a grasp of useful nuance, from a position coach — something he said he gets from Undlin.
“I had a really wise coach tell me one time, if a coach can’t tell you what to look at, then he’s full of [bleep]. A good position coach is somebody that knows how to teach not only the concept, or your job description, but how to teach the small things, like where to put your eyes, how to read your keys, and really knows how to teach technique … in an effective way that a player knows how to grasp it,” Jenkins said. “Being a good teacher is surprisingly rare in this league.”
Wide receiver Greg Ward said Jenkins’ point about the position coach needing to tell you where your eyes should be applies to his position as well. He said he thinks Walch has been able to do that.
“Carson’s a great guy, knows the offense in and out. He’s a very good coach,” Ward said.
Jenkins said that Undlin is “somebody that understands the small techniques of the position that we play. I’ve had position coaches that only know how to teach the scheme … they can only tell you very vague things.”
Several players made the point that their position coach is their closest link with the organization.
“That’s the coach you’re going to connect with the most, you’re going to talk to the most, be in meetings with the most,” Jenkins said.
Asked about tight ends coach Justin Peelle, Zach Ertz said for every player, the position coach is “going to be the first guy, always, you go to, when something’s going on, whether you’re not happy, or frustrated, or just want to get something off your chest. In my case, in particular, he’s always been the guy that’s kind of been there for me.”
Ertz said he trusts Peelle in part because Peelle played tight end for 10 years in the NFL, with four teams.
“He kind of understands a lot of the strains,” Ertz said.
Wentz said he talks a lot to Taylor, but also to offensive coordinator Mike Groh and to Pederson.
“I feel extremely close to those guys. I wouldn’t hesitate to talk to any of those guys, for sure,” Wentz said.
Ward said that though the position coach is the main conduit to the staff, he didn’t take his frustrations to Walch as he languished on the practice squad because, “It was nothing he really could say, honestly. It wasn’t his decision. I just came to work every day.”
Running back Jordan Howard said he has had a different position coach each of his four NFL seasons — three with the Bears, then this year with the Eagles and Duce Staley, who once held Howard’s position as the team’s lead back.
“He knows the ups and downs of being a running back in the NFL. He knows how the flow of the game goes,” Howard said. “He knows how practices can be, he knows how runs can be … keeps us positive, keeps us motivated.
“Every coach I’ve had has had a different style. Duce, he’s very hands-on, he’s very into it. He lives through us — that’s what he tells us, because he’s not playing anymore, he lives through us playing.”
McCown made the point that some ex-players aren’t always the best coaches — some only know how to coach you to play the way they played, which might not be optimal for your situation or talents.
Fletcher Cox began his NFL career with the Eagles in 2012, under abrasive defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who was fired during the season. He’s playing this year for Philip Daniels, an NFL defensive lineman from 1996-2010.
“Every coach has got a different personality. I’ve had Jim Washburn, I had coach Jerry Azzinaro, Chris Wilson, Phil. They’ve all had different personalities. I’ve loved playing for every one of those guys. All D-line coaches coach hard,” Cox said.
“Most importantly, those guys, they’re all about their guys. … They treat everybody the same in the room … nobody gets any special privilege in the room, no matter how good you are, no matter how long you’ve been in the league, everybody is coached the same way.”