Trying to get ready for an NFL season in the shadow of the coronavirus has been a challenge for every coach and every team. Think, though, about being a first-year position coach, working for months with players and fellow coaches you haven’t actually met.
“It’s been a tough transition, to be completely honest, with having the COVID crisis and not being in the building, not being around these coaches, not being around these players,” said Eagles wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead, hired this offseason, along with secondary coach Marquand Manuel.
New defensive line coach Matt Burke worked as a special assistant here last season, so he had a bit of an edge on the other two.
“It’s been tough,” Moorehead said. “But you know what? We adjust. We adapt. That’s what we do as coaches, that’s what we do as players. I’ve really enjoyed the time we have spent together the last few weeks, in person.”
If a position coach isn’t part of a new staff working under a new head coach, usually he’s being brought in because the coach and the general manager aren’t happy with that unit.
The wide receivers and the secondary were the Eagles’ worst groups in 2019. The team didn’t have a wideout amass as many as 500 receiving yards. It lacked any sort of deep threat after DeSean Jackson was injured after one productive game.
The defense gave up 27 touchdowns while notching only 11 interceptions, a worse ratio than all but eight teams. The Eagles allowed 15 completions of 40 yards or more, which was next-to-worst in the league.
It was no surprise that wide receivers coach Carson Walch and secondary coach Cory Undlin didn’t return, though Undlin ended up as defensive coordinator in Detroit.
It’s not as clear why Burke is the D-line coach now instead of Phillip Daniels, who seemed to do a decent job in his one year in the position, but it is clear that Burke is a more experienced coach, a former Dolphins defensive coordinator who has a long history with defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz; Schwartz has named him “run game coordinator” as well.
Players say they like that Moorehead and Manuel are former NFL players -- they might have a better feel for what’s realistic, and what works only in theory. But the Eagles went the other way with the defensive line hire: Daniels was a 15-year NFL defensive end; Burke’s last playing experience was as a Dartmouth safety in 1997.
Burke said that even though he had to coach virtually during the spring, he held one-on-one virtual sessions with his players, in addition to addressing the group, to build a connection.
“For us, the message has been, this is going to be the most adaptable year. We have to be able to adapt to what’s going on. Things are changing minute-by-minute, day-to-day,” Burke said. “I was fortunate that I spent some time with the D-line last year in my role, built some relationships and at least kind of had a feel for the personalities of guys, and they had been around me a little bit.
“I thought Doug [Pederson] did a great job of building the offseason schedule out and allowing us the time to really get into these virtual rooms, and kind of just delve a little further into those relationships.”
Burke is the seventh defensive line coach Brandon Graham has played under since arriving as a first-round defensive end in 2010.
“It’s cool. I love how Matt Burke just definitely wanted to come in and learn, and see how we feel – what’s our goals, our personal goals and team goals as a D-line,” Graham said recently. “He’s trying to give us stuff to build that trust, that level of trust with each other.”
All three coaches are vocal, prominent presences on the practice field, but the most vocal and prominent is Manuel, who wears cleats to practice.
Cornerback-turned-safety Jalen Mills said he had no problems with Undlin, who championed him when Mills was a seventh-round rookie in 2016. But Mills also enjoys Manuel’s more visceral approach. At 41, Manuel is eight years younger than Undlin.
“Utmost respect for Coach Undlin. He’s a guy who definitely believed in me, coming in,” Mills said. “I think the biggest difference is, for one, the cleats. Of course, Coach Undlin wasn’t putting no cleats on; about a couple years too far out for him. He was definitely a technician, really, really good as far as scheme and schematics and putting us in the right position to make plays.
“Coach M, it’s kind of the same thing, but also we get a guy who played not only corner, not only nickel, not only dime, but free safety and strong safety, so he can relate to each and every player. Anybody can ask a question and he can tell you, ‘On this play I would have done this.’”
Before he was hired, Manuel had met at least one of his new players – he coached safety Rodney McLeod in the East-West Shrine Game following the 2011 season. McLeod, a safety and corner at Virginia, lined up at corner in the All-Star Game. Manuel said he told McLeod: “Hey, man, you’re going to play about 10 years at safety,” and added that McLeod “wanted to fight me about it.”
McLeod remembers Manuel’s telling him that, though McLeod, who ultimately went undrafted and really couldn’t afford to be picky, doesn’t remember being adamant about remaining at corner.
“I think people respect him, because he’s played the game, because of his passion, and because of the way he coaches this group, and the expectations he has for us,” McLeod said.
Manuel is a former Falcons defensive coordinator. “It’s a very high standard. He’s coached a lot of good secondaries, man, and we want to be another group to be respected in this league.”
Second-year wideout J.J. Arcega-Whiteside’s take on Moorehead sounded much like what Mills and McLeod said about Manuel.
“I like A-Mo a lot. Carson and A-Mo are definitely two different types of coaches,” said Arcega-Whiteside, whose rookie season under Walch was a nightmare.
“The thing I’ll say about A-Mo is, he’s very active, I guess, in the way he coaches. Not to say Carson wasn’t, but he understands things that – he played in the NFL, he coached big-time college receivers. He understands, like, ‘Your legs are sore. I get it. You could have had that ball. I get it. I can understand why you did this and not that.’
“He brings a lot of that to the table. You can just go out there and play fast and have fun. He’s a funny guy – he’s funny to be around in the locker room and the meeting rooms.”
Asked about Manuel’s energy, Mills said: “It’s definitely a plus, because, you got to know, this camp is totally different from any other camp. We’re going six days straight [before taking a break on Saturday]. Sometimes you have those dog days where you’re tired, or you might have a sore back, or your knees are aching right now, and then you got a guy like Coach M, he’s coming in the building, he’s coming in our meeting, he’s coming into practice, he’s bringing that energy.