Jonathan Gannon knew that he had become a figure of mystery and intrigue when he interviewed with Philadelphia-area reporters — virtually, of course — for the first time Thursday.
“I’ve been trying to meet you guys for three months and [the Eagles communications staff] wouldn’t let me,” Gannon joked during a video news conference. “Your anger is not to me. It’s to [the communications staff].”
The Eagles weren’t necessarily hiding the new head of their defense, but rather allowing the first-time coordinator to gain his footing before he could address questions on scheme, personnel, and philosophy. They might have also feared that the loquacious Gannon might reveal too much about their offseason plans.
But it became acutely clear during the 28-minute session why new Eagles coach Nick Sirianni tabbed the 38-year old as his coordinator, and if he hadn’t, why some other team would have. Gannon is sharp, and even if that may not initially produce a winning defense, it should help him placate Philly’s discerning fans — for a week or two.
There’s something about Eagles fans, their love of defense, and their demanding ways. Blue-collar sports towns — or at least ones with that reputation — tend to favor that side of the ball. But the Eagles also have a history of great defenses with great players, and in many cases great coordinators or defensive-minded head coaches who helmed those units.
“It’s Philadelphia, that’s why,” Gannon said when asked why he chose the Eagles over other teams that were reportedly interested in promoting the former Colts cornerbacks coach.
He added owner Jeffrey Lurie, general manager Howie Roseman, and Sirianni as other reasons — along with his wife’s East Coast preference. But the subtext of Gannon’s first answer might have included names like Chuck Bednarik, Reggie White, Brian Dawkins, Marion Campbell, Buddy Ryan, and Jim Johnson.
Jim Schwartz, Gannon’s predecessor, may have won the Eagles their only Super Bowl, but he isn’t held in the same regard locally as the aforementioned coaches. Some viewed his scheme as too passive. Schwartz didn’t blitz enough, was a common refrain.
Naturally, Gannon’s schematic preferences were a prominent reason he had been the most sought-after of Sirianni’s hires. And even if he didn’t offer significant detail on his defense Thursday, there were enough clues, and more than anything, a deeper understanding of his coaching philosophy after he spoke.
“When I got here, I didn’t drop a book on the table and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re running,’ ” Gannon said. “If you actually ask [Sirianni], when we first talked about this when he interviewed me, it was, ‘Hey, what scheme are you going to run?’ I said, ‘I don’t have a scheme.’ And I believe that you have to be adaptable.
“But the first thing is we’ve got to figure out what our players can do, and then we’ve got to put them in those situations as much as possible to utilize their strengths. The main thing for us is it’s not what we play, it’s how we play. And if you asked our players that, I think they know that from the jump as far as we’re going to run to the ball, we’re going to outhit people, we’re going to take it away, and we’re going to be smart.
“Those four things — hustle, intensity, takeaway, smart. The acronym for that is the HITS principle, and that’s what we’re going to hold our hat on.”
Of course, there is a scheme, or at least the bones of one. Gannon said he started thinking about what his creation may look like the moment he got his first coaching gig in 2006 as an intern at Louisville. He picked up pieces along the way, but his greatest influence was Mike Zimmer.
Gannon worked under Zimmer with the Falcons for a year in 2007, but they reconnected seven years later after Zimmer became head coach of the Vikings. Zimmer’s defenses have evolved — from his stops in Dallas, Atlanta, Cincinnati, and, lastly, Minnesota — but there have always been hallmarks to his scheme: pressure, intricate blitz packages, pressing corners, and different combinations off similar pre-snap looks.
“Coach Zimmer has a very specific vision of how he wants to play defense, and I agree with a lot of that vision,” Gannon said. “Not to say that we’re going to be exactly what Mike Zimmer was because I feel like there’s a lot of other good things that I’ve learned throughout the years that complement actually what Zim does.
“That’s probably part of our package, but we’re not going to box ourselves into one scheme.”
Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus was the next significant influence Gannon named. While many of the concepts he ran for his 4-3 base and 4-2-5 nickel defenses were similar to Zimmer’s, Eberflus emphasized a different style of play.
“I feel like he really helped me fill in some gaps as far as ... what do you want your defense to look like?” Gannon said. “When you turn on the tape, like what do you want to see? What does the owner want to see? What does the head coach want to see, a la the HITS principle.”
Every defensive coach wants effort and intelligence out of his players. Gannon knows he’s not reinventing the wheel here. The same applies to scheme, to some extent. But there are intricacies that will be crucial to particular positions.
For instance, will Gannon allow his defensive linemen to penetrate gaps, as they often did under Schwartz, or require more reading and reacting on the way to the quarterback?
“If certain guys can’t play in that jet style, then we’re not going to ask them to play that way,” Gannon said. “If certain guys can really play the way that we want them to play, playing that jet style, then we’re going to let them do that.”
“I do think it is a blend of those things at the defensive line.”
But, Gannon added: “I told those guys in the meetings, I said, ‘Hey, there’s going to be some times you’re going to have to take some stress on ... to take some stress off of the back end.’”
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham said that Gannon would play to their strengths.
“Same thing,” Cox said, “be disruptive.”
But Graham did seem to indicate that some change was in the air when he similarly used the blend word to describe the defensive linemen’s responsibilities.
Will he bring back the blitz?
As for blitzing, while Zimmer is known for his double-A gap and other such pressures, it’s not as if he blitzes as much as Ryan or Johnson. There’s obvious risk and reward with sending extra rushers, and Gannon’s usage will depend greatly on the Eagles’ coverage.
Eberflus ran a lot of Cover 2 and Cover 3 in Indianapolis, but Gannon declined to say whether he would favor zone over man defense. And understandably so. Yes, he knows free-agent safety Anthony Harris and linebacker Eric Wilson from their days together with the Vikings.
And Darius Slay has been around long enough for Gannon to understand his skills as a follow cornerback, but the rest of the group will be mostly foreign to him. He needs to see them on the grass but also learn what each is capable of through film study.
Pre-snap disguise has become one of the more important elements to modern pass defense. With quarterbacks increasingly able to diagnose before the snap, it’s imperative the back seven don’t give away a particular coverage.
Zimmer has long been one of the best at disguising. That may have come from scheme, but it also came from allowing players to devise their own system for disguise.
“Everyone talks about you want to pressure the quarterback, pressure the quarterback. Well, in my opinion, one of those ways is pre-snap, not post-snap,” Gannon said. “So what you do is ... put a little bit of seed of doubt in that quarterback’s mind, ‘Do I have that guy, or do I not?”
Acquiring Harris and Wilson suggests that Roseman and Sirianni understood the importance of equipping Gannon with defenders who not only understand Zimmer’s scheme, but him. Gannon had interviewed with the Bears and Chargers for their coordinator openings, and he was also on Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ radar had he been hired by the Eagles as head coach.
Gannon, like Sirianni, is new to his position, and has never called plays. If he has immediate success with the Eagles, though, his stay could be short-lived. He would be a hot commodity to become a head coach. There’s that much buzz around the NFL about his potential.
In Philly, we’re still trying to get his first name right.
“I like Jonathan, but you can call me JG. If you call me Jon, the wife might — I’m not sure she loves that,” Gannon joked. “Just call me JG, man. Guys come in, they say, ‘Coach Gannon, Coach Gannon.’ I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, stop calling me Coach. Just call me JG.’ "