Matt Burke still looks back 16 years and wonders how he got his foot in the NFL door. But Jim Schwartz’s tracking him down after a cold call and Jeff Fisher’s handing him an entry-level job with the Titans on the spot weren’t the most surreal parts of his journey from Boston to Nashville and back.
It was having Kareem Abdul-Jabbar be among the first to congratulate him in person.
Burke didn’t have time to inform his family and friends after Schwartz dropped him off at the airport. But when he had a 90-minute layover at LaGuardia in New York, the then-26-year-old sat in the terminal and made about a dozen phone calls.
“It was basically the same call: me going haywire about how I had just gotten into the NFL,” Burke recalled. “So I finally finish the calls … I put the phone down, I’m catching my breath, it’s sinking in, and I look over and Kareem is literally sitting next to me in the airport.”
Burke did what most people do when they see the 7-foot-plus NBA legend: He stared.
“I’m looking at him and he sees me looking at him,” Burke said, “and he goes, ‘I heard you got a new job.’”
It’s a story Burke has told countless times, but he prefaces its telling with a disclaimer.
“I tend to hesitate to tell the story because, I swear, I’m not sure it actually happened,” Burke said. “It was so surreal. I always tell it, but I’m always like, ‘Did I make this up? Did this actually happen to me?’”
Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t available for comment, and even if he were, it’s unlikely he would have remembered the chance encounter. But the NFL portion of the tale is as true as Burke’s trademark beard. And if he needs a reminder of how he got his first coaching opportunity, all the now-Eagles assistant has to do is walk into his boss’ office at the NovaCare Complex.
After spending his first 10 years in the league working under Schwartz, Burke was reunited with the Eagles defensive coordinator last year as a senior adviser before transitioning into a role this offseason he previously never had – defensive line coach.
“A good coach is a good coach,” Schwartz said recently. “The things that made him a good linebacker coach will also make him a good D-line coach. The relationships with the players, work ethic, intelligence, passion for the game.
“I think you’ll see all of those things come through with Matt.”
Schwartz stuck out his neck for Burke before. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say he has been the Boston-area native’s greatest advocate. When Burke reached out to Schwartz on a whim, he had only a few years of coaching experience at Boston College and Harvard.
Burke played safety in college, coached some on the field at Bridgton Academy, a prep school in Maine, but most of his football work was done behind the scenes in the film room.
“I don’t know how I sold him on it,” Burke said. “I think it was just my background. I had done a lot of film breakdown in college as a [graduate assistant].”
It’s possible Schwartz saw some of himself in Burke and in their background similarities. They both attended elite universities, graduated with honors – Schwartz at Georgetown and Burke at Dartmouth – and had no NFL coaching experience when they interviewed for their first jobs.
Then-Browns coach Bill Belichick took a flyer on Schwartz, stuck him in the film room for two years, and the rest is history. Burke found a similar mentor in Schwartz, who was in his fourth season as Tennessee defensive coordinator, when he cold-called him. Schwartz set up the interview with Fisher and even gave advice on his attire.
“I’m calling the day before I fly down to Tennessee and in my mind I’m suiting up and I’m ready to go. Jim was like, ‘Don’t wear a tie. Do not wear a tie. That’s not how we operate,’” Burke said. “… I wore just like slacks and a button-up, but I put a tie in my bag just in case.
“He complimented me when I got down there. He’s like, ‘At least I know you can follow directions.’”
Schwartz might have a played a significant role in his first NFL post – and in Burke’s subsequently following him to the Lions as linebackers coach – but he would contend that the assistant did all the rest.
“I had no ‘in’ to the NFL. I had no ties. So for me I think the sell job … came when I got there,” Burke said. “My whole philosophy was, this is my opportunity. I’m like, ‘I’m not letting it go.’ I slept in my office. I didn’t even have an apartment in Nashville for like three, four months.
“My first couple years I probably worked 100-hour weeks.”
Burke spent five years in Detroit before Schwartz was fired and then went on his own to the Bengals and the Dolphins. He was promoted to be Miami’s defensive coordinator in 2017. He lasted only two years, and while his unit never finished higher than 27th in points allowed, Schwartz hired him again to be a “new set of eyes” for his 4-3 wide-nine defense.
The Eagles improved in yards allowed last season, going from 23rd to 10th, but they dropped from tied for 12th to 15th in points surrendered. It’s impossible to say if Burke had any effect, but he will maintain a role in the scheme as the run-game coordinator along with his D-line duties.
“This year Matt just wants to learn from us and build the trust with us,” Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said, “and so far so good.”
Jeremiah Washburn, who also has a role in scouting as director of player personnel, will assist Burke. He is the son of Jim, who helped popularize the wide nine with the Titans before coming to the Eagles for two turbulent years as D-line coach.
The Eagles, despite all their talent, haven’t come close to matching the 50 sacks the defense recorded in Jim Washburn’s first season since Schwartz took over in 2016. Numbers may be overrated, but Schwartz’s aggressive scheme is predicated on four-man pressure, and the unit didn’t live up to expectations the last two seasons under Chris Wilson and Phillip Daniels.
Burke doesn’t have their experience on the defensive line both as a coach or player, but he could bring a different perspective to a job that is typically more about motivation than anything. He may have heeded Schwartz’s sartorial advice all those years ago, but he was also prepared just in case he was wrong.
“Jim was driving me back to the airport to fly out and I pull my tie out of my bag and I was like, ‘Actually, I just hedged my bets a little bit,’” Burke said. “And he was like, ‘All right, that’s smart. Good job.’”
Kareem probably would have agreed.