What, exactly, recommends the continued employment of James J. Schwartz?
Little. The Eagles have just four wins and will miss the playoffs for two main reasons: First, Carson Wentz regressed; second, so did Schwartz’s defense.
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It has forced 37 turnovers the last two seasons combined, which is one fewer turnover than the Steelers forced in 2019 alone. In a league built in the air, the Birds couldn’t get off the ground: They rank 27th in yards allowed per pass, 28th in completion percentage allowed, and 29th in opponents’ passer rating this season.
Former safety Malcolm Jenkins covered up a whole lot of ugly. If one player makes that much of a difference, you need a new coach.
Raheem Morris and Gus Bradley might be looking for work next week. Doug Pederson needs to get their digits.
This is not a new development. Since giving up a whopping 613 yards and 33 points in the Super Bowl LII win, Schwartz’s defenses have surrendered 27 points or more in 20 of 47 regular-season games, including 15 of the 31 games played the last two seasons. If 4-10-1 makes you want to fire a coach, why not start with the one who can’t get results?
What Schwartz lacks in results he makes up for in charisma.
Schwartz comes up with catchy sayings, like the “No-Hat Rule” gem he dropped Tuesday to encourage his players to spoil Washington’s NFC East title hopes on Eagles turf. Of course, if Schwartz’s defense hadn’t dissolved Sunday afternoon at Dallas, the Eagles themselves might be putting on championship hats Sunday night instead of hoping to keep the heads of Washington’s players unadorned.
He’s got a lot of quips. Quips don’t win ‘ships.
Ever since Howie Roseman and Jeffrey Lurie co-hired Schwartz with Pederson five years ago, Schwartz has been long on style if not substance. He turns out in tailored jackets, silk socks, Italian shoes. He is quite smart: got himself an economics degree, with honors, from Georgetown. He’s well-spoken, too, beyond the catchy slogans. He tells endearing stories when he might otherwise be answering questions substantively.
Schwartz’s coaching DNA includes some Bill Belichick chromosomes. His father was a Baltimore cop, so, despite his refinement, Schwartz speaks the common man’s language when he must. All of this endears Schwartz to Lurie, the millionaire child turned billionaire owner with a touch of everyman in his bearing.
None of this should endear Schwartz to Pederson. Not after five seasons of equivocation; five seasons of bending and breaking, over and over again.
Andy Dalton just lit up Schwartz’s defense with his best performance in three seasons and extinguished the Eagles’ playoff hopes, so this moment seems ripe to point out Schwartz’s chronic deficiencies.
First, and worst: Schwartz hates to blitz. Philadelphia reviles him for this alone.
Second: His scheme relies on a foundation that would make any scheme successful. The wide-nine pass-rush philosophy functions properly only when the line is flush with talent and anchored by a star defensive tackle. It was Albert Haynesworth in Tennessee; Ndamukong Suh in Detroit; Marcell Dareus in Buffalo; and, now, it is Fletcher Cox in Philadelphia.
Predictably, after Cox got hurt Sunday, Schwartz’s defense collapsed. That was inexcusable. Schwartz’s line still had Pro Bowl end Brandon Graham as well as Javon Hargrave and Malik Jackson, the free-agent tackles Schwartz was gifted the last two seasons, facing the Cowboys’ horrific offensive line. Also, Andy Dalton.
The Cowboys scored 27 points in the first 25 minutes after Cox left. The Eagles never so much as mussed Dalton’s strawberry locks.
In Schwartz’s scheme, Hargrave and Jackson combined for just 6.0 sacks and 58 total tackles this season. Jackson is 30, and he missed almost all of 2019 with a foot injury, but playing next to Cox was supposed to revive his career. Not only did Jackson fizzle again, 2020 has been the worst season of Hargrave’s career. What’s more, this is Cox’s worst year since 2013.
Yes, they could use better linebacker support, but the Eagles drafted Davion Taylor in the third round this season. He has played 29 defensive snaps. Oddly, Schwartz -- a linebacker in college and a linebacker coach in the NFL -- seems to have trouble identifying ‘backers. In 2019 the Eagles signed L.J. Fort, a special-teams ace, to a three-year, $5.5 million deal, but Schwartz didn’t put him on the field for a single defensive snap in his first four games, so the Birds cut him. Baltimore signed him. Fort has 76 tackles and two sacks since he became a starter in Baltimore 24 games ago.
The worst news: This front seven has been a strength for the Eagles this season.
Schwartz’s most consistent shortcoming recalls Andy Reid’s bugaboo: in-game adjustments.
Schwartz attached Darius Slay to DK Metcalf when the Seahawks visited in Game 11, affording Slay little help. Metcalf responded with a career-high 177 yards as well as 10 catches, second-most in his career. It was the second straight game a top receiver roasted Slay in Schwartz’s scheme. Davante Adams had just torched him for 10 catches, 121 yards, and two TDs in Green Bay. Again, Schwartz abandoned Slay.
At Dallas on Sunday, Schwartz attached undrafted rookie Michael Jacquet to Michael Gallup. You guessed it: Gallup had the best game of his career: -- six catches, 121 yards, two touchdowns. Schwartz didn’t take Jacquet off the field until the fourth quarter, when converted safety Jalen Mills moved back to corner.
Further, Schwartz was unable to tell that Jacquet, playing just his fifth game as a cornerback, would be this vulnerable. Understanding a player’s limitations is Job No. 1 for every coach: You never put a player in a position to fail.
Still, both games were winnable in the final minutes. Imagine how winnable they would have been with better adjustments.
The Eagles have given Schwartz plenty of seemingly apt pupils: first-round end Derek Barnett and second- and third-round cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas in 2017, fourth-round corner Avante Maddox in 2018, fourth-round end Shareef Miller in 2019, third-round linebacker Davion Taylor and fourth-round safety K’Von Wallace in 2020.
Who got better? Barnett broke Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee but, with 20½ sacks in 52 games, counting playoffs, he isn’t likely to be on the team in 2021, since he’s due $10 million. The Eagles waived Jones and Douglas in September, but both have played well for their new teams in Jacksonville and Carolina, respectively. Maddox was an exciting rookie who has done little since. The Eagles cut Miller this season. Twice.
On the plus side: Josh Sweat, a fourth-round end in 2018. He has 10 sacks in three seasons.
Granted, Adams and Metcalf are elite receivers. The defensive backs at Schwartz’s disposal lately are scrapings and leavings.
But the best coordinators limit the elite, solve personnel deficiencies, and win.
It’s not that Jim Schwartz is a bad defensive coordinator. He’s just not nearly among the best.