Murphy: Forget pink slips, Eagles need to give coaches right personnel
Here's another argument for patience with Doug Pederson and Jim Schwartz, ripped from the headlines of this year's NFC East.
Remember back in the summer, when some of us thought that the Eagles would at least be able to count on a defense destined to reclaim its rightful place in the NFC East hierarchy thanks to a new sheriff in town and a fleet of weapons that were underutilized by the last guy?
Take the Giants, for instance. A lot of eyebrows shot upward when ownership decided that Tom Coughlin was the only aspect of the coaching staff that needed addressing this past offseason. Of particular note was the return of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who had just completed his fifth straight season of failing to live up to the bar he'd set for himself when he coordinated the defense that helped the Giants to their Super Bowl victory over the Patriots in 2007 and then followed it up with a unit that was the NFL's fifth-stingiest in points and yards allowed in 2008.
Both of Spagnuolo's units finished in the Top 10 in yards allowed in his first go-around as defensive coordinator, a feat he failed to achieve even once in his next five seasons as head coach or coordinator. Heading into this season, Spagnuolo's defenses were consistently ranked among the NFL's worst, finishing 31st, 12th, 26th, 31st, and 30th in points allowed, the last of them in 2015 in his first season back with the Giants after failed stints with the Rams and Saints.
Then came 2016.
As evidenced by Sunday's 10-7 win over the Cowboys in which Dallas managed just 260 yards, the Giants' defense is the biggest — perhaps only — reason they've won seven of eight games and suddenly have an outside shot to win the NFC East.
While Eli Manning and Ben McAdoo have looked every bit the bizarro version of their 2015 selves, the Giants' defense has become their backbone. Over their last five games, the Giants rank third in the NFL in points allowed (80), fourth in opposing passer rating (77.2), 10th in yards per carry (3.66), second in completion percentage (55.9), and second in sacks (19). This season, they outrank the Eagles in most per-play defensive categories.
Whether you view the results as counterintuitive depends in part on the quality of your intuition, but, as the athletes say, they are what they are:
Yards per play
Giants: 5.1 (6th)
Eagles: 5.7 (24th)
Opposer passer rating
Giants: 76.3 (2nd)
Eagles: 91.7 (18th)
Yards per pass attempt
Giants: 6.7 (5th)
Eagles: 7.7 (27th)
Giants: 58.2 (2nd)
Eagles: 61.0 (7th)
Yards per rush attempt
Giants: 3.6 (3rd)
Eagles: 4.1 (14th)
Points per game allowed
Giants: 18.8 (7th)
Eagles: 20.9 (12th)
Points per drive allowed
Giants: 1.60 (6th)
Eagles: 1.63 (7th)
So what does any of this have to do with the increasing rabble about the Eagles potentially parting ways with Pederson and Schwartz?
How about this: Any coaches the Eagles would replace them with would be similarly limited until the front office provided them with the personnel necessary to achieve their schematic visions.
While Billy Davis certainly made the least of his weapons, Schwartz has run into some of the same problems as his predecessor throughout his first year at the helm. Turns out, very few systems can hide liabilities in the defensive backfield, and even fewer can generate an edge rush without the requisite personnel. A new chef might be able to make the chicken salad more edible, but, at some point, even the best recipe needs the right ingredients. Which is why there might be something instructive to glean from the way the numbers say things have played out 14 weeks into 2016.
Take the Giants.
Their current defense looks like a completely different unit from the one that took the field in its first year under Spagnuolo, when it was one of the worst in the NFL by practically every measure. The difference has been personnel, which makes some sense when you look at that personnel and think about its corollaries with the Jim Johnson units that launched Spagnuolo onto the national radar.
The additions of Olivier Vernon at defensive end and Damon Harrison at defensive tackle have paid huge dividends in run defense. Vernon hasn't put up the sack numbers that tend to catch people's eyes, but he has been the same type of disruptor on the edge as Brandon Graham has been for the Eagles (Graham, you'll note, also does not have the sack numbers).
Cornerback Janoris Jenkins, a free-agent signee from the Rams, has had a similar impact on the Giants' pass coverage. The Giants are also looking like they hit big on last year's second round draft pick, with strong safety Landon Collins establishing himself as one of the NFL's premier run-stopping safeties (though his pass coverage remains a work in progress). They've also been helped by the contributions of 2016 No. 10 overall pick Eli Apple, who has replaced Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie opposite Jenkins. Meanwhile, the addition of Leon Hall to a group that also includes Trevin Wade has bolstered positional depth.
The staying power of the Giants' defense remains to be seen, but it is certainly trending in a better direction than the Eagles'. The G-Men took some considerable heat for their offseason spending spree on Jenkins, Vernon and Harrison, but they are, thus far, looking like wiser investments than the ones the Eagles made in Vinny Curry and, the previous year, Mychal Kendricks.
The point remains: There is a synergy between personnel and scheme, and the Eagles would be wise to avoid kicking the can any farther down the road. Starting over again is not a good way to get better.