Before Cleveland Browns games in 2012, Emmanuel Acho would find Bill Davis on the field and pester him with questions. Both wanted to become defensive coordinators.
Davis, who was then Cleveland's linebackers coach, had been a coordinator in San Francisco and Arizona and shared with Acho his goal of becoming one again. Acho, who was playing for Davis in Cleveland, at the time had aspirations of becoming a defensive coach after his playing career. They discussed strategies, how to deploy personnel, and different schemes. Acho, now an Eagles linebacker, knew Davis was planning for a third opportunity.
That came last season, when coach Chip Kelly hired Davis to run the Eagles defense after an exhaustive search. Kelly was drawn to Davis after the interview, which seemed less like a job search and more like two men who can exhaust an afternoon dissecting a third-down blitz package.
At the time, it was not viewed as an inspiring hire. Davis' two previous stints had ended after only two seasons, and he did not inherit a defense teeming with talent.
But that didn't worry Davis, because he would have "the ability to move the scheme around to fit the players," he said last week.
That has been clear this season. Davis has reversed the trend from his previous jobs and now oversees a defense that is improving while he puts his imprint on it. Sunday's Eagles-Cardinals game will mark Davis' first time back in Arizona as a coordinator since the Cards fired him after the 2010 season. He will bring a defense coming off a Week 6 shutout and playing its best since Davis came to Philadelphia. It may be the best defense of Davis' career as a coordinator.
"I think as we go forward . . . you've got to make sure you're putting your players in positions to do things they do best the most amount of times," Davis said. "Now that we have a year and a half under our belt, we understand them a lot better. They understand the scheme a lot better. So we've got a lot of flexibility in the scheme."
When Davis talked about returning to Arizona this weekend, he gave an answer football coaches can appreciate.
"It was two moves ago," he said.
Davis knows all about moving. He was raised in a football family, even serving as ball boy for Dick Vermeil and Don Shula. Davis is 48 and has worked for 11 college or pro teams. He's never been in one place longer than four years.
The nomadic lifestyle exposed Davis to several ideas. He has worked under defensive minds such as Dom Capers, Bill Cowher, Vic Fangio, Dick LeBeau, Mike Nolan, Wade Phillips, and Marvin Lewis. He has worked with a 3-4 defense, a 4-3 defense, and variations in between.
"He can coach the secondary, he can coach the D-line, he can coach the linebackers," Kelly said. "He's got a really, really good background in terms of, he's diversified on the defensive side of the ball, and he's a real good communicator, and I think he does a really good job with our players."
Davis' first chance as a coordinator came in 2005 with the 49ers, but he did not design the defense or call the plays. Those responsibilities remained with Nolan, who was the head coach.
"I wasn't the guy like I am now," Davis said. "Arizona was all mine. I had more responsibility. The scheme was ours."
Davis was the Cardinals' defensive coordinator in 2009 and 2010. During his first season, Arizona was a middle-of-the-pack defense: tied for 14th in yards and scoring defense for a team that went 10-6 and reached the playoffs. During his second season, the defense sank to No. 29 in yards and No. 31 in points. The Cardinals went 5-11 as the quarterback and the offense also struggled, and Davis lost his job.
Davis admitted his scheme was less flexible during that period. His line did not play much two-gap, which is an Eagles emphasis now. Davis also worked with a less-experienced staff, an important factor considering how he now runs the Eagles defense.
Defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro, outside-linebackers coach Bill McGovern, inside-linebackers coach Rick Minter, and defensive backs coach John Lovett all were college coordinators. Davis leaned on them in devising the Eagles scheme.
"It's not something that's always talked about, his ability to bring it all together," linebacker Connor Barwin said.
When Davis discusses the defense, he talks about the position coaches. He's so impressed with their work that he admitted he does not think the Eagles will be able to keep this staff together much longer.
"I can't spit the other coaches names out of my mouth fast enough, because it's the truth," Davis said. "It's not me being humble. It's the way it is."
The approach is not limited to the coaching staff. Many players have remarked how Davis uses them to help put together a game plan. Davis listened to safety Malcolm Jenkins' suggestions before Jenkins even played a game for the Eagles. Jenkins, who has played for four defensive coordinators, said he's had coaches "who were really stubborn" and would not have allowed that type of influence.
Davis has the "ability to take input from everybody and not let his ego get in the way as far as how he wants to do it," Jenkins said. "He's very open to conversation and very flexible. That's a really good attribute to have when you're dealing with grown men."
Davis' defense had just surrendered 52 points to Denver and was last in total defense, when, on a Tuesday last October, he asked anyone listening to "trust me" that "it will turn." What followed, without major scheme changes, were nine consecutive games allowing 21 or fewer points.
It came from a better understanding of his players and the players having a better understanding of the scheme.
"If I don't feel the players are getting better, or I feel we're stagnant or stuck, that keeps me up at night," Davis said. "I get out of whack when the understanding of what we're trying to do isn't there."
Davis insisted after his first two coordinator jobs that he would design a defense tailored to the personnel - and that defense changes each week.
"He doesn't run a cookie-cutter defense," said Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who considers Davis a friend. "He uses guys and their strengths and puts them in a position where they can have success."
Barwin said the Eagles are always changing their look and try to play offensive defense, meaning they want to dictate the tempo based on their defense.
It does not always work, and the defense is not where it needs to be. The Eagles have allowed six plays of more than 40 yards this season. Before a 16-sack outburst in the last three games, they were struggling to get to the quarterback. There's still debate - at least externally - about how they use slot cornerback Brandon Boykin. The progress of first-round pick Marcus Smith is an ongoing story line.
But improvements are evident after offseason changes allowed Davis to make the defense more sophisticated. Nolan Carroll's addition allows for more dime formation. Jenkins' addition has bolstered the secondary and presents different looks. The development of the linebackers means Davis can use Barwin in different ways.
The shutout could have served as vindication for Davis, who has endured criticism during his tenure. He said he knows better. He understands that his position puts the spotlight on him, and that it is shining brightly right now. Come Monday morning, it could be a different story.
"If we were to play awful in Arizona, everyone would be talking about the flip side," Davis said. "I focus on, 'What are the players . . . telling me? Are we getting better? Are we getting worse? Do I need to do less? Do I do need to do more?' Not, 'Am I getting praised or blamed?' "