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Defense may have saved Davis' job, for now

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - By the time Bill Davis had returned home from Detroit last week in desperate need of some time to decompress with his family, he had already watched his defense's Thanksgiving horror show against the Lions three times.

Brandon Graham sacks New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Brandon Graham sacks New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.Read more(Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - By the time Bill Davis had returned home from Detroit last week in desperate need of some time to decompress with his family, he had already watched his defense's Thanksgiving horror show against the Lions three times.

His longest 10 days as the Eagles' defensive coordinator had to begin with that everlasting aspect of his postgame routine. Always, in the immediate aftermath of every game, Davis reviews the film again and again, probing each play for his and his players' mistakes - a bad blitz call, a missed tackle, a blown assignment. Reviewing the Eagles' previous two games, though, was a task that took on no small hint of sadomasochism.

The Eagles defense had surrendered 83 points over those losses to Tampa Bay and Detroit, and here were Tom Brady and the Patriots up next, and Davis had been around the NFL long enough - 24 years, including three stints as a coordinator - to know the score when it came to his future. If Davis' job wasn't already in jeopardy, a typical performance by Brady, by arguably the greatest quarterback of all, would be enough to seal his fate.

Nevertheless, as he stood in a remote corner of the visitors' locker room at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night, the place still humming after the Eagles' improbable 35-28 victory, Davis betrayed neither self-satisfaction nor relief over the defense's role in the upset that lifted the Eagles to 5-7 and kept them in the hunt in the awful NFC East.

They had sacked Brady four times and intercepted him twice - including Malcom Jenkins' game-turning 99-yard touchdown - and they had finally held on the Patriots' final possession after Zach Ertz's failure to catch an onside kick and Kiko Alonso's failure to stay on his feet in fourth-down coverage had accelerated a frantic New England comeback.

Sunday's win had saved the Eagles' season. But if it had also saved Davis' job, well, he couldn't afford to care or think about that. Not after the game, and certainly not as he had prepared himself and his players for it.

"In my earlier career, I would get caught up in it," Davis said. "But what I learned was, it makes it worse. You don't get out of the hole but getting all caught up in 'my job, my job, my job.' You get out of the hole by diving deeper in and saying, 'How is this happening, and how do we get out?' calmly, without getting yourself in a non-confident place. We're human beings. I've learned over time. We always say, 'Block out the noise,' but it's the truth. You can't sit there and listen to all that, and I don't."

Brady threw for 312 yards, and the Patriots piled up 427 as a team, but the box score belied the effectiveness of what the Eagles did Sunday. With a minimal amount of blitzing, with primarily just a three- or four-man rush, they bothered Brady time after time, forcing him, if he was to beat the Eagles, to make the kinds of throws that only he and a few other quarterbacks can make. For Davis, Chip Kelly, and really for Jenkins, this wasn't a triumph of scheme as much as it was one of psychology and motivation.

Kelly had turned a Saturday night team meeting/video session into a group-therapy session, showing the players film of their positive plays to remind them of how good they were. Davis joined in the reaffirmation in his earlier meetings with his players.

"Try to see what my part is in it. We talked to the players about that," he said. "Everybody own theirs. Everybody be a grown man here. Own your piece. Be honest. Be tough on yourself, and then move on."

There was one more key factor: By speaking his mind in a radio interview last week about his disagreement with Kelly's refusal to call out players for their mistakes in front of the entire team, Jenkins broke whatever tension existed between athletes accustomed to more traditional coaching methods and a coach who clings so tightly to control. As a result, during the days before Sunday's game and during the game itself, players said, communication was freer and more open.

"Anybody who thought our confidence was low was probably outside of our building," Jenkins said. "The entire time, even though we weren't getting the results that we wanted, guys were confident in themselves. I thought we were confident in the scheme, and I think it was obvious we needed to change some things or add some things. But we were confident in what we could do because we've seen it in the past."

From a coaching booth atop the stadium Sunday, Davis watched Jenkins weave through the Patriots for that tie-breaking touchdown in the third quarter, then scanned the field one more time.

"I was looking for flags," he said. There were none, and later, when Brady threw an incomplete pass on fourth and 10 on New England's final offensive play, Davis could disembark that elevator, enter the Eagles' locker room, and look his players in the eye without another embarrassing performance shaming them all.

"To come out and steal this win after we were in the hole with the adversity of the last two weeks," Davis said, "it speaks to the character of the men."

Their coach, too. And yes, after Sunday and even after the horror that preceded it, Bill Davis will still be their coach for a while.