Brandon Graham wonders sometimes how his first six seasons with the Eagles might have been different if not for the revolving door that welcomed and discarded defensive coordinators.
"Especially that last year when coach [Andy] Reid was here," Graham said last week after a practice session at the NovaCare Complex. "It was my first time starting after my injury and I ended up getting 51/2 sacks and I really felt like I was headed in the right direction. And then, bam, here comes the 3-4."
Few members of the Eagles have fond memories of that 2012 season, which was Reid's last in Philadelphia. Graham, however, has valid reasons for embracing his accomplishments that year in a 4-3 scheme similar to the one that will be run once again by new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Before 2012, Graham was often described as a wasted first-round draft pick. He had been selected 13th overall out of the University of Michigan in 2010 but managed just three sacks in 13 games before suffering a torn knee ligament that ended his rookie season and delayed the start of his second season.
With four sacks in the team's final five games, Graham felt as if he finally was moving forward even if most of the coaching staff was being moved out.
For those of you who have chosen to expunge 2012 from memory, the Eagles opened that season with Juan Castillo as their defensive coordinator and Jim Washburn as the defensive line coach. The two worked together about as well as peanut butter and horseradish. Both men were fired before the year was over and Reid followed them out the door when the season ended.
Like Washburn, Schwartz is fond of the wide nine, two four-letter words most Eagles fans never wanted to hear again. The Eagles finished 2012 tied for the most points allowed and tied for 25th in total sacks. The defense was a dysfunctional mess.
"A lot of guys had different ideas about what they wanted," Graham said. "We didn't have a D coordinator that knew it. We just had a D-line coach that knew it. [Washburn] should have been the D coordinator if that's the type of defense we were going to run."
Graham believes Schwartz's vision of the wide nine will be different and beneficial for him.
"Now we have Jim who is the defensive coordinator and he knows what he wants and he can actually teach it to everybody," Graham said.
Schwartz is Graham's fifth defensive coordinator since he joined the Eagles. Sean McDermott was here in his rookie season and he was inexplicably replaced by Castillo, who had been the team's longtime offensive line coach. A lot of Graham's late-season success in 2012 came during Todd Bowles' brief stint as defensive coordinator, but he, too, left when Chip Kelly replaced Reid as the head coach.
Bill Davis introduced Graham and the Eagles to the 3-4 and the pass coverage responsibilities that come with being an outside linebacker. Graham, 28, held his own in that system, receiving a four-year contract extension after the 2014 season and replacing Trent Cole as a starter last season when he registered a career-high 61/2 sacks. Graham, however, still believes he was born to be a pass-rushing defensive end, which is what he will be again under Schwartz.
"Oh, man, it is definitely very nice and a great feeling for me because now I can go out there and play the run and go get the quarterback and not worry about nothing else," Graham said. "I think in this defense, you don't have too many rules. Disrupt everything and make plays in the backfield. It's all about the knock back."
In addition to playing for five defensive coordinators in the NFL, Graham said he also played for three during his time at Michigan. That's eight in 11 years. None of them, he said, was quite like Schwartz.
"He's one of a kind," Graham said. "He's a guy who first came in and said, 'I don't have no friends. Football is my friend.' I really believe that. I have nothing but respect for Coach."
This is actually Graham's second time playing for Schwartz. After finishing his final season at Michigan with 101/2 sacks, Graham played for Schwartz in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. Schwartz had just finished his second season as the head coach in Detroit.
"He was my MVP," Schwartz said after being hired as Eagles defensive coordinator. "I helped him get drafted in the first round. He might owe me a little bit of that signing bonus. I think he had three or four sacks in that game."
He actually had two sacks, a forced fumble and five tackles, including one for a loss. If that is what the fifth defensive coordinator in Graham's NFL career is going to help him achieve in 2016, everyone involved with the Eagles is on board.