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John Smallwood: Eagles defensive coordinator McDermott about to take first test

OK, PRESCHOOL is over for Sean McDermott, but instead of moving on to grade school, high school or even college, the Eagles rookie defensive coordinator is jumping right to the graduate-school level of the NFL.

OK, PRESCHOOL is over for Sean McDermott, but instead of moving on to grade school, high school or even college, the Eagles rookie defensive coordinator is jumping right to the graduate-school level of the NFL.

His first test on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers will be graded pass or fail. It's just the first of many that will begin to define McDermott's career as a coordinator.

"Obviously, I'll be a little anxious, just being upfront about it," McDermott said of his first regular-season game in this job. "But I think that comes with the territory, and it comes with the first game of the season every year.

"No matter how long you've been in this game, regardless of whether you're a player or a coach, there are some butterflies the first opener of every year."

Eagles fans probably haven't had this many butterflies concerning a coach or coordinator since Andy Reid's debut as head coach in 1999.

McDermott replacing the late Jim Johnson is the biggest change ever on Reid's coaching staff.

While it is true that Marty Mornhinweg was named assistant head coach and offensive coordinator in 2004, Reid is so connected to the offense that it is open to debate just how much control Mornhinweg has.

Over the past couple of seasons, Mornhinweg seems to be more autonomous, but Reid's fingerprints are still on the offense.

I don't see that with McDermott.

Reid might take more notice of what's going on with the defense now that he no longer has the reliable and experienced hands of Johnson, but make no mistake, this is McDermott's show.

Describing what advice his mentor Johnson would have offered, McDermott said, "Just be myself. Just be myself and stay aggressive. Jim will definitely be there with us, there's no doubt about that.

"The influence is there and will continue to be there."

But McDermott will call the shots. The fatherly sage will be there only in spirit. He won't be there to help McDermott make decisions and adjustments on the fly.

And those are the things most parties want to find out about McDermott.

I don't think anyone questions whether McDermott has been properly prepped for this position.

I'll trust Reid that he would not have promoted McDermott if he didn't have confidence that he was ready.

Still, we won't know anything until Sunday, when the moves McDermott makes will help or hinder the Eagles in their effort to win a football game that actually counts.

The preseason isn't an accurate gauge, because neither the Eagles' defense nor the opposing offenses exposed too much of what they will do during the season.

What we have learned about McDermott is that he is not afraid to deviate from a plan if things aren't going the way he likes.

When middle linebacker Stewart Bradley went down with a season-ending knee injury, Joe Mays was given the first opportunity to earn the job. Mays faltered and McDermott switched to veteran Omar Gaither, who had started at middle linebacker before Bradley emerged last season.

An even bigger risk might be going with rookie Macho Harris over second-year man Quintin Demps at strong safety. Demps was touted as a capable replacement for popular veteran Brian Dawkins, who was allowed to leave for Denver in free agency. The safer move for McDermott probably would have been to stick with Demps, at least for the opener.

"I don't think we gave [a starting spot] to anybody," McDermott said. "You've got to appreciate from a humanistic standpoint what Omar has gone through over the last couple of years.

"He's stayed very positive, mentally tough, and he's persevered. As I mentioned about Macho, he's another guy that's persevered and hung with it. He's come out every day ready to practice, ready to play."

Ultimately, the players on the field will determine what happens by their performance, but McDermott still will be under a bigger spotlight than any of them.

He is still the biggest unknown on the Eagles' defense.

The Carolina Panthers will test him, to see how he handles adversity and makes adjustments.

And nearly every Eagles fan will watch for the same things.

"We understand where teams want to attack us, and, as I mentioned before in training camp, we have a long list of areas where we need to improve," McDermott said. "We'll see how we fare going into the season in those areas.

"But, that's our challenge, and that's what we have to get handled, and the players in those specific defenses need to do their job." *

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