As news spread about the firing of Eagles coach Doug Pederson on Monday, one candidate quickly gained traction among fans, Eagles players, and ex-players on social media.
“Every time he stood in front of the team, he had the attention and respect of everyone in the room,” tweeted former Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, now with New Orleans. Jenkins called Staley “the embodiment of what it means to be an Eagle, in a coach.”
Jenkins added that he is happy with the Saints, who host Tampa Bay on Sunday in the divisional round of the playoffs, but “in another lifetime, I’d love to play for him.”
In an interview Monday, defensive end Brandon Graham wondered if Staley might be Pederson’s successor, and called Staley “a strong voice.”
Former Eagles defensive end Chris Long tweeted that Staley was “a great coach and commands respect.”
Safety Rodney McLeod tweeted that he hoped “they give my man Duce an opportunity. He was a hell of a player in the league, and now a hell of a coach!”
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie mentioned in his video news conference Monday that he expected Staley to be a candidate.
“He’s a great representative of the Eagles, and knows our values,” Lurie said.
Staley, the team’s 45-year-old running backs coach and assistant head coach, has already been the head coach here, in a way – he stepped in as titular head for a while last training camp, when Pederson was in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19. This proved to be largely ceremonial; Pederson continued to direct operations via Zoom.
“We all want to advance,’' Staley said last August, during his short stint in charge. “You [media] guys want to advance. That’s life. But right now, I’m super happy in my role. Proud of my role. Being assistant head coach, running backs coach. I’m proud of that.”
As the Eagles dive into their third head-coaching search in eight years, is Staley’s candidacy viable, or like his preseason reign, is it largely ceremonial?
Staley has spent 10 years as an Eagles coach, after 10 years as an NFL running back, the first seven of those spent in Philadelphia. Fans like him because he was a tough, reliable, hardnosed player who now projects a boisterous, energetic sideline demeanor as a coach.
But Staley has interviewed for the Eagles’ head-coaching job before, in 2016, before Pederson was hired, and he was a candidate to become the offensive coordinator in 2018 when Frank Reich left to become the head coach in Indianapolis. Didn’t happen for him either time. He has gotten nibbles here and there from other teams, no job offers.
The NFL’s Rooney Rule stipulates that interviews for general manager, head coach, and (as of 2020) coordinator positions must include minority candidates. The rule opens the hiring process to candidates beyond the immediate circle of people well-known to a white owner, general manager, or head coach. The downside of the rule is that it’s impossible to know when someone is under serious consideration or is being used to check a box.
It has been argued that getting a minority candidate into the room, to an interview, increases that candidate’s visibility, gives the candidate a chance to make an impression that could pay off, even if that doesn’t happen right away.
If your main interest is in figuring out who ultimately will get a certain job, none of that really matters, you just want to know who the top candidates might be.
Staley doesn’t call plays and he doesn’t coach quarterbacks, in a league that more and more is about playcalling and quarterbacking. We have no idea what type of offense he would run. Fans might assume that given his background, he would favor the old-time, pounding ground game, which might not be the case, and if it were the case, would not be the sort of thing likely to excite Lurie. The owner favors innovation. And is Staley, after so many years as a position coach, ultimately more of a sergeant than a general?
On the other hand, Lurie is among the most socially progressive NFL owners. He is very conscious that the locker room is mostly Black, and that overall, Philadelphia is hardly Green Bay. Lurie hired a Black head coach in Ray Rhodes, back in 1995, when that was a bigger step than it would be today.
“It’s top of mind to make sure we have some of the best minority candidates in on the search,” Lurie said Monday. “It’s very important, I think, for us, for the league, and it’s top of mind … I’ve never hesitated in this area. Obviously, I’ve hired an African-American as a head coach and [I’m] proud of it, because he was the right man for the job at the time. There’s plenty of possible candidates in this area.”
The Eagles reportedly have put in a request to interview Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who is Black. This is another hard-to-evaluate candidacy. Bowles’ defense ranked eighth in points allowed this season, at 22.2, and allowed the fewest rushing yards, both per game (80.6) and per play (3.60).
Bowles, a former standout defensive back at Temple, has been an Eagles coach before – he handled the secondary in 2012, Andy Reid’s last year, until Reid fired Juan Castillo and put Bowles in charge of the defense. The team was 3-3 when Castillo was fired. It finished 4-12, and the defense got worse. Then Bowles went 24-40 in four years as the Jets’ head coach. Is he really going to become the Eagles’ next head coach?
The inclination is to predict that Lurie will hire an offense/QB-oriented coach, as he has done with Reid, Chip Kelly, and Pederson. Of course, it’s also possible that he will hire a defensive coach if that coach promises he can bring with him a dynamic offensive coordinator. (Who would quickly become a head coach elsewhere if the offense excelled.)
Lurie said Monday that his next coach “needs to be a leader of coaches, a leader of players, and someone who represents the organization in a great leadership way. We had a lot of that with Doug. Leadership is an important characteristic.”
An NFL evaluator who has worked with Staley said Tuesday that he has “great presence and command” and is “tough, direct, and honest. Can inspire.”
A few days before the Eagles’ season ended, running back Miles Sanders was asked about Staley as a possible head coach or offensive coordinator.
“What he brings to the table is a lot of passion for the game. When you first hear him talk, you’re gonna instantly know that Duce, he loves this stuff. He loves the game of football,” Sanders said.
“He loves teaching it and he loves playing it, and he plays it through us, and he tells us that all the time. Just that simple fact right there, that caring – I’m not saying that no [other] coaches care, but the way he coaches, and the passion he puts into it makes it more and more stronger, and gives him that bigger leadership role that everybody would want in a coach.”