PHILADELPHIA — It took a year longer than hoped, but the Philadelphia Eagles appear positioned to land their defensive coordinator of choice.
Fangio served as an advisor for Philadelphia in advance of its Super Bowl appearance against the Kansas City Chiefs in February. The Eagles hoped Fangio would succeed Jonathan Gannon but by the time they knew Gannon was becoming head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, Fangio was too far down the line with the Dolphins to reverse course.
Now they appear to have their man and, safe to say, the 65-year-old Fangio has a sizable mess to clean up.
The 2023 Eagles defense was unrecognizable to a city that has long attached its identity to that side of the ball — to Chuck Bednarik and Reggie White and Brian Dawkins; to hard hits and goal-line stands and iron wills. This most recent iteration will be remembered for missed tackles and blown assignments and an epic collapse down the stretch.
The Eagles allowed the third-most points per game during the regular season (25.2) and ranked 30th in red-zone and third-down defense. They allowed 35 passing touchdowns, second-most in the league.
They demoted defensive coordinator Sean Desai in his first year on the job when the team was 10-3, replacing him with Matt Patricia. That made things worse, as the defense yielded 30 points on average over its last four games, including 32 points in a wild-card playoff loss at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that marked their sixth loss in seven games.
Now Desai and Patricia are both out, Fangio appears on the verge of being in, and a critical offseason awaits.
What does Fangio bring to the Eagles?
A veteran presence, for one.
Following a loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 10, cornerback Darius Slay brought up the career arc of Gannon — who had some struggles in his first year as a defensive coordinator, flourished in Year 2 to help fuel a Super Bowl run, then promptly became head coach of the Cardinals — when assessing the performance of Desai.
“Everybody was hollering at Gannon his first year here. Nobody liked Gannon. And the next thing you know, No. 1 pass defense, top-10 run defense, now he’s a head coach. It might take time,” Slay said. “But we’ve got to get it right, right now. We’ve got to get going.”
That was Desai’s last game as defensive playcaller.
Patience is hard to come by when operating in a perceived Super Bowl window. And it’s even harder to find when the head coach must win now to get off the hot seat, which is the position Sirianni appears to find himself in. It makes sense, then, that they would want Fangio — someone with instant credibility and tried and true philosophies who could shorten the learning curve and, at the very least, get the unit back to functioning at a competent level. Having a head coach of the defense, like Jim Schwartz was for Doug Pederson during the team’s lone Super Bowl title run, has served the organization well in the past.
And it’s no secret that the front office prefers Fangio’s scheme, which is designed in part to limit explosive plays. Desai studied under Fangio in Chicago, and both Desai and Gannon modeled their defenses in part after Fangio’s. Now they have the original.
What can management do to make Fangio’s life easier?
A tweak in resource allocation would be a good start.
Under general manager Howie Roseman, the Eagles have ranked near the bottom in money dedicated to the linebacker position.
The reasoning is sound — Philadelphia wants to heavily invest in the trenches and at other premium positions, like cornerback — but the philosophy can tilt toward the extreme. In 2023, for example, Philadelphia dedicated just over $8 million to off-ball linebackers, per Roster Management, which was 62% less than the league average ($21.2 million).
It should be no surprise, then, that linebacker was a liability, especially with former Georgia star Nakobe Dean sidelined for all but five games.
The decision to let starting linebackers T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White walk last offseason proved detrimental — particularly Edwards, who had 155 tackles, 2.5 sacks, three interceptions and seven passes defensed for the Chicago Bears after signing a three-year, $19.5 million contract in free agency.
“I feel like we’ve had a long history of success here building the team a certain way, and I think maybe there are some preconceived notions that at the linebacker position, that we don’t care who we play at linebacker. Again, our two Super Bowl teams over the last six years, the linebacker play was good from those guys,” Roseman said Wednesday.
“I think if anything, it’s my belief in the players that we have, the young players that we have. I have a lot of belief, and I know Coach does, as well, in Nakobe Dean. I believe in the player. I believe in the person.”
In hindsight, spending money on 30-year-old corner James Bradberry (3 years, $38 million) instead of shoring up the linebacker and safety spots by re-signing Edwards and C.J. Gardner-Johnson (now with the Detroit Lions) dealt a blow to the defense’s chances of competing at a high level.
Besides experience and scheme, what’s one key area where Fangio and his staff can make an impact?
The Eagles need help at every level of their defense, so free agency and the draft are going to be critical. But maybe even more important is that the young talent on the team shows significant growth.
It all begins with defensive tackles Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter, who were primary forces on a historic Georgia defense. Carter looked unstoppable during the early portion of his rookie season and Davis showed marked improvement initially during his second year with the team, but their production fell off dramatically down the stretch.
“Just continue to grow. That’s the biggest thing. Take the coaching,” said defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who has served as a mentor to both players. “The biggest thing for those two guys is showing up in shape at OTAs and not being behind the eight-ball. This will be Year 3 for Jordan, two for JC, and normally younger players make that jump make that jump between those two years.”
With Cox’s playing future in doubt — he said he hasn’t decided anything, but Davis suggested Cox wouldn’t be back during locker clean-out day last week — it makes it all the more imperative that Davis and Carter reach their potential.
The same can be said for other former Bulldogs, like corner Kelee Ringo, who showed promise in his four starts as a rookie and could be a key piece moving forward with Slay (33) and Bradberry getting older. Same for edge rusher Nolan Smith, who could help offset any production lost from Brandon Graham, 35, as he enters what he’s acknowledged could be the final year of his career.
“When I think about the contributions I can make to help this team, I know that when I’m doing my best and I have my best seasons, this team has a chance to have its best seasons. I hold myself to a very high standard,” Roseman said.
“I think we have a lot of good young players on this team. I think we have the ability to go out and continue to add to that.”
Overall, few players showed significant development over the course of the season. That falls in large part to coaching. Fangio can help turn that around.
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