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The Perception that Defense Loses Championships and its Impact on the Philadelphia Eagles’ Head Coach Search

The scenes change. Ghostly images appear and disappear both on the field and in the stands. Murmurs, whispers, yells, moans, sighs, passionate cheers, and boos are all mashed together in a chaotic broth of noise. This is what the Vet has become; this is where Philly sports history remains alive. Jerome and I walk the steps up to the 700 level and look downward. The view cannot be unlike Dante's as he entered the gate of hell. However, there is no inscription, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here". Quite the contrary, hope is the Philly fan's curse. There always exists hope and expectation and pride, and because of these, misery as well... when hopes and expectations are not met, when pride is wounded.

Jerome directed me to section 734, adjacent to the end zone on the visiting side. It was far from much of the action on the field, but one could imagine that 734 could still be heard. In the fifth row stood a man in disbelief, hands on head, jaw dropped, eyes almost full of terror. I turn to Jerome and ask, "What did he see?"

"Joe Jurevicius being chased down the sideline."

***

It was the 2002 season's NFC Championship game. The Eagles were ahead 7-3 in the first quarter, with a confident defense that didn't allow Tampa Bay to score an offensive touchdown during their meeting earlier in the season. The Buccaneers faced a third-and-two when Brad Johnson took the snap from center and threw a four yard in-route over the middle to Joe Jurevicius. Jurevicius caught the ball in stride and sprinted through the middle and down the sideline for 71 yards before getting tackled at the five yard line. The game-changing play set up a Mike Alstott one yard touchdown run and injected life into a Tampa team that thrived on it. After taking the lead, Tampa never looked back and went on to win the Super Bowl. For Eagles fans it was like a nightmare, however, the image of Levon Kirkland chasing Jurevicius illustrates a culture shift in the NFL, one that contradicts that long-lasting and basic tenet: "Offense wins games. Defense wins championships."

Yes, franchises have been built on the premise that "offense wins games; defense wins championships." In fact, Tampa Bay's Super Bowl XXXVII winning season is a fine example. That Buccaneers team was defined by their powerful defense and won games with their adequate offense. However, switching points of view from the victor to the victim, defense can just as easily, and just as often, lose championships. It was the Eagle's defensive lapse that turned the tide against Tampa. And since then, we the fans of Philadelphia have become Levon Kirkland.

Since Tampa Bay won with Brad Johnson at the helm, the Super Bowl winning quarterbacks have all been elite (or elite performing). Here is a comprehensive list: Tom Brady (twice), Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Peyton Manning, Eli Manning (twice), Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers. Of their teams, only one (2008 Steelers) finished the regular season as the top-ranked defense. Two others (2005 Steelers, 2010 Packers) finished in the top-five, but three - 2006 Colts (21st), 2009 Saints (25th), and 2011 Giants (27th) - finished the regular season ranked in the bottom third. During this time there were also three top-five defenses (2006 Bears, 2007 Patriots, and 2010 Steelers) that each lost the Super Bowl to lesser ranked defensive teams. These results suggest that offenses (at least those with elite-performing quarterbacks) win games and those offenses increase the likelihood of winning championships. On the other hand, defenses, regardless of statistical ranking, can potentially lose championships. Jeffrey Lurie's head coach wish list for the Eagles supports this new philosophy. Bill O'Brien, Chip Kelly, Mike McCoy, and Dirk Koetter are all well-regarded offensive-minded coaches. But does Lurie have the right idea?

Actually, what these results illustrate is another NFL tenet, "Any given Sunday..." More important than developing a top five offense or defense is the ability to develop, lead, game plan, execute on game day, and make adjustments when necessary. Yes O'Brien, Kelly, McCoy, and Koetter are offensively inclined, but are they able to win on any given Sunday more often than available defensive-minded candidates like Mike Zimmer? Since Tampa Bay's victory, five of the nine Super Bowl winning coaches have come from the defensive side of the ball. Here is the list with their respective offensive (OFF) or defensive (DEF) mindedness: Bill Belichick (DEF), Bill Cowher (DEF), Tony Dungy (DEF), Tom Coughlin (OFF), Mike Tomlin (DEF), Sean Payton (OFF), Mike McCarthy (OFF). Given that Lurie's top candidates are from the offensive side of the ball, Philadelphia fans should be fearful that he may be limiting his candidate pool. The perception that "offense wins games; defense wins championships" may be obsolete, but Lurie needs to hire the coach capable of winning on any given Sunday, regardless of inclination.

Note: Originally written before news of the Eagles' interest in Gus Bradley and Lovie Smith.


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