With every NFL offseason comes hope and hype, projections and perception. This offseason is no different. And in some ways, it is no different from the recent past. After continued poor play from their secondary, the Philadelphia Eagles brought in a well thought of defensive backs coach, hoping that pairing him with their current maligned defensive coordinator he would oversee a reversal in the defense’s fortunes. Before even playing a game, media members have lauded the change as a major upgrade and players have praised the addition, noting the immediate improvements he made.
The year was 2012. The coach was Todd Bowles.
Fast forward three seasons and there’s a familiar tale being told about new defensive backs coach Cory Undlin. Undlin is seen as the breath of fresh air who will correct the flaws of a broken secondary. And he very well may be. But we’ve seen this story before, and it had a bitter ending.
Todd Bowles came to the Eagles with an even better reputation than Undlin. Bowles had been the assistant head coach/secondary coach for the Dolphins and was elevated to interim head coach after Tony Sparano was fired in December of 2011. He interviewed for head coaching jobs and was considered a prime candidate to be a defensive coordinator. He wound up taking the Eagles DB coach job and was tasked with improving a poorly performing secondary. Expectations and plaudits were high.
I predict Bowles is going to clean that situation up and emerge as one of the most underrated additions of the offseason in the NFL.
"I think Todd will bring great value to an underachieving secondary," said Green, a Redskins great. "This may be the missing link, from a defensive standpoint."
And now we are seeing the same things being said about Undlin.
Of all the moves Chip Kelly has made this offseason, and there have been a lot, the biggest one might have been the hiring of Undlin to replace John Lovett as the team's secondary coach
"Adding Cory Undlin is really probably the biggest addition we had when you talk about upgrading that (defensive backs) room," veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins said.
Both coaches were praised for their attention to detail, but then coaches are never praised for their lack of attention to detail.
Bowles was quick to note that "It’s not just the flash plays; you have to do the little things right. That’s from Cliff [Harris] to Nnamdi [Asomugha], you have to do the little things right."
"Obviously X plays - we do not want those," Undlin said. "I use the term all the time: 'We are out of the X-play business.' We're not doing that. I believe every X play that is given up . . . was a result of poor technique somewhere in the down. . . . My focus has been on, 'Here's how we're not going to give these plays up.' "
Veteran players sang the praises of both coaches, another standard talking point in the summer.
"He doesn’t just know secondary stuff, he knows entire defense stuff, so he kind of gets me ready for where to fit when I’m playing inside," Asomugha said. "He’s helped me out a lot with my inside game. Last year, that was completely new to me, playing dime, playing nickel. Juan’s keeping that going this year a little bit so that’s where Coach Bowles has come in a lot with me and he’s helped me out."
"I didn't know him at all,'' Jenkins, the Piscataway native said of Undlin. "But seeing him and how he works, he puts a lot of emphasis on technique and eye placement. We've only been with him a month, or so, and our room has already gotten better in that month. Just from a standpoint of fundamental football and that's what we really didn't get the past two years. I heard that when I got here. And then you saw it last year. "With Coach Undlin it's going to be a lot different.''
And the consensus feel is that they immediately and firmly improved things before a meaningful game is played.
"I don’t know if there was anything missing last year," said Curtis Marsh, "I just know that this year we’re moving in the right direction."
"[Undlin]'s a better teacher than anything. That's something you don't get in the NFL. Everybody knows how to coach, they know what's right and what's wrong, but they don't know how to teach it. And I think that's one thing that we've definitely gotten better at in that room."
Todd Bowles was and remains a good coach. He came into a helpless situation and couldn’t improve it. When he was given complete control of the Eagles defense, it actually got worse. "Players would play hard for Bowles" was the key talking point when he replaced Juan Castillo as defensive coordinator, but they didn't and the Eagles continued to spiral into the abyss. Since then he put together a terrific defense with the Cardinals and then was deservedly hired as head coach of the Jets. Todd Bowles wasn’t the problem, but he wasn’t the solution either, the systemic problems of the end of the Andy Reid era were too great for a position coach to correct.
Cory Undlin comes into a similar situation and like Bowles is being labeled a solution before the Eagles ever take the field. Undlin takes over a secondary that was in need of and got a major overhaul. The Eagles gave up the most 20+ and 40+ yard pass plays in 2014, and the 4th most 20+ yard pass plays in 2013. But the overhaul comes with question marks. Byron Maxwell has been a starter for only one season and it remains to be seen how he will perform away from the excellent Seattle defense. He was the top corner on the market, so he should be a significant upgrade on his own, but we have seen that story before as well. Opposite him will either be Nolan Carroll or Eric Rowe, if not at the start of the season for Rowe then possibly by the end of it. Neither are sure things. Carroll was benched in both of his seasons as a starter in Miami and deemed not good enough to start for the Eagles last year when Bradley Fletcher struggled. Rowe may well be as Undlin predicts, "a top-level corner" for the Eagles, but corner backs are rarely impact players in their rookie seasons. Malcolm Jenkins will be paired with someone who has never played safety in the NFL before, most likely Walter Thurmond.
This isn't to say that Undlin is a poor coach or that the secondary is incapable of being turned around. Certainly there are reasons to be optimistic. Fletcher and Williams set the bar of expectations very low, and in addition to Rowe the Eagles drafted JaCorey Shepherd and Randall Evans in the 6th round, the chances that all three rookies can't eventually play are low. And Undlin so far has made seemingly noticeable change.
Amazing as it may sound, several players said teaching technique hadn't been a point of emphasis during practice. Cornerback Brandon Boykin said that tempo may have had something to do with getting away from detail-oriented drilling. "We were more worried about getting back," Boykin said of last season. "But you can do the footwork while the tempo's going on." Undlin has completely revamped how the defensive backs practice, according to Boykin and others, so that every detail isn't missed. Cornerback Nolan Carroll said that many of the drills are mirroring-receiver drills, "because a lot of things they do we have to do, as far as dropping your hips and getting in and out of breaks, we have to match."
That’s pretty damning of previous secondary coach Jim Lovett, but it speaks to a potentially larger problem. If technique wasn’t emphasized, more than just the position coach are to blame. Billy Davis, Jerry Azzinaro and Chip Kelly also bear responsibility for not emphasizing it after the secondary continued to struggle week after week. It’s great that Undlin is addressing this issue, but it shouldn’t have taken a position coach change to do so. And it begs two questions. One, will this new emphasis continue during the season, or is it just part of the normal gestation period of OTAs and minicamp? A new coach emphasizing the basics in relaxed environment of June is one thing, doing so during the hectic workweeks of the regular season is another. And second, will it even matter? Cary Williams position coach with the Ravens was current Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who is considered a prime candidate for a future head coaching job after his defense's performance in 2014. In 2012 Williams was one of the most picked on and least successful cornerbacks in the league, just as he was with the Eagles.
Cory Undlin may well be a terrific coach who, alongside three new starters, turns around the secondary. Or he could be another coach who can’t help a helpless situation. It takes more than just a coach to make a unit excel. With so many new faces, the Eagles secondary is an untested unit. With so many plays against, and with the Eagles offense being so potent, the secondary is going to once again see a lot of passes. Even with an improved rate of success, the sheer number of opportunities will skew our perceptions.
Our perceptions may already be skewed. The outgoing defensive backs were so bad that almost by default a new group must be better. But two years ago we said the same things and they weren't. The Eagles have yet to even put on pads in practice let alone play a meaningful game. To perceive that the secondary is already better is rushing to judgment. Until then, all we have is recycled hype.