Let's play a game. I'll describe a team from 2015 and you guess what team it was. This team:
- Struggled offensively for most of the year
- Got blown out by mediocre opponents
- Has a stud defensive lineman and a lot of talent on defense
- Had multiple quarterbacks start during the season
- Played in a pathetically weak division
Sound like the Philadelphia Eagles? Sure it does. But if I throw in the fact that this team actually won their division and hosted a playoff game, I'm suddenly talking about the Houston Texans. The uncanny similarities between the two teams got me thinking: what did the Texans do differently to make the playoffs, and what can Doug Pederson do to avoid a full-on rebuild in 2016?
First, we'll look at these two teams by the numbers. For this comparison, I looked at both the Eagles' and Texans' weighted DVOA for 2015 (Houston's playoff game was not included here). The offensive DVOA shows that these two teams were indeed very similar.
Philadelphia: -10.9% (25th)
Houston: -8.9% (24th)
The essentially identical performance by both teams' offenses should not be a surprise. The Eagles' starting running back was ineffective; the Texans' starting running back was lost to injury. The Eagles' quarterbacks played mediocre football and threw to drop-happy receivers; the Texans had a ridiculous five different starting quarterbacks... but had DeAndre Hopkins as a target. I could go on, but the point is they had similar performance on offense, and yet Houston showed that you can still win a bad division in spite of those shortcomings.
If the difference on offense was essentially negligible, how do the defenses stack up?
Philadelphia: 11.0% (26th)
Houston: -17.9% (4th)
Oh, well would you look at that! The Texans did what any good team with a mediocre offense would do: they compensated with an outstanding defense. What's even more interesting is that while "Houston has J.J. Watt" is a great cop-out in most situations, the Eagles actually have a comparable defensive end in Fletcher Cox. But that didn't matter, as the Eagles' defense imploded completely down the stretch and cost the team a division title, playoff spot, and head coach.
A common storyline for the defense was that it was getting tired out in games with the offense would go 3-and-out in roughly twelve seconds, adversely affecting their performance. And there is certainly merit to that, since the Texans were 16th in time of possession while the Eagles were dead last. But this doesn't change the fact that in several games the defense for the Eagles was failing right from the opening kickoff. They were thoroughly outmatched against Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Arizona and had to come from behind in games versus New England, Atlanta, and Washington. While the offense was by far the biggest disappointment on the team - because of the expectations - the defense was the true cause of failure in 2015.
Which means that Chip Kelly's biggest mistake when calling the shots was not signing DeMarco Murray, trading Nick Foles and the second round pick, or trading LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso. It was the decision to retain Billy Davis as the defensive coordinator. The fact that Davis could not even get an adequate performance out of a defense oozing with talent on the defensive line, athleticism at linebacker, and the rare decent play at both safety positions is absolutely inexcusable. What's worse is that nobody would have batted an eye had he been shown the door after the well-publicized defensive meltdown late in 2014. And yet, for whatever reason, Chip Kelly kept Davis around, and it turned out to be his downfall.
Okay, so that's fine. Hindsight is 20-20. What can we take from this (and what the Texans have done) to help us evaluate Doug Pederson?
By all reports, Doug Pederson is the new head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. The thread on that article was a fun read. I personally did not care at all who the Eagles hired (with the exception of Coughlin because of his age). Sure, it would have been nice to interview a few more candidates, and yes, on the surface the actions of the Brain Trust seemed frantic. But perception is not reality and the only three people on Earth that know how the hiring process went are Jeffrey Lurie, Howie Roseman, and Don Smolenski. Lurie in particular has seen success with all of his coaching hires - albeit in varying degrees - and while none of them have won a Super Bowl they have ushered in the most prosperous era in the history of the franchise. The Eagles haven't always been contenders since Lurie bought the team, but they have by and large been relevant, which was mostly an alien concept to Philadelphia for a long time. Until Lurie provides me with substantiated evidence that he has outright failed to hire a coach that can make a team competitive (at the very least), I will trust his judgment over mine.
Now back to Pederson. Based upon the information provided above, it is absolutely imperative that Doug hits a home run with his selection of defensive coordinator. Even if the offense stays stagnant next season, which is by all accounts unlikely if we consider that the drops should progress towards the mean, the Texans have shown us that you can win a terrible division entirely on the back of a great defense. We can argue over the effectiveness of Kansas City's offense or Pederson's lack of play-calling and game management experience, but it does not change the fact that this team is absolutely built to win right now off the defense, making his choice of a coordinator all the more important.
The good news is that Pederson (or at least the team) is being aggressive in their search for a defensive coordinator. Mike Pettine and Jim Schwartz have both been linked to the Eagles, and they are some of the biggest names on the market. I am personally for Pettine, who engineered the great defenses the Jets had back when Mark Sanchez was leading them to conference championship games. Of course, the Eagles may not land either of these coaches, but they are clearly looking to feature the defense going forward, which has far and away more talent currently on the roster than the offense.
As Eagles fans, we can get all Negadelphia and lament a seemingly uninspiring coaching hire, or we can look at the signs that the team and new coach have taken heed to the mistakes that cost Chip Kelly his job. And if that is the case, I have no reason to doubt that this football team is heading in the right direction.
We've all got to roll with the changes together, so we might as well buckle up and enjoy the ride. How many days until the draft?