You Feel Me?
New Birds DC Looks To Make Defense 'Felt' Like Old Times
While wrapping up one of his meetings recently at the NovaCare Complex, Sean Desai asked his players if they knew the meaning of “palpable.”
Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines palpable as “capable of being touched or felt.”
Desai, the new Eagles’ defensive coordinator, a Northeasterner almost all his life, a former Temple student and coach, wondered if his players understood the identity he’s hoping to bring as the defense’s latest leader.
Can they be palpable?
“It’s a feeling in you,” he explained Thursday in his long-awaited introduction being hired back in February. “That’s what we want. We want to be able to be felt, whether you’re watching us on TV, whether you’re in the stadium, and obviously on the field.
“We want to make sure people feel this Philadelphia Eagles defense.”
Perhaps unknowingly, the message Desai shared that day is the same being delivered to him as the latest architect of an Eagles defense that, despite some historic recent milestones, has struggled to truly connect with a city thirsting to feel connected to its defensive leader again.
Simply being good isn’t goof enough around these parts, as Juan Castillo, Jim Schwartz and, most recently, Jonathan Gannon have all discovered.
Each produced a top-10 defense in the team’s past 12 seasons but none has come within an arm-tackle of matching the gravitational pull that Jim Johnson established with Philadelphia in his 10 seasons presiding over the most popular side of scrimmage in this town, under head coach Andy Reid.
Johnson’s defenses were as gritty, cantankerous and lunchpail as the notoriously vile 700 Level diehards cheering them on.
To understand the impossible standard for defensive coordinators in this town is to know that Schwartz belonged to a staff that delivered Philadelphia it’s first Super Bowl but his accomplishments come with an asterisk because his group allowed 500 total yards in the game.
Gannon, the most recent example, could’ve been personally shipped to Glendale, Ariz., for his new head coaching gig by a Philadelphia-based trucking company after his crew blew a 10-point lead to the Chiefs in the Super Bowl despite the Eagles logging the second-most sacks in NFL history last season.
For his part, Desai seems to recognize and accept the impossibly high level of expectations here. He coached at Temple from 2006-2010, so he knows the pulse of the city.
He’s also coached in Boston and Chicago, two other major cities where media attention and passionate fandom are heavily involved in the landscape.
“The foundation for the Philadelphia Eagles defense has been awesome for a long time,” Desai, a Connecticut native, said. “And one of the quotes that Coach Nick [Sirianni] uses is, ‘the standard is the standard.’ We’re upholding that standard. We’re looking to achieve it.”
Like Gannon, Desai comes to Philadelphia with a resume short on play-calling experience but long on influence and with a reputation for being detail-oriented and one of the league’s brighter, younger defensive minds.
He’s already been a defensive coordinator but for just one season, having served the role for the Bears in 2021 where he was recognized for making the most of modest talent in allowing the league’s sixth-fewest points.
In Chicago, Desai first served as an understudy to defensive intellects Mel Tucker, John Fox and Vic Fangio, the latter of which has set the new standard for how NFL defense is played, with split-safety concepts and post-snap movement replacing blitzes as the pathway toward confusing quarterback and causing turnovers.
Desai spent last season as associate head coach under Pete Carroll with the Seahawks, another organization that maintains a prideful defensive standard that cuts against the growing grain of teams obsessing over prolific offense.
Gannon’s communication skills and ever-the-optimist demeanor made him way more popular inside the NovaCare Complex than outside, where his repeated failures against above-average NFL quarterbacks and an inability to summon the right play call in the second half of the Super Bowl overshadowed his unit’s consecutive top-10 rankings, a first for the organization since Johnson’s 2008 and 2009 crews.
Intentionally or not, Desai appeared to distance himself from his predecessor’s reputation, insisting that this year’s Eagles defense won’t simply be a continuation from last year’s version.
“Seventy sacks – what’s that, the third most or second most in over 100 years of history of the NFL? We’ve got to give the credit where it’s due in terms of that,” he said. “But having said that, I think the big thing that we’ve got to remind ourselves – and we’re talking about it with the players also – is every year is a new chapter, and past predictors don’t necessarily indicate future success in this league and really in any industry.”
It’s an important reminder, given that Desai isn’t inheriting the same personnel that ranked No. 2 last year before Gannon bolted for the desert.
The Eagles this offseason have replaced two starting safeties, two starting linebackers, and a defensive tackle – all of which combined for 15.5 sacks, six interceptions, more than 400 tackles and 71 starts in 2022 – mostly with modest one-year free agent stopgaps and some draft picks.
This promises to be a different version of the Eagles’ defense, but offers Desai an opportunity to forge an identity that might finally endear itself to the tough crowd.
“We want to be felt,” Desai later repeated, “and hopefully you’re sitting at home or in the stadium and you say, whew, that was a good play. You might not know the scheme, you might not know anything. But that’s how you get felt on defense.”
It’s early, but Desai seems to recognize and respect the passion for defense Philadelphians have long harbored.
Been quite a while since that feeling was mutual.
– Geoff Mosher (@geoffmoshernfl) is co-host of the “Inside the Birds” podcast and staff writer for InsideTheBirds.com.
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