Eagles' Jason Babin blossoms under defensive line coach Jim Washburn

Jason Babin had a career-high 12.5 sacks in his first year under coach Jim Washburn last season. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

It could be the Eagles front office was a little preoccupied in late March 2010, just days from finalizing the trade that would send quarterback Donovan McNabb to Washington and signal the beginning of the 1,000-year reign of Kevin Kolb.

Distracted or not, the Eagles passed on the chance to match a contract offer made by Tennessee to free-agent defensive end Jason Babin.

Based on the length of his career, Babin should have been eligible for unrestricted free agency, but the Eagles had gone to the trouble of getting a first-refusal clause when they signed the journeyman for the 2009 season. There's no indication why they would bother. The Eagles were Babin's fourth team in four years and it would be a surprise if they viewed him as anything but a stopgap solution for a position that needed some bodies.

Still, the team got the first-refusal - maybe the front office collects them like uncanceled stamps - but wasn't moved enough by Babin's 13-solo tackle, 2.5-sack season to act on it. The Tennessee Titans were welcome to him.

It was just as well for Babin. In fact, it couldn't have been better. Under second-year coordinator Sean McDermott, the Eagles defense was about to take a sharp left turn from the legacy of Jim Johnson, and Babin would have hated it. McDermott dreamed up a lot of new looks and bought every gadget from the shelves of Coordinators "R" Us. He particularly liked the zone blitz, which frequently had defensive ends dropping back into coverage while linebackers shot the gaps, usually to little advantage. None of it worked consistently, the defense suffered, and the players were in full insurrection by season's end.

"Think about it? Do you want Trent [Cole] reading, shuffling, dropping into coverage? Or do you want Trent hunting quarterbacks like a madman?" Babin said. "It's a no-brainer."

Meanwhile, Babin landed in the hands of defensive line coach Jim Washburn in Tennessee. Washburn is a famously no-nonsense coach who does not care if the players who come to him fit a certain physical mold or if they are all-pros or merely vagabonds looking for an elusive home. He cares whether they can knock someone down and smack around the quarterback.

Washburn looked Babin in the eyes and said, "The best man plays." Babin had heard it before, and he know the Titans had taken a defensive end in the first round of the draft. This time, though, he believed it.

"He looked me dead in the eye, man," Babin said. "He said the best man plays, no matter what. And if Coach [Jeff] Fisher tried to go over his head, he said he would walk out of the building. I said to myself, 'I think I might have found my spot.' "

Well, yeah. Babin, whose previous high for sacks in a season was five, started all 16 games for Tennessee, finished with 93 combined tackles and 12.5 sacks, and was selected to the Pro Bowl. The seven-year veteran might not have found his spot, but he found his coach.

So, there was no decision when Washburn was hired by the Eagles. Babin would follow him back here and become part of a defensive front that just might be the highlight of this season's team. The line combined for five sacks in the opener against St. Louis, with Babin getting two of those. The line rotation played at such a high level that the Eagles didn't have to blitz very often to augment the pressure. And that, according to Babin, is the idea.

"We take pride in the fact that, if we're not bringing the heat, they're going to call the blitz," Babin said. "We've got to prove we can get to the quarterback week after week. If a quarterback sees a blitz coming, he's going to get rid of the ball fast. That cuts into our time to get to the quarterback and get sacks. And we know that if you write sacks and put two lines through each 's,' sacks equal cash, and we're very aware of that."

Babin alternates with Juqua Parker on the left side, with Cole and Darryl Tapp taking turns on the right side. There are similar patterns in the middle of the line at the tackle position. The idea is to go as hard as you can, then come out.

"We're going to wear the other teams out by throwing heat all four quarters," Babin said. "Playing in a Jim Washburn defense is almost a lifestyle change. You live your life differently. You become an instinctual killer."

Before meeting Washburn, Babin was living his NFL life one team at a time, and he was on the way to collecting the whole set. Drafted in the first round by Houston in 2004, he fell out of favor there, went to Seattle and didn't get much of a shot, and split a season between Seattle and Kansas City before landing with the Eagles the first time. Sometimes, a whole career can stumble along that way.

"There can be so many things, and so many obstacles," said Cullen Jenkins, who lines up next to Babin as the starting left tackle. "It's the timing of when you go somewhere, or maybe they have draft picks they want to develop. Or a lot of times there are good players in schemes that do not suit them. Washburn saw that Jason fit what he does with his system and Jason showed he could make plays in this defense."

The line made a lot of plays against St. Louis, but, in conjunction with the linebackers, it still has to prove it can stop a good running game. That is when the Eagles find out if they have something special.

"We know if we stop the run, we get to rush the passer," Babin said. "It's just like when you're dating. There are certain things you have to do. That's what stopping the run is - buying them dinner."

Well, whatever works. There are 15 regular-season games left to play, but at the moment, the defensive line is working very well. Jason Babin, used and discarded by teams for most of his career - including the Eagles once - is a big part of why it works.

"All the struggles, all the times I got knocked down, all the times people told me, 'You know what? That's enough. Go home.' And I said, 'I'm here to stay,' " Babin said. "That's what made me what I am. I wouldn't trade the bumpy road for anything."

He has traded it in for the time being, though. Maybe this time for good.


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at bford@phillynews.com and read his blog at http://www.philly.com/