Beyond Jim Schwartz’s own natural inclination to present himself as the boldest, brashest coach in the building, there are good reasons for him to be strutting around the NovaCare Center these days.
Through two games, the Eagles are 1-1 — a record that, if anything, exceeded expectations for a team that began its season with two difficult road games — and Schwartz’s defense has been their greatest strength. It has forced four turnovers. It has collected eight sacks. Already without its best cornerback, Ronald Darby, the defense lost two more defensive backs, Rodney McLeod and Jaylen Watkins, to injury Sunday, and still it kept the Eagles close against the Kansas City Chiefs. While head coach Doug Pederson is answering for a lopsided pass-run ratio and its attendant problems — particularly the pressure it places on and the duress it creates for quarterback Carson Wentz — Schwartz can be secure in the knowledge that, for the moment, the unit he oversees is performing as well as possible and that everyone can see as much.
Everyone includes the rest of the NFL, its owners and general managers. Schwartz will have another opportunity to shine this Sunday, against the 0-2 New York Giants. Against a quarterback, Eli Manning, who appears to be showing the decay that usually accompanies life in the NFL after age 35. Against an offensive line that can’t keep Manning safe. “I think that’ll go widely reported this week, that it’s an important matchup, our defensive line against their offensive line,” Schwartz said Tuesday, betraying an awareness of the kind of outside scuttlebutt and analysis of which coaches always claim to be ignorant. He went further, in that regard, later during his media availability when, unsolicited, he noted that the Eagles’ defense had committed just two penalties against the Chiefs.
“You’re never pleased with a loss, but I continue to be encouraged by our discipline defensively,” he said. “Again, two fouls. I don’t know where we are in the league; I don’t really judge other teams. But we had two in the first game and two in this one. One was offset; the other one was five yards. So we allowed no first downs off that. I’m encouraged by that. We need to keep that going also.”
Over Schwartz’s five seasons as the Detroit Lions’ head coach, his teams had gained a reputation as being penalty-prone, even borderline dirty. Whether that reputation was fair doesn’t much matter; the perception existed. And while Schwartz may have merely been pleased that the Eagles were tight-roping that line between aggression and recklessness in a way his Detroit teams didn’t, the longer that perception exists, the harder it will be for him to persuade the people who hire NFL head coaches that they ought to give him another opportunity. He’s an ambitious man, and as the Inquirer already has detailed, his desire to be a head coach again has become apparent enough that Eagles coaches and players are noticing it, and wondering what it might lead to. The obvious answer: a potential power struggle with Pederson.
Ambition isn’t necessarily a bad thing: When kept in perspective and proportion, it can make someone a more focused, more devoted worker, and as long as Schwartz pours himself into improving the Eagles’ defense, whatever his reason for doing so, both he and the team can only benefit. Few question his bona fides as a defensive coordinator, and the unsightliness of his 29-51 record in Detroit is mitigated by the circumstances under which he became the Lions’ head coach: They hired him in 2009 after going 0-16 in 2008. In his third season, Schwartz had the Lions winning 10 games and earning a playoff berth — hardly a small achievement for a franchise with so hard a history. And from Bill Belichick to Pete Carroll, from Gary Kubiak to Tom Coughlin, from Jack Del Rio to current Lions coach Jim Caldwell, there have been enough recent stories of success for coaches who got second chances in the NFL that Schwartz could be a viable and attractive candidate.
Truth be told, considering that 22 of the league’s 32 head coaches had no previous NFL head coaching experience before they were hired, Schwartz’s time in Detroit could turn out to be a substantial strength, assuming he has learned from his mistakes there. His proving ground is here with the Eagles. Their defense has been excellent, and they have a vulnerable opponent ahead in an important intra-divisional game, and the question for Jim Schwartz and the Eagles is whether he can keep that flame alive without consuming himself, his head coach, and the entire season along the way.
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