When the Eagles hired Bill Davis, the immediate impulse was to check his record as a defensive coordinator.
It was not promising. At two previous stops, Davis' defenses never stood among the best in the NFL, never were more than middling in major statistics, and mostly ranked near the bottom.
There was obvious concern that the offensive- and special-teams-minded Chip Kelly had chosen the wrong man to head the side of the ball he spends the least amount of time directing.
A year later, Davis appears to have quelled some of the initial fears that were compounded by a slow start last season. He had known that he was unlikely to get another opportunity to be a coordinator had he struck out a third time.
The defense was hardly the primary reason the Eagles reached the playoffs in 2013, but with greater autonomy than he had previously, Davis believes this is the job he should be judged on from this point on.
"I hope so," Davis said last month.
The numbers, again, weren't anything to brag about. The Eagles finished 29th in yards and 17th in points allowed.
With the 49ers from 2005-06, Davis' units ranked 32d and 26th in yards, and 30th and 32d in points. And at the helm of the Cardinals from 2009-10, his defenses were 20th and 29th in yards, and tied for 14th and 30th in points.
Davis didn't call plays in San Francisco, though. Head coach Mike Nolan did. And some thought that Davis was a scapegoat, fired a year before Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt's eventual ouster.
The Eagles' defensive statistics aren't as worrisome if the first month of last season was considered more of an extension of the preseason. Davis had warned that the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 front would be bumpy, and it was.
In the first four games, which included tests against Philip Rivers and the Chargers and Peyton Manning and the Broncos, the Eagles surrendered 446.8 yards and 32 points a game (two touchdowns were special-teams returns).
The Eagles were 1-3, and had lost three in a row. Davis, the Wednesday after a 52-20 loss in Denver, promised that the defense would improve.
"At the time, what I was trying to communicate was not some big, prophetic, like I had a crystal ball," Davis said. "That was a pretty good beat-down we had in Denver, but the other things on tape told you how much closer we were getting to doing it together in the right way."
The Eagles improved almost across the board in the next 12 games, and allowed only 376.4 yards and 20.3 points a game - numbers that would have yielded more respectable rankings if prorated.
More important, Davis' unit could alter outcomes as it nearly did against the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants in October and as it did against the Washington Redskins and the Cardinals in November.
But was the defense ever dominating? Did it protect a late-game lead against New Orleans in the playoffs? Are there fewer legitimate questions after an offseason when few impactful pieces were added to the unit?
No. No. And no.
With the handicap of playing opposite Kelly's quick-scoring/possession offense, however, the gains made last season can't be dismissed. Davis' boss saw it that way.
"I saw constant improvement out of them as they continued to get a better grasp of what they were doing," Kelly said. "But I also knew it wasn't going to be an overnight thing. I think we all knew that going into it."
Asked several times about Davis and what impressed him most about his defensive coordinator, Kelly each time focused on his communication skills.
"He's really effective in front of a large group," Kelly said. "He also has a great knowledge and understanding of what he wants to get accomplished."
Having them was imperative if Davis was to effectively communicate the schematic transition to holdovers from the Andy Reid regime and if he was able to coexist with assistants he had never worked with and who had each been coordinators in college.
"We work extremely well together," Davis said of his staff, which includes defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro, outside linebackers coach Bill McGovern, inside linebackers coach Rick Minter, and defensive backs coach John Lovett. "There's no egos. The best idea wins. It's not, 'My idea.' It's whoever has the best one."
But who ultimately decides which idea wins?
"Well, I do at the end of the day," Davis said.
There were some early game plans last season that had questionable personnel, such as when nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin was at a quasi-outside linebacker spot against a base run offense. But Davis wasn't as cute with his schemes as the players became more comfortable.
There were obvious limitations ( Patrick Chung, for example), but the game plans were solid by season's end. His scheme to stop quarterback Drew Brees in the playoffs was successful for a half, but he couldn't counter the Saints' surprising effectiveness on the ground.
There were many fathers to that eventual loss, but Davis said at the Senior Bowl in January the call that bothered him the most was when he had pass personnel on the field on a key second down and 11 late in the game and New Orleans running back Khiry Robinson ran for 13 yards.
Despite that finish, the Eagles are banking that another offseason together will benefit a defense that is projected to return 10 starters. Free-agent safety Malcolm Jenkins likely will be the only addition that will start.
Reid holdovers such as defensive end Fletcher Cox, outside linebackers Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, and inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks - players drafted to play in a 4-3 - return.
But five of the Eagles' seven draft picks in May - including the top pick, outside linebacker Marcus Smith - were used to acquire defensive players a year after three of the first four selections were plucked to aid Kelly's offense.
The Eagles expended a larger percentage of their salary cap on offensive players than any other team in the NFL last year. That could be purely coincidental, but the Eagles clearly have been built to take advantage of Kelly's acumen and a league that favors offense.
So Davis should be graded on a slight curve. But his defense must continue to advance if he is deemed to be an above-average coordinator.
"Last season wasn't a great season by anybody's standard defensively in the statistic category," Davis said. "But if we can grab the understanding that we had at the end of last season with how we fit . . . within the system, our goal is to take that and continue to climb this season."
Bill Davis' defense from last season should not be mentioned alongside the defense of the vaunted Seahawks, nor should it receive such lofty comparisons based on projections for the coming season, but the unit did show improvement after an abysmal four-game start. Here is a statistical comparison of how the Eagles performed in Games 1-4 vs. Games 5-16 of the regular season.
(Numbers are per-game averages where applicable):
3d down pct.
Red Zone pct.
- Jeff McLane