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Football Fabulosa – Footsteps of Their Fathers; a look at Rob Ryan and Bill Davis Jr.

Happy New Year and welcome to wildcard weekend in the NFL. In honor of this weekend, this week’s column is going to take a look at the matchup between the defensive coordinators for the Philadelphia Eagles and the New Orleans Saints

First, I must give credit where it is due and I regularly read Phil Sheridan who covers the Eagles for ESPN and does a fine job of it. Sheridan wrote this article on the interconnection between Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis Jr. and Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. This article comes courtesy of his fine reporting. Here is a link to Sheridan’s blog on ESPN.

This match up, if you can call it that, is the battle for the legacy of their fathers. While they aren’t directly competing against each other since they are game planning against the opposing offenses, they are certainly competing against each other when it comes to some bragging rights. Lots of bragging rights if you really get down to it. In order to understand this you have to look at back at history and the fathers of Davis and Ryan.

Casual fans may not know him but should get familiar with Bill Davis Sr. who is easily the least recognizable of the two patriarchs. The senior Davis was in the NFL for many years and coached in Philadelphia  under Dick Vermeil in the 1970s. As many of you may recall, Dick Vermeil in his early coaching years (77-82) with the Eagles ran the 3-4 almost exclusively. The younger Davis was a ball boy while his Dad coached for the Eagles.

Davis left coaching and served as the vice president of player personnel for the Cleveland Browns. In 1988, the senior Davis was hired as the personnel director for the Philadelphia Eagles. The coach of the Eagles at that time was none other than Buddy Ryan, Rob Ryan’s father, who was notorious for clashing with personnel managers. The relationship didn’t last long however as Davis quit in 1989 and Ryan was fired the year later.

Young Davis joined the Cincinnati Bengals assisting with wide receivers and quarterbacks. He has been in coaching since then and you can find his coaching bio here. He has coached under such big names as Dom Capers, Bill Cowher, Vic Fangio, Dick LeBeau, Mike Nolan, Wade Phillips and Marvin Lewis.

Davis was reportedly in contention for the defensive coordinator position in Philly in 2011 but instead ended up as the linebackers coach for the Cleveland Browns. In 2013, He was hired by Chip Kelly who took over the Eagles after the team moved on from Andy Reid and a disastrous pairing between defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and defensive line coach Jim Washburn. Davis took over a defense ranked 18th in total defense per NFL.com.

The defense Davis took over ran the 4-3 base and was configured to do so. Davis runs a 3-4 so an inevitable growth period was assumed. The Eagles added CB Cary Williams, nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, and Connor Barwin. They drafted DT Benny Logan, SS Earl Wolff, DE Joe Kruger, CB Jordan Poyer, and DE David King. In 2012, the only defensive pro bowler was Jason Babin, a guy they released during the season and who finished with Jacksonville.

Turning to the other defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan is easily the far more recognizable, and overwhelmingly more colorful, of the two. Ryan of course is the son of NFL coaching legend Buddy Ryan and twin brother to New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan. Ryan has a lengthy NFL pedigree, as you might imagine, so let’s begin with his tenure in Dallas under Jerry Jones  errr Jason Garrett err who knows.

Ryan, who runs and prefers the 3-4, ran the Dallas defense for 2 years with mixed results. Ever the patient man, Jones fired Ryan soon after 8-8 finish in Big D in 2012. Ryan was on vacation in the Caribbean at the time. Ryan famously said he would be out of work 5 minutes. He originally agreed to coach the Rams but backed out and took the DC job offered by Sean Peyton. Ryan took over a Saints defense that finished a league worst 32 overall in 2012. It also ran a 4-3 front which Ryan moved to the 3-4.

The Saints brought in CB Keenan Lewis, LB Victor Butler, DE Kenyon Coleman, S Jim Leonard, CB Chris Carr, and traded for San Francisco 49ers LB Parys Haralson. They drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro, NT Johnathan Jenkins, and OLB/DE Rufus Johnson. The Saints defense in 2012 had no pro bowlers on its roster.

It’s difficult to judge a coaches defensive performance after only one year especially when there has been a change in defensive philosophy, but we will look at the numbers anyway. The Saints and the Eagles are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to standings on defense, but as sometimes is the case, the stats don’t always tell the whole story.

Defensive Stats

saints defense

philly defense

Both Ryan and Davis are in their first year as defensive coordinators of their respective teams and neither team was built to run the 3-4. You couldn’t find a more dissimilar pair. Davis is as steady and deliberate as Ryan is flamboyant and colorful. Still, Ryan clearly has the edge here in bragging rights going into the game. Ryan took over a defense ranked dead last in total defense in 2012 and turned it into a defense ranked 4th in the league in total defense going into this game. You can only characterize that as extraordinary. Defensive end Cameron Jordan made the pro bowl selection this year.

By contrast, the Eagles defense is currently ranked 29th in the league and is giving up the most passing yards per game at 289.8. However, they are ranked 10th against the run allowing only 104.2 rushing yards per game. The Saints aren’t known as a run team and are only ranked 25th in rushing yards at 92.1 per game. Pierre Thomas will miss the wildcard game as well.

You can make a very good argument the Saints are more talented on defense and I believe you would be correct. The Eagles did not have a single player selected to the pro bowl. While pro bowl selection isn’t always a good barometer of talent, it does have some quantifying value. The Eagles have some good players on defense namely Cedric Thornton and Demeco Ryans; yet they don’t have a Cameron Jordan. Nor do they have other players such as Akiem Hicks, or Junior Galette. Rookie safety Kenny Vacarro was playing well before his season ending injury as well.

The Eagles defense started out very poorly but has started playing better in the second half of the year. In all fairness it has faced some struggling offenses but it did hold Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears to 11 points in Week 16. The loss to Minnesota in Week 15 was pretty bad. Still, overall the defense has started to play much better than the beginning of the year.

Both defensive coordinators will face high octane offenses. The Saints are of course led by future Hall of Famer Drew Brees while newcomer Nick Foles has done an outstanding job after taking over for Mike Vick in Week 5. Foles doesn’t have the weapons of Brees but running back LeSean McCoy is having a fantastic year and just made the All Pro team which is a far more prestigious award than the pro bowl.

Philly offense

saints offense

The Eagles defense won’t rise in the ranks to match the Saints but if it holds their offense in check and helps Philadelphia win this game then that would be quite an accomplishment. Neither Davis or Ryan appear to view the other as a rival except in the way you view an opponent out on the playing field. I doubt either one will trash talk the other though you can never really tell with Ryan can you?

It will be interesting to see how the two defensive coordinators stack up against each other in this wildcard playoff match up. One man can continue to seal his legacy in New Orleans while the other could start one of his own. Either way, the game should be fun to watch.

As a side note, I cover the Saints for National Gridiron Network so be sure to check out my Friday night podcast The Extra Point where we talk about the NFC and AFC South. Tonight, we will be discussing the playoffs and in particular the Saints game versus the Philadelphia so these story lines seemed particularly good. You can click on this link to listen in.

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