A big thanks to Eagles' defensive coordinator Sean McDermott for allowing me to interview him...
It came as a surprise to many that the high point of the Philadelphia Eagles' 2009 season came in the season's first game, as the Eagles traveled south to take on the defending NFC South champion Carolina Panthers.
The Eagles weren't expected to defeat the Panthers, who boasted one of the best running back combinations in the NFL with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
However the Eagles shocked the Panthers, forcing an incredible seven turnovers, including five interceptions. The Panthers used three different quarterbacks, as starter Jake Delhomme was pulled from the game due to poor play, and Josh McCown injured his knee.
Philly even scored a defensive touchdown, as defensive end Victor Abiamiri scooped up a fumble and dove into the end zone. When the dust settled, the Eagles had pounded the Panthers, 38-10.
"That was a magical moment," said Sean McDermott. "There was a lot of hard work that went into preparing myself for the job and preparing myself and the team for that opening game and really the credit has to go to the players. They executed the game plan perfectly and things fell into place. We were certainly rolling sevens that day," he said proudly.
Sean McDermott, the 36-year-old defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, possesses one of the more talented minds in the National Football League, according to head coach Andy Reid.
For McDermott, coaching in the NFL doesn't come without an unbelievable amount of hard work. First, there's the principle of sleep, a concept that most coaches in the National Football League aren’t too familiar with.
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden says, "Sleep is for the weak and dedication is measured by how much work someone puts into a job."
Gruden would know. He is called "Jon 3:11" because that's the time he wakes up each morning to begin his day.
Former Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs used to have his wife tape dinner table conversations so he could catch up on home life later.
Current Eagles head coach Andy Reid is said to never leave his office during the regular season, simply putting couch cushions on the ground to sleep on at night.
So when it comes to sleeping habits, McDermott is just one of the guys.
"I get between three and five hours of sleep per night," says McDermott. "I'm normally in the office by four in the morning."
"We spend a good part of the morning together as a staff breaking down our defense and evaluating what we need to improve upon. In the afternoon, we'll look at ways to improve our roster, from preparing for free agency, as well as the NFL draft. Normally I leave in the offseason by 6 p.m. but sometimes duty calls for me to be here even later," he said.
As for the regular season, McDermott literally does not leave the confines of his office.
"I sleep in the office during the regular season," he says. "I don't go home during the season until later in the week.”
"The week of a regular season is quite busy as we prepare for an opponent," said McDermott. "On Monday, we finish up the previous game in terms of grading the film, and then we get right on the new opponent in terms of trying to find ways to attack the opponents from a defensive standpoint."
According to McDermott, "Game days specifically are very intense. I think that most people who know me would say that I'm an intense individual and very driven to win and enjoy the competition aspect of the game."
McDermott has grown used to the length of the NFL season. "When you're in the season, it feels a lot longer," he says. "But as you go through season after season, your body and your mind and your spirit began to adapt to the length of the season."
"It does get quite long but at the same time you find ways to pace yourself. It does wear you down and when you get to February, it's nice to get some rest," he said.
McDermott wasn't always an NFL coach though. Before he coached, he enjoyed a successful college career as a safety at William & Mary.
He credits his playing career with helping to make him a much more successful coach.
"I think experience is just the key word," says McDermott. "When you've played the game and the position, it allows you to leg up on the competition in terms of getting a feel for the game and most importantly, putting yourself in your player's shoes to put them in the position to have success."
McDermott grew up as a big Eagles fan and joined the Philadelphia Eagles as a scouting administrative coordinator in 1998 at the age of 24.
"I've always had coaching in my blood," he said. "My dad was a college coach at West Chester and Ursinus so I had a feeling all along that I would coach. It would take a lot to get me away from the sport."
"I obtained my first job with the Eagles through a series of internships that began during my junior year of college," he said. "From there, after obtaining the job, it was a combination of hard work and perseverance and showing them the type of person that I was that helped me climb the coaching ladder."
By 1999, just one year later, McDermott was promoted to the position of assistant to the head coach, a position that required him to serve directly under newly appointed head coach Andy Reid.
McDermott continued climbing up the coaching rungs, as he was named the Eagles’ defensive assistant/quality control coach in 2001. The next year, he became the team’s assistant defensive backs coach, making the 30-year old McDermott officially the youngest assistant coach in the NFL.
Within the next few years, McDermott would also coach the team’s secondary and linebackers. These roles helped him gain more experience in knowing the whole defense, he says.
"For me coaching is about seeing a vision and trying to sell that vision to the players through a day to day teaching of the job," said McDermott.
On May 18, 2009, McDermott was named as the Eagles’ interim defensive coordinator after Johnson was forced to take a leave of absence, due to a severe bout of melanoma cancer.
Within two months, due to the continuing decline of Johnson’s health, McDermott was officially named the team’s defensive coordinator. Four days later, Johnson passed away.
"Jim was one of my role models and one of my mentors," said McDermott, pointing to a framed picture of Johnson on his wall. "His passing had a large effect on me."
Over the years, men such as Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau, Tampa Bay's Monte Kiffin, and especially Philadelphia's Jim Johnson have revolutionized the role of defensive coordinator in the National Football League. McDermott refers to these men as his personal heroes and inspiration.
"In terms of feeling the pressure as it relates to Jim and replacing someone like Jim, I think anybody would feel that they had big shoes to fill when filling in for a legend like Jim is, and Jim was. I've very confident in my own abilities and where we plan to take this defense going into the future here," he said.
McDermott said that he didn't feel extra pressure from the fans, despite the fact that he was coaching in Philadelphia, one of the most intense sports cities in the country.
"I love the passion of the fans in the city of Philadelphia,” said McDermott excitedly. “This is a football town and it'll always be a football town and I plan to bring this city in as much of terms as what they want: a championship someday."
At just 35 years old, McDermott became one of the youngest defensive coordinators in the National Football League.
Last July 24th, Reid, speaking on behalf of the Philadelphia Eagles, said, “McDermott has always shown great command and presence in the offseason camps and has had an opportunity to learn from the best in the business. He’s very smart, works very hard, and has a good rapport with the players and the assistant coaches. He’s ready for this and I’m confident he will do a good job.”
McDermott immediately brought to the table one thing that not a lot of coaches had: experience coaching multiple positions on the defense. The only group of players McDermott did not have experience coaching was the defensive line.
McDermott said, "I think if you polled the number of defensive coordinators in the league, very few have coached multiple positions in the NFL like I have, so from that standpoint I have a huge advantage. Having never coached a defensive line I've tried to prepare myself as much as possible to coach the position, number one from a technique and fundamental standpoint, and number two from an overall scheme standpoint with how much it fits in the defense."
"I've spent a lot of time myself researching and spending time with other defensive coordinators in the league and around the league to prepare myself," he said, pointing to a stuffed spiral-bound notebook on his desk. The notebook contains information on every team in the National Football League, he says.
McDermott spent the 2009 offseason actively preparing his players for the upcoming NFL season.
The Eagles had finished the 2008 season with the NFL's fourth-ranked defense. They sported Pro Bowl selections in Asante Samuel (cornerback) and Brian Dawkins (free safety) and finished just a single game away from a Super Bowl appearance.
Unfortunately, one thing was missing heading into the 2009 season, and that was the heart and soul of the Eagles' defense, Brian Dawkins, who had signed a five-year, $17 million contract with the Denver Broncos.
"The toughest part of my job is when you have to show a player the door in terms of releasing a player or trading a player," said McDermott. "It is a business, but in the same time there are personal relationships that get involved, and sometimes you have to go in a different standpoint from the business sense."
McDermott spoke extremely highly about Dawkins, who he calls the greatest player he has ever coached.
"Brian is a class individual and a passionate football player and a guy that's been a true leader for this city," he said. "If I were to start a team, I would want Brian Dawkins on that team and he exemplifies what integrity is about both on and off the field. He's been the best player I have ever coached."
McDermott and Dawkins shared more than just a friendship. They share their faith in Jesus Christ.
"My faith is part of my support system, along with my family,” said McDermott. "If I didn't have my faith or my family, I wouldn't be where I am today. I believe that I have been given a platform and it's my responsibility to use the platform the right way."
Dawkins' presence, both on and off the field, was greatly missed during the 2009 season. The Eagles had signed former Cleveland Browns safety Sean Jones to start at free safety, but Jones was a disappointment, starting just nine games and failing to deliver the same explosiveness as Dawkins.
The Eagles also struggled with multiple injuries.
Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley, arguably the team's best defensive player, tore his ACL during Eagles' Flight Night on August 2nd and spent the entire 2009 season on injured reserve.
The Eagles tried desperately to replace Bradley, starting a total of six players at middle linebacker during the season. They even brought back five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who had been a fan favorite during his previous two tenures with the Eagles.
But the return of Trotter was close to a disaster, and even the signing of Rams' linebacker Will Witherspoon couldn't make up for Bradley's absence.
"The loss of Bradley was big," said McDermott, without hesitation. "We lost one of our leaders on the defense, so we were dealing with that challenge. He was a force to be reckoned with over his first couple of years here."
However, the Eagles finished just 19th in defense in 2009, a huge drop from the previous season.
The team qualified for the postseason, thanks mainly to a high-powered offense that ranked fifth in the league. But the Eagles were badly beaten by the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round of the playoffs, losing 34-14.
McDermott reflected on the Eagles' 2009 season, saying, "I think we certainly had some obstacles and we had some adversity come our way in a number of things that came up during the year that would have knocked most teams right out of the playoffs. I was proud of the players on the team and the staff in the way they hung in there. I think we've all learned a lot and we certainly have a lot to improve upon."
Next year McDermott will experience one of the more unique situations in the game: facing one of his former players. Donovan McNabb, who spent 11 seasons as the starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, was traded to the Washington Redskins on April 4th, meaning he will face the Eagles twice next season.
McDermott says he has the utmost respect for McNabb. "Donovan is a tremendous player," he says. "He'll be in the Hall of Fame one day as a quarterback, but at the same time, I have a pretty good feel of what Donovan brings to the table and he has a pretty good feel looking down the barrel of our defense numerous times over the course of his career here so it should be a good matchup."
In the 2010 offseason, McDermott will look for ways to help the team improve upon its mediocre 2009 season.
"We're going to work hard in this offseason," said McDermott. "I'm thinking that in 2010, you'll see a much improved defense and you'll see a younger defense and a defense that looks more comfortable out on the field. We'll have a number of younger players out there and it'll be a learning curve but it'll be a learning curve that the players and staff will look to attack so that we're a better team in the season than we were in the beginning."
McDermott has backed up his word so far, as the Eagles traded aging cornerback Sheldon Brown to the Cleveland Browns. The team also signed 25-year-old linebacker Ernie Sims from the Detroit Lions.
At just 36 years old, McDermott's future is incredibly bright. Many former coordinators under Reid have gone on to become head coaches, notably Brad Childress of the Minnesota Vikings, John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens, and Steve Spagnuolo of the St. Louis Rams.
McDermott wouldn't mind adding his name to the list.
"I certainly would like to become a head coach," he said. "I'm working hard right now to be the best defensive coordinator that I can be and if that leads me to a head coaching position and God's will is just that, then I will welcome that with open arms."
"It is one of my goals, not just to be a head coach, but to be the best head coach that I can be," he said. "I want to be remembered as a coach that lived his life the right way off the field and conducted himself in a way on the field that was in the best interest of his players in terms of helping them achieve their goals on and off the field.”
McDermott paused. “But right now my focus is on, number one winning a Super Bowl and number two, us having the number one ranked defense in the NFL."