Like the rest of society, the NFL goes through fads. Much in the same way the snapback hat, bright colors and high-waist jeans are coming back into fashion, so too is the 3-4 defense in the NFL.
It used to be that Dick LeBeau was the only one running it with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now, however, several teams are making the transition — even forcing it. Under Andy Reid, the Philadelphia Eagles resisted the fad. But with the change in regime came a change in thinking and a desire to see what all the fuss was about.
Chip Kelly went out and hired Bill Davis specifically to make the transition to the 3-4, but unfortunately for Kelly, general manager Howie Roseman did a less-than-stellar job acquiring pieces to make the transition work.
Other than signing Connor Barwin and Isaac Sopoaga, no other moves of note were made the help the transition. The assumption was that the roster was full of players versatile enough to make the switch without any real overhaul.
Through two preseason games, it’s looking like that was an assumption based in fantasy.
Trent Cole is not an outside linebacker, he is a 4-3 defensive end. He’s been one of the best in the game not only rushing the passer, but playing the run as well. He’s used to having his hand in the ground and that’s where he’s most effective. Standing him up and asking him to cover tight ends and running backs in the zone downplays his biggest strengths and exposes his biggest flaws.
To my knowledge, that’s the opposite of good coaching.
Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton have played relatively well in the 5-technique as 3-4 defensive ends, but they’re clearly more natural defensive tackles playing the shoulder of the guard. Likewise, DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks appear to be playing well, but they’d be more effective in a system they know.
Speaking specifically on Ryans, are we forgetting that the Eagles got him at a bargain specifically because the Houston Texans were transitioning from the 4-3 to the 3-4 and felt as though he was essentially useless to them? Jonathan Vilma also comes to mind; the New York Jets were making the same transition and dumped him off on the New Orleans Saints for a deal because he did not fit the system.
These guys are specific puzzle pieces that cannot be jammed together simply because Kelly wants to run with the newest fad.
The Eagles will face an issue with Barwin specifically as they try to find a place for him in the 4-3 — and due to the money he’s making, they will have to find a place — but doesn’t it make a lot more sense to make one guy fall into line with the rest of the roster as opposed to making the rest of the fall in line with him?
All the more maddening about the forced transition is Davis knows how to run the 4-3, as well. Granted, it was always much more of a 4-3 Under during his time with the Arizona Cardinals, but that’s a scheme the Eagles actually have the personnel for. Sopoaga can easily be plugged in as the under tackle playing the 1-technique and even split time there with Antonio Dixon.
A more traditional 4-3 would still be ideal, but I’m willing to compromise, Coach Kelly.
The bottom line is, no matter how much Kelly wants to ignore it, the personnel simply isn’t there for this transition. It’s going to be an absolute mess from the very start and it’s not going to matter if Kelly’s brilliant offense is scoring 40 points per game, this team will still lose quite often.
Sure, they’ll probably lose quite often anyway, but the 4-3 puts them in the best position to win and to win right now, not in two or three years when this switch can actually be effective.
Experimenting is all well and good, but when the data isn’t coming out in your favor, it’s time to scrap it and go back to what works.