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'He has a lot of those traits': The Philadelphia Inquirer's EJ Smith on what makes Jonathan Gannon an intriguing head-coaching candidate

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On Wednesday, the Broncos continue to conduct their interviews in their search for the team's next head coach, as George Paton's group sat down with Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.

In his first season as a coordinator, Gannon faced some bumps in the road but ultimately helped mold a resilient group that rounded into form late in the season as the Eagles mounted a run to the playoffs. Now, after more than a decade coaching in the NFL, he has received interest from a few teams looking to fill head-coaching positions.

To learn more about what's made Gannon an intriguing candidate, DenverBroncos.com spoke with The Philadelphia Inquirer's EJ Smith.

Ben Swanson: Obviously this is just Jonathan Gannon's first year as a coordinator, but how would you sum up his strengths in the role so far that have brought him to the point of being considered a head-coaching candidate?

EJ Smith: "I think he's a guy that, kind of similar to [Eagles head coach] Nick Sirianni — almost like immediately when you meet him, you notice that he's very well spoken, he seems like a very smart, very bright guy. And again, like Nick, I think he's a guy who projects better almost as a head coaching candidate than he did as a coordinator. If you look at the way the Eagles' season played out, … his defense struggled in the first half of the season and sort of settled in toward the back half of the season, albeit against some lackluster competition — a lot of backup quarterbacks or third-string quarterbacks — and you know, it's kind of a rare case where a lot of Eagles fans are sort of OK with him being floated for these jobs, because a lot of them were unhappy with the way the defense played this year. But I do think [he has] the intangibles — there's a lot that goes into being a head coach that's not just on-the-field production and X's and O's. It's a lot about people management and being a CEO and stuff like that. You notice it from the second you have a conversation with Jonathan Gannon that he has a lot of those traits. He seems well regarded throughout the league. We had heard that a lot of teams had interest in him when he was hired as the defensive coordinator, and I think it shows in the way that he handles the media, the way that he seems to resonate with players. It definitely seems to come across that way."

BS: You mention that midseason turnaround — what was his role in that, as far as maybe making changes or ensuring he had the buy-in from players to trust that what they were doing would work in due time?

ES: "I think he deserves some credit. After the Las Vegas game — where Derek Carr, I don't remember the number off the top of my head, I think [he had] an 80-percent completion percentage — they started to make changes pretty quickly. … He seemed to listen to his players and take their feedback into account. For the first half of the season, we saw a lot of two-high coverages, a lot of soft coverages, and they kind of were, like, pretty vanilla defensively, it felt like. And you started to see them mix it up. Maybe, I'd say, they were pretty consistent in what they called at the start of the year — there was a lot of deep safety, two-deep-safety looks and corners playing off coverage. By the second half of the season … they still favored that stuff, but you saw them using more single high [safety formations], playing a little bit more press, playing more man coverage than they had at the beginning of the year. And I think it really was that he was willing to make the adjustment. One of the things that Jonathan Gannon talks about is he doesn't have a scheme. He builds the defense around the strengths of his players, and I think that you saw that with guys like Fletcher Cox and Darius Slay. Darius Slay was a man-coverage corner for most of his career; that's the coverage that he prefers playing. Now, he can play both — he's a really good cornerback — but I think that it was Jonathan Gannon almost kind of meeting the players halfway with the ideal system that he thought they would be good in or the ideal system he wanted to run and was sort of willing to make the adjustments to play to their strengths a little bit more the second half of the season. Like Fletcher Cox really struggled at the beginning of the year and toward the second half of the season he really did turn it on. I think he had 3.5 sacks all in the month of December. So yeah, I think he deserves some credit for the adjustment that he made. The Eagles coaching staff as a whole didn't make significant adjustments toward the middle of the season to kind of turn things around. They were 2-5 and, like I said, they turned things around. And you mentioned the leadership qualities, too. I think it speaks to all the coaching staff that they were able to kind of dig out of that hole. It's a first-year staff, it's a team that's won a lot of games before, but a team that had gone 4-11-1 the year before. It would have been easy for them to turn it in for the season and kind of pack it up and not try to dig themselves out, but they did. So yeah, I think it speaks to Sirianni and Jonathan for sure."

BS: Have you been able to get a sense for how Gannon works with players? In regards to Cox's season, I read that at one point he kind of questioned the scheme; how did they work together after that point?

ES: "That was after the Las Vegas game. Fletcher, after the game, basically said that it was hard for him to get into a rhythm because he had been used in ways he'd never been used before. … Just for context, the Eagles went from being a 4-3 team, strictly four down linemen, and under [former defensive coordinator] Jim Schwartz, those down linemen, the four guys up front … their job was to disrupt. Their job was to get into the backfield and cause problems. But with Jonathan, there was a lot more variety in the fronts. And that's kind of the way the league is going. You've seen Vic Fangio's defenses; I don't have to tell you that. You've seen four-man fronts, five-man fronts, send pressures. It's like a lot of the trendy stuff. Jonathan is definitely a defensive coordinator that uses a lot of the innovative thinking like across the league, as far as two-high safeties … multiple fronts, stuff like that. He definitely pays attention to what's going on in the league. I think the comparisons between him and Brandon Staley are fair in a lot of ways — in the way they carry themselves, in the way that they talk about the game and I think that schematically there are some similarities there too. With Fletcher specifically, there were times where he'd be the defensive tackle in a five-man front, like right up on the center. There were times where he'd be tasked with kind of taking on double-teams differently than he was used to in the past. And, yeah, Fletcher told us yesterday, he talked about it. He said he and Jonathan talked after that Vegas game, that they sort of came to an agreement on the way that he wanted to be used and the way that he was best used, and I think they made a compromise. I don't think it was a type of situation where Fletcher got exactly what he wanted. I think he still played in some positions that maybe he didn't play in before. But I do think that they figured it out, which I think speaks to both of them, because players going public with complaints like that can get ugly."

BS: Given Gannon's limited experience as a coordinator, it seems like there's maybe a bit of surprise that he's being considered as a head-coaching candidate already. Is that the same kind of assessment in Philadelphia?

ES: "It would be a little bit of a surprise just because I can't think of a time where like a defense was ranked pretty low in things like defensive DVOA, anything that adjusts for like strength of competition. I can't think of a time a coordinator with a unit that struggled like that has gotten this much buzz, I would say. I think that's where the surprise comes from. The Eagles defense has struggled for parts of the season; I mean, they struggled in the playoff game against Tom Brady. And it really boils down to against really good quarterbacks, I would say that this defense had some serious problems, not just the run-of-the-mill 'well, nobody can really do much against Pat Mahomes or Tom Brady or Justin Herbert, even.' These were, like, unprecedented career days for these quarterbacks. So, I think with just the way the defense performed, it surprised people, because if you watched it, I think there was a question about, 'What is Jonathan Gannon doing schematically that has people so intrigued?' … But I would say that if you spent time listening to Jonathan talking about the game and, based off the information that we have about how sought-after he was last year, it makes sense. Like I said earlier, a head-coaching job is a lot more than just X's and O's. If anything, it's really not indicative. If you have a great offense or a great defense as a coordinator, that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be a great head coach. You see it every year. So I think the thing with Jonathan Gannon is the projection is more about his people skills, his ability to communicate, his leadership ability and just the way that he views the game I think is still a big part of it. I think just because he's well regarded throughout the league, he's worked with a lot of people and, again, just the way he treats the media I think you can tell that he comes across as someone who treats people well. He memorizes people's names and brings a lot of enthusiasm into the building. I think that those are the reasons why he's considered a head coach [candidate]. I think it's fair to say from an outside perspective just because of the way the defense played, it is a little surprising."

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