Eagles still feeling effects of Jonathan Gannon's departure

ByTim McManus and Josh Weinfuss ESPN logo
Sunday, December 31, 2023

Editor's note: This story was originally published ahead of the Cardinals' upset win over the Eaglesin Week 16.

AS HE WEAVED through traffic on his way to the stadium on the day of the NFC title game, Jonathan Gannon, wearing sunglasses and a scowl, rolled down the window of his black SUV, looked into the camera that was filming him a car-length away and said: "We're going to f---ing gut these guys!"

The video went viral, and the mood was set.

Gannon, the Eagles' defensive coordinator at the time, was on his way to Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia where his team would later throttle the San Francisco 49ers, 31-7. Gannon's defense knocked quarterbacks Brock Purdy and Josh Johnson out of the game -- and stamped its ticket to Super Bowl LVII.

A polarizing figure during his two-year stint with the Eagles, Gannon's star in Philadelphia was at its apex after the Jan. 29 victory. His unit racked up 70 sacks during the regular season (third most all time) and dismantled the New York Giants in a 38-7 divisional playoff victory the week before.

During an on-field postgame interview with a local television station, Gannon, who had interviewed for multiple head-coach openings during the last two hiring cycles, was asked about his future.

"Philly's keeping me," he said. "Good, bad or indifferent, I'm staying here."

Over the subsequent weeks, everything changed.

In search of a head coach, Arizona Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort made an impermissible call to Gannon in the lead-up to the Super Bowl -- a call that eventually led to tampering charges. Gannon did not tell the Eagles about it or his intention to interview with Arizona, according to a league source, a lack of transparency that disappointed the Eagles in large part because it hurt their chance to retain preferred replacement Vic Fangio.

The Eagles lost to the Kansas City Chiefs 38-35 in the Super Bowl, with the defense giving up 17 fourth-quarter points. Two days later, Gannon was hired by the Cardinals and the Eagles ramped up a search for a new defensive coordinator in a thinned-out pool.

Gannon's exit created a ripple effect that continues to reverberate in Philadelphia, where his successor, Sean Desai, has been demoted and the Eagles are fielding a defense that ranks in the bottom half or near the bottom of several statistical categories.

As Gannon makes his return for a New Year's Eve game between the Eagles and Cardinals on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), he will be on the opposite sideline trying to play spoiler against a team struggling to regain its Super Bowl form.

To Gannon and the 3-12 Cardinals, it's the "next game on the schedule" against a "really good football team." The first-year head coach said his mindset will be "compete, compete, compete."

"Obviously we didn't finish the job last year, which all of us have the taste in our mouth of, dang, wish we finished the job," Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said, "but there still were a lot of special moments last year and in 2021, and Jonathan Gannon was a big part of that.

"I value that relationship I have with him, I'm always rooting for Coach Gannon ... but this will be the week I will not be rooting for him, obviously."

IN THE DAYS after the NFC Championship Game, Gannon received a phone call from Ossenfort, who had been hired Jan. 16.

Gannon had been on Ossenfort's radar for quite a while. While working as the Tennessee Titans' director of player personnel in the summer of 2022, Ossenfort set up conversations with potential head-coaching candidates he was interested in interviewing if he became a GM. Gannon was one of them.

So during the January call, Ossenfort congratulated Gannon on advancing to the Super Bowl and asked if he'd be interested in interviewing for the Cardinals' opening, should it be open after the Super Bowl, according to Gannon.

Gannon told the GM he was interested but didn't think the call broke any rules.

"[Ossenfort] didn't say, 'This is a done deal,'" Gannon told ESPN last week.

"I really, honestly, kind of put it outta the back of my mind."

However, because the call took place during a no-contact period when Gannon was still coaching in the playoffs, it violated the NFL's anti-tampering policy. Ossenfort had been hired a few days after the deadline to request Eagles coordinators for head-coaching interviews.

Beyond the call being impermissible,the Eagles' lack of knowledge about where things stood between Gannon and the Cardinals put them behind the eight ball, league sources said. At the time, they were confident Gannon was returning for a third season.

Instead, it wasn't until the Friday before the Super Bowl -- approximately 10 days from the tampering call between Ossenfort and Gannon -- that Ossenfort called Eagles GM Howie Roseman and told him he would be submitting an interview request for Gannon after the Super Bowl, an Eagles source said.

Fangio, the architect of one of the most popular defensive schemes in the league, was the Eagles' top choice to replace Gannon, according to multiple sources. If Gannon had relayed that he planned to interview with the Cardinals, the Eagles could have gotten the ball rolling on replacement candidates and, most importantly, notified Fangio about the potential opening. Fangio was under contract with the team, having signed a two-week deal leading up to the Super Bowl to serve in an advisory role, and widely admired in the building.

But the Miami Dolphins were in pursuit of Fangio as well. With the Eagles' DC job seemingly spoken for, he informally committed to join the Dolphins staff in the lead-up to the Super Bowl. The Eagles' front office tried to get Fangio to decommit from the Dolphins once it found out about Arizona courting Gannon, sources said, but by that point Fangio had already made up his mind.

On the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, it was reported the Cardinals were expected to interview Gannon the next day. By that time, word was already traveling through NFL circles that Gannon and the Cardinals had made more in-roads than anyone had let on, according to league sources.

Gannon denied this last week, calling it "100% false" that he was far down the line with the Cardinals by Sunday. When told the Eagles felt he wasn't forthcoming, Gannon said he didn't have a response.

Gannon was officially hired by Arizona on Feb. 14, two days after the Super Bowl. On Feb. 15, Fangio was announced as the Dolphins' defensive coordinator.

"Throughout the process because of where we were in the hiring process on that date that we hired Monti, the window had sort of closed," Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said, sitting to Gannon's right at his introductory news conference. "And what we didn't want to do is be a distraction to some of the coaches, who as they were eliminated, we put in permission request forms. So we did that with other candidates and we did that with Jonathan."

Six minutes before the start of the draft April 27, the Eagles and Cardinals released a joint statement that the Cardinals self-reported a phone conversation between Ossenfort and Gannon in the days following the NFC Championship Game that violated the league's anti-tampering policy.

To resolve the matter, the teams agreed to swap third-round picks in the 2023 draft, with the Cardinals receiving Philadelphia's fifth-round selection in 2024.

SIRIANNI AND GANNONwere both assistants on the Indianapolis Colts staff from 2018 to 2020, with Gannon serving as defensive backs coach and Sirianni offensive coordinator.

Not long after Sirianni was hired as head coach of the Eagles in 2021, Gannon referred to Sirianni as "exhaustingly competitive," recalling long sessions they'd have in Indianapolis where they'd pore over plays and go back and forth over the strengths and weaknesses of the calls from an offensive and defensive perspective.

"He'd come in and he'd start drawing up plays," Gannon said, "and I'd say, 'Nick, this takes that away.' And it would [turn into] these three-hour conversations where I'd be like, 'Dude, I gotta go.'"

They proved to be a potent pairing after Sirianni added Gannon to his staff, helping lead the Eagles to a 14-3 record and the Super Bowl berth in 2022. Sirianni, with MVP candidate Jalen Hurts at the helm, led the third-ranked offense while Gannon oversaw the NFL's No. 2 defense.

Both units have fallen off this season, the defensive drop being more dramatic. The Eagles' defense ranks 30th on third downs (12th in 2022), 29th in the red zone (17th in 2022) and 25th in points allowed per game (eighth in 2022). Perhaps most glaring, they are on pace for 45 sacks -- well short of the franchise-record 70 last season.

Personnel turnover has played a part -- Philadelphia lost five starters in free agency -- but so has coaching. The Eagles acknowledged as much when they demoted Desai prior to their Week 15 game at the Seattle Seahawks and elevated Matt Patricia to defensive playcaller. Some players believed Desai, who studied under Fangio during their time together with the Chicago Bears, overloaded them with information. It led to confusion and didn't allow players to play fast, sources said.

Things are going better for Fangio in Miami. The Dolphins entered Week 16 ranked 13th in points allowed (20.9), seventh in third-down defense (37%) and 10th in passing yards (205.7) and tied for the third-most takeaways in the league (23).

There was at least one point of irritation between Sirianni and Gannon in the wake of their split. In an interview with the Athletic, Gannon said he recommended Sirianni give up playcalling amid a slow start in 2021, which helped turn the season around. Eagles sources deny that conversation ever took place.

Still, Gannon and Sirianni have maintained a relationship, one that Gannon described as "awesome."

"He's helped me a good deal moving throughout this year with some different things," Gannon said Tuesday. "So, he's always a resource for me."

Gannon remains admired by players in Philly, too.

"Gannon's my boy, man. I miss him," defensive end Josh Sweatsaid. "A lot of energy and a great coach.

"We've got to whoop his ass. We can't let him [come in and beat us]. But after, it's all love."

And while the Eagles lost out on their top choice to replace Gannon, the sentiment privately and publicly is their former defensive coordinator was all-in on his preparation for Super Bowl LVII, despite his illegal communication with the Cardinals.

Gannon backed up that notion during his introductory news conference, saying he was "obviously fully engaged" in the Eagles' entire playoff run.

"Everything he had for that Super Bowl, he gave to this team," Sirianni said on the night the tampering news came out. "No reaction because I know his heart was in it."

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