If you find yourself reading this, chances are that you and I share something in common, a love for the Philadelphia Eagles. If this fact is true, you probably have cursed the name of Jonathan Gannon on more than one occasion during a 9-8 campaign that saw our beloved team get diced up like a Christmas ham against playoff caliber quarterback play. With that being said, why is the first year coordinator interviewing with the Denver Broncos to be their next head coach just weeks after they fired one of the most respected defensive minds in the game? Let’s dive into it and try and figure out exactly why Denver would target the 39 year old.
Jonathan Gannon was born on January 4th, 1983 in Cleveland Ohio. A natural born athlete early in life Gannon would star as a three sport athlete at Saint Ignatius High School where he played football, basketball, and was on the track team as a hurdler. Gannon was on his way to what looked to be a promising start to a football career. He would attend the University of Louisville as a safety before suffering what would end up being a career ending injury. His playing days were over, but his football days were just getting started. Gannon was brought on as a student assistant on the coaching staff a position he held for the rest of his 3 year stay as a student, before transitioning to a graduate assistant in 2006, mostly working with the defensive backs. He helped coordinator Mike Cassity develop a top 40 defense for the next 3 seasons until their departure in 2006. You might ask yourself who was drafted out of Louisville from 2003-2006 while he coached there? Well the answer is a few guys you might recognize.
During the 2003 draft two defensive backs from Louisville were selected in the 7th round Curry Burns, and Chris Johnson. Chris Johnson played from 2003-2012, and won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012 his last season in the league. He was never a pro-bowl level player but he collected 177 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 1 recovery, 8 interceptions, deflected 49 passes, and scored twice. Not a bad career for a 7th round pick. Burns to his credit played from 03-07, but appeared in just 11 games over that time.
2005 was the next time a defensive back was drafted and it would be safety Kerry Rhodes in the 4th round. Rhodes is the crown jewel of this conversation playing from 2005 to 2012 with the Jets and Cardinals. Rhodes quickly earned a starting job and never looked back collecting 608 tackles, 13 sacks, 23 interceptions, and 8 forced fumbles. The 6’3 212 lb safety was fun to watch and seemingly had much more gas in the tank when he hung it up and went into acting after the 2012 season.
The year following Gannon’s departure from the program cornerback William Gay was drafted in the 5th round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He would go on to play a total of ten seasons in Pittsburgh, and 1 season in Arizona. He was a solid but not spectacular cornerback who was best known for playing the nickel. During his career in Pittsburgh the Steelers appeared in the playoffs 7 out of 10 seasons including a super bowl victory after the 2008 season.
Okay so that establishes his ability to develop talent at the collegiate level, and by now NFL teams had begun to take notice of the young coach who at this point was only 1 year removed from graduating college. At just 24 years old he landed his first job in the NFL following former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino to Atlanta helping with defensive quality control. This is actually where Gannon met Mike Zimmer beginning to learn his scheme. Gannon must have made an impression on Zimmer at the time.
After the Falcons cleaned house following the disaster that was the Bobby Petrino NFL stint, Gannon found himself in a new role with the Rams. This time it was due to another connection he had made in Atlanta, with assistant General Manager Billy Devaney. Devaney was hired in St. Louis as the general manager and brought Gannon aboard in the 2009 season as a college scout, moving him to pro scouting the following two seasons. This must have been enough for Gannon to realize his calling was in coaching and not scouting even though the experience had kept him on an NFL team, and would prove valuable in various details later on.
In 2012 Gannon would link up with noted defensive backs guru, and at the time defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans, Jerry Gray. Gannon again was helping with defensive quality control this time working with players like Jason McCourty, Alterraun Verner, Jordan Babineaux, and Michael Griffin. The four members of the secondary combined for 11 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 sack, and 1 td. Impressive numbers despite no pro-bowl appearances. In 2013 Verner would make the pro-bowl on the strength of a 7 turnover season with 5 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, and 1 td. McCourty added 1 forced fumble, and a recovery that resulted in a 77 scoop and score. Bernard Pollard replaced Babineaux at strong safety and had a solid season with 3 interceptions, 9 pass deflections, 99 tackles, 3 qb hits, and .5 sacks. Griffin fell off from his 2011 season but still produced 1 interception and 1 fumble recovery. After the 2013 season head coach Mike Munchak and his staff was fired following a 13-19 record over the last 2 seasons. This allowed Gannon to link up with his mentor in Minnesota who had just accepted the head coaching position. Mike Zimmer, also brought along respected coordinator George Edwards who was best known for his work with the Cowboys as a linebacker coach. Gannon was brought in to help coach defensive backs with another familiar face Jerry Gray the coordinator he just worked under with the Titans. Gannon was also still handling defensive quality control duties along with aiding Gray. After 4 seasons with the Vikings and this all star staff of defensive coaches he was hired to be the defensive backs/cornerbacks coach for the Indianapolis Colts. This put him in touch with another star studded defensive coaching staff including coordinator Matt Eburflus, and Alan Williams the safeties coach. This group quickly gathered acclaim for leading the Colts to a 10-6 record in 2018 before coming back down to earth a bit in 2019 with a 7-9 record. They rebounded in 2020 with an 11-5 record, which helped lead to a large group of Colts coaches heading to Philadelphia to rebuild an Eagles franchise that just fired a Super Bowl winning head coach 3 seasons afterward.
Head Coach Nick Siriani’s Colts roots shined through in his selections for his staff when he brought on Jonathan Gannon as his defensive coordinator, Kevin Patullo as his passing game coordinator, and retaining wide receiver coach Aaron Moorehead who once played for the Colts. This was Gannon’s first chance to run a defense, and he would be mentoring a unit that had several areas of strength, but also a few perceived weaknesses such as their talent at linebacker, and how their secondary would shake out following an offseason that saw them neglect the cornerback position until the last moment signing Steven Nelson. At first, the verdict was that Gannon was in over his head watching as his defense allowed 41 points to Dak Prescott and the Cowboys, followed by allowing 42 points to the Patrick Mahomes led Chiefs. While they were able to hold Dj Moore and the Carolina passing attack to just 18 points that feat didn’t seem so impressive later on in the season as the losses piled up in Philly and Carolina. The Eagles defense would go on to allow 28 points to the Buccaneers, and 33 points to the Raiders in the midst of 1-5 slide over the last 6 games. That’s when the Eagles finally seemed to get back on track. Right about the time that the offensive staff discovered that the run game does in fact still exist, the defense began to respond by going from allowing an average of 26 points per game through the first 7 games of the season, to allowing an average of 17.5 points per game, and it only got better when the Eagles held the Giants to 10 points, and Washington to 16 points. Even with a 51 point blow out versus the Cowboys in week 18 the defense still allowed just 20 points per game over their last 10 games dropping their average by nearly a touchdown per game. This performance over the back half of the season is precisely what has placed the Eagles coordinator on the map for the Broncos, if not for this performance he may have been on the radar having crossed paths with general manager George Paton during their time in Minnesota, but his name would not be a realistic possibility. Now after a 17 game stretch as a coordinator in which he showed the ability to adjust over time, and was aided by an offense that helped the time of possession battle suddenly his performance wasn’t looking so bad.
Denver is at a transition point as a franchise. John Elway the former defacto general manager and executive vice president stepped back hiring longtime assistant general manager George Paton away from the Vikings. Paton had watched Zimmer focus on offense using big money to sway Kirk Cousins to town, only for it to lead to the destruction of the defense. Paton seems to have learned from these mistakes, and intend to invest in defense heavily, while relying on middling contracts on offense to allow a more even distribution of talent. He has watched from afar as Gannon developed the defense in Philly coaching them to a huge improvement down the stretch, and realized that his defense features a much more talented secondary, as well as some very talented pass rushers for Gannon to work with should he be hired, along with several key pieces on offense already under contract for years to come. This would allow Gannon to simply come in, focus on defense, and bring in a veteran coach as a coordinator to pair with a veteran quarterback that the entire league expects them to pursue. This will allow them to employ a philosophy similar to what has been seen in Philadelphia the second half of the season, using an efficient offense led by a strong runner in Javonte Williams, to hold the ball and run the clock keeping the opposing offense off of the field, and keeping the defense fresh. This is the exact philosophy they used in Peyton Manning’s final season when Gary Kubiak with the help of Wade Phillips on their way to a Super Bowl victory, and in the tail end of John Elway’s career when he won back to back Super Bowls. The Broncos could actually believe they are simply getting the next hot head coaching candidate a year early in the cycle, and simply deal with a year of growing pains as a head coach to get what they believe will be a great coach in the long term. Only time will tell who the Broncos choose, but the fact remains that Gannon’s time in Atlanta may have formed his entire career, and influenced everything even to the point that it leads him to his first head coaching opportunity. He may want to start paying Bobby Petrino some finder’s fees if his career continues to climb at this pace.