Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is a big baseball fan. It's why he often uses baseball analogies — pass-rushers as fastballs, players working on pitches, etc. — when trying to make a point.
On Tuesday, as the Eagles prepare for the 2017 opener, Schwartz was taken a little out of his comfort zone. The press conference went from the baseball diamond to the ice rink when he was asked if he viewed his top four defensive ends as two lines.
"Oh, now we're going to hockey?" Schwartz said. "I don't have as much hockey. You had the Skipjacks, EHL. We used to go just to just drink beer and watch the fights. I think that's all anybody goes to the EHL for."
The Skipjacks (now the Springfield Thunderbirds) were the Baltimore Skipjacks from 1982-1993, so it makes sense that a Maryland native like Schwartz spent some time watching them play. But the Skipjacks actually played in the ACHL and then the AHL, never the EHL. Forgive Schwartz, though, he's not much of a hockey guy and there was apparently beer involved.
Anyway, he at least saw a lesson to apply from hockey to his current defensive end situation.
"I think there is some shift change in there," Schwartz said. "Hockey is that sport. Nobody can play ... Wayne Gretzky couldn't be out there every single time. It's just impossible to play that way. So they do have to shift. And you do need to rely on other guys."
The Eagles used a rotation at defensive end last season, but it was a little lopsided. Starters Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin played 75 and 70 percent of the Eagles' defensive snaps, respectively, while Vinny Curry played just 42.6 percent. And Marcus Smith, the fourth DE, played just 21.4 percent.
With Chris Long and Derek Barnett backing up the two starters (Graham and Curry) this season, though, it's possible the rotation will be more balanced in 2017. At least that's what Schwartz says he wants.
"I would hope so," Schwartz said. "Over the course of my career, whether it was in Tennessee or Detroit, we've always been a rotational group. And I think we've always been at our best when we've been close to 50-50. Keep guys fresh and I know you guys get tired of it but keep throwing fastballs out of the bullpen. But that being said, over the course of the season, you also have to reward production.
"Here's the way I sort of approach it: Particularly early in the season, rotation can help you get to later in the season. And hopefully, where we are late in the season is meaningful games in December and January and maybe even February. And there's a lot of different layers to rotation. One of those is that it can keep guys durable and keep guys available for a long period of time."
The way Schwartz looks at it is by position. So when looking at the left defensive end position, he's found throughout his career that two players rotating and staying fresh — as long as there's not a major drop-off — will have more production than one.
Keeping Barnett fresh during his rookie season is a goal too, Schwartz said. But the Eagles aren't going to limit him just because he's a rookie. They're not worried about him, especially after Barnett faced off against Jason Peters and Lane Johnson consistently throughout training camp.
"I don't worry about his confidence," Schwartz said. "I mean, he's a first-round draft pick. When you get up on that stage and hold a No. 1 jersey, if you're lacking for confidence, you're probably the wrong guy."
While there's been some clamoring from the fanbase for Barnett to start, Graham and Curry are still the first-team ends. And on Tuesday, Schwartz praised Curry, who had a down season in 2016 after signing a $46 million extension. Schwartz said Curry had an "outstanding" training camp and wasn't on the ground nearly as much, which was a problem for him last season.
With Curry, Graham, Barnett and Long, the Eagles might have four starting caliber defensive ends. But Schwartz made sure he didn't omit the fifth guy.
"You mentioned four defensive ends," he said. "I'll take that further with five. I think Steven Means is a quality player, whether he's active or not on a weekly basis. I know this much, he'll be ready for when his opportunity comes. Maybe it'll be because of an injury, maybe it'll be because somebody isn't producing as much as they should, but I think Steven Means is also a quality guy. I like a five-man up there."
Where Schwartz's rotation differs from hockey line changes is that it won't always be kept uniform. So it's not like when Graham and Curry come out of the game, Barnett and Long will always replace them together. That might happen sometimes in the middle of a series, but it's too hard to keep it that way.
So the Eagles will play with a lot of different combinations and the rotation will likely evolve throughout the season.
Because the fresher the Eagles stay, the more fastballs — or slapshots — will keep coming.