Eagles QB coach John DeFilippo driven by passion for job

Obsessive hours are poured into the task.

Pre-dawn mornings. Lamp-lit midnights in the office alone. Watching snap after snap of looped game film in search of that one elusive clue to unpacking the mystery.

Teaching signal-callers at the pro level is work that happens in the shadows -- and it's a job John DeFilippo always knew he wanted.

The son of a coach.

Football embedded in the bloodstream from the early autumn days of childhood. Watching his father, a longtime college assistant, guide a team and knowing he would someday follow suit. Certain of it.

"I've known I wanted to coach in the NFL since I was about 10 years old. It's been a goal of mine," said DeFilippo, Philadelphia's 39-year-old quarterbacks coach, over the phone this past weekend. "I just love football. I love being around it. I love teaching players and watching them get better. It's a passion to watch someone who is willing -- a player who loves football -- soak in the information that you can provide them to help them improve."

While the vast pool of position coaches in the NFL wade in anonymity, that's not the case with DeFilippo. Not after this year's handiwork with Carson Wentz and -- during a fever-dream January run -- Wentz's understudy, Nick Foles.

DeFilippo's name bubbled up in recent months as a legitimate head-coaching candidate, a rare jump for quarterback aides. But people who know him best say DeFilippo is ready for the role.

"Absolutely. Absolutely," Packers defensive coordinator and former Browns coach Mike Pettine told me. "I don't think it's a question of if, it's a question of when."

Flipping the switch on Wentz

What are the traits of a future head coach? Franchises have tried to figure this out for decades on end.

Kick back to this time a year ago, when the blossoming of Carson Wentz was already taking shape. Coming out of the quarterback's rookie season -- a campaign intertwined with moments of high promise and lingering questions about mechanics -- DeFilippo and Wentz gathered in solitude to talk about Season 2.

"He and I had a long, long meeting after his rookie year, in terms of things that we needed to improve," DeFilippo said. "Some of those were fundamental issues, some of those were leadership traits that we needed to develop. Some of those were just overall quarterback play. Situational football. Be a master of situational football. And he came back, and he was just a more confident quarterback. I could tell he had really, really matured. Those 16 games he played as a rookie were invaluable for him. I mean, absolutely invaluable."

Wentz is a special player. It's easy for anyone watching to see something vastly unique in his blend of physical gifts and rare pre-snap cognitive decision-making. DeFilippo has worked with a laundry list of quarterbacks -- Carson Palmer, Derek Carr, Josh McCown and Daunte Culpepper, to list a few -- but Wentz is something entirely new.

"Carson has a brilliant, brilliant mind. And when I say a brilliant mind, not just a brilliant football mind, but a brilliant mind overall," DeFilippo said. "He remembers situations that he was in his rookie year that he took to this year where he didn't make the same mistake twice. He can remember situations that he's been in, in certain plays, against certain coverages, against certain teams, that really, the experience factor for Carson -- the more he experiences, the better he's going to get."

It's DeFilippo who spends more time with Wentz than almost any human, mind-melding together during daily meetings, film reviews, late-night texts and think-sessions about the next play, the next series, the next targeted opponent. Naturally, it was DeFilippo who sensed Wentz's massive second season -- before he tore his ACL in Week 14, Wentz threw for 33 touchdowns against seven picks with a passer rating of 101.9 -- on the horizon ahead of anyone else.

"I think when I saw him come back (this summer) with more confidence, his mind was more rested, obviously he'd earned the respect of our football team, and so he was able to show a little bit more of his leadership style," DeFilippo said. "And that's when I really noticed; I said, 'This young man's going to have a big year this year.' "

The same was true of Wentz's teacher.

First guy in, last guy out

You can't fake it. Not at this level, where a true love of football is requisite for a coach to endure the uncompromising hours and inherent, unending challenges that chip away at family life and anything resembling balance.

The immediate takeaway from a conversation with DeFilippo? His fondness for the sport beams forth. An obsession with details mixed with a genuine love of teaching.

"He brings an intensity, a passion. I think he brings a level of confidence to the position," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich told me this week. "He personally exudes that, and I think the quarterbacks feel that. I think that's very important for that position. On top of that, he's very detail-oriented, very knowledgeable of the game, very fun to work with."

Pettine felt this energy vibing off DeFilippo when they worked together as fellow Jets assistants back in 2009, with Pettine manning Rex Ryan's defense and DeFilippo tucked away on the other side of the ball as an assistant quarterbacks aide overseeing the rookie campaign of Mark Sanchez.

"He was a grinder, and you could just tell: He loved it. Just relentless attention to detail," Pettine said of DeFilippo. "We just kind of saw him as one of us. Not that our guys on offense didn't work hard. That was a heck of a staff. But just, he usually ended up being the last one out. There were times when we would take a break, we would spend some time together, and he and I just hit it off because I think we saw football in very similar ways."

That was something Pettine never forgot -- and a quality that compelled him to, in 2015, make the then-36-year-old DeFilippo his offensive coordinator in Cleveland when Pettine was head coach of the Browns.

"Age didn't matter," Pettine said. "... When you spend just two minutes with him, you just realize very quickly how much he truly loves the game, and that's such a big part in the NFL. ... And with John, it was obvious. He'd start talking about something, and his eyes would light up, and he'd grab a pen and jump up on the board. You could just tell. And that mentality is contagious, and that's what you need in front of the room. I think that helps pull the players up, when they see, 'Hey, it's important to this guy. Maybe it needs to be a little more important to me.' "

Football as home

On paper, DeFilippo's career mirrors that of so many other young assistants questing for a foothold in the NFL, nomadically travelling from city to city, one team after the next. His lone season with the Jets came after stops with Fordham (2000), Notre Dame (2001-02), Columbia (2003-04), the Giants (2005-06), the Raiders (2007-08), San Jose State (2010-11), Oakland again (2012-14) and the Browns (2015) before finally landing in Philly.

"I've moved 18 times," DeFilippo said with a laugh. "I was 38 years old when I took this [Eagles] job and I've moved 18 times."

Corporate goons might sum that up as job-jumping, but DeFilippo knew what he was getting into. His childhood mirrored that of an Army brat, as he'd lived in four states by the age of 8. Not because his father was enmeshed in the churn of the military industrial complex, but because Gene DeFilippo coached football.

When John was born in 1978, his father was the offensive coordinator at Youngstown State. Over the next decade, Gene would move on to a coaching gig at Vanderbilt before taking administrative roles at South Carolina-Spartanburg and Kentucky.

Gene's next move, taking over as the athletic director at Villanova in 1993, would bring the DeFilippos within mere miles of where the Eagles toiled. That summer, John -- a developing high school quarterback -- wound up logging some serious quality time with his dad while crashing together in a hotel as the family got situated.

"I was going into my sophomore year in high school, and he and I lived in a single hotel room together for four months because I had to come up and start my new school," DeFilippo said of his first days at Radnor High, on the outskirts of Philadelphia. "I had football practice. So I had to come up for summer camp and all that stuff, so it was just me and him hanging out in the hotel room every night. I'd go to practice, and then I'd head over to Villanova. I could literally walk there from my high school. And I'd go hang out with him every night and go watch their football team practice."

It was another sign for DeFilippo that football would always stream through his life, no matter where he called home. If moving around was a challenge, it also allowed DeFilippo to mesh into the world of college sports in a way that few could dream.

"I just liked being around the players and the coaches," DeFilippo said. "I always wanted to be at the practice, I wanted to be at the games, I wanted to be in the locker room at halftime. I was a ball boy for Kentucky basketball when dad was at UK. A ball boy for Kentucky football, so I've been around big-time coaches, big-time players my whole life and gotten to see how they act, how they react to certain things. And really, growing up in this thing, it really, really helps you, because you see how the winners and the champions of this profession respond, both when good things are happening and when bad things are happening."

The move to Pennsylvania had another major effect on DeFilippo, rapidly transforming him into an Eagles fan. He had no choice, noting: "If you live in Philadelphia and don't follow the Eagles, then you are an outcast. And an outcast is putting it kindly. I became an Eagles fan very, very quickly."

'He treats us all like we're the most important guys'

Nearly 25 years later, the Eagles thought enough of DeFilippo to reportedly block him from interviewing for an offensive coordinator job with the Jets last offseason. The move paid off for Philadelphia, keeping DeFilippo linked to Wentz, who has raved about his coach as "detailed" and "systematic," while not wanting to ponder a time when they would part ways.

"Right now, he's here. We got a good thing going," Wentz told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff McLane in November. "Obviously don't like to think too much about that. I've been thrilled that he's been here and I think that we work together really well."

It isn't just Wentz who gets the star treatment, though, with largely invisible third-stringer Nate Sudfeld raving about DeFilippo's inclusive nature in the quarterback room.

"I owe a lot to Coach Flip. He's been incredible. Just really, really on top of the details," Sudfeld, in his second NFL season, told me Monday night. "Very demanding, but also just does a great job of continuing to give me something to work on and always being a resource. And what I also really appreciated: Since Day 1 when I showed up here, he's treated me like I was the most important guy. He treats us all like we're the most important guys."

Sunday's Most Important Guy, Nick Foles, was roundly shrugged off by pundits when he took over for Wentz in December. DeFilippo, though, isn't surprised by what Philly's backup, in his second stint with the team, has shown during a marvelous two-game stretch ahead of Super Bowl LII.

"Proud is probably a huge understatement. I couldn't be happier for Nick," DeFilippo said. "I tell you, Nick is just an unbelievable person. He's a great father. He's an unbelievably high-character person. And for him to come into our building -- for a second time -- and to prepare every day, and to help Carson prepare and prepare himself like he was the starter, is a major, major reason why he is playing like he is right now. And it's not a fluke."

Said DeFilippo: "I'm fortunate that I get to work with the best quarterback room in the National Football League. And I've told those guys that since Day 1 of training camp: Our mindset -- and because it's true -- is that this is the best quarterback room in the National Football League, top down."

'My sole focus will be on that job that I have'

Back to the question at hand: What are the traits of a future head coach?

With each new January, play-callers du jour on both sides of the ball are fawned over as organizational saviors. A dangerous percentage are toast just three years later, reminding us how faulty the process is.

If the hiring of Sean McVay at 30 by the Rams last January swept away tedious assumptions about the ideal age of a head coach, it's bound to create an obvious short-term trend in the NFL that sees riled-up owners looking for the next 30-something assistant to hand the franchise over to. Except that McVay's success (the Rams went 11-5 and won the NFC West in McVay's first season) has little to do with youth -- and is seemingly much more about ingrained characteristics.

What you hear peers say about McVay -- "People rave about his work ethic, his creativity and his ability to communicate," said Seahawks general manager John Schneider -- echoes what players and fellow coaches observe in DeFilippo.

Words used to describe him in this report alone -- intensity, passion, demanding, always being a resource, treats us all like we're the most important guys, confidence, detail-oriented, knowledgeable, loves the game, grinder, the last one out, making sure that all the little things were done right without losing sight of the big picture -- are the traits of someone married to football.

"At any job I've ever had, it's been my No. 1 passion in terms of always doing the best job I can," DeFilippo said. "Now whether that's a head coach in two years or whether that's an offensive coordinator or whether that's the quarterback coach of the Eagles, I can promise you one thing: My sole focus will be on that job that I have at that point. I've been a big believer in that there's a greater force out there that has a plan for everybody. I'm a huge believer in that."

Eagles wideout Alshon Jeffery also believes, saying of DeFilippo: "He's one of the hottest coaches. Up and coming. He's doing some great things. Excited to see what the future holds for him -- but I'm glad he's on the Eagles."

Aspects of coaching can be taught, but so much of the job boils down to the mysterious inner workings that require a certain type of human. Maybe because it's so much more than a job, with no finite starting point or end. When the games conclude, development spins on. It involves growing first-year players -- like Wentz -- into second-year wonders, but also toiling in the hushed offseason months to prepare someone like Foles for the biggest moment of his career.

When DeFilippo talks about coaching, you feel his energy. Something natural. Unmanufactured. Aligned with the inner song. Part of a greater journey.

Evidence points to his next stop being a special one. Today, though, DeFilippo is doing what he knows best. Preparing his cast of quarterbacks for New England and drowning out the white noise of Super Bowl Week.

Embracing the day-by-day toil. The way he's always done it. The way he always will.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.

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