One Step Back For Two Steps Forward
By Lance Epstein
Over the last two seasons, the Philadelphia Eagles fan base has been privileged to see their team have a lot of success. Additionally, they have seen their squad clinch two consecutive playoff berths and in 2008 the club was a mere one game from the Super Bowl.
However, this is not nearly the squad and numerous other factors probably mean the Eagles are taking one step back in 2010 to take two giant steps forward in 2011.
At the end of last season, it was obvious that the Dallas Cowboys had surpassed the Eagles as the premiere team in the NFC East. Instead of adding a couple of high priced and overrated free agents to delay the inevitable, general manager Howie Roseman and head coach Andy Reid decided to make drastic changes.
They took a challenger of trying to rebuild a defense that desperately required an injection of youth, in a single offseason. First the team released or traded core veterans such as Darren Howard, Sheldon Brown, Chris Gocong and Chris Clemons. During the free agency period, the team acquired young and feisty veterans in Marlin Jackson, Alex Hall, Ernie Sims and Darryl Tapp. Players with something to prove, a chip on their shoulder and all play with high motors every play.
However, the major overhaul came in the draft where the Eagles revamped the entire defense. Specifically they targeted their defensive line by snatching four defensive linemen. Besides the defensive line the Eagles added a safety, a corner and two linebackers.
As for offense, the major move that everyone was anticipating happened and it happened in the strangest of ways. The organization finally after 11 years shipped out the franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb and handed over the keys over to Kevin Kolb. Not only did they hand the keys over to Kolb, they allowed him to face his mentor twice a year (perhaps for the next four seasons) since the Eagles traded McNabb to Washington.
Despite the that fact, the Eagles appear to be making more of a commitment to the running game as they signed restricted free agent Mike Bell and drafted LSU running back Charles Scott. Both players are powerful backs that will carry defenders for the extra yards and play significant roles in the team's goal-line packages.
So where does this leave the Philadelphia Eagles franchise? Could they be last year's New York Jets that make a surprising run towards the playoffs with an inexperienced quarterback under center? Or are they closer to the 2008 Green Bay Packers?
This is question can only be answered through the course of the season. Right now speculation will run ramped about how great the young players look in minicamp and place lofty unrealistic expectations on the players. Experts will express their opinion and predictions on the team.
But predictions do not mean much as the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl last year and no one thought of them as being a legitimate contender.
Still, it makes more sense that the Eagles hierarchy decided to take a step back in 2010 in order to become a NFL elite in 2011. One reason is even though the Eagles added multiple pass rushers through the draft in Ricky Sapp, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and the mini-version of Dwight Freeney in Brandon Graham and a game-changer at safety with Nate Allen, all those new young energized players will have to learn their new defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's scheme. The Eagles have one of the most complicated and complex schemes in the entire NFL. This is not saying they cannot surprise us by being better than anyone thought, but they will have to take their lumps before they become impact players.
Also, just learning the scheme is half the battle, but the new nucleus of players must combined with the old players to gel together. As demonstrated by the 2008 Green Bay Packers as they switched to a 3-4 defense and brought in a immense amount of young players into the system, it takes a while for players to come together and gel. Moreover, the Eagles defense slowly, but surely during the 2008 season improved each week and eventually by the end of the season were dominating opponents.
Old players must learn to trust and count on the younger players to be in the right position to make a play. The new 'young guns' will have to be trained not to try to do more than what their responsibilities are and focus on their particular assignment. Fans believe this is an easy transition, but in college these draftees were the elite players that took advantage of the talent they had over inferior competition. It takes time to adapt to learn their assignments and even adapt to the difference in the speed of the game.
In addition to the defense coming together, they have a very tall task this year thanks to the NFL schedule makers. The front office did not help the matter by replacing or finding an adequate upgrade to the right cornerback position.
Currently, the weakest link on the Eagles defense is the cornerback position. In an Eagle uniform this past season and in his last season with the New England Patriots, Ellis Hobbs was known for only one thing giving up touchdowns. Hobbs gave up the most touchdown passes of any corner in 2008.
As for Joselio Hanson, his play dropped off dramatically after being suspended for four games by the NFL. The rest of the players on the roster at the position, do not have experience or necessary skills to be impact starters. Brown might not have been an elite corner in the NFL, but he was consistent and did not miss a game in eight seasons.
How does this affect the schedule? Well look at the quality of quarterbacks the defense is put up against in 2010. Of course, the Eagles play in a division that has three terrific quarterbacks in McNabb, Tony Romo and Eli Manning (Eagles did themselves no favors by sending McNabb to their division rivals). That is six games with quarterbacks that can sling the ball around the field.
Outside of the physical and intense divisional games, the Eagles face a plethora of great quarterbacks; most of which have QBs in the top 10 in the NFL. Looking at their brutal schedule they face Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Matt Schaub, Matt Ryan and perhaps even Brett Favre.
While that seems like a daunting task for a young and inexperienced defense that is learning on the fly, the team still must go onto the road to face a much-improved San Francisco 49ers squad. A team greatly upgraded their offensive line via the draft. Moreover they have to square off against a Tennessee Titans team that was on fire towards the end of last year under the resurgent Vince Young.
Certainly, the defense's new and enhanced pass rush may perhaps be better at getting to the quarterback, rushing quarterbacks into bad throws, which would make the secondary better, but that is asking a lot out of a bunch of rookies to create that kind of immediate impact. Remember the Eagles asked Macho Harris to be the starting free safety last year, which turned out to be one of the major problems on a mediocre defense.
Even if the Eagles defense manage to step up and grow faster than many anticipate, the offense will have its ups and downs with a quarterback that has only made two career starts in three years.
Yes, Kolb showed that he has the ability and aptitude to lead the Eagles to success as he threw for back-to-back 300-yard games in his first two career starts (only player in NFL history to do so). Nevertheless he has never encountered the rigors of being a starter through the entire 16-game marathon.
If fans and media honestly believe Kolb will not have bad games like McNabb did then they are kidding themselves. There will be ups and downs and twist and turns for Kolb, just like there was for Rodgers and Schaub (two players scouts love to compare Kolb’s career too). Both of his peers had the same struggles during their first full season as starters. At the same time they gave glimpses of being top 10 quarterbacks in the league like the franchises predicted.
However, there is one thing that Schaub and Rodgers did not have to endure Kolb will certainly undergo. Unlike Green Bay and Houston, the Eagles fan base is much more vocal and their passion sometimes gets the better of them.
When Kolb underperforms (he will no one is perfect) hear will hear the boos, the radio show callers trashing him and the media putting the blame squarely on his shoulders like they did with McNabb.
The important question that has yet to be answered is how he will respond to that criticism and bounce back from it. Kolb has to shrug it off and move forward otherwise the town will eat him alive. Eagles fans and media members expect a lot of the team and their frustration is built on 50 years championship drought.
Nevertheless, Kolb appears to have the mental makeup to flourish and certainly has the trust of the organization thanks in part to his leadership skills. Nonetheless he is going to have deal with adversity this season, so the fans must expect extreme highs and lows.
While Kolb is one unknown on the Eagles offense, a major concern has to be the center and right guard positions. Jamaal Jackson is not expected to be back by week one since he suffered a torn ACL in week 16. Even when he does comeback, he might never be the same.
If he is not fully recovered than Nick Cole will take over the center duties. In the last two weeks of the season, Cole attempted to fill the void, but was eaten alive by Cowboys' nose tackle Jay Ratliff. Maybe with a whole offseason under his belt, he is in a better position to succeed, but that is a big risk to take with a young franchise quarterback with limited playing-time.
Center was not the only position on the offensive line that has alarming issues in the 2009 season. Stacy Andrews was signed to be an elite right tackle or could also be moved inside to right guard. However, Andrews never started a single game during his ‘09 campaign due to his knee injury not fully recovering and adapting to a new stance. Once again, he is a giant question mark along the line heading into next season.
Could he become the player the Eagles envisioned when giving him his hefty contract? Certainly, but if he fails then the Eagles are putting a lot of hope in Jackson being 100 percent so they can move Cole back over to guard.
Lastly, injuries will play a huge part in any team’s success next season. In 2009, it felt as though Philadelphia lost a player every game. The Eagles lost Stewart Bradley before the season even started. That severely crippled the squad all season as they frantically looked for his replacement. Reid even brought back a blast from the past in Jeremiah Trotter. No one can predict injuries; the only thing that can be predicted is that they will happen. The Eagles must prove they can overcome those potholes, which ultimately doomed them last year.
On the other hand, the Eagles might get lucky and the stars could align like the New York Jets. A young highly-regarded quarterback and an upstart defense with a phenomenal cornerback leading the way.
Except looking at the situation from afar, the Eagles seem to be mirroring the 2008 Green Bay Packers who voted on taking a step backward in the short term in order take significant steps forward for the long haul. General manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy trade away a future Hall of Famer in Brett Favre, rebuild and change the philosophy on defense. Without a doubt the Packers went from a playoff contender and finished at a mere 6-10.
However, the following season the organization took giant, no colossal steps forward. Rodgers blossomed into a top 10, if not five quarterback in the league. A defense that was young and adapting to a new system developed into a top five defense in the league.
In addition, the club made the playoffs as a No. 5 seed and one of the hottest teams down the stretch. More importantly, Green Bay is currently considered to be a preseason favorite to win the NFC and make a Super Bowl appearance.
For Eagles fans, they will unquestionably be disappointed in extending the drought to 51 years without winning a championships or even losing in general, but if the Eagles loyalist can be patient for a year, they might just be award with massive strides and a freshly polished Lombardi Trophy in 2011.