We take an in-depth look at the Eagles chances at making a Super Bowl run this year.
In the Andy Reid era, which has endured into its fourth presidential term, the Eagles have been no strangers to startling personnel moves. Reid broke from his usual way of doing things by going after Terrell Owens in 2004, then stunned the football world by taking a chance on Michael Vick in 2009.
This was different. A few days before the Super Bowl, word began spreading that the Eagles had decided on a new defensive coordinator. And no, it wasn’t one of the up-and-coming coaches on the Green Bay and Pittsburgh staffs. It was Juan Castillo, who had been on the Eagles’ staff even longer than Reid. Yes, Reid had promoted his offensive line coach to defensive coordinator, a position Castillo last held at the high school level back in his native Texas. It was a stunning move, one that will either turn out to be boldly brilliant or the beginning of the end of Reid’s long run as Eagles head coach. Either way, the Eagles’ biggest offseason move should help define the 2011 season.
Vick’s comeback story, from Pro Bowler to federal prisoner to rejuvenated superstar, arguably reached its dramatic climax in a nationally televised game against Washington — whose quarterback that night just happened to be Vick’s friend, mentor and predecessor, Donovan McNabb. Drawing on his own speed plus an array of weapons that included quicksilver DeSean Jackson and emerging stars Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy, Vick put 52 points on the scoreboard (a defensive score made the Eagles’ total 59). He threw for four touchdowns and ran for two more. That night, and in an epic comeback against the Giants at the Meadowlands, Vick and the Eagles’ offense appeared as unstoppable as the tides.
And then it wasn’t. The offense misfired in three consecutive losses to end the season, including a lackluster home playoff loss to the Packers. Vick suddenly seemed unable to react to certain blitzes, and he appeared worn down by the many hits he absorbed.
“Listen,” Reid said after the season, “it’s not only the quarterback in a blitz situation. But to answer your question, he can get better at that. He can get better at that. And the one great thing about football is that you can always improve.”
That quote proved even more telling later, when Reid lured offensive line coach Howard Mudd out of retirement. As part of the coaching shakeup that saw Castillo move from the O-line to defensive coordinator, Reid added the guy whose Indianapolis units kept Peyton Manning’s uniform stain-free for a decade.
The offseason focus became even sharper when the Eagles took an offensive lineman, Baylor’s Danny Watkins, in the first round of the draft. Reid all but anointed Watkins as a starter at right guard. King Dunlap, who replaced Winston Justice during the playoff game, could hold on to the right tackle job, though new addition Ryan Harris will get a look. Clearly, the plan is to shore up the protections through changes in technique, scheme and personnel, to allow Vick, Jackson, Maclin, McCoy, tight end Brent Celek and the rest of the skill guys to get back to the fastbreak offense that was on display against Washington and New York.
Once the backbone of the team under the late Jim Johnson, the Eagles’ defense was spineless in 2010 under Sean McDermott. Reid fired McDermott, moved Castillo into the coordinator spot and brought in Jim Washburn to coach the defensive line.
The new-look defensive staff will lean heavily on the NFL’s top cornerback tandem — Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha. The Eagles acquired Rodgers-Cromartie from Arizona for backup quarterback Kevin Kolb then surprised pretty much everyone in the NFL by stealing Asomugha away from the Jets and Texans in free agency. The corners are set, but there are some questions at safety. Can Nate Allen return from a knee injury? Will rookie Jaiquawn Jarrett be able to step in for Quintin Mikell at strong safety?
Washburn’s hiring led to the return of defensive end Jason Babin via free agency. Considered a first-round bust for the first six years of his career (including ’09 in Philly), Babin thrived under Washburn’s tutelage in Tennessee last year, earning his first Pro Bowl berth after racking up 12.5 sacks. Babin will team with veteran Trent Cole to form a formidable duo at defensive end.
Jamar Chaney, a seventh-round pick in 2010, steps into a starting role at linebacker, either in the middle or on the strong side. Chaney’s ability to be consistently productive will be a key for the defense. Moise Fokou seems set at one of the other linebacker spots — possibly at weak side — but there are issues finding a third starter.
For most of Reid’s tenure, Johnson’s defensive schemes favored smaller, quicker players deployed in his aggressive fire-zone blitz packages. In two years under McDermott, the Eagles simply got run over. Their pass rush was ineffective and their defensive backs and linebackers simply couldn’t cover well enough to compensate.
Pairing Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback will solve the coverage issues and make everyone else’s job on defense that much easier.
Castillo says his plan is to simplify the system as much as possible and stress fundamentals — just as he did with the offensive line. “We are going to be fast and physical and we are going to be fundamentally sound,” says the new coordinator.
Kicker David Akers deserves some exit music. Although the Eagles placed the transition tag on their all-time leading scorer before the lockout, they used a fourth-round draft pick on Nebraska kicker Alex Henery, spelling the end of Akers’ 12-year tenure. Henery also punted in college, but the Eagles appear interested in him only as a placekicker. Punter Sav Rocca was released in late July. Chas Henry, an undrafted free agent from Florida, is Rocca’s likely replacement.
In Jackson and Maclin, the Eagles have two excellent return men. Reid likes to use them situationally — most famously when Jackson took a punt back to beat the Giants on the final play last season — which creates opportunities for backup players to make a mark. Cornerback Jorrick Calvin made the most of that chance last year and will get another opportunity in 2011.
For all the debate and discussion surrounding the transition from McNabb to Kevin Kolb and finally to Vick, the Eagles wound up with a 10–6 record and a first-round playoff exit — the same unsatisfactory result that got McNabb the heave-ho. Expectations are much greater this season. The Eagles have a bevy of weapons on offense and made significant upgrades on the defensive side of the ball, specifically at cornerback. The demanding Philly fans will be satisfied with nothing less than a trip to the Super Bowl.
Outside the Huddle
Andy Reid’s effort to coax Howard Mudd out of retirement was helped by the hiring of defensive line coach Jim Washburn. The two old line coaches are great friends and have ridden motorcycles together across Africa. Washburn was available because Jeff Fisher’s tenure ended in Tennessee. Mudd retired after the 2009 season.
Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe Eagles GM Howie Roseman has been dabbling in genetics in his spare time. Whatever the case, three of the Eagles’ 11 draft choices are sons of former NFL players. Linebacker Casey Matthews is the son of Clay Matthews Jr. and younger brother of Green Bay star Clay III. Defensive back Curtis Marsh’s dad, Curtis Sr., was a wide receiver for Jacksonville and Pittsburgh. And there’s linebacker Greg Lloyd, who also shares the name and position of his father, the former Steelers star.
Eagles tight end Brent Celek and guard Todd Herremans opened a bar in Philadelphia’s Old City area. The name — 879 — is based on the uniform numbers of Celek (87) and Herremans (79).
With the lockout looming, the Eagles placed their franchise tag on Vick and transition tag on kicker David Akers. Tagging players has backfired for the team in the past (see: Jeremiah Trotter and Corey Simon), but Vick’s situation left little choice. He was finishing the two-year contract signed when no one knew whether he would be a part-time player, backup or, as it turned out, No. 1 quarterback. Both sides agree that a long-term deal will be the goal for Vick. Akers, meanwhile, refused to sign his tender and will be replaced by Alex Henery.
Used to the heat
First-round pick Danny Watkins was a firefighter in his native British Columbia, which explains the group of firemen who cheered his selection on draft night. Watkins visited firehouses in New York and upon his arrival in Philadelphia. “It was like you knew the guys 10, 20 years,” Watkins says. “No matter where you go, you’re going to be a brother fireman.”
Because of their success with Vick, the Eagles were immediately rumored as a possible destination for wide receiver Plaxico Burress upon his release from prison. The notion was nurtured by Burress’ Giants teammate Brandon Jacobs and enhanced when Burress emerged from prison wearing a maroon, 1980s-style Phillies cap. Of course, Burress went from locked up to locked out.
Upon the announcement of Juan Castillo as defensive coordinator, cornerback Asante Samuel’s priceless reaction pretty much summed things up: “The offensive line coach?”
Pitt to Philly
For the second time in three years the Eagles selected a running back from the University of Pittsburgh who declared for the NFL draft with eligibility remaining in college. In 2009, the Eagles picked LeSean McCoy in the second round. This past April, they grabbed Dion Lewis, McCoy’s replacement at Pitt. As a freshman in 2009, Lewis rushed for 1,799 yards and scored 18 touchdowns. His sophomore season was slowed by injuries, but he still managed 1,061 yards and 13 scores. Lewis was eligible for the draft after two years in college because he attended prep school for a year after high school.
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