5 Things We've Learned About the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles so Far This Offseason
The Philadelphia Eagles' front office operates with an organizational transparency on par with that of the Secret Service. Simply put, Andy Reid, Joe Banner and Howie Roseman are anything but forthcoming with information that may shed light on their intentions at any given time.
Given this persistent shroud of secrecy, determining where the Eagles stand in their own opinion becomes a study of the team's transactions and the NFL rumor mill. Such reading between the lines can reveal far more about the team than any Andy Reid press conference.
Take the events of 2007, for example. Quarterback Donovan McNabb was coming off back-to-back seasons where he missed significant portions of time due to injury and the viability of relying on him to be the Eagles' answer at quarterback for the foreseeable future was coming into question. Publicly, Reid defended his man, unequivocally throwing his support behind the beleaguered quarterback. Yet fans saw Reid's hand when the Eagles used their first pick in the 2007 NFL draft to take Kevin Kolb, a quarterback from the University of Houston. Any fan can deduce that a team doesn't use a valuable second-round pick on insurance against the possibility of future injury; it was clear that the Eagles were losing confidence in McNabb.
After the disaster that was the 2011 season, questions swirled around the NovaCare Complex. Who would pay the price for the Eagles' utter failure? How would the team improve its most obvious area of need at linebacker? Would DeSean Jackson be back? Andy Reid was hounded with these questions and others after the conclusion of the most disappointing season in recent franchise history. While his answers at the time revealed little as usual, the Eagles moves thus far this offseason have revealed a lot.
With the first few weeks of free agency in the books and the draft fast approaching, here are five things we've learned about the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles so far this offseason.
The Eagles Trust and Need DeSean Jackson
One of the biggest questions facing the Eagles heading into this offseason was what the team would do with wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who was set to become a free agent.
Jackson turned in the most disappointing season of his young career in 2011 as he hauled in just 58 receptions for 961 yards and four touchdowns, numbers that represented a regression to statistics similar to what he put up in his rookie season.
The prevailing theory was the Jackson's effort had waned significantly in 2011 due to his being distracted by his contract situation. After publicly pining for a new contract late in 2010, Jackson—who, without question, had outperformed his rookie deal—held out for a portion of training camp to further his point. Instead of leaving it at that, his displeasure with the situation had spilled over into practice and games, where Jackson noticeably took plays off and reportedly refused to take the field for punt return duty.
The situation came to a head when Andy Reid chose to bench Jackson for what was a pivotal home loss to the Arizona Cardinals, citing his unprofessional behavior. At that point, few expected that Jackson would be returning in 2012.
After the season ended, however, a contrite Jackson publicly apologized for his actions and the situation between player and team thawed. The Eagles placed the franchise tag on Jackson, increasing the likelihood he would return and, within just a few weeks, the Birds inked Jackson to a five-year, $51 million deal, ending ongoing speculation that the team would look to trade its star receiver.
The move to sign Jackson to a long-term deal underscores the receiver's importance to the Eagles' offense. His ability to stretch the field is a huge factor in the Eagles' offensive success and, by letting bygones be bygones, Reid and the front office acknowledged that Jackson brings an element to the offense that they simply can't get anywhere else.
Counting on Continuity for an Edge
In 2011, the Eagles made more than a splash in the free-agent market, they made a tsunami. The blizzard of moves was downright dizzying as star after star signed with the team.
Obviously, the results that those moves cultivated were far less spectacular than the team was hoping, but it appears that it's not the players that the Eagles feel are to blame for their coming up short of expectations.
Instead of looking outside the organization for new talent, the Eagles have spent much of this offseason ensuring that the talent already on the roster stays there for a long time to come, and they are hoping that the resulting continuity brings the success that the team is looking to achieve in 2012 and beyond.
The first move the Eagles made was to restructure Cullen Jenkins' contract so that they could retain him for 2012. The contract Jenkins had signed in 2011 was structured in a manner that it was highly unlikely he would remain with the team for 2012 if the two sides couldn't agree on a restructured deal.
The Eagles then moved to extend offensive lineman/Swiss Army knife Todd Herremans. Herremans may not be the best player on the Eagles' offensive line, but his versatility has proved invaluable to the team.
The next day, the Eagles extended defensive end Trent Cole, one of the most underrated defensive ends in the entire league.
The Eagles also re-signed offensive lineman Evan Mathis. Mathis had come to Philly last offseason as a last-minute addition to bring depth to the offensive line. He blossomed under offensive line coach Howard Mudd and became one of the most sought-after free agents at his position in the league this offseason.
By moving to retain their current talent, the Eagles sent a signal that, for the most part, they are very comfortable with the talent level they have on their roster as it stands today. Combined with the fact that the team declined to make any significant coaching changes, it appears the team is banking on the resulting continuity to give itself an edge in 2012 and beyond.
The lockout that marred the 2011 offseason was a real killer for the Eagles, especially because they had brought in so much outside talent. The team had to learn on the fly the schemes of new coaches—most notably defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, defensive line coach Jim Washburn and offensive line coach Howard Mudd—and the tendencies of their new teammates. This is a process that usually takes place over the course of four to five months, but last year it was condensed into just four to five weeks.
With a full offseason ahead of them and a year of experience playing with each other under their belts, the Eagles are looking to 2012 to bear the fruits of the 2011 free-agent class.
The Eagles' Linebackers Will Be Much Better in 2012
The 2011 preseason was one full of hope, elation and anticipation for Eagles fans. Fueled by the Birds' astonishing free-agent haul, the air was as thick with excitement as it was with humidity for the fans who made the trek to Lehigh University to watch an abbreviated training camp. Nothing, it seemed, could dampen their spirits.
Yet, cutting through the hardcore optimism that swirled around the practice fields, there were whispers that the Eagles were in trouble if they expected to win games with the linebacking corps they had in place.
The Eagles were planning on starting the season with rookie Casey Matthews at middle linebacker, the de facto quarterback of the defense. Thanks to the lockout, Matthews would have just a few short weeks to learn what takes some years to master. Andy Reid tried to quell the whispers with reassurances that Matthews was coming along just fine. Eagles fans, in an uncharacteristic haze of optimism, largely accepted Reid's assessment. Besides, with Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Trent Cole, Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin all on the field with him, Matthews didn't need to do much they figured.
As is very well documented by now, everyone was very wrong. The linebackers were a major point of weakness that left a talent-laden defense vulnerable and opposing offenses took advantage of it. Reid, in a Wednesday round-table discussion at the NFL owners meetings, admitted he had misjudged the situation in a rare public mea culpa from the Eagles head coach.
Many had expected the Eagles to address the position through the draft—"Luke Kuechly (a middle linebacker from Boston College) to the Eagles at No. 15" seemed almost as consistent a mock draft result as "Andrew Luck to the Colts at No. 1." Spooked by the prospect of hinging arguably the most pivotal season in recent franchise history on the growth of yet another rookie, the Eagles chose another route to address their greatest weakness.
In a surprising move that had somehow evaded the rumor mills in the run-up to its completion, the Eagles traded a fourth-round pick in April's NFL draft to the Houston Texans for DeMeco Ryans, a two-time Pro Bowler and bona fide stud at middle linebacker. The two teams also swapped their third-round selections to round out the terms of the deal.
In acquiring Ryans, the Eagles addressed not only the dearth of talent at linebacker on the roster, but also brought in a true, natural leader for a defense that hasn't had one since the departure of Brian Dawkins in 2009. Ryans became expendable in Houston due to the team's need to shed salary. His became an albatross when the team switched from a 4-3 defensive alignment to a 3-4, where the traditional mold of a middle linebacker isn't a great fit.
Coming into a 4-3 defense in Philly that, from a schematic standpoint, plays to his strengths, Ryans stands to re-establish himself as one of the game's brightest young defensive stars. With Ryans patrolling the middle, suddenly the Eagles' linebacking corps doesn't seem cause for concern as the holdovers from last year's team can move back to their natural positions where they can complement Ryans' skills very nicely.
The often-discussed, rarely-understood Wide-9 scheme employed by the Eagles' defensive line requires a smart, attacking, sure-tackling middle linebacker to prevent defenses from simply running right up the middle on play after play. In DeMeco Ryans, it seems the Eagles finally have their man.
The Eagles' Fortunes Depend on Michael Vick's Health
In 2011, Michael Vick's inability to finish games due to injury early in the season contributed to the slow start that ultimately doomed the team's chances to make the playoffs. While the relationship between Vick's health and the Eagles' ability to win was nothing new to the organization, the Eagles fell short not because they didn't see it coming, but because the backup plan they had in place did not live up to expectations.
That backup plan was, of course, Vince Young. While he seemed a natural fit to replace Vick in case of injury—mobile and left-handed—Young was simply not adequate enough a passer to run the Eagles' offense.
After the 2011 season went down the tubes at least partly because of injuries to Vick, many expected the Eagles to be in the market for a solid, reliable performer at backup quarterback this offseason, someone who could at least point the offense in the right direction at a steady pace. There were some interesting names hitting the market this offseason, such as Kyle Orton, Jason Campbell and Chad Henne, all of whom aren't franchise quarterbacks but possess the skill set to perform solidly in spot duty.
Instead of investigating one of those options, the Eagles signed former Buffalo Bills quarterback Trent Edwards in February. Unless they plan to use a draft pick on a quarterback in the early rounds of April's NFL draft, that leaves the Eagles with Trent Edwards and Mike Kafka to battle for the backup quarterback position, neither of whom inspire very much confidence if Vick is lost to injury.
While Andy Reid has been extremely supportive of Kafka publicly, his performances in several cameos during the 2011 season were those of a player who was still light-years from being able to lead a consistent, steady and productive NFL offense. It is doubtful the strides he could conceivably make in just one offseason could turn the player we saw last year into the player the Eagles need him to be. Edwards was once considered to be the future in Buffalo, but a dreadful offensive line and a lack of talent surrounding him derailed his career. He was out of the league in 2011.
This means that, now more than ever, the Eagles must find a way to keep Michael Vick healthy. Bringing back every starter on the offensive line is a good start, as the familiarity that comes with playing together for an extended period is certainly an advantage, but more steps to ensure that Vick's health is the team's No. 1 priority are sure to be taken.
2012 Is Shaping Up to Be What 2011 Was Supposed to Be
Obviously, the 2011 season was a huge disappointment. While patience with the Reid regime has worn thin in Philadelphia and attempts to excuse that disappointment are hard to accept, it was with good reason that the Eagles struggled to get off the ground.
The Eagles were installing new coaches, players and schemes on almost every corner of the field. On the offensive line, new coach Howard Mudd was teaching an entirely new blocking scheme to what ended up being three new starters. On the defensive line, new coach Jim Washburn was installing a new scheme to two new starters. New defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was trying not only to implement his own new defense, but learning on the fly after serving as offensive line coach since 1998, all while trying to figure out how to mesh his new defense with the scheme run up front by the aforementioned Washburn.
That kind of turnover would cause any team growing pains in a normal year, but 2011 was not a normal year. The offseason programs that would have been so vital to the Eagles' new coaches and players were wiped out by the lockout. Players who weren't new to the team were affected by it, too. It would have been Michael Vick's first offseason as the unquestioned starter at quarterback and the film, practice and study time with Andy Reid that was lost most certainly set Vick's development back.
This season, the roster looks pretty much the same, except everyone is one year wiser. The players understand what the coaches want and the coaches understand what the players can do. There will not be a "feeling out" period for this team.
Even with a few holes remaining on the roster—most notably at backup running back, safety and depth issues on the defensive line—the team as it stands now should contend for a division title and then some. With last year's disappointment far behind them, the Eagles are setting out to make 2012 the year 2011 was supposed to be.