About one year ago, a backup quarterback who had never taken a snap as a Philadelphia Eagle made an irresponsible and unwarranted comment. Foolish as it was, the media, not Vince Young, blew it out of proportion and tattooed "The Dream Team" label to the Birds all season long.
The shortened offseason created a free-agent frenzy, and many deemed the Eagles as the biggest benefactor. Most notably, the Eagles nabbed the highly coveted cornerback, Nnamdi Asomugha. Suddenly the expectations were overwhelming, with anything short of a Super Bowl considered simply unacceptable.
When the team stumbled out of the gate to a 1-4 record, shock waves reverberated throughout the sports world, with many dubbing the Eagles as the most over-hyped team in recent history.
With the advantage of hindsight, the disappointing season is not quite as shocking. The overhaul in both player and coaching personnel, combined with the lack of training camp, created the perfect storm for a massive letdown. Many factors contributed to the calamity that characterized most of the Eagles' season. Perhaps most perplexing was the unprecedented promotion of offensive line coach Juan Castillo, who had never coached defense above the high school level, to defensive coordinator. That move left many Eagles fans scratching their heads, and Castillo did little to justify Head Coach Andy Reid’s decision.
Castillo’s handling of prize free agent Asomugha was particularly puzzling. As a member of the Oakland Raiders, Asomugha earned three Pro Bowl appearances, four All-Pro selections, and was widely regarded as one of the game’s top Corners. Instead of allowing him to continue the style of stellar play that had worked wonders for eight years in Oakland, where he’d often play man-to-man with the opponent's best WR, Castillo often lined Nnamdi up in zone coverages. The team never found a way to best utilize the unique talents of an excellent CB trio, which included the since-departed Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Another factor that contributed to the dismal display of defense that characterized much of the Eagles' 2011 season was the implementation of a completely new style on the defensive line—the brainchild of defensive line coach Jim Washburn.
This style, the “Wide 9” defense, was also a victim of abbreviated preparation and training. Despite its flaws, defensive ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole thrived in their roles, with Babin collecting an awe-inspiring 18 sacks and Cole continuing his relentless play with 11. Cole has amassed 54 sacks over the last five seasons and had been the Eagles' most consistent defensive player (with all due respect to Brian Dawkins).
Washburn’s “Wide 9” scheme requires heightened responsibility on the team’s linebackers, who were glaringly exposed in 2011. Rookie Casey Matthews was expected to start immediately and be a leader. Perhaps Coach Reid and company overemphasized the importance of good bloodlines, with Matthews’ brother Clay establishing himself as one of the game’s best defensive players. Management showed carelessness in their denial to address this egregious need, and it proved costly for a team with sky high expectations.
While a plethora of other reasons could be listed to further support the reasoning for a disheartening 2011 for Eagles fans, the upcoming season is brimming with reasons for optimism. First and foremost, QB Michael Vick is healthy and ready to go to work. If Vick can regain his 2010 form, when he threw for 21 touchdowns and only six interceptions while rushing for nearly 700 yards and another nine scores, the Eagles will be extremely formidable on offense.
With both DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy awarded with big offseason contracts, the drama that has epitomized multiple Eagles training camps in the past should be at a minimum. Say what you will about Jackson’s hesitance to go over the middle, teams have to account for the speedy playmaker at all times. Throw in his value as a punt return threat and there isn’t a team in the league who wouldn’t love to have DeSean on their roster.
While wideout Jeremy Maclin’s numbers dropped somewhat from his 2010 performance, he has amassed over 1,800 yards and 15 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Add in the talented and tough ability of TE Brent Celek and the always dependable, third-down specialist Jason Avant, and Vick will have quite an arsenal of weapons. Obviously, the importance of maintaining the health of both Vick and LeSean “Shady” McCoy, who is clearly a top-five RB in the NFL, cannot be understated.
The loss of left tackle Jason Peters, who is undoubtedly one of the best offensive linemen in football, is a dreadful blow. Still, the offensive line was one of the surprisingly bright spots last year, they acted quickly to the Peters season-ending injury by signing Demetress Bell, and offensive-line guru Howard Mudd is regarded as one of the best in the business.
The Eagles added some key players in the offseason. The most important addition could likely prove to be LB DeMeco Ryans, a two-time Pro Bowler and former Defensive Rookie of the Year with the Houston Texans.
If Washburn’s Wide 9 approach is going to flourish, Ryans will need to regain the form he displayed with the Texans earlier in his career. A ruptured Achilles slowed his career in 2010 and is a concern, but the Eagles haven’t had a middle linebacker of Ryans’ caliber since Jeremiah Trotter. Former Texans teammates describe him as a natural leader, something the birds defense has sorely lacked since the departure of Brian Dawkins.
The Eagles also fared well in the NFL draft, selecting DT Fletcher Cox (Miss. St.) with the 12th overall pick and LB Mychal Kendricks (California) in the second round. Kendricks is already slated as a starter at linebacker and Cox will be part of a deep defensive line (that also added DE Vinny Curry in Round 2) that will rotate often. The Birds may have also found a steal in fourth-round pick Brandon Boykin, a Cornerback with blazing speed who also returned kicks and punts while at Georgia. The Eagles struggled in the return game last year, so don’t be surprised to see Boykin make an immediate impact.
While predicting the difficulty of an NFL schedule is perhaps an act in futility, the Birds' path looks especially treacherous.
According to a strength of schedule list compiled by ESPN, Philadelphia has the seventh most difficult schedule in football. Prior to their bye in Week 7, the Birds will play Baltimore, Detroit, NY Giants and Pittsburgh.
In addition to playing in perhaps the most competitive division in the NFL, the Eagles will travel to the Superdome to play New Orleans and face two 2011 playoff teams at home, Cincinnati and Atlanta.
Gone are the outlandish “Dream Team” comments and the distractions that accompanied them. What remains is a supremely talented football team with high expectations. Winning their final four games of 2010 by a combined score of 145-46, the Eagles showed flashes of brilliance. With a full training camp to work together, a fresh batch of young talent and a contented core of Pro Bowl caliber players, the Eagles will be contenders for a Super Bowl Championship.