For the first time since Randall Cunningham was the team's quarterback and Ray Rhodes was the head coach, the Philadelphia Eagles are without free safety Brian Dawkins, the face of the franchise over the past 13 years.
At 35, Dawkins is nearing the end of his days as a starter in this league, and may have lost a step or even two, but there is no denying it will be difficult to replace his stellar play for next season.
This past year, Dawkins was an animal on the defensive side of the ball for the Eagles, terrorizing opponents while leading a ferocious Eagles' defense to its fifth NFC Championship Game in eight seasons.
In the process, Dawkins made his seventh Pro Bowl, set a career high with six forced fumbles, and joined the elusive 20-sack, 20-interception club.
Perhaps his biggest moment came when he forced two fumbles in the Eagles' 44-6 victory over the Cowboys in Week 17, a win that vaulted the Birds into the playoffs.
A free agent who recently signed with the Broncos, Dawkins' absence leaves a void in the Eagles' secondary.
It appears unlikely the Eagles will sign a free-agent safety this off-season, meaning the pressure is on Quintin Mikell and Quintin Demps (the only two safeties currently on the Eagles' roster) to step up their game in 2009.
A fourth-round draft pick in '08, Demps made his mark as a kick returner this past season, averaging over 25 yards per return, including a 100-yard return against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 13.
Demps also filled in solidly as a safety, playing well enough down the stretch that the Eagles began to implement a three-safety rotation of Dawkins, Mikell, and Demps.
Demps, who even earned a start against the Minnesota Vikings in the wild-card game, struggled mightily in the NFC Championship Game.
While covering All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald early in the game, Demps fell down, allowing Fitzgerald to walk into the end zone untouched, for a 62-yard touchdown reception.
All in all, it was not a pretty game for Demps, who had the misfortune of having to help cover two of the top receivers (Boldin and Fitzgerald) in the game.
Despite his rough performance in the conference championship game, Demps is a competitor who will be given every opportunity to win the starting free job next season.
He has a year of experience under his belt, and he was tutored by one of the greatest safeties ever to play the game. There are high hopes for Demps to solidify a position next year the Eagles haven't had to worry about in over a decade.
And that brings us to Mikell.
How good is he?
He's good. Really good. In fact, last year Mikell was the only Philadelphia Eagle to earn All-Pro honors. The only one.
While Dawkins earned a trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, Mikell was voted second-team Associated Press All-Pro at strong safety. And this was only in Mikell's first season as a starter.
Mikell finished the season with four forced fumbles and three interceptions, numbers that would make any safety in the NFL proud.
A six-year pro (all with the Eagles) Mikell has traveled up the ladder during his career, starting as an undrafted free agent in '03 to Eagles' Special Teams MVP in '05 and '06 to All-Pro strong safety in '08.
Like Demps, Mikell has learned from the best...and he's had six years of tutoring. On the Eagles' Super Bowl team in 2004, Mikell was a backup safety to Pro Bowlers Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis.
While he didn't play much, all the time Mikell spent watching and learning has paid off.
Mikell's breakout season in '08 gives Eagles fans confidence he can continue his strong play next season. Demps had his rough spots as a rookie, but he is a talented young player on the rise. Give him time and he should develop into a solid starter in this league.
We as Eagles fans are in a tough situation. It's hard to imagine the Eagles without Brian Dawkins. The immediate instinct is to find someone who can replace Weapon X as a player, teammate, leader in the clubhouse, and fan favorite.
Easier said than done.
Neither Demps nor Mikell will be Brian Dawkins next season. There is and always will be only one Brian Dawkins. And this puts a lot of pressure on the young safeties. No one likes to replace a legend. It's virtually impossible to do so.
However, Eagles fans like myself hope the Quintins can provide some stability to a position that has always been a strong suit for the team.
We're hoping that Mikell can keep up his All-Pro level of play and Demps develops into one of the better safeties in the NFL.
We're not asking for either to be Weapon X. We're just hoping each can establish their own individual legacy out there on the football field.
We're really hoping.
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