Though the team is moving on without fan favorite veterans Brian Dawkins (Broncos), Tra Thomas (Jaguars), and Jon Runyan (free agency), their off-season on paper has been nothing less than spectacular.
Birds fans are already talking nothing less than an 11-win season and a trip to Miami, Florida for Super Bowl XLIV. I know that may sound a little far fetched for a team that finished 9-6-1, but the bar has been set high this off-season.
Realistically, though the Eagles made it to the NFC Championship game after a rollercoaster type season—a tie with the Bengals, a benching of starting quarterback Donovan McNabb in a loss to the Ravens in Week 11, and then a surprisingly run where the Birds won four of their last five games so they will need more consistency over the 2009 season to return to the NFL’s final four.
An automatic return to the playoffs is not guaranteed and it will be very tough to live up to the hype as the Eagles will be battling the Giants, Cowboys, and Redskins in the NFC East, which is probably the NFL’s toughest division (No team had a losing record last season).
Howver, who can blame the Birds faithful for feeling good after an off-season that right now ranks as one of the best going into the 2009 season.
The Eagles made a concerted effort to get younger and bigger especially along the offensive line, more explosive at the offensive skill positions, and younger in their defensive back four.
Any talk of the Eagles making a strong run in 2009 season has to start with their offensive line. Andy Reid loves to bring in offensive linemen, but no one could imagined the two pre-draft coupes of trading for big Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jason Peters (Bills) and signing versatile lineman Stacy Andrews (Bengals).
With those moves, the Birds O-line not only softened the blow of losing Thomas and Runyan but right now with the expected healthy return of former Pro Bowl player Shawn Andrews (back) seem to be much improved and could quite possibly be one of the best O-lines in the NFL.
The draft additions of Missouri WR Jeremy Maclin (1st Rd), RB LeSean McCoy (2nd Rd), and field-stretching tight end Cornelius Ingram (5th Rd) had to make quarterback Donovan McNabb ready to take aim at the Eagles' almost 50-year NFL Championship drought.
Maclin will help on special teams and is an explosive player with the ball in his hands, McCoy will be able to handle 10 to 12 touches a game to keep running back Brian Westbrook fresh and Ingram along with Brent Celek will be counted on to replace perennial-underachiever L.J. Smith at the tight end position.
The Birds also addressed their short-yardage woes by signing top free agent fullback Leonard Weaver (Seahawks). With all of the changes along the offensive side of the ball, it will now be up to McNabb, Westbrook and emerging receiver DeSean Jackson to find a way to get the youngsters and newcomers to gel quickly.
Defensively the Eagles hope to maintain their current perch as the NFC’s number one ranked defense (274.3 yards allowed per game).
Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson is back for another season and he will look for defensive tackle Mike Patterson and cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Pro-Bowler Asante Samuel plus middle linebacker Stewart Bradley to fill the huge leadership void left by the departure of Dawkins.
The key to the defense I believe will be getting pressure (48 sacks), so the secondary including Brown, Samuel, and safety Quintin Mikell plus newcomers safety Sean Jones (Browns), Victor “Macho” Harris (5th Rd), and cornerback Ellis Hobbs can make some big plays.
The obstacles that I see in front of the Eagles other than the aforementioned extremely tough NFC East are:
Leadership will be a huge factor as former Pro-Bowlers and team cornerstones Runyan, Tra Thomas, and Dawkins held court in the Eagles lockerroom for the past 10 years. It will be up to McNabb to be a “leader” and to not just say it in press conferences.
This team must gel after adding about 15 new faces this offseason.
After 10 years and 100 wins under head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Donovan McNabb but no championship, complacency is a huge pitfall for this team.
Many fans are wondering if the Eagles can ever get over the hump and whether or not the team is still listening to the franchise’s dynamic duo.
The Eagles face a tough schedule that features nine teams that were .500 or better in 2008, so they must get off to a fast start as they started 2-3 in 2008.
They face three NFC South teams in the season’s first four weeks (at Carolina in WK1, Saints in WK2, and Bucs in WK4).
Injuries are key, just like any team in the NFL. An early bye-week in the fourth week of the season may sound good now, but come November and December many Eagles will probably be wishing they had a week off.
Especially running back Brian Westbrook who seems to always be slowed at the end of the season.
The Eagles linebackers need to make more game-changing plays— the entire unit only had 5.5 sacks and 1 interception. The NFL is now built on hybrid players and schemes at the linebacking positions.