Rarely has an NFL team accomplished so much and then changed so much as the Philadelphia Eagles have in the last few months.
The Eagles advanced all the way to the NFC Championship Game before losing to the Arizona Cardinals, and most teams that go that far are happy to stand pat, with maybe a roster tweak here or there.
Not the Eagles. In the last four months they have waved goodbye to four long-time starters who have played in the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl—safety Brian Dawkins, tackles Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan and cornerback Lito Sheppard.
They also lost dependable running back Correll Buckhalter and athletic tight end L.J. Smith to free agency.
The two most notable losses were Dawkins and Thomas, who signed with Denver and Jacksonville, respectively. They weren’t just talented players; they were also respected leaders in the locker room.
And the Eagles’ 2009 season will depend on how well their replacements fare on and off the field.
The Eagles’ new players include accomplished veterans and exciting rookies, and the team that takes the field for the season opener on Sept. 13 against the Carolina Panthers will look quite a bit different than the one that ended last season against the Cardinals.
“We needed to change some things on the offense, maybe in some spots where we were getting a little bit older and we needed to get a little bit younger,’’ Eagles coach Andy Reid said during the team’s recent mini-camp. “And we did that.”
Even though Dawkins’ defection to Denver got the most attention—he was voted to his seventh Pro Bowl after the 2008 season—the two losses that will affect the Eagles the most are Thomas and Runyan, who formed one of the NFL’s best tackle tandems over the last decade.
Both were durable and dependable and Thomas had been solid while protecting quarterback Donovan McNabb’s blindside, which was critical for a team that’s been as pass-happy as the Eagles have been under Reid.
But Reid also dealt himself a couple of aces by trading with Buffalo for All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters and signing budding star Stacy Andrews to man one of the other offensive line spots.
It remains to be seen whether they’re as rock-solid as Thomas and Runyan were over the last decade, but even Reid’s critics have to be impressed with how he filled two big holes so quickly and so well.
Reid also gave his offense a much-needed jolt when he drafted wide receiver Jeremy Maclin of Missouri in the first round, running back LeSean McCoy of Pittsburgh in the second round and tight end Cornelius Ingram of Florida in the fifth round. All three rookies should see plenty of playing time in 2009.
Eagles rookies usually have to pay their dues on special teams and over the years Reid has been hesitant about playing first-year players. But the success of wide receiver DeSean Jackson last season got everybody’s attention and there’s a good chance this year’s rookies will get an opportunity to make an impact.
“We’ll just take it all the way through training camp and see how they do,’’ Reid said. “If I feel like they’re ready to play then I’ll put them in there and let them go.’’
Reid didn’t ignore the defensive side of the ball in the offseason. He also traded with New England for veteran cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who will replace Sheppard in the nickel defense and could compete with unhappy cornerback Sheldon Brown for a starting job.
Plus, he signed a couple of safeties, Sean Jones and Rashad Baker, to provide competition and depth at Dawkins’ old position.
So the Eagles appear to be even better than they were last year – on paper, at least. And there’s still that X factor—leadership. Nobody is sure how the team will respond to a locker room that no longer includes Dawkins, Thomas, Runyan and Buckhalter.
“I’ve been asked that a lot, especially since Brian moved on to Denver,’’ Reid said. “…We’re fortunate enough to have some guys on the defensive side, and the offensive side, that I think have that trait, that leadership trait. What ends up happening is when the older guys leave, you see these younger guys take over.’’
But where will the younger guys take them? Nobody knows, which is why the Eagles will be one of the NFL’s most interesting stories in 2009.