Eagles Looking to Nest Atop National Football League

mike giongoContributor IMay 19, 2009

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 18:  Quarterback Donovan McNabb #5 of the Philadelphia Eagles looks down the line during the NFC championship game against the Arizona Cardinals on January 18, 2009 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Last season, the Eagles were the epitome of an under-the-radar and, by the way, tremendously lucky football team, having experienced a litany of ups and downs to finish a workmanlike 9-6-1. 

The Birds seemed like a well-oiled machine at points during the season, and completely out of sorts at other moments.

One needs only this to understand the team's season: the Eagles rolled into Washington with playoff destiny in their hands and blew the game against a ornery Redskins squad led by up and comer, QB Jason Campbell in Week 16, which almost dashed their playoff hopes.

The following week, with a sliver of hope and all on the line, the Eagles jumped all over a cocky and confident Dallas squad from the onset.

The game was effectively over by halftime, much to the delight of the blood-thirsty fans at the Linc. 

The victory catapulted them into the playoffs on a miraculous playoff-like day, which also saw the Tampa Bay Bucs upset by the visiting Oakland Raiders on the back of RB Michael Bush's best day as a pro.

From then on, the Birds made a thrilling playoff run, winning two physical battles against the Minnesota Vikings and the top-seeded division rial New York Giants, but lost in a crushing (only as Philly could disappoint) fashion to the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game.

Nonetheless, the Eagles' success in the playoffs has inspired great expectations in many for a killer 2009 campaign.

Offensively, the team has done a great deal of retooling. Donovan McNabb, although benched last year and often criticized throughout his career, has been an efficient, top tier QB for over a decade.

He is armed with some major weapons in the form of the versatile and elusive RB Brian Westbrook and lightning-fast second-year sensation WR DeSean Jackson.

In addition to this, the Eagles had a splendid draft, nabbing Missouri WR Jeremy Maclin, Pittsburgh RB LeSean McCoy, and Florida TE Cornelius Ingram. These players provide the Eagles with a much-needed upgrade in team speed. 

The additions of Maclin and Ingram, along with incumbent TE Brent Celek, should surely boost the vertical and  the short-yardage, dip-and-dunk West Coast passing attack. 

Only time will tell if McCoy turns into Westbrook's potential replacement.  He runs with deceptive power, along with great speed and solid receiving skills, adding an extra dimension to both the running and passing game. 

FB Leonard Weaver, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks, was signed; many analysts believe that this is the first time the Eagles have had a true fullback in over a decade. 

Weaver is a smash mouth lead blocker who will assist in opening holes for Westbrook and McCoy and should help the former return to All-Pro status after a fairly lackluster, injury-plagued 2008 season.

He also displays talent as a threatening rusher and receiver, giving the Eagles a three-dimensional back who truly fits the mold of coach Andy Reid's offensive system.

The offensive line, although early in preseason it looked in utter disarray and transition due to the loss of stalwart starting tackles, Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan, has compensated for this with what many analyst feel is the best pick-ups of the offseason with the additions of the agile Jason Peters and mauler Stacy Andrews, brother of Eagles guard Shawn Andrews.

Shawn Andrews, returning from a 2008 campaign in which he struggled through injuries and psychological issues, should make a return to form; the addition of his brother should be a steadying influence in this regard. 

Arguably the most important move of the off-season, though, was the trade for former Pro-Bowler Peters from the Buffalo Bills.

Peters, endorsed by Andy Reid as the premier left tackle in the game, assures McNabb the back side protection he needs to thrive in the West Coast System.

The ground game should be much improved, with a strong right side of the line (the Andrews brothers) to set the tone and more bulk with Peters, left guard Todd Herremans and center Jamaal Jackson.

With a revamped line and receiving corps, along with a dangerous backfield, the Eagles seem destined to inflict a multi-faceted attack on opposing defenses.

On the other side of the ball, the defensive unit is riding high with pride from a season in which they were ranked third overall.

A versatile defensive line, anchored by the high-motor Trent Cole and disruptive tackles Mike Patterson and Broderick Bunkley, was key to much of the team's success last year, as they rushed the passer with aplomb and were able to collapse lines on running plays.

However, it can be argued that the linebacking corps displayed the most growth last year, with up-and-coming MLB Stewart Bradley fresh off of a 108-tackle year.

Another returning starter is run-stopping OLB Chris Gocong; at the other outside spot, Omar Gaither and Akeem Jordan will compete. Gaither and Jordan both have talent and speed, but Gaither lost his starting job to Jordan midway last season.

This should be one of the most intriguing and intense battles of training camp, with Gaither aiming to reestablish himself as a defensive force and Jordan looking to continue his solid play from the second half of 2008.

If there is a deeper secondary in the NFL than that of the Eagles, it surely does not come to mind.

Although recovering from the loss of potential Hall-of-Famer FS Brian Dawkins, there is more than enough talent for the Birds to continue their high level of play in defensive backfield.

All-Pro SS Quintin Mikell returns after establishing himself as a fierce run-stopper and should boost a run defense with a lot of size; while not the speediest d-back, he more than compensates for that with his highlight-reel hits and aggressive play.

There is also a multitude of more than able CBs, with starters Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown, and backups Joselio Hanson and Ellis Hobbs.

Samuel is a interception machine with the ability to break open a game, and Brown is a multi-dimensional corner who can dually cover and stop the run.

Although Brown has demanded a trade, the Eagles can compensate for this potential loss with the speed of Hanson, who had a breakout season last year as a nickelback, and Hobbs, who has starting experience with the Patriots.

At FS, second-year pro Quintin Demps will compete with the additions of Sean Jones and Rashad Baker to hopefully fill the big shoes of Dawkins.

Demps was generally solid in limited action, but he suffered from some rookie mistakes last year; a play in which he was beaten by Larry Fitzgerald for a 62-yard touchdown in the Championship Game comes to mind.

These mistakes should be limited, though, as Demps will grow with experience. Jones, a former starter for the Cleveland Browns, was a solid, physical player on a struggling team and provides more than legitimate competition for Demps.

Baker, who is playing for his hometown team (a native of local Philadelphia), is somewhat unproven, but is a player waiting for a shot to break out, adding another level to this fierce battle.

Despite a few open positions, many of the starters from last year's defense return, all but ensuring that this unit will continue its high-caliber play from last year.

The special teams were vastly improved last year, compared to some past seasons. The Eagles boast two quality return men, with the elusive DeSean Jackson and downhill runner Demps taking punts and kicks to the house, respectively.

Since Brian Mitchell, the Birds have struggled to find quality return men, but Jackson and Demps have proven themselves to be the real deal.

In addition, draft selections Jeremy Maclin and Virginia Tech DB Macho Harris, who were both quality special-teamers in college, and Hobbs, a gamebreaker with his former team, provide more than adequate depth, should Demps and/or Jackson become full-time starters or in the case of injury to either player.

The Eagles coverage units have been mediocre over the past several seasons, and they look to turn that mediocrity into solid with the influx of young talent over the last year.

Andy Reid, in his 11th year as the Philadelphia Eagles head coach, has been the master chef that has cooked up many quality teams over the past 10 seasons.

Reid is known to add a touch of attitude and more than a punch of aggressive play, and has instituted offensive and defensive schemes that have been a recipe for a mostly successful tenure.

Marty Mornhinweg, the offensive coordinator, has implemented Reid's West Coast passing system into his play calling; it has had a fair number of detractors and can be erratic, but the reward is greater than the risk, as many huge plays have been made offensively throughout their tenures.

Widely speculated is the fact that the Eagles will implement more running (when we see it we will believe it) into their offensive gameplans, and this can do nothing but help this offensive unit.

Jim Johnson, the defensive coordinator, is widely renowned as a true mastermind of the X's and O's of Defensive football.

His blitz packages and coverage schemes have consistently limited even the best offenses and propelled his units to the top echelon in the NFL for years.

Unfortunately, Johnson has taken a leave for cancer treatment, and the secondary coach, Sean McDermott, will fill in as DC.

There is no timetable set on Johnson's return, but, hopefully, McDermott will continue to preach the intelligent, aggressive play that has made this defense unit highly successful. 

Time will give a clear indication of the emotional impact on the defensive unit and the team in general.

Although the Eagles have lost some key veterans, they are riding a tide of optimism, hopeful that their present talent and additions through free agency and an above average draft will result in a tournament-bound season.

With an improved offense and efficient defense, along with a solid special teams and strong team attitude, there is simply no reason for this team not to win; the table is set and the pieces are in place for a memorable 2009.