On paper, this year’s Philadelphia Eagles have improved and many are calling them the NFC favorites. That and a dollar will buy you a double cheeseburger at McDonald’s.
How the Eagles handle their new personnel and how that will affect their playbook is another story. Even May mini-camp doesn’t provide much insight.
Sure, it’s good to see the players on the field in helmets (and shorts) but it’s hard to gather much from a spring practice session with less contact than a Memorial Day sale at Old Navy.
Even Lorenzo Booker’s impressive mini-camp to NFC Championship game deactivation in 2008 won’t stop anyone from envisioning what those changes might look like in September. Here’s how the 2009 Eagles could differ from last year’s version:
On Offense: More (Effective) Running
“We’re striving to lead the league in rushing this year,” said head coach Andy Reid when asked about the 2009 running game earlier this year.
He was joking.
Although the offseason additions to the offensive line (Stacy Andrews and Jason Peters), at fullback (Leonard Weaver) and in the draft (LeSean McCoy) sure make them look serious about improving the running game. A healthy Brian Westbrook and Shawn Andrews won’t hurt either.
With the additions, it’s possible the Eagles will be more effective running the ball but it doesn’t guarantee the team will run more often. This is Andy Reid’s offense even if Marty Mornhinweg is the offensive coordinator, let’s not forget.
The Eagles should find a reason to use new fullback Weaver, though. And that might be the key to resurrecting some pretty abysmal offensive numbers wrapped around an impressive 416-point season:
· Red Zone Effectiveness: 31 TDs in 63 trips
· Goal-to-Go Effectiveness: 68% TDs
· Third/Fourth-and-One Conversions: 50%
In 2008, the Eagles got little from their fullbacks. The position delivered 28 carries for 88 yards (3.1 yards per carry) and 12 receptions for 78 yards (6.5 yards per carry).
While Weaver’s numbers in Seattle were not amazing, they were enough to give hope for improvement. With 30 carries for 130 yards (4.3 yards per carry) and 20 receptions for 222 yards (11.1 yards per reception) in 14 games, Weaver delivered 3.6 touches per game and 25.1 yards per game.
It’s not that the Eagles have a weapon here in Weaver, who was sold by his agent as a fullback with running ability, but he gives them something the opposition has to at least think about.
The Eagles need to spend a considerable amount of time addressing their lack of success in the Red Zone and on third-and-short. Adding plays designed to utilize their larger offensive line and the 250 lbs Weaver seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?
Maybe the confidence that Weaver should bring to the position will get him utilized more. Philadelphia didn’t use a fullback on third-and-one until Week 13. That was Kyle Eckel who ended up being four for four on third-and-one the rest of the year.
Expecting the Eagles to become a running, smash-mouth team over the course of one offseason is silly. Expecting them to utilize the new pieces available to them to improve their effectiveness the 40-45% of the time they do run, is a different story.
On Defense: Rotation, Rotation, Rotation
Take the worst case scenario with the Eagles defense; say there is a big drop-off from Brian Dawkins to his ’09 replacement and Jim Johnson misses considerable time as defensive coordinator. The team still has a deep secondary, 10 returning starters, and an interim coordinator who knows Johnson’s game plans almost as well as Johnson himself.
With acting defensive coordinator Sean McDermott at the helm, to tinker with the playbook heavily might also impact the confidence the defense and the head coach has about McDermott’s ability if the team starts off slowly.
Instead of attacking the playbook (with the exception of introducing a few looks utilizing three safeties), the Eagles should focus on the rotation of their deep defense, especially in the secondary.
While the offense looks to be improved and last year’s version was ranked 13th in the NFL in time of possession, there’s no guarantee that will improve.
Consider the fact that Philadelphia was outscored 61-24 in the fourth quarter of their seven losses (including the NFC Championship) and one has to wonder if the ’08 defense had a habit of wearing down late in games.
To fix that, the playbook isn’t the issue. However, since this offseason’s mantra has been depth, depth, and more depth on the defense, a healthy mix of the defense’s personnel should keep them fresh.
Not only will this keep the defense fresh for the fourth quarter, it allows it to continue to be aggressive without concern of wearing down.
The defense has always been known for being attacking and aggressive. A successful rotation of the talent on defense can do nothing but bolster the long-term success of the team.
Overall: Old Dogs Might Not Learn New Tricks But They Can Develop New Wrinkles
No matter what anyone thinks, the game plans might not change all that much. Let’s face it; Reid is entering his 11th year as head coach, with Mornhinweg at his side for seven of them. Heck, even if Johnson misses the entire year, McDermott has been here as long as Andy.
That being said, there’s plenty of wrinkles that can be introduced. Changing two pass plays per game to runs last year would have basically put the team in line with the rest of the league’s run-to-pass ratio. That’s not a major alteration in game planning but it’s enough to make opponents focus on both aspects of the offense.
On defense, veering from the Johnson strategy would be the perfect way for the acting defensive coordinator to lose favor with the coach, the personnel, and the fans should it not work. Talk about high-risk, low-reward.
Where McDermott can really put his mark is in managing personnel. Who starts, how much time each player sees, and where they fit in the game plan. For me, it’s too early to make calls there. There’s an entire training camp and four meaningless preseason games before those decisions need to be finalized.