Eight Key Questions That Will Define the Philadelphia Eagles 2010 Season
From the time that the team departed Dallas dazed from dual demolitions at the end of last season until now, the Philadelphia Eagles have engaged in a dramatic make-over.
High profile players exited, new blood was infused, and young players have been elevated to leading roles. With every "OTA" we get a little bit more data and insight that helps to highlight the keys to the upcoming season.
As mini-camp heads toward completion, there are eight key questions that will largely define success for the team in 2010.
How these get answered will play a large role in determining whether the Eagles will be a legitimate contender, an also ran, or even a basement dweller.
1. Will Kevin Kolb be all that?
A much chronicled changing of the guard at the quarterback position is, of course, the biggest story of the offseason.
And, it will continue to be the biggest storyline and key to the upcoming season.
Kevin Kolb, fresh off three NFL regular season starts, has been handed the role that had been held down for 10-plus seasons by Donovan McNabb.
There is considerable confidence amongst the team and fan base that Kolb will more than adequately fill the shoes of the best quarterback in franchise history.
In fact, there is abundant sentiment that the team will be better off with the new signal caller as he might be a better fit for the "West Coast" scheme and considering the laundry list of McNabb transgressions, ranging from throwing accuracy to air guitar.
Bravado aside, Kolb is going to have to prove it between the white lines. Surrounded with an arsenal of weapons, Kolb will need to do more than rack up yards.
He will also need to avoid the turnovers that have dotted his NFL career thus far. There is no quicker path to the basement than a gratuitous ration of balls on the ground or passes to the wrong color uniform.
Forget the bag of chips— the biggest question this year is whether Kevin Kolb will be all that?
2. Will center be a fatal flaw?
The loss of center Jamaal Jackson happened to coincide with a total meltdown of the Eagles offense at the end of last season.
Prior to the injury, the Birds were the most prolific scoring unit in club history, afterward not so much.
The team's 429 points after 15 games broke the franchise record set a season earlier, but the number did not move when the Eagles laid a goose egg in Dallas with the division on the line to end the regular season.
They followed that up with a 14 point "outburst" in the Wild Card contest the following week.
Both games were marked by a total dominance by the Cowboys at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, but especially against the Eagles offensive unit.
Donovan McNabb appeared to be accessorizing his midnight green uni with Cowboys players as they were draped all over him.
In light of this, it is surprising the Eagles brass has not placed higher priority on shoring up this position for the upcoming season.
Jackson's knee reconstruction will likely keep him off the field until at least mid-season, but regardless of the timing, there is considerable question as to how effective he will be.
What is the plan? And, like the crash landing at the end of last season, will this be a fatal flaw that kills the overall offensive effectiveness?
3. Can Nate Allen be a difference maker?
With free agent acquisition Marlin Jackson already suffering another devastating season-ending injury, all attention turns to second-round draft pick Nate Allen to play a key role in revitalizing the secondary.
The value of a Brian Dawkins was on display for all 17 games last season.
With the beloved player donning orange and blue in 2009, the void left behind resulted in missed assignments, receivers gleefully catching balls across the middle, running backs finding more daylight, and the defense losing an important dimension in its blitzing schemes.
In order for the Birds to be effective on defense, this will have to change— at least partially. Can Allen provide enough of a presence to eliminate a glaring weakness? Can he elevate beyond that and be a true difference maker?
4. Is LeSean McCoy ready to be "the man" in the backfield?
Rookie LeSean McCoy turned in a solid performance in 2009 after coming out of college early.
He demonstrated the well rounded running and receiving skills necessary in an Andy Reid offense.
Because former mainstay Brian Westbrook saw limited action due to injuries, McCoy got the lion's share of work at running back.
With one quick call to Westbrook's cell phone in March, Shady officially became "the man."
Although others like Leonard Weaver, Mike Bell, and rookie Charles Scott could see considerable action, McCoy's continued development should prove critical to achieving offensive success.
The big question is whether McCoy can take his game from "rookie solid" to become a true threat out of the backfield?
Gone is McNabb's improvisational and deep passing ability. Gone is Westbrook's explosiveness. A little more elusiveness out of the backfield would help to open the passing lanes in a more bunched up offense.
5. Will winning leaders emerge?
With the offseason makeover, the Eagles became one of the youngest teams in the NFL.
They also jettisoned three more leaders from the most prosperous era in team history with the departures of McNabb, Westbrook, and Sheldon Brown.
In the recent past, the club also lost other key leaders such as Dawkins, Jon Runyan, and Tra Thomas. That pretty much makes a clean sweep of the veteran leadership during that period.
Now, discussions center on Kolb, Brent Celek, Stewart Bradley, and DeSean Jackson stepping into leadership roles.
It remains to be seen whether they can pull that off— and if they will model and elicit behavior that fosters a winning culture.
Kolb had been quiet and nondescript publicly in his clipboard toting days, but current players have praised his presence on the field.
Celek and Bradley seem to have the make-up and talent to gain followership.
Although Reid has given him a vote of confidence, Jackson appears more likely to become a T.O.-like diva than the next Brian Dawkins.
Recent comments and actions seem to suggest that Jackson's current priorities might be finances, stats, and winning—in that order.
Leadership is critical for success in the tough and competitive NFL world. Only time will tell how this evolves with the current roster.
6. Will Stewart Bradley shore up the linebacking corps?
Last year's linebacking corps was in a constant state of flux—both from game to game and from play to play.
Rookie Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott perpetually rotated personnel in an attempt to cover player limitations and in anticipation of the offensive play call.
This became tantamount to announcing the defensive scheme.
The Cowboys routinely exploited this in the final two games. Tony Romo would often audible based on the defensive personnel to expose player weaknesses.
Prior to suffering a season ending knee injury last summer, Stewart Bradley was emerging as a scheme-diverse linebacker capable of stuffing the run, but agile enough to drop into coverage.
An uncompromised, productive Bradley would go a long way towards reducing predictability and improving the overall defense.
7. Will the loss of Sheldon Brown cripple the defense?
An undeniable aspect of human nature is that often times people are not fully appreciated until they are gone. My hunch is that this will be the case with Sheldon Brown.
Brown lined up every week and competed hard. He also operating mostly just under the radar in terms of official recognition as he is less flashy than good.
Trading him away to Cleveland for a draft pick might prove to be problematic. Ellis Hobbs is penciled in to take his spot, but he was already a notch below before suffering a serious neck injury that ended his 2009 season.
A key element to enable the Eagles' Jim Johnson signature attacking defense is corners capable of handling receivers in single coverage.
A weak link at corner undermines the whole scheme and leads to big gainers.
8. Can Brandon Graham and Darryl Tapp make the pass rush a force?
Offseason activity highlighted that Andy Reid and Howie Roseman clearly saw a need to upgrade the pass rush.
They traded with Seattle to acquire Darryl Tapp and paid a small ransom to move up in the draft to select Brandon Graham.
Tapp has specialized in getting to the quarterback, but not necessarily bringing him down. He registered but 2.5 sacks a year ago, but was seventh in the league with 17 "hurries."
The key attribute that made Graham most attractive to the Eagles is that he has a "non-stop motor." Like Trent Cole, he will relentlessly work towards his goal of getting to the QB until the whistle blows.
Persistence pays. Besides wearing down blockers, eventually a dogmatic, max-effort approach can find the crack to make a big play.
The Eagles hope that the two can help elevate the pass rush to be a game changing force. A nugget of prevailing wisdom in the NFL has long been that "it all starts up front."
Simply put, big-time pressure by the defensive line minimizes the need to gamble with blitz packages and suddenly makes all the other defenders on the field a little bit better.
Will Reid and Roseman's blitz to bag Graham and Tapp sack an obvious weakness from last season?
The Final Word
Perhaps more so than anytime in the past 10 years, forecasting how the Eagles will fare this season is particularly challenging.
The team has engaged in an almost complete purge of the veteran players who led this period of unprecedented success.
Some players like Kolb will move from the supporting cast to a leading part. Other young players such as Allen and Graham will be asked to play important roles despite little or no NFL experience.
And, players rebounding from injury such as Jackson, Bradley and Hobbs are being counted on to not only return to previous form, but perhaps to take their play to the next level.
There are clearly a lot of variables in the equation. Success does not hinge, however, on all these unknowns being answered affirmatively.
Some have obvious greater import than others. However, many are symbiotic in nature and the degree of success achieved in any individual area has the potential to overcome other less successful areas.
For instance, everyone can agree that a huge pass rush would take a great deal of pressure off the secondary.
On the other side of the ball, the importance of McCoy's play would surely be lessened if Kolb turns out to be "all that— and a bag of chips."