After one of the most shocking offseasons in recent memory, the Philadelphia Eagles are being labeled by many in the media as a "Super Bowl or Bust" team. And after the amount of high-priced talent and Pro Bowl caliber players added during the offseason to a team that was already one of the best in the NFC, that seems to be a fair standard.
The question now becomes: what must this Eagles team do in order to translate their on-paper talent into on-field success? Read on to find out.
As always, comments are welcome and appreciated.
Every team with Super Bowl hopes needs to have a special teams unit that can get it done: a kicker with ice in his veins that can knock the game-winning FG through the uprights in absolutely atrocious conditions, the punter that can consistently pin an opponent deep in their own zone, a disciplined coverage team that doesn't allow back-breaking returns.
The Eagles, despite their otherwise remarkable offseason, took a step back in the special teams department. Long time Eagles kicker David Akers, known around the league as one of the best in the business, is now a 49er. Sav Rocca, the Eagles veteran punter for the last three seasons, is now a member of the Washington Redskins. A few key members of the Eagles' special teams units have been replaced.
Despite the changes, however, the Eagles still have one of the best special teams coordinators in the NFL in Bobby April, a gifted young kicker in Alex Henery, and a talented group of youngsters vying for spots on the special teams coverage units. How quickly those units can gel together will be a major key for the team going forward. If the special teams units are able to consistently pin opponents deep in their own zone, it sets the table perfectly for the team's suddenly terrifying defense to play its aggressive style with abandon.
In terms of players, the biggest unknown here is Henery. While his mantle is already filled with awards and honors, he has yet to make an NFL field goal. He has not proven he can make the kick with millions watching in a nationally-televised game, with icy winds howling and a hostile crowd screaming. David Akers, by and large, made those kicks. Will Henery be able to do the same?
If he can't, the Eagles' season could come to yet another premature end.
While the Eagles defense has arguably two of the top five CBs in the NFL (and three of the top 15), the other part of the team's secondary—the safeties—are not nearly as established. Second-year FS Nate Allen had a strong rookie campaign until a torn patellar tendon ended his season. Second-round selection Jaiquawn Jarrett figures to compete with Kurt Coleman for the team's starting SS job.
Combined, all three have a whopping 84 tackles, two sacks, and four interceptions. That's not stellar production by any stretch of the imagination. With the corners the Eagles have on their roster, teams are going to be focusing on trying to exploit match-ups between a slot WR, TE or RB and one of the Eagles' young safeties. For the team to succeed, Allen, Jarrett, and Coleman will need to bring their "A" game week in and week out.
Having the best CB tandem in the NFL doesn't mean a whole lot if the team's safeties can't provide appropriate support over the middle and can't consistently cover the opposition's TE/WR/RB. With teams like the Packers and Falcons in the NFC, the pressure will be on the other members of the Eagles secondary to take away players like Packers' TE J. Finley and Falcons' TE T. Gonzalez.
If they can't, it will force the Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo to be less aggressive and drop more players into coverage to compensate. For an aggressive defense that is built on quick pressure and forcing turnovers, that is not a recipe for success.
The Eagles' defense boasts a whopping five Pro Bowlers and at least two potential Hall of Famers. The man asked to lead that group is a 22-year-old rookie who happens to be related to five current or former NFL players. His name is Casey Matthews. He was a fourth round draft pick in the 2011 NFL Draft out of Oregon. And right now, as I write this, he is taking snaps with the first team defense at the MLB position for the Philadelphia Eagles.
For a team with Super Bowl expectations, you'd expect the defense to be led by an established star. A player that could command the respect of the huddle, that knew how to read an offense, that understood what it took to win at the NFL level. Instead, the Eagles are led by a rookie who has yet to see his first NFL action. The rest of the LB core is not much better—Jamar Chaney has less than 50 career tackles and Moise Fokou and Kennan Clayon combined have less than 100 career solo tackles. Not exactly a group that inspires much confidence.
But so what? The Eagles under Reid have neve placed a value (let along a high value) on their LB corps. Of course, the Eagles under Reid have also not won a Super Bowl. Could there be a connection?
Going back over the most recent Super Bowl Champions, a pattern starts to emerge: they all have very good LB corps. And it makes sense. LBs are the core of the defense, literally and figuratively. They need to be able to stop the run, defend the pass, blitz, and spy at a high level depending on the situation. With the team playing a Wide 9 defensive front under Washburn, more pressure is going to be on this group to perform. If they can't consistently stop the run and get pressure on the blitz, the Eagles are going to struggle a bit on the defensive end.
I am not saying this group of LBs is bad; I'm saying this group is talented and unproven. They are a major question mark. And while there is no single "magic formula" for Super Bowl success, a number of good recipes from recent years suggest that excellent play for a team's LB corps is a key ingredient.
Its no secret that playoff games are won and lost in the trenches. And its no surprise that the Eagles, even with the prolific Michael Vick at QB, lost because of it. The Eagles' offensive line last season was mediocre at best and horrendous at worst. For the team to find success this season, the unit will need to improve by leaps and bounds and maintain that level of play over the course of a full season.
The Front Office took the first step toward improving the line way back in February, when the lured Offensive Line Wizard Howard Mudd out of retirement and back onto the NFL sidelines. For those who don't know, Mudd was the architect of the Colts' offensive line from 1998-2009, during which time the team allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL. He's regarded by many as the top O-line coach in the business. And he's known for his no-nonsense, results-driven approach to coaching.
Following that move, the team selected OG Danny Watkins in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft, signed OG Evan Mathis and OT Ryan Harris, and re-activated C Jamaal Jackson from IR. Three of those four players are expected to join veteran OG Todd Herremans and OT Jason Peters to form what the team hopes is a Championship-caliber Offensive Line.
Last season, the Eagles' Offensive Line surrendered 34 sacks to QB Michael Vick in just 12 games and another 15 to Kevin Kolb for a total of 49. And that was just the regular season. For a team that hopes to win the Super Bowl in 2012, that is unacceptable. Period.
If the Eagles offensive line can't get it together and dramatically improve their play, the Eagles don't stand a chance of making it the Super Bowl, let alone winning it. It's really that simple.
While I typically don't like to reference Reggie Jackson, there is no more apt way to describe Vick's importance to this Eagles team than to say that he is the Straw the Stirs the Drink. Without him, they are a playoff contender. With him, they are a Super Bowl favorite.
In just two short years, Vick has gone from prison to the Pro Bowl. Had it not been for Tom Brady's absolutely stellar season in 2010, Vick would have likely won League MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. He's re-taken the NFL by storm, showing off his cannon for an arm and world-class speed and quickness.
The Eagles need Vick to take his game to the next level in 2011. He needs to improve his accuracy (it was much better in 2010, but there is still room for improvement), avoid more hits, and go through his reads more effectively. If Vick can do that, the Eagles' offense will be more dangerous (scary thought) and their defense will be able to blitz more (scarier thought).
But it all starts with No. 7. He is the most essential key to the Eagles' Super Bowl aspirations. He is the straw the stirs the drink.