The Dream Team That Wasn't: A Cautionary Tale for Free Agency

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistMarch 7, 2016

Philadelphia Eagles' Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (23),  Nate Allen (29) and  Nnamdi Asomugha (24) wait to run onto the field before an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

In the summer heat on a sprawling campus built into the side of a mountain about halfway between Philadelphia and New York, quarterback Vince Young, wearing a green visor and a red practice jersey, walks into a press conference tent to be introduced as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.

He takes a seat and handles tough questions about getting cut by the Tennessee Titans and his new role as a backup to Michael Vick. After about five minutes, Eagles public relations director Derek Boyko calls for the last question. NFL Network reporter Scott Hanson tosses up an innocuous one. 

"What about the pieces this team has added in just the last few days?"

Young, the former third overall pick in the 2006 draft and a two-time Pro Bowler, does not pause to think. "Aww, Dream Team, heh, heh, heh, heh. From Nnamdi [Asomugha] to [Dominique Rodgers-]Cromartie, to Jason [Babin] to myself, you know they are going to do some more things. It's just beautiful to see where we're trying to go."

Dream Team.

Two words uttered that day in the summer of 2011 made us forget the other 922 words Young spoke into the microphone. Young and everyone else associated with the team would be dancing around those two words for the rest of the season. What Young should have realized is there are all kinds of dreams, and many are best left in the recesses of our minds.

Young could be blamed for boldness, but not for enthusiasm. The truth is many of his teammates expressed similar optimism, lacking only enduring catchphrases.

Babin took to Twitter to declare:

The Dream Team concept had not worked as planned for the 2010-11 Miami Heat, as they lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals nearly two months before the Eagles borrowed their formula. In theory, it should have been much easier for a basketball team than a football team to apply the concept.

In reality, it was.

"If you know Vince, you know he's a fun-loving guy, a carefree guy. He didn't mean to make a headline. But before he even finished the answer, I'm like, 'Thank you, I have the sound bite I need for my piece.' A couple of the writers there were saying it wasn't that big a deal. I'm like, ‘You have no idea how big this is going to be. This is not going to be a one-day sound bite; it's going to be a 365-day-a-year sound bite.' Now it's been a five-year sound bite." — Scott Hanson

The Eagles were coming off three straight playoff seasons. They won the NFC East the year before with the No. 2 offense in the league. Now, with the veteran additions of cornerback Asomugha, defensive end Babin, running back Ronnie Brown, cornerback Rodgers-Cromartie, defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, tight end Donald Lee, guard Evan Mathis, wide receiver Steve Smith and Young, they were loaded. Their roster featured 10 players who had made 25 Pro Bowl appearances between them.

They were given 15-2 odds to win the Super Bowl, according to Covers.com. The dream picked up steam with a 31-13 road win over the then-St. Louis Rams in their season opener.

But then the Eagles dropped four straight games the oddsmakers said they were supposed to win. New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz had his coming-out party against Asomugha and company during the streak with three catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns. 

By October, "Dream Team" had become a taunt.

When the Eagles failed, sometimes it was spectacular. They were 13-point favorites over the Cardinals in November, but Arizona backup quarterback John Skelton passed for 315 yards and three touchdowns in a 21-17 upset in Philly. Young was picked off four times in another upset on a Thursday night in Seattle.

Heading into the final quarter of the season, the Eagles were 4-8. Then they won their last four games, which only made what happened previously in the season that much more frustrating.

"It was the most disappointing team I have been on," Jenkins said. "We had such high expectations. It was a team that was used to winning, going to the playoffs year after year. To underachieve to the level we did was pretty bad."

The 2011 Eagles ranked fourth in yards gained and eighth in yards allowed—not bad. But it did not equate to success.

"Vince was saying we have a team that is full of talent and we could do some great things with it. He was right. We were talented from the starting lineup to third string. We had starting-caliber players as backups. You have to expect big things when you have that much talent." — Trent Cole

The Dream Team was not assembled illogically or haphazardly. In fact, a rough blueprint was drawn up years earlier.

In 2008 and 2009, the Eagles designed contracts so that salary-cap hits would be lowest in 2011. In 2010, the Eagles chose to be conservative in free agency because that year, six years of service were required for freedom, and the pool of free agents in their prime subsequently was smaller than usual. In 2011, the requirements for free agency went back to four years of service, so there would be a bigger-than-usual pool of free agents.

So the Eagles did not just wade into the free-agent waters in 2011. They dove in, with little regard for rocks with sharp edges.

"We had been so close so many times, so there was a decision to be a lot more aggressive than we had ever been in free agency, or at least be open to it if players were available," said Joe Banner, who was the Eagles president at the time. "And we probably were going to be more open to overpaying than we had been in the past to try to take advantage of where we were at and finally winning a Super Bowl. We had the cap room, and we felt there was going to be opportunity."

Pursuing Asomugha, the big fish of free agency, was never part of the plan. But the market for him was soft and his price dipped, so the plan changed.

Rich Schultz/Associated Press

Signing Young was a somewhat controversial move, even though he was brought in as a backup. In his first five years in the league, Young had a 30-17 record as a starter. He was only 28 years old when the Eagles signed him. But he really was not head coach Andy Reid's kind of player.

Some owners get distracted by things that sparkle and shine. They can't help themselves. Jeffrey Lurie, for the most part, has governed with a level head and stayed on a sensible course in his 22 years in Philadelphia. This one year, though, he may have veered off track.

A year earlier, he had promoted Howie Roseman, then 35, to general manager and bumped Banner to a position in which he would have less day-to-day influence. Now Lurie and his new GM were in a position to make bold moves for the first time and put their mark on the team. Lurie, a scion of the family that started General Cinema movie theaters, mostly was concerned with the big picture. He fostered a win-now mentality, and Roseman was charged with executing it.

The Eagles had a stable of evaluators who were proven, clear thinkers. Also on board were player personnel director Ryan Grigson and pro personnel director Louis Riddick. But there were unusual circumstances in 2011.

"Vince is a good guy, and he was just joking. It kind of grew as things went. He wasn't trying to label the team. He was just throwing it out in jest. If you win more games, it's all good. If you don't, it becomes an issue. That's what happened. He wasn't used to the magnitude of the Philadelphia media and how a small thing like that can snowball on you." — Andy Reid

What no one—not the execs who put together the Dream Team, the player who called it a Dream Team, the media who latched onto the title—could have imagined going into the season is that only one of the additions the Eagles made that offseason would have a positive impact. Aside from Babin, who had a career-high 18 sacks and made the Pro Bowl, the additions mostly were duds.

At 30, it looked like Asomugha hit the wall. He primarily had been a man corner over his career in Oakland. The Eagles deployed him mostly in a zone scheme, and his performance was mediocre. Rodgers-Cromartie, acquired in a trade with Arizona for quarterback Kevin Kolb, was criticized for his lack of physicality.

Steve Smith, a Pro Bowler for the rival Giants in 2009, failed to bounce back from 2010 microfracture knee surgery. He caught 11 passes before going on injured reserve with a bone bruise in his bad knee.

Brown, who previously had a career yards-per-attempt average of 4.3, averaged 3.2 yards that season. Lee, a part-time starter for the previous four seasons in Green Bay, was let go before the season began.

One out of every 13 of Young's 114 throws were caught by an opponent. It was the last season of his career.

Some of the new Eagles did not come as advertised. Some didn't fit their new schemes well. Some just didn't belong. 

"Even if you feel that way, [calling it a Dream Team] is something you should keep to yourself. You don't want to put unnecessary pressure on the team. You don't want to make your team a target to other teams and give them bulletin board material. Every other team put the bull's-eye on us after that." — Cullen Jenkins

If Vince Lombardi himself had come to life to give this team a speech about the virtues of football, the 2011 Eagles probably would have looked at him as if he were speaking Latin. Many of the foundations of great football teams—chemistry, leadership, character, continuity—are incongruous to the Dream Team concept.

"We didn't jell together well," Jenkins said. "There were different personality types. We didn't come together as a unit. It's tough to say if we lacked leadership. When you get a lot of new players, it's hard to establish who the leader is. You had a lot of high-profile names. People were coming into a system new, so you really don't want to step on anybody's toes. You are trying to feel out the organization, the other players, how they do things, the expectations."

Young had a high profile but a low work ethic. He didn't fit as a backup; he had to be a starter.

Michael Perez/Associated Press

While not a negative force, Asomugha was a worse leader than he was a cornerback. By multiple accounts, he didn't work to develop relationships with teammates. After he left, stories emerged about him taking his lunch to his car and eating alone.

"People outside saw it [as] strange that he would eat his lunch in his car talking to his fiancee instead of talking to his teammates," guard Todd Herremans said. "But I don't think that bothered a whole lot of guys in the locker room. If you approached him and wanted to talk to him, he would talk. Otherwise he kept to himself. That was his personality type. I was OK with that. I didn't need him to buddy up to me. The powers that be and the media saw it as he was segregating himself from the team."

Asomugha's inability to fully integrate was symptomatic of the real problem: The Eagles were not a team as much as a group of hired hands sharing time and space.

Some of the holdovers resented the newcomers getting cash that could have gone to their contract extensions.

"When you are paying a lot of money to a number of free agents from different teams, it can send a message to the rest of the players on the team who were drafted and developed," Roseman said.

"I remember having what we thought was an outstanding squad. We looked great. Then Vince gave the dreaded Dream Team moniker, and it seemed like things went downhill as soon as he said that." — Todd Herremans

Of all the years to try to do a Dream Team, 2011 was the worst. A collective bargaining standoff led to players being locked out all offseason. There were no OTAs, no minicamps and no offseason study sessions. Training camp was abbreviated. And free agency did not begin until July 29.

Things happened fast for the 2011 Eagles. There weren't enough meetings to learn the offense, not enough practices to develop timing, not enough locker room time to bond.

"Maybe we underestimated how difficult it was to bring that many new people in and get them integrated into the system all at once, especially given the unique circumstances of that season," Banner said.

"It took a while to get everybody going and learn the system," Reid said. "That's the risk when you do that."

Henny Ray Abrams/Associated Press

The situation was made more difficult because of upheaval on a coaching staff that had been one of the most stable in the league. Reid hired new line coaches—Howard Mudd on offense and Jim Washburn on defense. The Eagles started using more zone-blocking schemes and the Wide 9 defensive alignment.

Reid moved longtime offensive line coach Juan Castillo to defensive coordinator, which was met with skepticism because Castillo had last coached defense 22 years earlier at Kingsville High School in Texas.

"I believe Juan did a better job of coaching than he got credit for," Banner said. "I'm not saying he did a great job. But it was portrayed that he was a complete disaster. I don't think that's fair. The problem is the players really didn't believe in the decision."

What Young said that summer day did not doom the Eagles. His words merely drew attention to the reality that a locker room cannot be stocked as if it were a wine rack.

"It didn't work the way we all hoped," Reid said. "It wasn't the players' fault. They tried their hardest. It was a unique challenge. You learn from those things. There are some valuable lessons you can take from it."

Roseman feels similarly. "All of us will take lessons we learned that year with us the rest of our career when we are building teams," he said.

Five years later, as another round of free agency is about to begin, those lessons should resonate in every front office.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.