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The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles: A Tragedy in Two Acts

By Patrick Wall

After last Thursday’s beatdown at the hands of Marshawn “The Candy Man” Lynch and the woeful Seattle Seahawks, the Philadelphia Eagles were all but eliminated from this year’s playoff hunt. For fans, the game’s predictable result was a bitter reminder of just how far this much-ballyhooed team had fallen in only a few short months.

Following the team’s free agency spending spree that netted CB Nnamdi Asomugha, DE Jason Babin and DT Cullen Jenkins, (among others,) the Eagles became the trendy preseason Super Bowl pick.

What the heck happened?

In truth, it’s hard to know. But there were strong signs, even in the preseason, that this is how the team’s season would play out. Ultimately, it came down to two major factors:

Arrogance and complacency.

These two things are not mutually exclusive, nor do they fall on only a handful of people. As is the case in football, everyone shares responsibility, regardless of the outcome. If this season were a play, it be a tragedy in two acts.

Let’s take a look at what went wrong with a team that is turning in one of the most disappointing seasons in recent NFL history.

ACT ONE

Arrogance: The “Dream Team,” Juan Castillo and the Wide Nine

During his introductory press conference, former Titans and current Eagles QB Vince Young was asked what it felt like to be part of the team.

Young’s two-word response will go down in Philadelphiasports infamy with the likes of “For who? For what?” and “Practice”:

“Dream Team.”

In Young’s defense—and honestly, how many times has anyone said that this season?—all he did was verbalize a feeling that, evidently, many of the other players felt.

QB Vince Young's offhand comment has come back to haunt the Eagles

And who could blame them? On paper, they were (and still are) absolutely stacked. An offense that averaged nearly 390 yards per game in 2010 gained former Giants WR Steve Smith, a bunch of new athletic o-lineman and the legendary Howard Mudd to coach them.

Defensively, the Eagles outbid the Jets and Cowboys to land the coup of the offseason: the services of one Nnamdi Asomugha, arguably the best cornerback in football. They also reacquired sack artist Jason Babin and brought in a young, blazingly fast CB in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, fromArizona.

And to coach the squad that already included Pro Bowlers Asante Samuel and Trent Cole, the Eagles hired a new defensive coordinator: Juan Castillo.

Yep, the old offensive line coach.

Castillo had worked as head coach Andy Reid’s offensive line guru since his first year with the Eagles in 1999. Castillo is fiercely loyal, even saying in an interview that he’d take a bullet for Reid. Maybe that’s why Reid decided to listen when Castillo said he wanted to switch it up and coach on the other side of the ball. After all, he played linebacker in college and had coached high school defense in the ‘80s.

But Reid could’ve given him another job—any job—on the defense. He could’ve coached the linebackers. Or the secondary. Or the defensive line. But instead, he put him in charge of the whole shebang without any previous NFL coaching experience on defense.

To make matters more complicated, Reid had already hired Tennessee’s fabled defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who, along with his BFF Mudd, brought an old-school toughness to the line. Washburn is known for his implementation of the Wide Nine technique, a defensive alignment that has the ends in a sprinter’s stance and focused solely on hitting the quarterback so hard he wishes he were dead.

Pictured: Rex Grossman (probably) wishing he were dead.

Without getting too deep into the X’s and O’s, the idea of the scheme is this: in order for this to work, you have to have linebackers who can stop the opponent’s run game, since the ends will essentially be out of the play. But as any Eagles fan will tell you, the team hasn’t had a single good ‘backer since Jeremiah Trotter retired. The result is a defense that has given up 115 rushing yards per game.

But to Reid, this plan made sense. When healthy and firing on all (or most) cylinders, the Eagles have the most dangerous and explosive offense in the NFL. So it’s not unheard of to mold a defense built to play with the lead—if the other team is down by two or three scores early early, they’re going to have to throw. Which means players like Cole and Babin can pin their ears back and play “meet me at the quarterback” for the whole game.

But, in retrospect, setting up your defense is arrogant. Reid essentially put all the pressure on his offense to put up points in bunches every game. The defense won’t win a game by itself. It’s not built that way, and frankly, not talented enough to make that happen.

As mentioned earlier, everyone shares blame for this. The players are responsible for their lackluster play—especially on defense. They bought into their own hype and expected their collective talent to do the rest.

It didn’t.

ACT TWO

Complacency: DeSean Jackson and the Case of the Missing Heart

And as the season limped on, it looked more like the players were looking for someone else to make the plays. Missed tackles quickly became the calling card of the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles. How quickly, you ask? Try the first play of the season.

Nowhere has this lackluster effort been more glaring than in WR DeSean Jackson. An electric, once-in-a-generation, string-a-bunch-of-adjectives-together player, Jackson has always been as well known for his breathtaking plays as he has for his boneheaded ones.

This season marks the last year ofJackson’s rookie contract, which he has clearly outplayed. When the lockout ended and he didn’t get a new deal, he held out from training camp for nearly two weeks before QB Michael Vick got him to show up. To his credit,Jacksonaccepted his responsibilities and handled himself like a professional.

DeSean Jackson catches a touchdown pass against now-teammate CB Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie during the 2008 NFC Championship Game.

For awhile, at least.

Since the season started, DeSean hasn’t been his usual playmaking self. He hasn’t returned a punt for a score, and the big plays that fans have been accustomed to seeing have been virtually non-existent. Last Thursday against the Seahawks, he dropped two easy catches in the end zone. When reporters asked him about it after the game, he gave a flippant response and walked off.

When a team with Super Bowl aspirations can’t make crucial tackles or keep 12 men off the field on a punt return, as the Eagles were flagged for last Thursday, it’s up to the coaches to make the players listen.

If 2011 has shown Eagles fans anything, it’s that the coaching staff doesn’t have a tight enough grip on the locker room. Defenders are still missing easy tackles and receivers aren’t giving full effort. With only four games left in the season, it’s as though the Eagles players packed it in weeks ago.

None of this reflects well on the coaching staff. And it begs the question: after 13 seasons, has Reid lost his control over the locker room? Even the most vehement Reid supporter (yours truly included,) has to wonder.

Ultimately, Andy Reid deserves most of the blame for the way this season is unfolding. He deserves it for hiring a vastly inexperienced and overmatched coach to run his defense. He deserves it for implementing a defensive system without giving his new coach the means to properly execute it. And he deserves it for not being able to reign in his team when the season was on the brink of disaster.

As he is so fond of saying, he’s got to do a better job there.

It remains to be seen if he’ll be given the chance.