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.

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Nnamdi Who?: Unknowns and Veterans Overshadowing at CB

By Evan Benton

Easily the most sought-after free agent element in the tumultuous postseason, Oakland Raiders’ divinely skilled cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles for a five-year, $60 million deal and heralded what was to be a new dawn for the green and black birds.

Now currently 4-7 and tied with the troubled Washington Redskins for bottom-feeding duty in the always competitive NFC East, the Eagles have lost a hold on their preseason hopes.  Starting quarterback Michael Vick left Week 10’s home game against the Arizona Cardinals with more than a few broken ribs, and thus sat out these last two games.  In his stead, Vince Young resurfaced and led his team to a stomp over the much-hated New York Giants last week.  This week, he played very well, but not well enough to hamper perennially perfect New England, who beat them 38-20.

In his brief stint as an Eagle, Asomugha has accrued three interceptions and 21 total tackles.  In comparison, Asante Samuel has added to his already stellar resume as an Eagle with two picks – one for a touchdown – along with 27 total tackles in his fourth year under coach Andy Reid.

Asomugha is not exactly underperforming for his new team, but for a franchise earlier this season dubbed “The Dream Team”, anything but a 10-interception season wouldn’t be good enough for its rabid, nationwide-despised fan base.  In reality, everyone supporting the Philadelphia Eagles want wins, not INTS, to be the stats that really matter.  And while Asomugha and Samuel have become – and will continue to represent – a terrible dual threat for any opposing quarterback, they are not the game changers that some unfairly expected them to be.

The cornerback position is an interesting one, for players and fans.  The fastest players on defense are paid to follow, track, and prevent the fastest players on offense.  Or, if we are to quote Samuel, who once said “They don’t pay me enough to tackle”, the obvious reason teams shill out millions for them and draft them high (or relatively, anyway) is for their heart-stopping, game-changing penchant for interceptions.

No other position on defense creates more turnovers, pure a simple.  Cornerbacks can change games, no mistake.  It happens often.  But rarely can one, even Nnamdi Asomugha, change a season; a team.  Great cornerbacks that rise to the occasion can only do one thing: make a good team even better.

Look at ageless wonder Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, important facets of the undefeated Green Bay Packers’ big-time defense.  Woodson is second in the NFL right now in terms of interceptions, with six on the season.  Williams adds four, and together they’ve combined for 75 total tackles.  Would the Packers still have a winning record without these two corners this season? Sure.  Would they be a resounding, peerless 11-0?  Doubtful.

The number one pick-master this season comes as perhaps as a surprise – four-year man Kyle Arrington of the Patriots, who leads all defenses with a whopping seven interceptions.  His 46 total tackles as well as 12 total pass deflections  – all in just nine games started in 2011 – has shown his success at the position and his dominance against his opposition.  At 5’10” and 196 pounds, Arrington is often up against big wideouts  that are used to manhandling secondaries.  He’s shown his own worth, and his explosive lockdown ability has helped balloon New England to a 8-3 record.

His second year with the Patriots led to 60 total yards and just one interception, but the lone pick led to a touchdown.  The only one of his short career.  In time, it’s possible that the 25-year old Arrington may fill in the shoes for Samuel, who left for his current home in 2008.

Carlos Rogers, recent import from Washington to the Bay Area, has helped an already stellar San Francisco defense immensely with five interceptions, one of them a pick six.  The 49ers wouldn’t be 9-2 without their impressive defense, and Rogers is an excellent addition to it.

Another offseason pick-up of note was Houston’s decision to snag Cincinnati Bengals alum Johnathan Joseph, who along with Leon Hall – probably the best cornerback after Asomugha of the last five years – were members of one of the most organized secondaries on one of the NFL’s most disorganized teams for years.  Joseph gives the upstart Texans the experienced, dependable cornerback they need , and his four interceptions and one forced fumble prove he’s giving the AFC South-leaders their money’s worth.

Like Philadelphia, Kansas City also has a talented secondary that, on its own, is wildly impressive, but hasn’t alone added to wins.  Brandon Flowers, all 5’9″, 185-pounds of him, is one of the fastest and most aware cornerbacks playing on any team.  Undersized constantly in comparison to who he’s covering, the former Hokie has four picks this year, a touchdown, 36 total tackles and is the defensive leader of the league in pass deflections with 21.

Every team has their cornerbacks, but some are lucky enough to have one that sometimes stands out above the rest of the team.  And the really lucky ones have a tandem.

And sometimes, they change games.  All one has to do is remember Tracy Porter’s immortal pick of Peyton Manning in the waning moments of Super Bowl XLIV, the straw that broke the horse’s back and the epitome of game changer.  More recently was DeAngelo Hall’s four interceptions of Jay Cutler last season, defensive efforts by a cornerback that neutered Chicago’s offense and gave the Redskins the edge in a close game.

But more often than not, they don’t.  Even the best ones merely do their jobs, do them well, and can only keep the opposing offense in check and hope their own lights the field up.

Even Asomugha, while he was earning his reputation as the decade’s best cornerback, could do nothing to help his team, the Oakland Raiders, get a winning season.  The defensive phenom may have owned the entire side of a field for entire games at a time, but he has no ring to sweeten the pot of his career.

In the next few years, Asomugha’s presence as an Eagle will undoubtedly provide his team with wins and playoff appearances.  Now, part of a disorganized program without a real plan of action or identity, he’s doing all he can, and that should be enough.

In the meantime, other, lesser known players like Arrington are bonafide league leaders on teams poised to visit the postseason on the backs of underrated talent.

In a league where giant runs and rainbow-arc bombs dominate highlight reels, the devoted professional at the cornerback position often goes unheralded.

But not unnoticed.

Images courtesy of insidetheiggles.com, and www2.ljworld.com, respectively.

Megatron: Spotlight on Calvin Johnson

By Evan Benton

The hundreds of players in the NFL are perhaps not as skilled with their nickname creating as they are in the sport.

Calling renowned Pittsburgh Steelers’ safety Troy Polamalu “The Tasmanian Devil”, for instance, makes little sense, especially given the fact that Polamalu looks nothing like the Looney Tunes’ character and is, in fact, of Samoan descent.  Same with “Amish Rifle” for surging Buffalo Bills quarterback and Harvard alumni Ryan Fitzpatrick, or the very annoying “RUN DMC” for Oakland Raiders’ back Darren McFadden.  I doubt Darren even knows what seminal hip-hop group his name is being played on consistently by gab artist Rich Eisen on NFL Network.

But then there are some beauties.  Besides “The Blonde Bomber” and “Roger the Dodger” for 1970s Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach, there’s “The Mossiah” for Randy Moss in his unrivaled 1998 rookie year, “Pocket Hercules” for undersized but buff Jacksonville back Maurice Jones-Drew, and even the simplistic but catchy Michael “the Burner” Turner.

Somewhere in between these two extremes is one of the most imaginative nicknames of any NFL player – “Megatron” for Detroit Lions superstar, wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

As leader of the red-eyed Decepticons, the evil junta of the Transformers universe, Megatron wages constant battle against Optimus Prime and his Autobots, shifting into all ranges of cars, helicopters and planes along the way.  Calvin Johnson is no shape-shifting metal robot, true, but he is absolutely massive.

The 25-year-old Georgia Tech alum is a 6’5″, 236-pound monster – a towering figure to cover and block, and a wonderful target for quarterbacks.  He holds records as a Yellow Jacket in career receiving yards, touchdown receptions and most games of 100+ receiving yards (13).  At the end of his junior year Johnson tallied 1,202 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Johnson declared himself eligible for the 2007 NFL Draft following his junior year at Tech, a season in which he finished 10th in Heisman Trophy voting and earned the Fred Biletnikoff Award – other honorees include Randy Moss, Braylon Edwards and Larry Fitzgerald – as the NCAA’s top wide receiver.  Touted as the best wide receiver – if not player – in the draft, Johnson was a bonafide celebrity at Radio City Music Hall that year.

On the board, a rebuilding Raiders franchise selected LSU behemoth JaMarcus Russell first overall, and the Detroit Lions, in their fourth time selecting a wide receiver first in five years, got Johnson.  But unlike Charles Rogers (2003, 2nd), Mike Williams (2005, 10th) and even Roy Williams, Jr. (2004, 7th), Johnson has not been a bust, or even a slight disappointment.  In fact, quite the opposite.

Megatron from Transformers may be able to shift into sleek Nissan Zs and deadly assault aircraft when he wants to get moving, but the Megatron of the NFL has  size-belying speed that’s distinctly uncommon in his class – and completely natural.  Even with his weight and height, Johnson ran a 4.33 second 40-yard dash – second only to Kansas State’s Yamon Figurs in his class- and a freakish 45-inch vertical leap at 2007’s Combine.

This has helped Johnson live up to the standard he set in college, currently at 4,755 receiving yards and 42 touchdowns for his career – all with the Lions.  Johnson endured an injury-plagued rookie year, an outstanding sophomore NFL season (1,331 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns) overshadowed by his teams’ horrific 0-16 record, and a 2-14 one in 2009 in which he missed two games.  In 2010 he would fight for 1,120 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns en route to his first Pro Bowl.

And then there’s the present 2011 season, where in just six games he’s put up 564 yards – 94.0 yards per game – and an astounding nine touchdowns.

Johnson, who has hit a rapport with third-year quarterback and 2009 first round pick Matt Stafford that no one in the NFL can match, put up two touchdowns in each of his first four games this season.  He is on pace for unheard-of wide-receiver records, but more importantly for his team, he has helped them to their own 5-1 standing.  When they hit 5-0 last week it was the first time for Detroit football since 1956.

It’s feasible that Johnson could finish his career among the true greats at his position, among people like Moss, Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens, and with more humility than any of them.  Indeed, in a position where divas like Owens, Chad Ochocinco and Brandon Marshall reign, Johnson is accomplishing more than most while saying very little.

The nickname “Megatron”, given to him by one-time mentor and teammate Roy Williams when Williams noticed how enormous Johnson’s hands were, is a one-word encapsulation of the dominance, mass, height and skills that Johnson has.

“Lesser creatures are playthings of my will,” the leader of the Decepticons often told his fellow metallic Transformers.  Calvin Johnson could say the same thing about defensive backs that can’t reach him, catch up with him, or outsize him.  But he won’t, because in a position where most of his peers are complaining and making outlandish guarantees, Johnson lets his skills on the field speak for him.  And right now, they’re screaming.