One of the great contrasts between professional athletes and the reporters who cover them is our approach to the negative, or what coaches might call “challenges.”
Reporters are trained to look for cracks in the rosy facades presented by the politicians, business leaders and teams we cover. We’re supposed to be analytical and, in the words of one of my journalism professors, cantankerous (a phrase I return to whenever I find myself buying a little too heavily into the hype). It’s not supposed to be criticism for criticism’s sake (although sometimes the media does go there), but we’re supposed to have enough skepticism that when the someone tell us “everything is just fine, we did everything right,” we can tell readers, “here are some things that might puncture that happy picture … here are some other points to consider.”
We often apply this to ourselves. Even great, accomplished writers tend to be intensely introspective about their jobs, self-critical and full of internal questions. Few of us have that “forget about the last play” cornerback mentality.
Athletes and coaches are also self-critical, but rarely acknowledge problems in public. The Eagles players’ confidence in their abilities to clear any obstacle got them to the NFL. They typically wave away talk of the stumbling blocks that make reporters and fans fret. All they care about is this: how do I win?
Which brings us to the NFL lockout and the dilemma facing Eagles coaches, particularly on defense. By this time of year, Juan Castillo would normally already have been sweating and shouting and working over his defense in spring practices. Jim Washburn would have begun teaching the defensive line his methods.
Instead, Eagles coaches are stuck shuffling their lesson plans, trying to refine the things most of them have already been teaching for years. Howie Roseman, who would no doubt love to be acquiring a pass rusher or cornerback, watches tape over and over. The players he sees get no better and no worse.
Nate Allen rehabs in Florida with a playbook – the Eagles made good use of FedEx in the brief window when the lockout ended – but he can’t actually run through the scenarios it envisions.
“It’s different from having a playbook and actually being able to rep it,” Allen said.
Darryl Tapp, for example, was in Philadelphia last season for all of OTAs, minicamp and training camp. But he still had a long adjustment to playing for the Eagles. The scheme was different – the Eagles had him taking fewer steps to reach the offensive line than he did in Seattle – and Tapp struggled to get on the field early in the year. As time went on he improved, and by the end of the season was contributing. He needed time, though.
But talking to coaches at the Eagles playground build this week, you’d struggle to get them to even acknowledge the issue.
“We’ll just have to accelerate,” said Andy Reid. The closest he came to saying the lockout could cause problems was conceding that when it comes to rookies making an early, mark, “I don’t think it’ll make it easier, but I think it could still be done.”
The Eagles aren’t in as bad a shape as teams with whole new coaching staffs. Marty Mornhinweg is still in charge of the explosive offense and the pieces there will be largely unchanged. Reid is still the guy on top, and he says every team has the same challenge when it comes to timing.
But not every team has a new defensive coordinator, and particularly not one who hasn’t coached D in 20-plus years. Not every team has new leaders at every defensive position group.
Castillo, though, raves about having extra prep time.
Howard Mudd, tasked with improving a porous offensive line and quickly bringing along Danny Watkins, would clearly rather be coaching than waiting. But he bluntly summed up his approach to the issue.
“How big a deal do you want to make of it?” he said. His look and tone showed he won’t be making a big deal of it at all, and expects that his players won’t either.
I suppose that’s the only attitude a coach can have if he wants success. Training camp and the season is difficult enough without allowing in excuses and reasons to give in when things get tough.
Still, the reporter here wonders how quickly the Eagles will be able to adapt to the new defensive schemes and incorporate any new veterans they acquire. The answers to those questions, like the practices that might address them, remain on hold. Whenever football resumes, I’m sure we’ll hear the normal dismissals of any concern. Until we see the results, though, a little skepticism is still in order.