Looking back at the Eagles, and ahead

The resurgence of Michael Vick became the biggest story of the entire NFL. (Ron Cortes/Staff File Photo)

So much of our sports coverage is about looking forward, even moments after the game we just spent days – or weeks – building up. It’s like opening your presents Christmas morning and by noon putting them aside and drawing up a wish list for next year.

So before we get too deep into this offseason, here’s a look back at some of the big issues and themes we saw this Eagles season, and how it compares to what we thought when we were all trying to forecast. And, yes, a look ahead to what might happen next. At the bottom, if you’re still with me, are some personal thoughts on my first season covering the Eagles.

The bottom line:
With a new quarterback, rebuilt defense and schedule that looked quite tough, most of us expected a 7 to 9 win season for the new-look Eagles.
We all know what happened at quarterback. The schedule also turned out to be far different. The Cowboys, Vikings, Texans and 49ers all fell short of early predictions and while the Colts were still good, they were a step down from recent vintages. The Eagles played six games against teams with winning records going 4-2 against the Falcons, Colts, Bears, Packers and Giants twice. They went 2-2 against playoff teams. Of course, 0-1 in the actual playoffs left the season with a feeling of disappointment. Few expected the Eagles to win the NFC East, so that was a pleasant surprise, but we saw mid-season what they could be, and they didn’t capitalize on that opportunity.
Looking ahead: After two years in which promising seasons ended with flops at the end and in the playoffs, the Eagles need to find a way to win a postseason game next year, or questions will grow about whether Andy Reid has lost a step.

The quarterback
The growth of Kevin Kolb was already supposed to be the biggest story of the Eagles season.
The resurgence of Michael Vick became the biggest story of the entire league. No one predicted it, and there was little reason to expect it. The Eagles front office believed more in Kolb than Vick – they granted him the big contract extension and the starting job. Vick, when he did play in the preseason, showed the speed we once knew but also the old carelessness with the ball. It’s risky drawing firm conclusions from playing with second string teammates in preseason games, but it was the only evidence we had of where his game was at. All that changed week 1 when Vick made that memorable dash down the sideline where he took on two Packers in a mad dive for the end zone. His play week 2 rewrote the season script just as the year was getting started.
Looking ahead (two parts):
He was amazing through the first half of his season, and good but mistake prone late in the year. Which is his real performance level? Have we already seen the best of him?

I doubt we’ll ever see Vick go through the kind of extended stretch of dominance he showed mid-season. He can still be great, but won’t be able to match his incredible talent with the element of surprise.

Obviously the Eagles need to get Vick more protection and hope he continues his on-field evolution and learns to react better to blitzes.

But do they pay him big money for a season that was half spectacular and half very, very good? They should at least keep him for another year. Even a notch or two down from his mid-season form would still make Vick one of the biggest threats in the league and, as he showed against the Giants, he is capable of coming alive and winning games all by himself. If he hits a hot spell at just the right time, he can carry a team to the Super Bowl.

If the Eagles use the franchise tag it will give them another year to see if Vick’s game can keep growing, to see whether the long-term Vick is closer to the player we saw early in the season or late, and to see whether his style of play can hold up for a full season before committing to him long-term.

Could Vick be miffed about a franchise tag and hold it against the Eagles? Maybe, but I don’t think it will matter much in the long run. First of all, he’d likely get $18 million to $20 million for next year. Not an insignificant sum. And if next season the Eagles approach him with a fair-market offer, will he really turn down their money because it arrived later than he’d like? That would be an emotional decision, and while he plays with emotion, something tells me Vick knows where the game ends and business begins and he’ll react accordingly.

Kolb: This can’t be said enough: Kolb and Vick handled their quarterbacking flip-flop like true professionals. Vick was always praising Kolb, and Kolb, who had the most reason of anyone to flip out, was a good citizen of Reid City all the way through.

None of which answers the question of what the Eagles should do with him. Most people, including many of my wise colleagues, say Kolb stays, because he’s relatively cheap and the Eagles will need a back up for Vick, given his playing style. I say the Eagles should deal him while they can get something back. The team has invested four years in Kolb. If they don’t trade him now, he walks to another team after 2011 and they’ll have nothing to show for it. The Eagles have many needs. Draft picks would be valuable.

What could they get? Matt Schaub, when he was a back up to Vick in Atlanta, was dealt to Houston in exchange for two second round picks and a slight change in first round order (the Falcons moved up to 8 while the Texans moved down to 10). Kolb has a bit more experience now than Schaub did at the time of his trade. Kolb could draw a similar package, maybe more given the lack of top flight quarterbacks in this year’s draft.

The big hitch here, as with many offseason issues, is the CBA. If there’s a lock out, there are no trades, at least not before the draft. Dealing Kolb after the draft, when a CBA is presumably worked out, for picks in 2012 is far less enticing.

The offensive line
Here’s one area most people had right. Even in training camp the line looked shaky.
It doesn’t get said enough that the Eagles linemen actually did pretty well in the running game and pulling to pop screen passes, but on the long drop backs that the Eagles rely on far more, they were the clear weak link. Todd Herremans was very good and Jason Peters was the one Eagle who actually improved after knee surgery. The right side was a mess. While Winston Justice’s benching in the playoffs spoke volumes, the problems go beyond one player. Each man on the line could play well in moments, but they were inconsistent all around and rarely came together all at once. One play Justice might spring a leak; the next play a guard would get beat on a stunt, or someone would miss an assignment or Vick wouldn’t read the blitz fast enough. Add up all those flaws, and you have pass protection and blitz reads that were less than the sum of their parts.
Looking forward:
It’s hard to imagine the Eagles failing to address the offensive line in some way this offseason. Of course, many people said the same thing last year. Expect Justice to get some competition at tackle, even if it’s just from King Dunlap, who made some strides this year. It’s not clear yet how free agency will work, if there will be free agency, and how much money the team will have to spend. But if the Eagles can only make one big splash, this is the area to do it. The Eagles need someone who can be airtight on the line and protect their investments in Vick and other skill players.

DeSean's Contract
We knew he wanted a new contract. The question was, how would the temperamental receiver handle not getting one?
Pretty well, actually. There were small flare ups, notably after the Bears game, but Jackson kept quiet about his contract for the most part and it didn’t become a public distraction. He and Jeremy Maclin shared the receiving spotlight well.
Looking forward:
As well as things went this year, this situation still has the potential for fireworks. The Eagles could cite the CBA restrictions this year in explaining why Jackson wasn’t getting a big time contract. As soon as a new labor deal is done, that excuse is gone and Jackson will be in the final year of his deal. Jackson played spectacularly at times, but was hugely inconsistent when compared to other elite wide receivers. (I hope to have more on this soon). The big question for Eagles leaders: is Jackson’s unique game breaking ability enough to make up for his quieter games? Enough to pay him elite money? If not, are they willing to see him walk, because some other team likely will pay him top receiver money.

A young group with many moving parts was supposed to be improved with continuity at linebacker, the return of Stewart Bradley and additions of Ernie Sims, Brandon Graham and Nate Allen.
Reality: Despite all the time, money and draft picks spent on the defense last year, the Eagles enter the offseason with questions at every defensive position group. Allen looked like the best find when he was healthy. But as the season wore on we saw several instances where he was bulled backwards by running. Graham didn’t provide the big spark you might expect after the Eagles traded up to 13 to grab him – though rookie pass rushers usually don’t rack up big sack totals. Sims was inconsistent and eventually taken off the field in nickel situations. Bradley didn’t make many impact plays. Right cornerback was a mess.
Looking ahead: The Eagles will hope Graham can improve in his second year and help the defensive line, but it’s hard to know what to expect given his late-year ACL tear. Allen, too, will be coming off of a serious knee injury. With the inexperience in the secondary, it makes sense to keep Quintin Mikell, though he just turned 30 and seemed unsure about his future with the team.

The Eagles have lots of linebackers – but are any the answer? Would Bradley be a better fit on the strong side? Improved after another year removed from his knee injury? Or is that wishful thinking for a player who looks like he should be a great linebacker but didn’t play like it? My very early guess is the Eagles keep him for another year to try one more time to find out.

Keenan Clayton might be a versatile player who can fit at linebacker or safety – or he might be too much of a tweener for either. Lots of people love Jamar Chaney already, but the sample size on his performance is too limited to say anything definitive about his potential. Most people think Sims is gone.

Then there’s the secondary, where right cornerback was a problem all year. Which brings us to Nnamdi Asomugha. Would a combination of he and Asante Samuel be devastating? Yes. But it’s unclear if the Eagles could pay both of them (Samuel already has a big contract) and still have money left over for needs in other areas. And yes, even with Asomugha, the Eagles would need help on the defensive line. He wouldn’t help stop James Starks.

Much will depend on the salary cap in the new CBA and rookie wage scale. Maybe if less money is invested in first round picks, more can be set aside for the veteran. But other teams after Asomugha will have the same added flexibility. Even if it's not Asomugha, though, the Eagles need to find at least a solid corner. Dimitri Patterson isn't the answer.

Just a guess here, since the Eagles aren’t talking much yet about their future plans, but I think they invest in their lines, where Andy Reid often says success begins. Trent Cole showed signs of slowing down and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim didn’t help. Darryl Tapp did help, but isn’t a game-wrecker. Cornerback and offensive line should also be top priorities. Linebacker? A big playmaker would be nice, if there is somehow money left over after dealing with those other needs and making sure there’s enough cap space left for Vick and Jackson. But the Eagles defensive scheme values pass rushing ends and cover corners far more than linebackers.

Personal Thoughts
The first year on the beat was an eye-opening one. And fun. Some scattered thoughts:

Lasting memories (off the field):
-- The absurd crowd around Michael Vick’s locker during the two weeks when he was named starter and then faced the Redskins in Donovan McNabb’s return to Philadelphia. For the Redskins game, there were 30-plus reporters and cameramen around the stall. Even Vick, a man accustomed to media attention, was stunned. “Amazing,” he said.

-- Ellis Hobbs taking the blame after the Titans meltdown and gently urging reporters to ease off Nate Allen, who took the loss hard.

-- Mike McGlynn manning up and taking responsibility, too, after that game.

-- The stoicism of players even after their friends and teammates suffer severe injuries. It’s a Darwinian business. They all expect the next guy to step in and know that one day they could lose their jobs the same way. It hammers home why it’s so important for players, especially those on the margins of the league, to get their big contracts while they can.

-- Seeing the rookies arrive in Philadelphia and, though each highly accomplished in college, now facing new peers, new bosses, a new city and new challenges. Anyone who has graduated college and started a first job has been through that experience, and it made the young players seem that much more relatable.

Quotes of the year:
“You’re just going to do Kevin’s chair like that?” - Vick to a cameraman standing on Kolb’s chair to get a better view days before the first Redskins game. Somehow, this still strikes me as hysterical all around.

“God has given you the gift to play, play to your full potential and go out there, and if you see something that’s not wearing the color that you’re wearing, bust his head open,” – Leonard Weaver’s speech to players at his alma mater, Carson-Newman College when they honored his accomplishments.

“We’ll see,” – Andy Reid, hundreds of times, usually when asked about injuries. It’s like when you’re a kid and you ask your mom for something, and you both know you’re not getting it.

Rookie surprises:
Heart stopping games, deadlines:
Watching a great back and forth game is a far different experience when you have to write about it. It’s something I never thought of until this year, even being in the news business for nearly a decade. When the Eagles play a night game, deadlines for our first edition of the newspaper often fall minutes after the game ends. That means we’re usually writing through the third and fourth quarter while also trying to watch the game. If it’s one team has a huge lead, you know what to write. But if it’s close, you can’t be sure what the definitive turning point was or whether to write the game as a thrilling win or disappointing loss. It makes for some very hurried writing that I often wished I had more time to polish. Even for our later deadlines (for the editions most people receive) there is little extra writing time once you get to Reid’s press conference, interview players, transcribe their quotes and review statistics. In many of the biggest games – close, prime time contests – we often had the shortest window to actually compose our thoughts and write. It's fun to talk about the thrilling games later, but harrowing in the moment.

I came to love blow outs and day games. I had a great time writing the Monday night story when Eagles crushed the Redskins in D.C. I was disappointed in how I did a few weeks later when the Eagles pulled out a tight one on Sunday night in Dallas. Not a complaint - this is a fun job and part of it is writing on deadline - just a glimpse of something I hadn’t considered before.

After the new Miracle game, one commenter wrote on Philly.com that the writing that day seemed better – maybe, he wondered, it was inspiration from the great game. I’d say it was the extra hours we had to actually think and organize our thoughts between the end of the 1 p.m. game and deadline.

Access: Covering politics, there was reams of public information we could get at to help tell stories. Also, politicians love having themselves quoted – and really need to be quoted to get their arguments out and influence public debate. Not so with the Eagles and NFL, where information can be, and is, tightly held. They don’t need us to write good things about them, provided they win on Sunday. I think I’ll spend my offseason lobbying Congress to extend the Freedom of Information Act to Reid’s injury report.

Star interviews: Everyone wants to hear from Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson and Asante Samuel. That’s the problem: their interviews are usually done in massive groups with serious reporters and lazy ones competing to get questions in. (“How important is winning this week?” Really?) It’s not exactly conducive to revealing statements. Lesser-known players, who you might be able to actually have a conversation with, more often provided far deeper insight.

The road: Great food at Merchants in Nashville. Excellent burritos at Candlestick Park (thank you Bob Ford). Total emptiness in downtown Detroit Saturday night – but very nice ushers at Ford Field Sunday morning. Chicago – all around. I hadn’t been there in years, and was glad for chance. Parking attendants outside the Linc -- for people who had every reason to be grouchy when the weather turned cold, they were always cheery. Being scared out of my mind when a fighter jet flew over the Golden Gate Bridge while I stood on it. I had my back to it and just heard a violent roar before I saw the jet. Fleet Week air show. Wasn’t ready for that. The scoreboard in Dallas – lived up to the hype.

It was a very fun year, thanks in large part to my colleagues at the Inquirer and other papers and especially Jeff McLane and my editor Gary Miles.

To steal a line from Andy Reid, I’ve got some things I can get better at. Looking forward to it.

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