Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s inherent to most reporters, but when someone makes a splashy announcement, the first question that comes to mind is almost always, “what aren’t they telling us?” Especially when the announcement seems too good to be totally true, like when a two-time Pro Bowler is added in exchange for a fourth round pick.
So after seeing the text confirming the DeMeco Ryans deal, it didn’t take long to find out about the linebacker’s torn Achilles tendon in 2010 and decreased production and playing time in 2011. It also didn't take long to see that Ryans has been a leader, a playmaker and very recently was considered one of the best young linebacker in the game. It sounds like a good chance to take, and I said as much last night.
But if last season reminded us of one lesson we should have learned long ago, it’s that there are no sure bets when it comes to players changing teams in the NFL. Nnamdi Asomugha was considered without question the best free agent on the market last summer, a Pro Bowler for three straight years before the Eagles got him. There wasn’t any free agent more highly regarded. Except fellow cornerback Johnathan Joseph wound up having the better season in Houston and Asomugha, whether it was because he was misused, adjusting to a new system or overrated, disappointed in year one, despite everything that looked right about the signing.
And that was with a safe bet.
Jason Babin, too, came with questions, the kind that more closely parallel the risk in the Ryans deal. Babin and Ryans had each seemingly defined themselves as players over multiple seasons only to have one outlier year before coming to the Eagles.
Babin had bounced around the NFL without ever really impressing, but broke out in 2010. When the Eagles signed him it was fair to have high expectations, but also to wonder if the team had landed a rotational end who had had one great season, or a Pro Bowler who had just found his stride. He gave a resoundingly positive answer in 2011.
Babin’s story is a rare one, though. Most often when a career changes significantly, it’s for the worse, either because of age, injuries or a weakness that gets exposed and exploited. Ryans, we all know by now, suffered the kind of injury that can derail a career. Last season, his first one back, he played every game, but in a new system – the 3-4 instead of the 4-3 – and wasn’t nearly as productive as before. Was it the change in system that affected him? Or the injury? Ryans was taken off the field for nickel downs, which explains his drop off in tackles, but raises the question of why the Texans felt he was only suited to a limited role. (Fellow linebacker Brian Cushing played all three downs).
Will another year get Ryans back to his old ways? Are the Eagles getting a Pro Bowler ready to rebound from one down season? Or a new player, different than he was pre-injury, who gets to return to his preferred system but whose physical ability is less assured? Even if he has taken a step back, is a post-injury Ryans, with all his intangibles and instincts, still better than any of the other options?
No one knows yet, which is a boring conclusion but happens to be true. Just like no one knows how close Peyton Manning will be to his old self in Denver, or how Adrian Peterson will bounce back from a torn ACL in Minnesota.
The temptation after a big deal is to revel in it, to envision the best possible outcome. The backlash arrives as some pick out one weak thread and tug at it until in their minds the entire move unravels.
Even the most cynical reporters and fans have to look at Ryans’ potential and acknowledge the chance that the Eagles have used a bold stroke to finally fill a long-standing weakness. But when the Texans can't drum up any offers better than a four, there are questions to be asked as well. Better to be aware of them now than surprised in September.