The great poet John Greenleaf Whittier once wrote, "For all the sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been.' " He probably had no idea that his insightful words would be used most often to describe a sports team's failed season.
The 2011 Eagles' season is perhaps the perfect example of what "might have been."
We would be headed for the playoffs had we beaten the Kevin Kolb-less Arizona Cardinals, had Alex Henery hit one of two makeable field goals against the 49ers, had the defense held only one of five fourth-quarter leads, had Michael Vick not missed all or part of five games. If any of these had happened, what might have been for the Birds?
After watching Green Bay get hot at the end of last season and steamroll its way through the playoffs to a Super Bowl victory, one can only imagine.
In reality, the more likely answer is that we would have lost either to a red-hot Falcons team in the first game of the playoffs or surely been humbled by the Packers at Lambeau in the next round. As I wrote last week, we just aren't good enough right now to play with the NFL's elite. We all thought we would be after the incredible flurry of offseason signings, but we were wrong, and our 8-8 season is the epitome of "It might have been."
So, before we finally close the book on the 2011 Eagles, let's take a look at the pluses and minuses of the season.
1. The incredible development of LeSean McCoy as the best running back in the NFL. He almost won the rushing title, despite playing for an often run-averse team, and did it with only one fumble. He improved his blocking and became an even better receiving threat.
2. The unexpected improvement of the offensive line. At the beginning of the season, everyone decried our o-line. It was a patchwork - our first draft choice, Danny Watkins, wasn't even activated for the first couple of games, and we had no right tackle, with Winston Justice slowly recovering from a knee injury. Howard Mudd's coaching and system, which is based on lighter, quicker linemen, was criticized as being out of touch in a league with huge defensive linemen. Well, by the end of the season, it was one of our greatest strengths. Jason Peters and Todd Herremans were Pro Bowl-caliber tackles, Evan Mathis was a very pleasant surprise, and rookies Watkins and Jason Kelce progressed tremendously. A real plus.
3. Brent Celek's continual development. Early in the season, the tight end was mostly kept in to block, but when the o-line improved, he became a great receiving option. He and Michael Vick really clicked and, in the last half of the season, Celek played like an All-Pro.
4. Special teams had a great season, and until he suffered a knee injury, Colt Anderson was headed to the Pro Bowl. Kicker Alex Henery also turned out be a plus. I know David Akers had a great season for San Francisco, but Henery is not to blame for that. He made his final 16 field-goal attempts and set a team and NFL rookie record for field-goal percentage in a single season (88.9 percent), connecting on 24 of 27. I know two of those three misses cost us the San Francisco game, but he still had a good first year.
1. Michael Vick was erratic, inconsistent, made bad choices and turned the ball over far too often. Like Mae West, when he was good, he was very good, but he simply wasn't good enough all the time.
2. Our pass defense with Asante Samuel, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, which should have been the best in the league, was mediocre most of the time and was a real disappointment.
3. Our linebackers simply couldn't defend the run well enough. Even in our 34-10 rout of the Redskins to finish the season, we made Evan Royster look like Gale Sayers. We knew this would be a vulnerability, but we didn't know it would be our Achilles' heel.
4. Our receiving corps, thought to be as good as any in the NFL, was a disappointment. Jeremy Maclin came off a mysterious offseason illness and wracked up great stats, but had some key drops and a backbreaking late fumble against the 49ers. Jason Avant had a key fumble against the Bills, and although he had a relatively subpar season, he did show he might just have the most reliable hands in the game. We all know about DeSean Jackson, but, nonetheless, we should re-sign him. Brent Celek said after the Redskins game, "I really think we need him." We should listen to Brent.
5. Our return game was absolutely brutal - no returns for touchdowns and consistently poor field position.
6. Our backup tailbacks were a bust. Ronnie Brown looked shot, and his ill-advised halfback pass in the 49ers game was a turning point for the season. Dion Lewis showed no reason for us to think he could step in if LeSean McCoy got hurt.
7. Another mediocre draft. The good - Jason Kelce and Brian Rolle (sixth-rounders), Alex Henery (fourth round) and a solid, if not spectacular, first-rounder in Danny Watkins. The disappointing - Jaiquawn Jarrett (second round, a reach), Curtis Marsh (third round), Casey Matthews (fourth round) and Lewis (fifth round).
So, not unexpectedly, the minuses outweigh the pluses. But having said that, I know I'll keep thinking about those saddest of all words, "It might have been." Notwithstanding my belief that we wouldn't have had a prayer at Green Bay, I sure as heck would have loved to have had that chance!
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