BETHLEHEM, Pa. - The first bum note in the Eagles' summer rendition of "Ode to Joy" was sounded Monday by prodigal cornerback Asante Samuel.
The Pro Bowler was missing for the first few giddy days of camp, as the team's front office went on a remarkable talent acquisition spree. Samuel's absence was said to be excused due to unidentified personal reasons. After the Eagles added two Pro Bowlers at his position, though, it was fair to wonder if those personal reasons were named Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Well, Samuel arrived at Lehigh Monday and took the field for the first time with his new teammates. Immediately after the (sleep)walk-through session, Samuel poured kerosene all over that simmering speculation.
"I want to be where I'm wanted," Samuel said. "If they're tired of my big playmaking ability, they can ship me out."
He no-commented a couple of key questions: Did he ask to be traded? Did he have assurances from the coaches that he would be here?
So now what?
The Eagles' cornering the corner market was all too readily compared to the Phillies' collection of elite starting pitchers or even the Miami Heat's addition of LeBron James and Chris Bosh last summer. But the differences are obvious. Cliff Lee wasn't going to start games in place of Roy Halladay or Cole Hamels. Bosh wasn't going to take minutes away from Dwyane Wade.
The classic starting football lineup has two cornerbacks. The Eagles suddenly have three elite corners. Something has to give.
One possibility is that classic lineup. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo strongly pitched the concept of lining up in a nickel defense most of the time. In a pass-crazed league, teams played three or four corners much of the time. Asomugha even volunteered to play the slot position, which Charles Woodson mastered last season for Green Bay. The Packers played three corners most of the time. They also won the Super Bowl.
"We now have the ability to do that," Castillo said.
A year ago, the Eagles were hard-pressed to get two competent cornerbacks on the field at times. Samuel had an excellent year on the left side, but he missed four games due to injuries. Ellis Hobbs broke down on the right side. Dimitri Patterson wound up starting nine games. Nickel corner Joselio Hanson started six.
One of the absolute musts of this accelerated offseason was a corner to play opposite Samuel. The Eagles checked that off their list by getting Rodgers-Cromartie in the Kevin Kolb trade. Then they took a shot on landing Asomugha, the top free agent available. When he chose the Eagles, they suddenly had a surplus instead of a surfeit.
Everyone said all the right things. Rodgers-Cromartie said he'd be willing to be the nickel corner. So did Asomugha. Castillo and Andy Reid and general manager Howie Roseman said it was no problem to have three first-rate corners.
Then Samuel showed up and ratcheted up the drama a bit. In fairness, he said he would play wherever the coaches wanted him to play. But he repeated the line about getting shipped out a few times. The "no comments" were strategically placed. Maybe he just needed to vent, remind everyone who the alpha male has been around here, and this will blow over.
Roseman said afterward that Samuel had not asked to be traded.
But the question again: So now what?
Clearly, the Eagles are a better team with all three corners. Just as clearly, they are going for it this year. Trading Samuel for draft picks would not help them win the next Super Bowl.
If a team called up and offered a legitimate upgrade at another position of need - right tackle, linebacker, safety - then the Eagles would have to consider that. The way they prioritize positions, it would have to be an awfully good linebacker or safety to pry away an elite corner. With Winston Justice hurt and King Dunlap scuffling early in camp, the need to protect Michael Vick's blind side seems like the highest priority.
That has to be the acid test for any proposed trade: Would it get them closer to winning the Super Bowl this year than if they kept all three corners?
Maybe Castillo was just being politically expedient, but his enthusiasm seemed real enough. The Packers played three corners a lot. Asomugha is big and versatile enough to blitz or drop into coverage or force the run. With a Matthews (Casey not Clay) at middle linebacker and Cullen Jenkins at defensive tackle, the Eagles can do a pretty fair imitation of the Pack's defense.
With Vick and all these weapons on offense, that would go a long way toward making this team a favorite in the NFC this year. That should be enough motivation for Samuel to learn to play well with his new friends.
Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his past columns at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.