Sunday, December 28, 2014

Revamped Birds: Next step . . . or out of step?

Deep inside University of Phoenix Stadium last Jan. 18, Eagles president Joe Banner held a series of quiet, subdued interviews in the wake of his team's 32-25 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game. It was a familiar position for Banner, who has postmortemed four NFC title losses in the past eight seasons, against one victory.

In one of those sessions, with Comcast SportsNet, Banner referenced a familiar saying that is often attributed to Albert Einstein, but might well have predated the famous scientist: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."

There was much puzzling over exactly what Banner meant. Or rather, everybody in Eagles Nation felt they knew all too well what he meant; the question was, what would change? Over the next several months, we found out, as the Birds embarked on a series of moves that remade the offense while saying goodbye to some popular, longtime stars.

"It was very, very frustrating; we had played both Arizona and Pittsburgh very well in the regular season," Banner recalled last week. The Steelers, of course, ended the Cards' improbable playoff run in the Super Bowl.

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  • Banner didn't recall any Arizona epiphanies, moves he or Eagles coach Andy Reid came out of that game feeling they definitely needed to make. But after they sat down and evaluated, as they do each offseason, they made what Banner today calls "very dramatic changes . . . We reoriented a lot of the roster."

    To Banner, it's important that many of the changes seem to position the team well for the years beyond 2009. That's probably not a point he should press too hard with a large segment of the fan base, which has long felt the Birds were too oriented toward tomorrow to ever win today. But no question, the team is younger now, and many of the newcomers — offensive linemen Stacy Andrews and Jason Peters, rookie running back LeSean McCoy, rookie wideout Jeremy Maclin — are here for the long haul.

    One other thing that quickly followed that loss on Jan. 18 was a plea for weapons from quarterback Donovan McNabb, who clearly was outgunned, trying to outscore a diverse Cardinals offense with a gimpy Brian Westbrook, a fearless rookie wideout named DeSean Jackson, and very little else.

    "There was a particular emphasis on upgrading the offense," Banner said.

    The rebuilding of the offensive line has hit a few well-publicized bumps, but it's hard to argue against the idea that McNabb has more weapons and a more talented supporting cast, in general, after perhaps the most eventful Eagles offseason since 2004. That was the year Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse arrived, while Duce Staley, Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor departed.

    Over the next four pages we look at the major developments since the end of last season. Each is offered with an appraisal of how it looked initially and how it looks now.

    Feb. 28: Eagles sign offensive lineman Stacy Andrews.

    How it looked then: The assumption was that for 6 years and $40 million, Andrews would replace Jon Runyan at right tackle. There was concern that he was less than 2 months removed from ACL surgery.

    How it looks now: Turns out, Andy Reid decided to move Stacy's brother Shawn outside to right tackle and play Stacy at Shawn's guard spot. The initial concern — Stacy's knee — seems less of a gamble now than Shawn's back, which only allowed him to start practicing with the team 2 weeks before the opener.

    "It's still in the back of your mind," Stacy acknowledged recently, when asked about the status of his knee, not quite 9 months after surgery. "Every game that I'm out there, [the doubt] will start slowly erasing from my database."

    Stacy Andrews played in just one preseason game, but he practiced extensively and seems likely to be a very good addition.

    Feb. 28: Brian Dawkins signs with Denver as a free agent.

    How it looked then: Like the end of the world for a fan base largely decked out in No. 20 jerseys. There was an extended discussion of how the Eagles managed to send an all-time franchise icon off to end his career in another uniform; team president Joe Banner eventually went on Howard Eskin's WIP radio show to assure fans that "I feel terrible about the way this ended."

    "I go back and forth in my mind about what we could have said differently or done differently to produce a different outcome," Banner added.

    The Eagles really wanted Dawkins back — unlike Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan — but they underestimated the market for the 35-year-old free safety. It might be fair to say a few things got lost in translation, with Dawkins' agent (whose fee obviously depends on the size of the deal his client signs) relaying what Dawkins came to characterize as "insulting" Eagles contract terms. Banner also said on Eskin's show he wished he had talked to Dawkins directly.

    How it looks now: Not that much different, really. The Eagles have had trouble settling on a replacement; second-year man Quintin Demps didn't step up and ease everyone's concerns in training camp. The death of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson and the season-ending injury to middle linebacker Stewart Bradley have only heightened concerns about defensive leadership in Dawkins' absence.

    Safety Quintin Mikell spoke recently about how strange it was watching his old friend play in the preseason for Denver.

    "I will say it was a little nostalgic sitting here [thinking], 'I remember those hits,' and stuff like that. It was a little weird, but I'm happy with the situation that we're in, and I'm sure he's happy," Mikell said. "It's the position we're in. We just have to move on."

    March 20: The Eagles sign fullback Leonard Weaver.

    How it looked then: Finally, a real fullback, after a year of Dan Klecko and Tony Hunt, and problems at the position that go back much farther, to Josh Parry and Thomas Tapeh. In keeping with the Birds' seeming lack of concern about the fullback spot, Weaver signed only a 1-year deal, after he couldn't find anything better on the market.

    How it looks now: Weaver showed in the preseason he is probably the best player the Eagles have had at the position in the Reid era. He understands all the blocking facets, run and pass, is big enough to make the blocks, can catch a pass and do something with it, can even gain a tough yard running it himself. Biggest concern now would be that the Birds don't have anyone comparable behind him, should Weaver get hurt.

    April 17: Eagles trade with Buffalo for left tackle Jason Peters, then sign him to a 6-year, $60 million contract extension.

    How it looked then: A Pro Bowl left tackle in his prime to replace Tra Thomas? A stunning coup. No one thought the Eagles would be able to part with Thomas and Runyan in the same offseason without having to rely on totally unproven talent.

    How it looks now: A little less of a slam dunk. Peters didn't seem to be in terrific shape for camp and pulled a quad in the introductory fitness run, which bothered him most of the preseason. Struggled with cadence and blocking scheme coordination when he did play. Lots of work to do before he approaches what Thomas once was for the Eagles.

    "I'm trying to get where I want to be. Nobody's where they want to be," Peters said recently. "[The cadence problem] ain't no big deal. Ain't nobody in the league that doesn't jump offsides, that plays offensive line . . . Ain't no big deal. I'm going to just keep working at it."

    April 25: For the first time since 1996, the Eagles' first two picks are offensive players, signaling that perhaps the brain trust finally agrees that more weapons are needed.

    How it looked then: Not many mock drafts had Jeremy Maclin going to the Eagles, because the Missouri wideout was supposed to be selected in the top 10. The Birds ultimately only had to move up from 21 to 19 to nab him. LeSean McCoy, in the second round, was less of a surprise, but no less welcome an addition, with Brian Westbrook turning 30 before the start of the season.

    How it looks now: Maclin missed the first 9 days of training camp in a contract dispute no one seemed to see coming until a few days before the reporting date. He has rebounded well, but might not be in position to contribute in the record-setting way DeSean Jackson did as a rookie. McCoy took most of the camp and preseason running-back reps, with Westbrook recovering from a surprise June ankle cleanout. McCoy seems to be the closest thing the Eagles have had to Westbrook. Since Westbrook didn't play at all in the preseason, we have no idea of how Andy Reid intends to use the two backs. Given Reid's history, McCoy could remain stapled to the bench as long as Westbrook can carry the load.

    April 26: Days after Sheldon Brown requests a trade because of dissatisfaction with his contract, the Eagles acquire New England starting corner Ellis Hobbs for a couple of fifth-round picks.

    How it looked then: Lito redux. Observers braced themselves for a replay of 2008, when Asante Samuel was brought in to start ahead of disgruntled Lito Sheppard, who ultimately grumped through a disappointing season before being jettisoned to the Jets.

    How it looks now: Though they came to the Eagles together in 2002, Sheldon and Lito always have been very different, and this is not the same situation. For one thing, Hobbs is not Samuel, whose $57 million price tag made the pecking order clear. After sitting out voluntary OTAs, Brown showed up at Lehigh on time and without complaint. He wasn't in the preseason locker room much when reporters were around — by design, it would seem. Brown does not seem to want to dramatize his complaints, and until a late rib injury — suffered on an extra-effort interception in practice — he was having an outstanding camp. At Lehigh, he might have been the team's best corner. The problem now might be more with Hobbs, who doesn't seem to feel he should play behind anyone.

    June 5: Brian Westbrook undergoes right ankle surgery, which comes as a surprise after Westbrook begins OTAs supposedly in top shape following a postseason knee cleanout.

    How it looked then: Much concern that Westbrook, who would turn 30 Sept. 2, was never going to be a dominant force again. The knee and ankle bothered him all last season. Many fans wanted the Eagles to sign a significant veteran runner, in addition to rookie LeSean McCoy, in case Westbrook was done.

    How it looks now: A little less dire. Westbrook rebounded from the surgery well, could have played in the preseason. It's hard to say fears have been allayed, because he still hasn't played, but in practice Westbrook has looked like himself and has had no further problems. With McCoy and waiver-wire pickup Eldra Buckley performing well in the exhibitions, the outcry for a veteran addition has quieted. The calendar still is not Westbrook's friend.

    June 12: Donovan McNabb's contract is restructured.

    How it looked then: An odd ending to an odd interlude. Many observers felt McNabb's up-and-down play the past few seasons might have had something to do with a changed relationship between McNabb and Andy Reid, since the 2007 drafting of Kevin Kolb. There were times when you got the idea No. 5 was not all that enthusiastic about being expected to win a Super Bowl with the talent on hand, that he felt taken for granted. McNabb said late last season that he wanted to clear the air, and he wanted some sort of contract adjustment. The Eagles gave him more money without committing to him for more years; of course, another way of looking at that is that he didn't have to commit to them for more years. It should have been a reassuring gesture, but McNabb acted uptight and defensive at the signing news conference.

    How it looks now: McNabb had an excellent training camp and a good preseason. He begins his 11th year in good health, with the best array of weapons he has commanded. If the season goes bad, anything can happen — Michael Vick starting next season, or Kolb, with McNabb traded — but McNabb begins the year in a stronger position than he has enjoyed in recent memory, maybe since 2004.

    People who think the world will end if McNabb throws a few passes into the ground and fans start chanting for Vick forget exactly how much Eagles management cares about what fans chant. (Hint: not much.)

    July 28: Jim Johnson passes away 3 days after Sean McDermott is named the Eagles defensive coordinator.

    How it looked then: McDermott, 35, made a good first impression in his introductory press conference, striking a balance between deference to Johnson's legacy and the need to stake out his own territory, be his own man. Johnson's death was among the first jarring notes in what became an off-key training camp.

    How it looks now: You have to wonder, if Jim were here, might the Birds have a better fix on the middle linebacking and free safety positions? That sort of question is going to come up regularly. McDermott hasn't seemed overmatched, but it's pretty clear by now that there is no way, in his first season, he can project Johnsonian authority. Right now, McDermott has a defense opponents can screen and play-fake to death. That sort of thing sometimes happened to Johnson, but when it did, he tended to fix it. Can McDermott?

    July 30: Shawn Andrews' back tightens up during the introductory fitness run for veterans.

    How it looked then: Gee, what a shame, the rebuilt offensive line won't be working out together right away. Guess it might take a few weeks for that to happen.

    How it looks now: Still waiting for the rebuilt line to play together. Now that Todd Herremans has undergone foot surgery, that won't happen at least until a few weeks into the season — assuming Andrews and the others remain in one piece that long. Andrews' ssllloowww recovery and the fact that he hinted at a problem more serious than what Andy Reid had outlined are enough to make you wonder if The Big Kid can pull it together, long-term. He will be starting against Carolina having never played a snap at right tackle as a pro.

    Aug. 2: Stewart Bradley tears his ACL at Eagles' "Flight Night" practice.

    How it looked then: Uh-oh. Middle linebacker, poised on the verge of stardom, out for the season. The obvious move was to plug in former starter Omar Gaither, but the Eagles didn't really do that — they gave the job to neophyte Joe Mays, with Gaither playing the nickel.

    How it looks now: Mays looked lost, and never mind that Gaither hadn't played since the preseason opener because of a knee sprain, he backed into the job. It became apparent that Bradley was the glue holding the linebacking corps together — strongside starter Chris Gocong is not an instinctive player and weakside starter Akeem Jordan is inexperienced. Putting them out there with Mays was ugly. Large SOS, heading into the season.

    Aug 13: Eagles sign quarterback Michael Vick.

    How it looked then: They did WHAT??? The Eagles had barely been mentioned in the Vick speculation; they had no obvious need for a quarterback. You had to wonder if what they would get would be worth the hassle.

    How it looks now: Still wondering. Every time Donovan McNabb sneezes, a blog somewhere declares he's annoyed about having to share the stage with Vick. McNabb wanted to help Vick, but his idea of "help" seems to be giving Vick a quiet corner to sit in while Vick rebuilds his life. Andy Reid, who always has loved coming up with gadget plays, is kicking up a cloud of chalkboard dust. This move could ease the Birds' longstanding red-zone constipation, or it could torpedo the season.
     

    by Les Bowen
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