There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Eagles. That’s why predictions range from a .500 record, which owner Jeffrey Lurie says is unacceptable, to the franchise’s first Super Bowl title. That’s why some experts envision the Eagles missing the playoffs and others see the makings of a dynasty.
All right, that last perspective belongs to Michael Vick. But who knows a team better than its starting quarterback?
Odds are that the Eagles will finish somewhere between those two extremes. They should be better than .500, but they might not be able to reach the Super Bowl. Then again, both extremes are well within the realm of possibility.
There is always uncertainty in the NFL, where teams regularly emerge from the ashes of one season to make a deep playoff run the next season. But the Eagles seem to generate a wider spectrum of opinion than most teams.
There are many reasons the Eagles produce so much uncertainty. One prime reason is Vick’s health. He was injured on the sixth offensive play of both preseason games in which he played. He’s only made it through one 16-game season without missing at least one game due to injury. His style, which includes running downfield, refusing to slide and staying in the pocket too long trying to make miraculous plays, makes him more vulnerable to being hit than the average quarterback.
This sounds counter-intuitive, but Vick’s mobility and elusiveness expose him to more hits than the average quarterback.
Another factor that leads to a variety of opinions about the Birds is the team is unbalanced. The Eagles are very strong in some areas and weak in others. How much weight you place on each area could lead you to a very different conclusion than someone else making similar judgments.
With the opener against Browns this Sunday quickly approaching, let’s sort out the Eagles’ strength and weaknesses as we look ahead to the 2012 season.
Vick took a step backward last season after his surprising renaissance in 2010. Like the Eagles, Vick isn’t as bad as he appeared at times last season, but he doesn’t quite belong in the same class as the top quarterbacks in the NFL (Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers). If he’s healthy, Vick is a tremendous weapon. Then again, that’s a big “if.”
The good news for the Eagles is their backup quarterback situation is much better than last season, when Vince “Dream Team” Young and Mike Kafka were the backups. The question concerning who would be Vick’s backup was a matter of concern when training camp started. But rookie Nick Foles and veteran Trent Edwards were superb during preseason. Playing well during preseason isn’t the same thing as playing well during the regular season, but Foles and Edwards sent the message that the Eagles’ offense would be in capable hands if Vick were to suffer an injury – at least for a game or two.
LeSean McCoy (left) might be the player the Eagles can least afford to lose to injury. He rushed for 1,309 yards last season, fourth-best in the NFL, and 17 touchdowns, most in the NFL. He also had three receiving touchdowns.
The Eagles can’t sufficiently replace McCoy if he’s sidelined for a significant length of time, but they do have the depth to take some of the load off his shoulders. Speedy Dion Lewis is joined by rookies Bryce Brown and Chris Polk as McCoy’s backups. Brown and Polk impressed head coach Andy Reid enough that both players made the 53-man roster. Stanley Havili is the starting fullback.
DeSean Jackson has breakaway speed and an improved attitude to go along with his new long-term contract. Jackson is the big-play receiver, but Jeremy Maclin is the more consistent of the Eagles’ starting receivers. Jason Avant, with his excellent hands, is a favorite target on third down.
Diminutive rookie Damaris Johnson made the team primarily because of his abilities as a kickoff and punt return abilities, but he also displayed a knack for getting open during preseason, both on crossing patterns underneath the coverage and on deep patterns beyond it. Riley Cooper gives the Birds a big target in the end zone, but he isn’t fully recovered from a broken collarbone and won’t play in the opener against the Browns.
Opposing quarterbacks beware: the Eagles’ defensive line is coming after you.
Jason Babin had 18 sacks last season. Trent Cole, the more well-rounded of the two starting defensive ends, had 11. Babin’s sack total may be reduced this season, only because the Birds have so many capable pass rushers at defensive end. Phillip Hunt was virtually unstoppable during the preseason. Brandon Graham and Darryl Tapp also applied a lot of pressure to the quarterback. Rookie Vinny Curry, who likely will be inactive for many games, displayed a lot of promise.
Cullen Jenkins and Derek Landri, the starting defensive tackles, also were adept at penetrating into the backfield and disrupting quarterbacks. With Mike Patterson on the non-football related physically unable to perform list, keeping him off the field until at least the sixth game of the season, first-round draft pick Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton are the young backups, although veteran Tapp can also move to tackle on passing downs.
If there’s a question about the defensive line, it relates to its ability to stop the run. Defensive tackle Antonio Dixon, the Eagles’ best run-stuffer, was released. The Eagles’ Wide-9 system creates a furious pass rush, but leaves the Eagles vulnerable to teams that like to run the ball, particularly up the middle.
Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman are the starters. Their jobs might be in jeopardy if there were anyone to challenge them.
Jaiquawn Jarrett, a former second-round pick out of Temple, barely got on the field last season. There were questions during preseason about whether Jarrett would make the 53-man roster, but there really wasn’t anyone to challenge him. Veteran O.J. Atogwe spent most of the preseason nursing a sore hamstring. Atogwe was cut.
After team rosters were initially cut to 53, the Eagles acquired safety David Sims from the Browns. They also have special teams demon Colt Anderson, who is recovering from a torn ACL suffered last season and won’t play in the season opener.
You get the feeling the Eagles would have preferred to have some true position battles at safety. But Allen and Coleman were never in danger of losing their starting positions.
This is supposed to be a strength. With Nnamdi Asomugha on one side and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the other, the Eagles’ corners are supposed to be able to provide blanket coverage. The only problem is that Asomugha looked pedestrian during preseason. The Eagles must hope that the veteran hasn’t lost a step and is beginning to decline.
Another worry is that the Eagles cut the reliable Joselio Hanson, who used to cover the slot receiver. The Eagles are counting on rookie Brandon Boykin to fill Hanson’s role. Curtis Marsh and Brandon Hughes are the other backups. If Asomugha or Rodgers-Cromartie gets hurt, cornerback becomes a very inexperienced unit, which would put even more pressure on the safeties.
At least this position isn’t listed as a weakness, which is an improvement over past seasons. This is an all-new starting unit, with DeMeco Ryans in the middle, flanked by rookie Mychal Kendricks and Akeem Jordan.
The solid-but-unspectacular Jordan isn’t really new. He’s just new (again) to starting, having replaced Brian Rolle before the Eagles’ final preseason game. Ryans, acquired from the Texans, hasn’t made much of an impact during preseason. The former All-Pro will need to step up his game, especially as teams try to take advantage of the Eagles’ vulnerability to runs up the middle. Kendricks was one of the Eagles’ brightest lights during preseason, displaying a nose for the football.
The backup linebacker corps consists of former starters Jamar Chaney, Casey Matthews (above) and Rolle. This may be a case of quantity over quality, but the linebackers appear to be better than in recent seasons.
This position is the opposite of linebacker, having moved from a definite strength to a variable. The reason for the downgrade is the absence of left tackle Jason Peters, who ruptured his Achilles tendon twice during the offseason.
Peters was as good as any left tackle in the NFL last season. Not only did he protect Vick well, but he steamrolled defensive players on running plays and screen passes. Without Peters, McCoy’s rushing total may decline and the screen passes may not be nearly as effective.
King Dunlap is Peters’ replacement, having beaten out Demetress Bell, who was signed to replace Peters at left tackle. The question is whether Dunlap won the job or Bell lost it. The answer to that question will indicate how much of a dropoff the Eagles will suffer at left tackle.
The rest of last year’s offensive line is intact. Center Jason Kelce was terrific, as was left guard Evan Mathis, who was rewarded with a long-term contract. But will Mathis be as effective this season playing next to Dunlap, who he may need to assist, instead of Peters?
Todd Herremans is a strong, consistent presence at right tackle. Danny Watkins was removed from the starting lineup at the start of last season, his rookie year, before taking over at right guard.
Depth is also a question. Dallas Reynolds is the primary backup at all three interior line positions. Bell is Dunlap’s backup, which is hardly encouraging at the moment, and rookie Dennis Kelly is Herremans’ backup at right tackle. Nate Menkin, recently added to the roster, is a backup at guard and tackle.
The value of the tight ends depends on how they are used. If Brent Celek and Clay Harbor are about to run downfield, they are both very good receivers. If, however, they have to spend an inordinate amount of time staying in to block, particularly on King Dunlap’s side, they will be playing to their weaknesses rather than their strengths.
According to Sports Illustrated, Celek stayed in for pass protection 143 times last season, more than any tight end in the NFL. That number could actually increase this season.
Damaris Johnson and Brandon Boykin are being counted upon to improve the return games. That’s a lot of pressure on rookies, who are sometimes prone to making mistakes.
The Eagles, of course, went with rookies at kicker and punter last season. Alex Henery was excellent, converting 24 of 27 field goals (88.9 percent), the most accurate mark ever for a rookie kicker, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. On the other hand, two of those misses were from 39 and 33 yards during the fourth quarter of a 24-23 loss to the 49ers. Henery missed makeable field goals during the last two preseason games, so there’s some cause for concern.
Punter Chas Henry finished with an average of 36.9 yards per punt last season. He placed 19 punts inside the 20, but was inconsistent, which is why the Eagles brought in Mat McBriar for competition during training camp. Henry won that competition on merit, which is a good sign.
The Eagles face six of last season’s playoff teams (Ravens, Giants, Steelers, Lions, Falcons, Saints) in their first nine games.
More troubling is that they play Monday night games the week prior to both Cowboys games, resulting in shorter amount of time to recover and prepare. Before the Dec. 2 game in Dallas, the Cowboys will have had a 10-day break, having played on Thanksgiving, compared to six days for the Eagles. Similarly, the Lions will be coming off their bye week when they face the Eagles on Oct. 14. The Eagles will be coming off a game at Pittsburgh.
As you can see in our NFL preview, both Ron Opher and I predict the Eagles will finish at 10-6. Ron believes that will be good enough to win the NFC East in a tiebreaker. I think that will earn the Eagles a wild card berth via tiebreaker.
Either way, we both have the Eagles flirting with missing the playoffs, which emphasizes that the margin between success and disappointment is extremely thin. Ron and I both predict the Eagles won’t make it past the first round, which would be disappointing. On the other hand, once you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen.
The phrase “Super Bowl or bust” comes to mind. The Eagles could finish at either extreme and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise.