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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Philadelphia Eagles: National Reports, Local Reality

I've followed the Eagles' summer pretty closely through my local newspapers. I'm more interested in the personnel moves than watching (meaningless) exhibition games, so pardon me if I didn't hit the remote to watch the Birds' and some anonymous third stringers do battle when the roster-challenged Phillies were hanging in there in the National League pennant chase. The papers gave me a picture that differs from those of national publications who don't live in Southeastern Pennsylvania or who are happy to run computer simulations as to how the Eagles will fare this season. What they say (to a degree) and what I've seen differ. Somewhat markedly.

ESPN the Magazine has the Eagles with one of the four or five best records in the NFC and making the playoffs. Many publications have the team winning 9 games. Give them a game somewhere, and that spells playoffs. Which wouldn't be too bad for a team that only has two players with over 10 years' experience in the league (one of them is the kicker, David Akers, and for those who really are interested, the other is defensive end Juqua Parker) and has 22 new players on its 53-player roster. Which also wouldn't be too bad for a team with a questionable offensive line (especially between the tackles) and an untested quarterback, not to mention a rebuilt defense.

Of course, this is the NFL, so anything can happen. The team can gel quickly (and, remember, what one writer said about the talent-laden Redskins -- they might find out down there that a roster full of 2006 Pro Bowlers might not be able to win today), get hot and have the high-octane offense that it's new group of skill position players suggests that it might have. On the other hand, it doesn't have an abundance of leaders, still has some weaknesses, and just doesn't have enough depth of experience together as a team to go more than 6-10.

Look, I'm an Eagles' fan, but I don't think that this team can make the playoffs, and I think it will be a good season if they can go more than 8-8. The reasons are rather simple, even in a league where you can't count on teams with groups of experienced veterans who've played together for a while (such as the Giants' offensive line) to guarantee that this isn't the year where they're closer to being ready for hip replacements than they are to auditioning for Superman. The Eagles have good runnnig backs, good receivers and an excellent tight end. The biggest question will be whether the offensive line can surge enough to spring Leonard Weaver and more importantly, tailback LaSean McCoy, for big yards, and whether they can provide Kevin Kolb (who should be more accurate than Donovan McNabb) with enough time to get the balll to tight end Brent Celek and wide receivers DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant. If the line comes through, the Eagles should put points on the board. . . and a lot of them. If the line fails, then Kolb gets hurt, Michael Vick will have to run for his life and the defense will be on the field for a long time. As for the defense, it's hard to say whether, for the most part, a year older, it's improved. Rookie Brandon Graham will have to show up big time for that to happen. Much of the hope for the defense is based on the return of middle linebacker Stewart Bradley, who missed all of last season. He's the leader, he's good when he's healthy, and he should fill the big hole that was left last year after he got hurt. The outside linebackers seem to be a mixed bag of journeymen and guys with something to prove, and the secondary should be a strong point.

So why so pessimistic? Well, for starters, I've always thought that a team wins in the trenches by showing how well it can push the other team around. I'm not sure that the Eagles' lines are good enough to do just that, and it's preferable to do just that than to run all sorts of packages that are designed to confuse the other team. NFL teams put so much effort into film study that eventually gimmicks get unmasked for what they are. So, it's better to have some 335-pound run stuffing defensive tackle with enough of a mean streak to sack the quarterback a half a dozen times in the season than to runnning exotic schemes. Sure, teams run those schemes from time to time, but old-fashioned line play seems to win out.

The offensive line is more of a concern, because Jamal Jackson is about an average center, and he just (and I mean just) came back from a knee injury. Left guard Todd Herremans is good when healthy, but that tag line also suggests that as his career advances so does his susceptibility to injury. Right guard Nick Cole is big and supposedly better at guard than center, but that's not necessarily a ringing endorsement. Left tackle Jason Peters doesn't play with the sense of urgency or authority that his huge contract warrants. When he's on, there's none better; when he's off, he has more snap count violations than any other lineman in Eagles' history, and some of us remember that mid-to-late 1960's through the late 1970's, so that's saying something. Right tackle Winston Justice has found a home, but he's not usually mentioned when the conversation turns to the league's best tackles. And make no mistake, it's hard to find yourself in the elite ranks when none of your linemen on either side of the ball makes those conversations.

10-6? 9-7? 8-8? The beauty of the NFL is that no one really knows. The local buzz, as I've read it, seems to suggest that the team really is rebuilding and won't make the playoffs. At least not this year.

Line play on both sides, improved play from the linebackers, and the emergence of Kevin Kolb. If all three of those things happen, there's no telling how far this team can go. But if none of those things happen, there's no justification for a playoff berth.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very true, well said!

11:05 AM  

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