The LiveBall Sports Philadelphia Eagles Season Preview
Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom.
What we said about the Eagles prior to the 2012 season
The Eagles will almost certainly open 2012 as the favorite in the NFC East. They have quarterback questions: if it’s not Mike Vick’s health, it’s his abilities, but he does happen to be at the controls of the most dominant offense in his division. This may not be a dream team, but it’s a team that has Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, Brent Celek, Jason Peters, Todd Herremans, Evan Mathis, Cullen Jenkins, Trent Cole, Jason Babin, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Asante Samuel on the same roster. That’s pretty good.
The Eagles won their final four contests in a 2011 season that was superficially disappointing given the team’s own high expectations, but the underlying performance to the 2011 Eagles season suggested that they managed to improve a fair amount from the team’s division winning season in 2010, and the sky would be the limit for the team going forward into 2012.
Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo’s unit was universally ripped for its performance in 2011, but the unit improved in his first year as coordinator from the year before, albeit not by quite as much as the increased payroll might have raised expectations. But when looking for reasons the 2011 Eagles year went south, it really just starts and ends with turnovers. There were no indications of deeper issues, and 2012 looked for the whole world to be a strong rebound year.
There were questions around Michael Vick, no different from the questions that have been there his whole career, but the presence of Andy Reid, quarterback whisperer, mitigated those concerns to an extent.
What should we have known with the benefit of hindsight?
Even with the benefit of hindsight, the total collapse of the Andy Reid era is still without clear explanation. One thing that hindsight shows pretty clearly is that the management/ownership of the Eagles didn’t exactly go all in supporting its coaching staff. The Eagles ended up firing Juan Castillo after five weeks, and then the defense got much, much worse under Todd Bowles. The offense also collapsed: not only did the Eagles not stop turning the ball over, but they also regressed in the running game, and never really improved in terms of throwing the football. Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, and LeSean McCoy moved from the category of future stars to the category of players who the Eagles just don’t know what they have. DeSean Jackson had a good season, but no longer looks like the future star he looked like earlier in his career. The Eagles talent development machine just seemed to stop producing.
Which is fine (though hardly ideal) if the team can just lean on its veterans. But the veteran contribution began to fall apart before the season started when left tackle Jason Peters was lost for the year. Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were worse in 2012 than in 2011. Asante Samuel was a Falcon. The Eagles didn’t take any strides to solving the safety position that became a problem prior to the dream team era, when Quentin Mikell left for St. Louis. The offensive line was an abject disaster. The Eagles have not drafted well since 2010. And at the conclusion of the 2012 season, they cleaned house, getting rid of all the big contracts from the 2011 offseason.
What lessons can you learn from a situation that went sour as quickly as the Eagles? It was unfathomable that an Andy Reid team could be as bad as the team he took over of in 1999. But the decision to fire Reid became obvious when the team’s future and current prospects collapsed last year. Any lesson would have been related to how the Eagles could have prevented such a collapse rather than what we could have done to predict it. There were no indicators that everything would come crashing down around Reid and Vick.
Where does the team appear to think it’s at?
This is such a tough question to put my finger on. Quality writers who follow the Eagles much more closely than I do think that the Eagles are entering a long rebuilding period under Chip Kelly, which is certainly something that last season would justify, except the Eagles haven’t really done anything in the offseason indicative of rebuilding.
There will certainly be a rebuilding period of the season, as the team moves its defensive scheme from the even front they ran through Jim Johnson and Sean McDermott and Juan Castillo during Reid’s tenure to a 3-4 front. The immediate returns for a team moving from a 40 front to a 30 front are typically very good, but the Eagles probably still haven’t learned their lesson from being in the same division as the Redskins — the last team to struggle when it switched to a 3-4 defense. And as the Eagles transition to the 3-4, there’s no real reason to think there is immediate help on the horizon on defense. Three years ago, Trent Cole, Connor Barwin, and Brandon Graham would have been an excellent edge rush rotation. Now…Graham’s in his prime years but the Eagles probably should not expect great edge rush production.
The team’s linebackers have been weak for years, but the strength of the defensive line has always made up for it (until last year when it simply could not redeem the linebackers and safeties). Now, with the defensive line changing philosophies 180 degrees, they’ll be two-gapping up front to stop the run and take some pressure off the linebackers. Once the Eagles get their linebackers of the future, that is.
Maybe the Eagles think they can compete this year, and the 3-4 switch will help them compete, but there are still major questions about Michael Vick, questions that have been unanswered throughout his career, but the presence of Chip Kelly dispells some of those questions.
How did the team improve itself in the draft and free agency
A 3-4 edge rusher would have been a good spot to go in the top four of the draft, but the team may not have had a high grade on Barkevious Mingo, and ended up drafting OT Lane Johnson with the fourth pick. The Eagles offensive line likely should be taken care of at this point, but they’ve switched coaching there as well, and I don’t know if any unit in the NFL is being asked to relearn as much as the Eagles OL is going to be asked to going from Andy Reid to Chip Kelly. A cornerstone OT makes sense, and getting Peters back healthy cannot hurt, but it could take years for Kelly to get his offensive line to where he had it every single year at Oregon. The Eagles organization may simply be underestimating the shift in philosophy they have undertaken.
They are giving Kelly pieces through free agency. The Eagles continue to be near the top of the league in really well structured contracts, a competitive advantage they have enjoyed for years, but the players they are giving those contracts to seem to be having a weakened effect towards helping win games. Keep this in mind with the Eagles signing a new secondary: CBs Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams, and S Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips: the Eagles got good contracts here, but those players do not make me think the Eagles will have a good secondary next year.
They drafted Matt Barkley, who is not in a good situation to produce in year one, because if Barkley gets on the field at all next year, it’s not because his teammates have been playing up to par.
What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?
The Eagles play in the NFC East, which is about as good a situation as a team can have in the NFC. A question of whether the Eagles can make the playoffs next year is basically a question of whether or not they can win their division. They can win their division, but would have to have the longest odds at this point.
They have the second highest upside of any team in the division after the Redskins, but also have the lowest floor by far, and there are significant design flaws in the roster as well as the organization. And while the upside is there, the Eagles were not a good team last year, and didn’t do a ton to improve themselves in the offseason.
With that said, Chip Kelly’s tactics give the Eagles a lot of opportunity to improve on an organizational level over the course of the regular season. 2013 may not be a pretty year for the Eagles, and they may be even somewhat uncompetitive in a lot of their early games, but it’s a high leverage season for the Eagles front office. They very well may find they wasted a year by not starting a necessary rebuilding if their offense struggles behind Michael Vick again, should quarterback whisperer Chip Kelly not be able to reach the veteran QB. Or they might find out that they need a good six to seven game stretch to win the NFC East, not unlike the 3-6 Redskins were able to do next year.
The Eagles’ management team could look like geniuses at the end of the season. But it’s more likely that they’ll look like an organization that has lost it’s way, and needs to shake things up above the coaching staff level.