Saturday, September 06, 2008

Eagles Preview 2008

After this season, we will have seen a full decade of the Andy Reid era in football here in Philadelphia. Every one of those years, Andy Reid has been tied at the hip with one Donovan Jamal McNabb.

Last season, McNabb endured one of his tougher seasons. He was slow to return to form after ACL surgery and offseason rehab during a year where he endured his first threat on the depth chart since he arrived in 1999 in the form of 2007 2nd round pick QB Kevin Kolb. McNabb also missed two games due to a sprained ankle and a bad thumb. Sprinkle in last season's injury woes to those of 2002 (broken leg), 2005 (sports hernia), and 2006 (torn ACL) in addition to a bright eyed new QB on the roster and it gets people whispering.

Will this be the last year of the Reid-McNabb partnership?

The Eagles enter this season in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL and if they are going to be successful, they are going to have to overcome playing the Super Bowl champions and the team everyone is predicting to go to the Super Bowl (the hated Cowboys) a total of 4 times.

They made a couple of acquisitions during the offseason to bolster the offense, but they never did what the fanbase wanted: a trade for a marquee wide receiver. For their part, the Eagles almost seem defiant in their stance that they indeed added playmakers, in signing CB Asante Samuel and DE Chris Clemons to contracts to help the defense to get back to it's glory from the NFC Championship years.

Samuel and Clemons aside, the Eagles seem to be counting on one big addition this year: a healthy Donovan McNabb.

Positional Breakdown

QB: As previously stated, the Eagles' offensive hopes are more or less pinned to a healthy and successful season from starting QB Donovan McNabb. The Eagles felt confidence enough in QB-in-waiting Kevin Kolb to make him the #2 QB this year. While Kolb did look better than his rookie year in preseason action, I don't think anyone believes he's quite ready for the starting job. AJ Feeley returns as the 3rd stringer and probably still pulls prime time poon from the Olde City bars.

RB: The only injury that might come close to crippling the Eagles offense as much as losing McNabb would be to lose Brian Westbrook for an extended period of time. Westbrook was rewarded with a re-structured contract that helped in making Westbrook somewhat whole financially for being one of the top 3 or 4 backs in the league in the past 3 years.

The Eagles also added Lorenzo Booker into the mix from Miami in a draft day trade in a move that should allow the team to spell Westbrook every now and again. And yes, Correll Buckhalter is still around. In a slightly dubious move, the team is attempting to turn Tony Hunt into a fullback. In fairness, however, the Eagles haven't had a significant fullback in their offense since Jon Ritchie.

WR/TE: A lot of contention here. Given that this team passed the ball 60% of the time last year, one would think that the team would invest time and energy into either acquiring an elite receiver or developing one on their own. They have been either unsuccessful in attempting the former (they flirted with Randy Moss during his contract negotiations with the Pats) and have been historically unable to do the latter.

One could make the case that Reggie Brown went backwards last year, and despite Kevin Curtis' good numbers, he is probably better suited lining up in the slot. No matter what you think of Curtis' work, you won't even have Curtis to kick around in the immediate future, as he will be out with a sports hernia (seemingly, the injury of choice for the Eagles). Couple this with Brown fighting a bad hamstring, and this leaves the Eagles incredibly thin at WR as they enter the season.

Enter rookie DeSean Jackson, whom many believed would not make an impact at receiver his rookie year. Now, with the dearth of good health at the WR position, there is no choice but to rely on him. The Eagles will need Jackson to carry his preseason success (16 rec., 189 yds) into the regular season for the passing game to be successful. Hank Baskett and Greg Lewis will be around for another year, showing off their utter mediocrity.

Underacheiving TE LJ Smith (yeah, I said it) will be back this year, in a contract year, fully healed from a sports hernia that hindered him last season. He has looked downright spry in preseason action and I look to him fulfilling his potential this season. Brent Celek will look to spell Smith and looks to be a good prospect.

OL: Only one of two ways for the tackles on this unit to go. They will either be praised for their continuity if they are good or they will be criticized for their age if they are bad. Tra Thomas (yes, he's Tra again; he confused too many people changing his name to "William Thomas") and Jon Runyan are back for another season at the tackle positions. It was probably hoped by now that Winston Justice would provide a credible challenge at either of these positions, but he has been unable to do so and you wonder if he'll ever shake off the effects of the "Osi Umenyioura Game" last year, where Umenyioura had 6 sacks, a few while Justice was (attempting to) block him.

It was an eventful offseason for All-Pro guard Shawn Andrews, who publicly battled depression and missed time at camp. It is thought that this should not affect Andrews' play, but that remains to be seen. Todd Herremans is probably better suited to tackle than guard. Max Jean Gilles is probably ready to start in one of the guard positions if needed.

DL: The DTs, Mike Patterson and Broderick Bunkley, were solid, if unspectacular last season. Look for Bunkley to build on his sophmore season, where he seemed to finally "get it".

The top dog at DE is none other than Trent Cole, who compiled 12.5 sacks last year, building on his 8 sack season in 2006. With the underacheiving Jevon Kearse now gone, Juqua Parker (formerly Juqua Thomas) will take the other starting DE nod. Parker is probably holding this spot until injured 2nd year man Victor Abiamiri comes back from a wrist injury, possibly this season.

FA acquisition Dan Klecko, rookie Trevor Laws, and veteran Darren Howard round out the DT rotation.

LB: In my opinion, there is some misplaced optimism about this group. MLB Stew Bradley parlayed two starts in his rookie year into a starting job on the team. Not only is he starting, but he's calling defensive signals. You wonder if it's too much for the 2nd year guy out of Nebraska.

And are we really ready to consider Chris Gocong a success? Gocong had a passable year last year, but certainly not world beating. I think Gocong was just stunned to be on the field and healthy.

The only sure thing on this unit is the move of Omar Gaither from the middle to the weak side, where he can use his speed a bit more than he could at MLB, where he was undersized.

DB: This is probably the strength of the defense. When the QB called for the organization to sign some playmakers, I don't think the signing of CB Asante Samuel to a 6-year deal was quite what DMac had in mind. You would think that this signing would make the oft-injured Lito Sheppard expendable in trade to shore up another area of weakness on the team or would perhaps allow the team to facilitate a move of the physical Sheldon Brown to safety, but apparently, the game plan is that Samuel and Brown are the starters and Sheppard is the nickel corner.

Making things even more complicated is the fact that Sheppard was displeased with his contract status BEFORE the Eagles made the move to acquire Samuel. Now that he has not been traded to a team willing to re-do his deal AND been displaced from his starting job, he and his agent Drew Rosenhaus have taken to carping either directly to the press or via YouTube as witnessed below:

It would probably behoove Sheppard to play out the season and see how things work out, but with the influence of Drew Rosenhaus, this situation could become toxic in short order. Note that Rosenhaus, only recently hired by Sheppard, only gets paid when his client gets a new deal.

The safety position is one that could use a bounce back year. Brian Dawkins' 2007 season began in personal turmoil, with Dawkins dealing with complications over the birth of his twin daughters. He also battled age and a variety of injuries causing BDawk to miss 6 games. He did not seem himself last year even when he did play, but with Dawkins' daughters' problems behind him and a new year to begin with a relative clean slate, health-wise, look for Weapon X to make a comeback this year.

When Dawkins was unavailable last year, Quentin Mikell took his spot and performed reasonably well. Mikell has been around seemingly forever and he'll slide over to the strong safety position this season, that was held down by a combination of Sean Considine and JR Reed last season. Both Considine and Reed will be backing up this year, which is a far more appropriate role for both players.

Special Teams: This area of the team cost the Eagles the first game of the year against the Packers, when various players, miscast as return men, dropped a couple of punts handing the ball (and the win) over to the Packers. The situation with punt returners got so bad they had to re-sign Reno Mahe off of the street just to get a guy that could secure the football on a punt. Mahe, a middling talent in the best of circumstances, has never really been a field changer as a return man.

Enter rookies DeSean Jackson and Quinton Demps; both of whom returned kicks in the preseason. Look for the return game to be energized by the emergence of these two players on special teams.

Kicker David Akers, once considered one of the premier kickers in football, fell off of the map a little bit last year. Akers was still steady from within 40 yards, but outside of 40 yards, his percentage of FGs made fell off from 75% (6 for 8) in 2006 to 20% (2 for 10) in 2007. This could be attributed to a new holder, punter Sav Rocca, but some could be due to a tangible decline. The Eagles did not have a kicker in camp who gave Akers a serious run for his money, so the Eagles are clearly counting on a bounce-back year from Akers.

Punter Sav Rocca performed capably during his inaugural year in American Football, after starring for years in Austrailian Rules football. He needs to be a bit more consistent, but otherwise, he seems to have a real strong leg.

Coaching: I'll be the first to admit it; I'm not an Andy Reid fan. I know he's the most successful coach (in terms of wins) in the history of the Eagles, but his recent inability to incorporate better talent in the draft and his stubbornness with respect to the offensive play calling make me want to wretch. As de-facto GM of the team, he seems stubborn with respect to his ideas on his "system" being so good, it seems he believes he can just plug any player into his vaunted "system" and they should suceed.

As an offensive coach, his predilection towards the forward pass seemed to cool down last year, but the Eagles still pass the ball around 60 percent of the time. I'd personally like to see more balance in the offense. And before you remind me that Marty Mornhinweg is the offensive coordinator on this team and needs to shoulder that blame, please hold your breath. Andy Reid still calls plays occasionally and if you think he doesn't have significant input into the offensive game plan, you're kidding yourself.

Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is still a pretty good coach. Not nearly enough is made of the fact that his disciple Steve Spagnuolo went on to be the defensive coordinator of the Giants and won the Super Bowl using most of Jim Johnson's blueprints (but with better personnel).

The special teams have fallen off under coach Rory Segrest, but that has as much to do with personnel as it does with anything else. Segrest suffers from comparison with former Eagle special teams coach John Harbaugh, whose special teams always were highly ranked and contributed regularly to the success of the team those years where the Eagles were going to the NFC Championship with regularity.

Schedule: The schedule this year is pretty much middle of the road. The average 2007 winning percentage of the teams they are playing this year was about .520, good for 15th in the league in terms of toughest schedules.

Outlook and Prediction: The Eagles have tough September matchups against Pittsburgh, Dallas, and Chicago. October brings the bye week and 3 weaker opponents (Washington, SF, and Atlanta). By the end of October, the Eagles should be no worse than 5 - 2.

November will be their toughest month of the year, with having to travel to Seattle and back-to-back road matchups against Cincinnati and Baltimore. Mix in a home games against the Champion Giants and the high powered offense of Arizona. I don't think it's unreasonable for this team to be 7 - 5 after this stretch of matchups.

December brings matchups against each of their NFC East opponents and the Cleveland Browns. These matchups feel like a split to me.

2008 Prediction: 9 - 7 and a Wild Card playoff berth.

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