A Defensive End Preview

Sheil Kapadia:

Jenkins has been getting some reps at defensive end with Jason Babin out. We didn’t see him outside much last year, although Jenkins played defensive end while in a 3-4 with the Packers.

“I just gotta get back used to it,” he said. “My hand work is a little off, especially on the left side. When I did play D-End in the past, I was used to being on the right side, so when I’m on the left side, I gotta get used to the hands, vertical steps and all that stuff.”

I’m a fan of whatever looks Jim Washburn wants to throw at offenses, but with Trent Cole also out with swelling in his shoulder, now seems like the perfect time to get lots of looks at the quartet of Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Darryl Tapp, and Philip Hunt. You’re not going to be able to keep all four of those guys.

Seeing Cole and Babin both dealing with injuries is also a worthy reminder that they’re not youngsters anymore. They were tremendous pass rushers last year, but a decline could be coming.

UPDATE: Graham is running with the ones, and Jenkins and Tapp are rotating on the other side.

Adventures at Summer Camp: Lehigh Day 2

Because someone has to read all the news coming out of the Eagles training camp.

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When double-negatives attack. Bobby April told the press, in as roundabout a way as he could manage, that DeSean Jackson won’t be the primary punt returner anymore, now that he has his big contract:

"I don’t think that we’re not going to use him," April said. "I just don’t know if he’s going to be the primary guy. … He’ll continue to work at the positiion. He just won’t get as much work as he normally does."

* * *

Can’t lower the bar enough. April also said that while he was looking to bring in competition for Chas Henry, the former Florida punter did well for a rookie. That is simply not true. Among his fellow rookies, Henry had the second-lowest net average and tied for the lowest ratio of punts inside the 20 yard line to touchbacks, a rough measure of placement and touch. Needless to say, those stats look even worse compared to veterans.

UPDATE: Eagles signed former Cowboy Mat McBriar.

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My kingdom for a Washburn post-game press conference. Jim Washburn is so candid. He talked to the press yesterday, and the quotes were flying. On Mike Patterson coming back from brain surgery:

"Mike Patterson might be one of the best people I’ve ever had," said Washburn. "He doesn’t have to come to these rookie meetings at night and in the afternoon, he doesn’t have to be there, but guess what? He’s there. I said, ‘Mike, you don’t have to be here,’ and he said, ‘I like to be here.’ He likes football. He’s a good one. God dang, we miss him now."

On Antonio Dixon:

"I was so disappointed," said Washburn. "I couldn’t tell if he had any talent… I couldn’t tell if the guy was a good player or not. I couldn’t tell if he was a good athlete. He weighed 365 or something like that. His back was killing him. He was out of shape. I couldn’t even tell if he was a player. This spring, he worked his butt off. He’s down, I don’t know how much he weighs, he’s maybe 330 from 360 or whatever it was. He’s in so much better shape and I went, ‘Wow, this guy’s got some quickness.’ He likes to play and he’s tough, but he’s got ability."

On Trent Cole:

“He told me when I first got here, ‘I ain’t rotating,’” Washburn said Tuesday at Eagles training camp. “Said it right up there in that meeting room. I said, ‘Yes, you are … or your ass ain’t going to play.’ He’s a great kid, Trent.”

On Brandon Graham:

"He changed some of the habits in his life, I think," Washburn said. "He got serious. … I don’t know, [he’s] a mild-mannered guy. He was a good player in college, he was. I watched every game he played in college for a year or two. He was a good player. Should be a good player here. Lost his weight. Got too heavy.” Graham, of course, is coming back from knee surgery after losing most of 2011.

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Tearjerker. If you’re not rooting for lifelong Eagles fan Vinny Curry before, you will Be after you read Jeff McLane’s article about him. Plus, bonus Washburn quotes!

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Mini-Asante? Multiple reports talked about UDFA Cliff Harris picking off a few passes during yesterday’s practices, putting him out to an early lead in the Training Camp Darling category. But let’s not go crazy here. There are no good wide receivers at camp, and some of the picks just demonstrate how bad Trent Edwards is.

* * *

On the other hand, I’m starting to let the continued positive reports on Mychal Kendricks get to me. He seems much more prepared than Casey Matthews was, at any rate.

* * *

Poorly Written Articles Edition. Bill Barnwell gives us what he pretends to be a statistical analysis of the top running backs in the game, but somehow concludes that Ray Rice is better than LeSean McCoy without demonstrating any number that backs that up.

Even less insightful was the book excerpt in Fast Company about how Jeff Lurie turned around the Eagles. What a waste of time.

Willing to Walk Away?

Jonathan Tamari pens an excellent mini-profile of Trent Cole:

"I might play into another contract," Cole said. He added that he hopes to finish his career as an Eagle - "When they cut me, I’m, ‘OK. I’m ready to retire,’ " - but then hedged when asked if he could ever play elsewhere.

"No," he said, "unless the money’s right, for real."

That’s a strange quote Tamari picked up, about being willing to retire when the Eagles let him go. Cole gives the money qualifier after, but it’s still an odd insight into the mindset of the Eagles’ stellar but typically reserved defensive end.

Post-Draft Position Breakdown: Defensive End

Darryl Tapp Juqua Parker

What the Eagles did: Back in February, I ran the numbers on the pass rush from the Eagles defensive line. The results were telling:

2011 Eagles Defensive Ends

While production was way up across the entire group (thanks Wash), there was a clear separation. Trent Cole and Jason Babin were spectacular, and with any luck we can get similar production from that duo going forward. They are Pro Bowl-caliber players going into their 30 and 32-year-old seasons, respectively. That places them on the tail end of their prime, most likely, but certainly still in it. No worries there for 2012.

The next pairing I would group are Philip Hunt and Brandon Graham — the question marks. I’m not so sure about his run defense, but Hunt’s pass rushing in limited snaps showed tremendous potential. I’m very interested to see if he can increase his role this season. Graham basically experienced a lost year in 2012. This is his make-or-break campaign. He has the raw talent to push for serious playing time, or he could fall away completely.

The final two were Juqua Parker and Darryl Tapp. As situational pass rushers, neither player was bad, per se. But compared to the rest of the group? The Eagles let Parker walk in free agency, and Tapp now has serious competition to remain on the roster.

Meanwhile, the team added Vinny Curry in the second round, making him the most talented football-playing Eagles fan anywhere. Curry slots right in with Hunt and Graham at this point. He’s young, ideally-suited to Jim Washburn’s schemes, and could contribute right away.

What I would have done: I might have tried to trade Darryl Tapp away during the draft for an extra pick, but I can see the logic in keeping him around at this point. After Babin and Cole, Tapp is the only defensive end with starting experience. He’s a solid veteran insurance policy, even if he looks like the odd man out right now.

Other than that one nitpicky point, solid job by Howie Roseman.

Way-too-early prediction: Especially with the flexibility to slide Cullen Jenkins and Fletcher Cox outside, I can’t imagine the Eagles would keep more than five players at defensive end. Barring injuries, Cole, Babin, Graham, and Curry are all locked in. As I discussed above, there’s reason to be fairly bullish about Hunt’s chances as well. That puts Tapp (and whichever free agent replaces the now-injured Maurice Favorite) out on the street.

Other than that general roster prognostication, I don’t really have any idea who will emerge as the first guy off the bench. It should be one of the more interesting positions to watch from a playing-time competition standpoint.

Photo from Getty.

Making One's Own Bed

Geoff Mosher:

If your notebook never left the back pocket and your recorder stayed off, you could heard the gripes and complaints from some prominent, homegrown players who felt that the Eagles were more financially friendly to outsiders than their own.

It didn’t go over well years ago when millions were splurged on free agents such as Darren Howard, Stacy Andrews and Chris Clemons – guys whose performances never matched their paychecks – while Eagles-drafted players worked under modest long-term deals that paid out generous bonus money up front but looked outdated one or two years later when the market changed.

Without directly admitting it, the Eagles took a giant step toward diffusing what could have been an explosive locker room situation this season by extending the contracts of Todd Herremans, Trent Cole and DeSean Jackson on the first few days of free agency and then bringing back Evan Mathis.

The truth is that last year with Jackson and Asante Samuel, the Eagles already had an “explosive locker room situation” on their hands. This reversal (return?) is by far the biggest storyline of the offseason so far.

Inside Trent Cole's Contract Extension

Brian McIntyre has the details of Trent Cole’s contract. Here is the basic breakdown:

2012: $8 million signing bonus, plus original $3 million salary now guaranteed.
2013: Original $3.5 million salary now guaranteed.
2014: New $5 million salary (plus $500,000 $ack$-based bonus).
2015: New $10 million salary.
2016: New $11 million salary.
2017: New $14 million salary.

Cole turns 30 this year, which should give you a sense of which years are more or less fake money. To my eyes, the last three years all look unlikely. The Eagles gave Cole a lot of security by guaranteeing the final two years of his old contract and handing him a signing bonus on top of it. The 2014 additional year also looks attainable and very reasonably priced. After that, I don’t see the Eagles paying $10 million or more per year for a 33-year-old and up.

Still, don’t let that detract from what the deal really means. It’s not intended to purchase many more years of performance, but rather to serve as a thank you gift, a reward for Cole’s quiet excellence over the last few years. And in many ways, that’s more important.

Lessons From the First Day of Free Agency

Todd Herremans

Day one of free agency is in the books, and it was an interesting, if not groundbreaking day for Eagles fans. Let’s break down what we’ve learned so far.

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A rebirth of the old Eagles way? The team took the first day to negotiate extensions for two of its longest-tenured players, Todd Herremans and Trent Cole. It was a nice return to the days pre-2009 when the Eagles built mostly from within. It’s also an important precedent to set with the players. Basically since Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown were unceremoniously dumped, the front office and the players have had a relationship built on animosity and mistrust. Young players like DeSean Jackson have battled with the organization rather than sign mutually-beneficial long-term deals.

Jonathan Tamari has the money quote from Todd Herremans: “The Eagles have been known for a while as a team that doesn’t take care of their draft picks and pays everyone else’s as picks and players. I think they’re trying to change that stigma that they have.”

By showing that you can get more money by playing the good soldier and dealing with your contract issues behind the scenes, the Eagles made a big step toward repairing that relationship and establishing veteran role models for the less experienced players to look up to.

* * *

Wide receivers are getting paid. Three of the best wide receivers on the market signed yesterday. Vincent Jackson went to Tampa Bay, getting 5 years, $55.55 million, with $26 million guaranteed. Marques Colston stayed with the Saints at the last minute, for 5 years, $40 million and $19 million guaranteed. Finally, Pierre Garçon stole 5 years, $42.5 million and $21.5 million guaranteed from the Redskins.

Seem of these numbers are artificially inflated in the final years, but DeSean Jackson and Drew Rosenhaus have to be looking at those guarantees and salivating.

* * *

Free agency for the Eagles is 85% about linebacker. And nothing happened on that front yet. Curtis Lofton, Stephen Tulloch, and David Hawthorne are all still available, and until those dominos start falling we won’t be able to judge the Eagles front office one way or another.

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If I ever became an NFL general manager, I would have to remember one thing: don’t sign second-tier free agents on the first day. If you need to move fast on the biggest name out there, that’s fine. But don’t throw big money at guys who aren’t major difference-makers. That’s known as the Redskins’ strategy.

Photo from Getty.

Jim Washburn, the Draft, and Size at DE

Jevon Kearse Trent Cole Eagles

Linebacker is by far my preferred first round draft choice for the Eagles. Given the severe dearth of talent at that position, it’s not even a particularly close decision in my mind.

That said, teams shouldn’t reach too far for need. You should attempt to select the best player available, lest you end up with another Danny Watkins. With that in mind, I could easily see the Eagles going with a different position in the first round, perhaps cornerback after they trade Asante Samuel, or, more likely, defensive line.

Whether or not it’s the first round, Jim Washburn could use an infusion of youthful talent along the front four. Trent Cole and Jason Babin are both Pro Bowl-caliber ends, but they’re both closer to the end of their prime than they are to the start — and the situtation behind them is murky. Brandon Graham is coming off a serious injury and a lost season. Darryl Tapp and Philip Hunt have had their moments in the Wide Nine, but neither can be trusted to take over as a starter if needed.

The defensive tackle spot is in a similar situation, but I’m just going to look at defensive ends today. The question is, what kind of end does Washburn want? And the answer to that question suggests that there may be more turnover than we think.

Jim Washburn DE Draft Picks At right are the defensive ends selected in Tennessee in the 12 years Washburn was coaching there. He must have had tremendous input into which players were taken. In theory, these are players that are prototypical for what Washburn wants to do at the position.

The thing that jumps out at me immediately is their size. Washburn’s only drafted two defensive ends shorter than 6’4”. And his free agent picks have all been in that 6’4”-6’6” range too: Kyle Vanden Bosh, Dave Ball, Kevin Carter, etc.

It’s just an interesting piece of trivia until you look at the Eagles current group of ends. Tapp is only 6’1”. Hunt is 6’0”. Graham,at a generously labeled 6’2”, would (given the opportunity) be the smallest defensive end who’s ever started for Washburn. Now, this doesn’t rule them out completely. If they’re good enough they’ll play, regardless of size. Both Cole and Babin, listed at 6’3”, are still on the small side of Washburn’s range.

(Note: Washburn’s tackles have been on average 6’3”. Only Cedric Thorton and Antonio Dixon currently fit that mold.)

But, with that in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised if those two and Graham are the only players at defensive end who return in 2012.

Tommy Lawlor, the authority on all things Eagles draft, mentioned some of the defensive ends scouting consultant Phil Savage talked to at the Senior Bowl. Based on Washburn’s preferences, I would be surprised if the Eagles selected the relatively short Melvin Ingram or Courtney Upshaw. Cam Johnson, a player Tommy likes a lot, would a more natural fit at 6’4”.

Come April, the Eagles have ten draft picks. I could easily envision a scenario in which they spend four of them on the defensive line, and at least two at end. And when you’re shuffling through prospect profiles for a preview of players who might end up in Philly, keep your eye on height as a key factor.

Photo from Getty.

Is the Wide Nine to Blame for Poor Run Defense?

Since I’m worried that these may be some of the Eagles final days with Jim Washburn as defensive line coach, now is as good a time as any to analyze his impact on the defensive line. A few days ago I showed how Washburn formed an elite pass rush.

Today, let’s look at the run defense.

During the season the Wide Nine technique was often scapegoated for poor run defense. While no one doubted that the Eagles linebackers were awful, many also alleged that Washburn’s scheming put too much pressure on those overmatched LBs.

To that end, it’s worth examining the defensive line to see how much it contributed to the problem, if at all.

Football Outsiders numbers suggest that, if anything, the line was the only thing working correctly against the run. While they place the Eagles squarely in the middle of the league on adjusted line yards, the defensive line was third-best in the NFL at both power success (denying short yardage runs) and stuffed percentage (runs stopped behind the line of scrimmage). The bigger problems appeared in second level and open field yards, which are generally the responsibility of the linebackers and safeties.

But let’s look more specifically, player by player. Pro Football Focus has the numbers there:

Eagles Defensive Ends Run Defense

At defensive end, I don’t see much cause for blaming Washburn. Both Trent Cole and Darryl Tapp improved on their tackle and stop percentages in 2011. Juqua Parker dropped off, but there’s little reason to think that was because of the Wide Nine.

Jason Babin does come out looking pretty bad here. Among defensive ends with at least 25 percent of their team’s run snaps, Babin ranked near the bottom — 51st — in stop rate. Unlike Cole, Babin isn’t a complete player. But if he can continue to put up big sack numbers, it won’t really matter.

Eagles Defensive Tackle Run Defense

The two main holdovers from 2010, Mike Patterson and Trevor Laws, both improved against the run last year. Broderick Bunkley helped Denver reach the second round of the playoffs, but the additions of Derek Landri and Cullen Jenkins more than made up for that loss.

Overall, I just don’t see any merit to the arguments that blame poor run defense in Jim Washburn and the front four. All signs point to the putrid tacklers playing behind them, not the line itself.

An Eagles Pass Rush Worth Keeping

Trent Cole Philadelphia Eagles

With the bottle still spinning in the Eagles presumed search for a new defensive coordinator, the fate of defensive line coach Jim Washburn is up in the air. Will Steve Spagnuolo, the free agent front runner, see working with Washburn, or are the tactical and personality differences too great to overcome?

All I know is, it would be an absolute shame if Spagnuolo or any other new coordinator failed to incorporate Washburn into his scheme. The numbers bear out what an amazing job Washburn did with the Eagles defensive line, turning it into the best pass rushing front four in the whole NFL.

Pro Football Focus has a great statistic on this, Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP). The stat measures the percentage of pass rushes in which players record a sack, hit, or hurry (weighted 75 percent for the latter two).

Here’s what PRP had for the Eagles defensive ends in 2010, with Jason Babin’s year in Tennessee included for reference. “25% Rank” is the player’s standing next to all other pass rushers with at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps.

2010 Eagles Defensive Ends

As you can see, the Eagles defensive line was very effective under Sean McDermott. Darryl Tapp was the worst regular contributor, and he ranked 29th among all defensive ends. Trent Cole led the league in hurries and Brandon Graham showed promise before his knee injury.

But what about 2011:

2011 Eagles Defensive Ends

There were a number of changes. For starters, even without Graham, substitutions were up. Cole was in on over 100 fewer passing plays. Also, the zone coverage attempts by defensive ends that marked 5-10 percent of plays in 2010 were largely eliminated.

The result of these changes and the new Wide Nine technique was an across the board jump in pressure from the ends. Cole moved up to number one in the NFL, Babin improved on his Titans production, and Darryl Tapp — still the laggard — brought up the rear at 10th best in the league. Moreover, even the back ups scored highly in limited snaps.

That is a remarkable improvement. To be complete, let’s also check the defensive tackles’ pass rushing:

2010 Eagles Defensive Tackles

2011 Eagles Defensive Tackles

Broderick Bunkley had the highest PRP among Eagles defensive tackles in 2010. In 2011, the Eagles had three (almost four) who scored higher than Bunkley. That says pretty much everything that needs to be said there.

All the numbers above are interesting, and you can pull out other nuggets in the comments (such as Hunt’s efficiency or Laws’s ineffectiveness), but overall this tells a clear story about the positive impact Jim Washburn has had on this defensive line.

I’m optimistic that a good coordinator can adapt to Washburn’s strengths, but I fear that whoever the Eagles bring in will be too stubborn to do so. Cross your fingers.

Photo from Getty.

Rewind: Notes on the Eagles-Jets Game

Brent Celek Eagles Reception

I rewatched the Eagles-Jets game last night and came away with several short nuggets for your enjoyment. Here you go:

  • The Trent Cole and Jason Babin delayed blitz routine is fun to watch. Jimmy at Blogging the Beast has a nice breakdown of it. Though they’ve run this for a few weeks, it was especially effective against the Jets. I expect that the Cowboys tackles will be more prepared to pass their rushers off to the inside, which is when the Eagles should go double A-gap blitz instead.

  • On the other side of the blitzing coin, there’s no need to pull zone blitzes that drop Cole into coverage. It’s just counter-productive. Mark Sanchez completed his long pass to tight end Dustin Keller against Cole. Of course, it helped that he could use a pump fake to move Kurt Coleman out of position.

  • Casey Matthews definitely has potential as a nickel linebacker. He’s at least playing at game speed now and recognizing backs out of the backfield quickly, which is a massive improvement from before. He wasn’t a horrible pick in the fourth round, but I have no idea what Juan Castillo and company were thinking starting him, especially as a rookie.

  • Meanwhile, Brian Rolle seems to be hitting a bit of a rookie wall. Where Matthews was flying around the field, Rolle looked slower than usual.

  • Asante Samuel shifted over into the slot on the right side once or twice when he didn’t have a receiver to match up with on his side. That said, he was immediately called for pass interference on a slant route.

  • Pro Football Focus charted the Eagles defense with 9 blitzes out of 31 plays. In general, blitzing (even sending 6+) is very positive for this team, since most of the coverage problems originate with linebacker or safety play.

  • I loved the little play action screen pass in the third quarter, when the Eagles brought Brent Celek across the formation as if he was going to trap block, then he let the defensive end go, turned, and was open for the quick pass. Almost converted for the first down.

  • The Jamar Chaney interception was all Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. DRC jumped the slant route and knocked the ball into the air. It really shouldn’t be as hard for him to adjust to the slot as he makes it out to be, but he’s clearly more comfortable on the outside.

  • LeSean McCoy’s 33 yard TD run was a classic example of his skills. He dodged the first free rusher and then bounced to the opposite side of the field, dancing around another defender. Then he turned on the burners. Touchdown.

Photo from Getty.

By the Numbers: A Win!

Michael Vick Dolphins

Jason Babin, after the game:

“I don’t know how many times we stopped them, but it was almost unfathomable. I wouldn’t have even guessed we could stop them that much.”

I think I speak for all Eagles fans when I say, yes, that is “almost unfathomable.”

10 = Stops by the Eagles on downs of two yards or fewer. Very unexpected, although if you go through them individually as the above linked article does, you’ll see not a single linebacker’s name among the list of defensive players who came up big in short yardage.

9 = Sacks by the Eagles, including 3 each by Trent Cole and Jason Babin. Note that no one is talking about how bad the wide nine formation is today.

1.4 = LeSean McCoy’s yards per carry. McCoy finally got a ton of carries, but he was largely stuffed. Undoubtedly this will be used as proof that running the ball doesn’t work, and Marty Mornhinweg will call 50 passes next week against the Jets.

12 = Interceptions for Michael Vick in 10 games. In 2010, Vick had a 1.6 percent interception rate — better than Donovan McNabb’s career rate. This year that’s up to 3.6 percent, which is just barely off the Hall of Fame-type pace set by Mike McMahon in 2005.

57 = Yards from scrimmage by the Eagles in the second half. That’s in 7 possessions, with 6 punts and 1 interception. Good thing they got out to such a big lead in the first half.

1 = Win. If you look at the box score, it’s hard to understand how the Eagles won. Their leading rusher went for 38 yards, their leading receiver for 59, and their quarterback completed only half his passes. Still, getting a victory has been nigh impossible for this team at various points in the season, so it’s hard to be too negative. Plus, playoff possibilities!

Photo from Getty.

'Not an Old Football Team'

LeSean McCoy Jeremy Maclin

On Monday, Andy Reid pushed back against the gloom patrol, reminding everyone that the Eagles window is still wide open:

"People perceive us to be an old football team, but we’re really not an old football team." he said on his radio show. “We’re one of the youngest teams in the [NFL]. That takes time.”

Unfortunately, that’s just not as true as it sounds. The Eagles are young, but the core of the team is actually reaching the end of their prime, with few replacements on the way.

The Eagles have 14 players on the roster who are currently 29 or older. Some of them may still have two or three more years left in them, but there are no guarantees in the NFL. Tell me how comfortable you are losing these guys in the near future:

  • Brown, Ronnie (29)
  • Cole, Trent (29)
  • Herremans, Todd (29)
  • Peters, Jason (29)
  • Asomugha, Nnamdi (30)
  • Hanson, Joselio (30)
  • Jenkins, Cullen (30)
  • Mathis, Evan (30)
  • Samuel, Asante (30)
  • Babin, Jason (31)
  • Dorenbos, Jon (31)
  • Jackson, Jamaal (31)
  • Vick, Michael (31)
  • Parker, Juqua (33)

Let’s see… That’s three starting offensive linemen, including both tackles. Three starting defensive linemen. Three of the top four cornerbacks. Oh, and a $100 million quarterback.

Even scarier, can you pick out any of these players and tell me who his replacement is going to be? The Eagles have no quarterback of the future. With Brandon Graham’s return from injury still an open question, they don’t have a single promising young linemen on the team ready to take over at offensive tackle or defensive end. Do you trust Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback? What about Brandon Hughes or Curtis Marsh?

And it’s not like many other positions are bursting with young talent. With the possible exception of Brian Rolle, not a single linebacker looks like more than a backup. There are three young safeties, but none have them have shown they can play at higher than replacement level. Jason Kelce looks like a keeper, but his fellow rookie Danny Watkins isn’t exactly a spring chicken.

The only place where the Eagles have proven youngsters is at the offensive skill positions. Unfortunately, it’s not clear how long that group will stay together. The DeSean Jackson departure appears imminent and Jeremy Maclin has never proven he can be a top wide receiver. Why the Eagles haven’t already thrown gobs of money at LeSean McCoy is beyond me.

It’s discouraging to glance up and down the Eagles roster. The short term outlook is bleak, with this season likely to go down as the worst in Reid’s tenure. And as to the future… there just isn’t much to look forward to.

Almost two seasons have passed since I wrote about Reid’s third 5-year plan. So far, that plan has failed.

Photo from Getty.

Short Term Players, Long Term Problems

Jeremiah Trotter Philadelphia Eagles

Former Eagles tight end Chad Lewis, to Derek Sarley in 2009:

It’s a fine line and it’s very hard to define.  You have to push to have strong team chemistry at the same time you push to win.  Sometimes those are competing forces.  Sometimes it requires Trotter in the locker room getting in someone’s face.  Or it requires Donovan sharing a joke to keep people laughing and cut through and dissolve some of the pressure that every one of us feels is on us to perform. 

Andy fostered that team chemistry.  But it’s dynamic.  It’s alive and moving.  Once you get it, it doesn’t mean it will stay forever.  You have to care enough to keep it or get it back.

What does it take to be an effective locker room leader? Through most of the Andy Reid years, the Eagles have had no shortage of leaders. But what are the necessary traits? I’ve narrowed it down to five requirements, complete with one players who embodies the trait and one who doesn’t.

  1. Talented — If you’re not a starter, no one is going to take you seriously. Jon Runyan vs. Winston Justice.
  2. Experienced — Veterans command proper respect. Brian Westbook vs. LeSean McCoy.
  3. Vocal — Silence doesn’t get you anywhere. Jeremiah Trotter vs. Trent Cole.
  4. Mature — Responsible, accountable players only. Quintin Mikell vs. Asante Samuel.
  5. Tenured — On at least your second contract with the team. Brian Dawkins vs. Nnamdi Asomugha.

If you look up and down the Eagles roster, you’ll find players that fit into the first four categories. There are talented veterans who are outspoken role models for the youngsters, but there’s a real shortage of players who’ve been with the organization for the long haul.

Why is this important? A good team has players that set an example for others to follow. Sometimes they get in your face, sometimes they crack jokes, but they hold everyone accountable and united.

These players aren’t around anymore, though. Look at the following graph, which shows the Eagles starters by the number of years they’ve been with the team. This isn’t NFL experience, but rather experience with this organization in particular.

Click for bigger version:

Eagles Starters Experience

The 2011 team has the most first-year starters of any team after 1999. It’s tied with 1999 for the most first and second year starters. It has more starters with three or fewer years with the organization than any other in Andy Reid’s time as coach, and is tied with 2000 for the most four years or fewer. The 2011 Eagles are also only the second team to have not a single standard-bearer who has been with the team for more than seven years.

In real terms, that means the team has exactly four starters — Brent Celek, Todd Herremans, Trent Cole, and Mike Patterson — who have been with the Eagles for longer than four years. DeSean Jackson and Asante Samuel are de facto veteran role models at four years a piece. Not a single starter has played in a Super Bowl as an Eagle.

In retrospect, it’s not a coincidence that this team is falling apart any more than it’s surprising that the 2008 team stuck together and engineered a deep playoff run. That squad had a wealth of veterans on their second contracts, players who knew how to band together and make the sum greater than the individual parts. Those were players who conveyed what it meant to be an Eagle, and the team had reinforced that notion by keeping them around.

Now almost all of those players are gone and no one has been groomed to replace them. The front office drafted “high character” guys who haven’t seen the field. They brought in veteran free agents to fill a void, but as outsiders they can’t set the locker room attitude.

But the biggest problem is that this leadership vacuum isn’t going away any time soon. The free agent pickups are getting older. Most of the draft picks from 2006-2010 washed out, and those that didn’t (e.g. DeSean Jackson) largely haven’t been extended.

What’s the core of this team? Who are the locker room role models going forward? If those questions can’t be answered, the team might be closer to “blow it up” than “one more year.”

Photo from Getty.