A Requiem For The Dream Team From Philly

The Dream Team is dead. When David Hawthorne ran Vince Young’s third interception back to the end zone for a 77-yard touchdown, the Seahawks put the finishing touches on a 31-14 victory that essentially knocked the Eagles out of playoff contention. It stamped a firm failure upon the lofty expectations created by Philadelphia’s offseason signing spree, and unless Andy Reid can find a reset button on the 2011 season somewhere inside the NFL offices, the people who created and abetted the NFL’s biggest disappointments are likely to pay for the failure with their jobs.

Of course, while Young was the one calling his new franchise a Dream Team, other people were matching his giddy optimism about the 2011 Eagles. Namely, us. (Sorry, Andy.) While we had a few reservations about the Eagles, their quick-strike offense and deep defense led us to make them the favorites to win the NFC. And oh, were we wrong.

But what exactly happened to the Eagles? Sure, it’s easy to wrap some explanation around egos and lack of grit or whatever other old-man football clichés fit into sound bites, but what were the tangible aspects of Philadelphia’s plan for winning a Super Bowl that didn’t come through? With the dream in pieces on the ground, it’s time to write the obituary for this Philadelphia Eagles team. There are five key concepts that the Eagles struggled with in 2011, and while some of them will self-correct, whoever is left in the Philadelphia organization will need to address the rest of them this offseason in building the next Dream Team.

Problem 1: Serious Deficiencies on Both Sides of the Line

It’s easy to get caught up in fantastic skill-position players and forget to recognize the key roles played by the guys in the trenches. In many of their losses this season, the Eagles have been dominated at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, including their loss to the Seahawks last night. And while the Eagles didn’t totally ignore their line situation during the offseason, the changes they made and the excuses on offer for possible weaknesses simply failed to hold up.

After starting 10 different offensive linemen during the 2010 season, the Eagles rightly expected to have a healthier season up front with a system that featured a lot of depth to go alongside star left tackle Jason Peters. Although they let go of middling veterans like Nick Cole and Mike McGlynn, they drafted 26-year-old guard Danny Watkins out of Baylor in the first round and signed former Broncos tackle Ryan Harris to serve as a reliable pass protector on the right side of the line — Michael Vick’s blind side. Despite a shortened training camp, the Eagles expected new offensive line coach Howard Mudd to mold an entire new side of an offensive line. And hey, if the offensive line sucks, Mike Vick can just scramble out of trouble anyway, right?

Instead, the Eagles line never got settled. The oft-injured Harris suffered a back injury in training camp and was let go, while Watkins wasn’t ready and was inactive for the first few weeks of the season. Philly signed Colts guard Kyle DeVan off waivers on September 3 and then started him for the first four weeks of the season; when a player who didn’t know the playbook and was cut by the Colts failed to produce, they inserted Watkins and cut DeVan. Peters missed time with an injury. The Eagles rotated several different linemen through left guard and right tackle, seemingly benching players for poor play or moving them to different spots on a weekly basis without ever settling on a firm lineup. As their season fell apart, the Eagles failed to keep the same five offensive linemen in the same spots for six consecutive weeks. With no continuity, the line failed to develop into a professional unit. Eagles running backs were stuffed in the backfield for a loss or no gain on 23 percent of their carries, the fifth-highest rate in the league. The old, familiar struggles in short-yardage led to bizarre decisions near the goal line, including Ronnie Brown’s infamous pass/run option fumble against the 49ers.

While the defensive line hasn’t been quite as bad, the moves made by the team to improve it have failed to register. The additions of Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins to an already talented group were supposed to give new defensive line coach Jim Washburn the sort of pass-rushers his wide nine fronts required. Babin’s actually had quite the productive year, racking up 12 sacks in 12 starts, but Jenkins has been a total non-factor after terrorizing teams during the Packers’ playoff run last year. While Jenkins started his career with the Packers in a 4-3 defense (meaning a scheme with four down linemen) as a versatile lineman capable of playing end or tackle, he really broke out during the 2009 and 2010 seasons after the Packers moved into a 3-4 alignment and put him at defensive end. The Eagles moved him back into a 4-3 and mostly lined him up at tackle, and while he has 5.5 sacks, he’s been a disappointment as a run defender. Philly ranked 21st in run defense DVOA (DVOA is Defense-adjusted Value over Average, the Football Outsiders statistic that compares a team’s performance to league average after adjusting for the down, distance, game situation, and quality of the opposition — more here) heading into the week, and they’re unlikely to improve in those rankings after Marshawn Lynch torched them on Thursday night.

The Eagles have plenty of depth at tackle, as they hoped, but guys like Trevor Laws and Mike Patterson haven’t played effective football. They also lost rotation tackle Antonio Dixon to a season-ending triceps tear in Week 4, while star end Trent Cole missed two games with a calf injury and has only three sacks since September.

Problem 2: Soft Spots up the Middle

While the Eagles devoted serious resources to improving their defensive line and cornerbacks, they stayed curiously quiet at linebacker and safety. That’s a hallmark of the Reid era in Philadelphia, as the team has repeatedly let veteran linebackers and safeties go and replaced them with younger, cheaper talent. The team watched starting linebacker Stewart Bradley and safety Quintin Mikell leave in free agency and figured they would just do their thing again; after all, they had survived losing Jeremiah Trotter and Brian Dawkins, so what was the big deal?

Instead, the Eagles ended up with huge, gaping holes in the lineup that they could only paper over with roster moves. Their decisions at linebacker, in particular, were curious from the start of training camp. After Jamar Chaney impressed the coaching staff as an injury replacement for Bradley at the end of the 2010 season, he was expected to serve as the starting middle linebacker in his second season as a pro. Instead, the team sprung a surprise on Eagles observers by inserting fourth-round pick Casey Matthews into the first-team defense at middle linebacker on the first day of training camp, moving Chaney to the strong side in the hopes that he would be able to aid Philadelphia’s run defense.

Let us not mince words: Matthews played like hot garbage. He missed tackles, blew assignments, and was frequently mesmerized by play-action, notably on a long touchdown pass to Brandon Jacobs in Week 3. The Eagles benched him afterward, and he was last seen blaming the coaching staff for his poor play. While Chaney moved back into the “Mike” role and has played effectively, the outside linebackers have been erratic and unreliable. Rookie Brian Rolle has looked good only in comparison to Matthews, and retreads like Moise Fokou and Akeem Jordan are stretched as starters.

The safeties haven’t had things much better. Philadelphia drafted local product Jaiquawn Jarrett in the second round and likely hoped to team him with 2010 second-rounder Nate Allen, but Allen was slow to come back from patella surgery, and Jarrett was inactive for the first three weeks of the year before slowly working his way into a reserve role. Instead, the Eagles were forced to flip through veteran backups and special teamers. Marlin Jackson, the former Colts cornerback who the Eagles moved to free safety, was cut after receiving $6 million without playing a game for the team. Kurt Coleman was benched after a terrible game against the Giants, but then restored to the lineup after Jarrad Page had an even worse game against the Bills, missing four tackles. Like DeVan, Page went from opening day starter to the waiver wire in two months. Coleman attracted some notoriety after intercepting Rex Grossman three times in Week 6, but his play has been marked by poor instincts and questionable paths to ball carriers, and it was his missed tackle at the goal line that cost the Eagles their game against the Cardinals in Week 10.

Indeed, those broken tackles became the most noticeable problem with the Philadelphia defense. It was one thing when Asante Samuel failed to wrap up or make any serious effort to tackle players on the outside over the past few years, but the Eagles’ linebackers and safeties were the players who were supposed to be the core of the defense, wrapping up and making the safe plays while the stars around them pulled off the big sacks and spectacular interceptions. Instead, their sub-replacement level play nullified any impact those stars could have had.

Problem 3: What Happened to Nnamdi Asomugha?

There is nothing that Nnamdi Asomugha could not do as a cornerback for the Oakland Raiders. He tackled well. He read plays well. He played effectively in both man and zone coverage. He basically played like he was on a higher level. Notably, though, the Raiders only occasionally moved Asomugha around to follow the opposing team’s top receiver, and they almost never put him in the slot. Most of the time, they just kept him on one side of the field and let him do his thing with great success.

Once Asomugha got to the Eagles, things changed. With such a versatile skill set, it seemed logical to turn Asomugha into a defensive Swiss Army knife, but the move failed. What we forgot is that Asomugha’s rise from good cornerback to transcendent defensive operative came when he learned to use the sideline like an extra teammate. When the Eagles turned him into Charles Woodson lite and moved him into the center of the field, he lost his extra teammate and, with it, his effectiveness as a cover corner. After years of avoiding him like the plague, teams were comfortable going after Asomugha throughout the year with lesser entities like Victor Cruz. Before suffering a knee injury in practice last week and a concussion last night, even Asomugha couldn’t help from expressing his frustrations with the new role.

So then, the Eagles should just put Asomugha on one side next year, line him up in his old role with the Raiders, and let him return to his previous level of performance. Right? Well, that’s a great idea, but it might not work. Even when he’s been in man coverage on the outside this year, Asomugha hasn’t looked like the same player. He’s missing tackles and even blowing the occasional assignment. At 30, it’s possible that Asomugha’s lost a step and isn’t the dominant player he once was, even if the Eagles were to use him properly.

The issues with finding the right linebackers and safeties and employing Asomugha improperly generally have been blamed on rookie defensive coordinator Juan Castillo. While it’s difficult to really parse out an exact amount of blame for a particular coach’s role without knowing how the Eagles implement their game plans or determine their playing time, it’s hard to imagine that a more experienced defensive coordinator wouldn’t have been able to figure out that Matthews wasn’t ready and that Asomugha wasn’t a Woodson clone. While Reid might get to keep his job, there’s no way that Castillo will keep his job after this fiasco of a season. He might be fired as early as Friday.

Problem 4: The Decline of Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson

Even if the offensive line failed to hold their own and the defense didn’t percolate, the worst-case scenario for most Eagles fans was that they would end up in a bunch of shootouts with the league’s most terrifying combination on their side. That’s not a bad worst-case scenario, right? Well, both Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson fell off from their 2010 heights, and there’s no guarantee that either of them will return to that level of play in the future.

We made the concerns about Vick very clear in our season preview. Looking at history, it was clear that Vick was likely to get hurt and would throw interceptions more frequently than he had in 2010, when he posted a career-low interception rate (interceptions divided by pass attempts.) of 1.6 percent. The real questions, then, were how serious Vick’s injuries would be and whether his interception rate would regress toward the mean, to it, or way past it.

Sadly for Eagles fans, it’s been the latter. Vick’s interception rate has more than doubled, and at 3.7 percent, it matches the highest rate of his career, back when he was playing for the Falcons in 2004. His completion percentage and yards per attempt are also down from his breakout season in 2011, although they remain far better than his level of production from those Falcons days. If you factor in the picks thrown by Vince Young and Mike Kafka in limited time, the Eagles have thrown interceptions on 5.1 percent of their passes this season. That would be the worst rate in football, and the swing between their 2.3 percent rate in 2010 and this 5.1 percent rate would be the largest decline in eight years for a team that didn’t move to a rookie quarterback in the second season. Vick’s injuries, meanwhile, have seen him miss three full games and chunks of two more. In those games, the Eagles are 1-4.

Jackson’s disappointing season has served, fairly or unfairly, as a microcosm of the Dream Team. The concerns about his catch rate that we expressed over the summer haven’t been addressed, as he still sits at a below-average 52.7 percent rate. That’s acceptable when you average a ridiculous 22.7 yards per catch, as Jackson did in 2010, but he’s down six full yards to a mundane 16.2 rate in 2011. His punt return average has fallen by more than half from where it was when he led the league in 2009, and he fumbled away a key punt against the Bears in Week 10. Oh, and he’s been benched for showing off alligator arms and nullified a 50-yard catch with a taunting penalty over the past three weeks. As an impending unrestricted free agent, the Eagles might choose to solve the Jackson problem by letting him go somewhere else this offseason.

Problem 5: Bad Luck

Finally, the one thing the Eagles can just fix by playing more football games! Of our three favorite indicators of bad luck, the Eagles can expect to be slightly better based on two. Through 12 games, the Eagles have been outscored by a total of 11 points. That’s the performance of a team that should have won about 5.7 of their 12 games, not four. In somewhat-related news, the Eagles are a dismal 2-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Twenty-three teams since 1983 have finished a season with a 2-5 record in those close games, and in the subsequent season, they went 87-99 in one-score games.

On the other hand, the Eagles haven’t had poor fumble luck. They’ve recovered 14 of the 27 fumbles in their games so far this year.

So then, things shouldn’t be that complicated for the Eagles to contend in 2011. Fix Nnamdi Asomugha. Keep Michael Vick healthy. Replace DeSean Jackson, two of your linebackers, and both safeties. Find a right tackle. Shoot Juan Castillo into the sun. And ask your famously forgiving fans to give Andy Reid a sixth or seventh chance. See? Easy.


Previously from Bill Barnwell:
The Annual Pursuit of Quitting on Tom Coughlin
The Surreal World of Thanksgiving in Vegas
Calling Interference on Pass Interference

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Filed Under: NFL, Philadelphia Eagles, Andy Reid

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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