NFC East: Casey Matthews
HOUSTON -- Nick Foles was in the locker room, getting X-rayed. Mark Sanchez, the onetime star quarterback for the New York Jets, was playing quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles for the first time against the Houston Texans.
For Sanchez's first play, Eagles coach Chip Kelly called for a deep throw to wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. Sanchez dropped back, stepped into the throw and caught Maclin in stride for a 52-yard gain.
Eagles left tackle Jason Peters turned around, expecting to high five Foles. There was Sanchez.
"I didn't even know Foles was out," Peters said. "I saw the bomb to Maclin and I turned around to congratulate him and it was Sanchez. I didn't even know the guy was out. For Sanchez to come in for Foles was big-time."
That's how this season is going for the Eagles. On Sunday, they lost Foles to an injury in his shoulder area and inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans went down in the fourth quarter with what was reportedly an injury to his Achilles tendon. (UPDATE: Foles has a broken collarbone.) Center Jason Kelce returned after missing four games, only to have left guard Todd Herremans (who was playing with a torn biceps) leave with an ankle injury.
In spite of all that, the Eagles beat the Texans, 31-21, to move into first place in the NFC East.
"We're winning," Peters said. "That means we've got depth. Bench has got to step in. When one goes down, the next goes up. You just keep rolling when someone goes down."
It doesn't matter whether it's a guard or the quarterback. The way Kelly runs his practices, every player gets a fair amount of practice time. So even though he had not appeared in a game since the preseason, Sanchez was comfortable stepping into a game against the Texans' ferocious pass rush and was familiar with his receivers.
"I was expecting maybe a handoff or a quick screen," Sanchez said. "Ease my way in, but you know Coach Kelly. I said it to [TV personality] Tony Siragusa. If he was a basketball coach, he would bring you off the bench shooting 3-pointers. That's the way it goes. You have to be ready."
Last season, Foles hit his stride after taking over the starting quarterback job from Michael Vick. In the second half of the season, Foles led the Eagles to a 7-1 record. They finished 10-6 and won the NFC East title.
This year, in spite of injuries and a rash of turnovers, the Eagles are 6-2 at the halfway point. If they can get by without Foles and Ryans, the latter likely for the rest of the season, they are in position to have a really special season.
Casey Matthews stepped in for Ryans. Now that Mychal Kendricks is back from his calf injury, Matthews and Emmanuel Acho will be able to fill in for Ryans.
Sanchez, who has a few of those on his resume, turns out to be just the right guy to back up Foles. He was comfortable being the No. 2 guy, but prepared to step in.
"It's been a while," Sanchez said. "It all comes back quickly. I don't want to use the phrase 'it's like riding a bike.' I wish it was that easy, and that defense didn't make it that easy. It just felt good to get back out there. It felt good to make some calls, to scramble a little bit, get hit a little bit. All that stuff was really fun."
Sanchez opened with the 52-yard throw to Maclin. He finished with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Maclin that capped a 15-play, eight-minute, clock-devouring drive. In between, Sanchez threw a couple of interceptions. There is room for improvement, but he did enough for the Eagles to win.
Come to think of it, no wonder Peters couldn't tell that Foles was gone. That's how he's been winning all season long.
- Nate Allen won the starting strong safety job, but rookie Earl Wolff is going to see some action. “Earl’s pushing,” Kelly said. “Right now, Nate’s a little bit ahead of him. He’ll play at safety, too. We’ve just got to get him in the game.”
- Kelly addressed the perception that it helped players to have “Oregon” on their résumés. He has five former Ducks, three on the 53-man roster and two on the practice squad: safety Patrick Chung, linebacker Casey Matthews, wide receiver Jeff Maehl and practice squad players Isaac Remington (OL) and Brandon Bair (DE). “If we’re going to sing the Oregon fight song, it would (help),” Kelly said. “Aside from that …”
- Chung, the free safety, is the only starter from Oregon. The other two roster spots, Kelly said, went to Matthews and Maehl because of their special teams capabilities. “For backup players, there were three ways to make this team,” Kelly said. “Special teams, special teams, special teams. The special teams consideration, at times, outweighs their production as a backup linebacker or a backup wide receiver. How are they contributing during a game? They’re contributing as a special teams player.”
- Kelly had a possibly revealing answer to a question about whether Michael Vick is still a franchise quarterback. “I don’t know what the term `franchise’ is,” Kelly said. “I know he’s the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback. And if that’s a franchise, then the answer is yes.” According to league sources, the Eagles are indeed a franchise. Kelly was just being a smart-alec, but the guess here is he might have had a different answer about, oh, let’s say Tom Brady.
- Trenton Robinsonand Keelan Johnson, wide receiver Greg Salas, linebacker Travis Long, offensive tackle Michael Bamiro and running back Matthew Tucker.
One possible reason for the relatively light activity: The Jacksonville Jaguars, who are two spots higher than the Eagles on waiver claims, were awarded a stunning seven players. That included two players, DE/LB Chris McCoy and TE Clay Harbor, who were released by the Eagles.
Prater is 5-foot-10, 190 pounds. A fifth-round pick out of Iowa last year, Prater spent his rookie season on injured reserve with patellar tendinitis. He is not expected to be a factor right away. The Eagles will roll with Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher (who played with Prater at Iowa) outside and Brandon Boykin in the slot.
But at least Prater can practice and play. To make room for him, the Eagles released Curtis Marsh, another member of their disastrous 2011 draft class. Marsh had surgery on his broken hand last month and was not available for the last two preseason games.
A couple of other roster-related notes:
- The Eagles signed four players to their practice squad, all of whom were released over the weekend: OT Michael Bamiro, RB Matthew Tucker, WR Greg Salas and LB Travis Long. They have four more spots to fill.
- Didn’t do too poorly on my projected 53-man roster, which was posted Friday morning. I had 48 players right. And where I was incorrect, I might have been right in a couple of spots where the Eagles turn out to be wrong.I had McCoy staying and Casey Matthews going. We’ll see how that one turns out.
I had Salas and Russell Shepard among six wide receivers. The Eagles kept five, including Jeff Maehl. That’s two Oregon guys who made the team that I didn’t expect.
I thought they’d keep 10 offensive linemen, including Matt Tennant. They went light there, cutting Tennant, and kept one more tight end than I expected: Emil Igwenagu.
Finally, they kept two more DBs than I expected. One was Colt Anderson, who will play only on special teams. The other was Marsh, who was released today. So maybe I had 4.5 players wrong.
- Roseman made two trades involving a running back for a linebacker. He got Emmanuel Acho, who made the team, for Dion Lewis, who is on IR in Cleveland. And he got Adrian Robinson, who was cut Friday, for Felix Jones, who made the Steelers roster.
- The Eagles were off today and have some conditioning work scheduled for Monday. They’ll be off again Tuesday. The practice week for Monday night’s game at Washington begins in earnest on Wednesday.
It was decisions like drafting Watkins, who was already 26 and had been playing football for just four years, that led to the Eagles’ sharp decline in Andy Reid’s final two seasons. Reid crowed that he had a stud who could step right in and dominate at right guard. After 30 months and 18 starts, Watkins is gone.
Versatility is the key. Head coach Chip Kelly and GM Howie Roseman placed a heavy emphasis on versatility in making decisions, especially at the back end of the roster.
Linebacker Casey Matthews, who plays on all four special-teams units, stayed instead of Chris McCoy, who had a good preseason. Tight end Emil Igwenagu, a strong point-of-attack blocker, beat out Clay Harbor, whose skills were similar to the other tight ends. Wide receiver Jeff Maehl, a high school safety, beat out Greg Salas and Russell Shepard because he’s a tougher special-teams guy.
“We were looking for different skill sets, especially at the back of the roster,” Roseman said. “We felt there was room for some role players on our team.”
What’s next. The Eagles have the No. 4 spot when it comes to being awarded waiver claims. Roseman plans to take advantage of that in order to fill some holes that remain on the roster.
“Sometimes that’s hard to do at this time of year,” Roseman said. “[Jaguars GM] Dave Caldwell’s probably thinking the same thing two spots ahead of us on the wire. We have a draft board set up. We spent an inordinate amount of time on guys we thought would be on the bubble.”
The most pressing needs are in the defensive secondary, where the Eagles are thin at cornerback and simply unimpressive at safety, and at linebacker. There were only three outside linebackers on the roster as of the 6 p.m. deadline.
QB: Dennis Dixon, G.J. Kinne. RB: Matthew Tucker. WR: Greg Salas, Russell Shepard, Ifeanyi Momah, Will Kelly. TE: Clay Harbor. OL: Danny Watkins, Dallas Reynolds, Matt Tennant, Matt Kopa. DL: Antonio Dixon, David King. LB: Chris McCoy, Travis Long, Everette Brown, Adrian Robinson. DB: Trevard Lindley (injured), David Sims. Placed DE Joe Kruger (shoulder) on IR.
With the hiring of Chip Kelly, there is no more need to rationalize the mistakes of the Andy Reid era. Watkins, fairly or otherwise, became symbolic of that era’s final unraveling.
His release wasn’t even surprising. The only eyebrows raised Saturday were at the departures of wide receiver Russell Shepard and tight end/receiver Clay Harbor. They both had better preseasons than Watkins. The Eagles also released safety David Sims and offensive tackle Michael Bamiro.
The Eagles were a playoff team in 2010. Going into the 2011 draft, they were looking to fill a few key needs in order to remain a perennial contender. With the 23rd pick, they took Watkins, a guard from Baylor with an unusual backstory: A Canadian, Watkins didn’t start playing football until he was 22 years old. He was a 26-year-old rookie.
The Eagles went 8-8 in 2011. They went 4-12 last year. Reid was fired. Kelly was hired.
Of the 11 players taken in that draft, just 30 months ago, only center Jason Kelce and kicker Alex Henery are in the starting lineup. Fifth-round pick Julian Vandervelde, who was released last year and re-signed, is the backup center.
Second-round pick Jaiquawn Jarrett is long gone. He started at safety for the Jets Thursday night. Third-round cornerback Curtis Marsh and fourth-round linebacker Casey Matthews are on the bubble and could be gone by opening day.
Watkins started 12 games as an overmatched rookie. He started six games last season. He never clicked with Howard Mudd, the coach Reid brought in to revamp the offensive line’s approach. With Kelly and new line coach Jeff Stoutland, Watkins was pretty much a non-entity all summer.
Now he’s gone and, with him, so is another reminder of what went wrong under Reid.
As for other known cuts:
Harbor became endangered in May, when Kelly asked him to work out at linebacker during OTAs. He moved back to tight end, then started taking reps at wide receiver early in camp.
Shepard got a really close look this summer. He seemed like a good bet to make the 53-man roster.
The 6-foot-8, 340-pound Bamiro was not eligible for the draft. The Eagles signed him in July. With his size and natural ability, he will almost certainly be on the practice squad if he clears waivers.
Sims started one game at safety last season. He never really became a factor in what turned out to be a lackluster competition for a starting job.
Kelly will sit down with his Philadelphia Eagles coaches and with general manager Howie Roseman and the personnel staff. By the end of the day, they should know which 22 players will be released to reach the final 53-man roster limit by Saturday at 6 p.m. ET.
This game will be but a small part of the evaluation process. A total of 22 players didn’t even dress; they are the starters held out to avoid injury risk. If anything, this game will serve as a tie-breaker for a few spots at the bottom of the roster.
“It gives us another opportunity to evaluate,” Kelly said. “Some guys are in situations where we haven’t got a ton of snaps for them. Some of those guys played an entire game tonight.”
For those on the outside of the meeting rooms, the game and Kelly’s comments offered a few insights into where some of those competitions stand:
- Matt Tobin, an undrafted rookie out of Iowa, has a better chance of making the team than former first-round pick Danny Watkins. Kelly played Tobin nearly the entire game at left tackle and praised him for having a strong summer.
Watkins? “Danny’s competing like the rest of those guys,” Kelly said. “There’s always some good out of Danny, but there’s always some mistakes out of Danny.”
- Emmanuel Acho made a very compelling case to be the first linebacker off the bench. He and Jake Knott thoroughly outplayed veteran Casey Matthews, in this game and throughout the preseason.
- Chris McCoy is probably the second-most-complete outside linebacker on the team after Connor Barwin. Brandon Graham and Trent Cole continue the transition from defensive end and struggle with the pass-coverage aspect of the job. McCoy looked very good in a starting role.
- Outside linebacker Everette Brown could sneak onto the roster. He recorded a sack for the second week in a row. Kelly volunteered his name when listing defensive players who stood out.
- Nobody really seems interested in claiming the open starting-safety job. Nate Allen, the incumbent, managed exactly one tackle. Rookie Earl Wolff had three. Neither did what McCoy, Acho and Brown did -- make a big play or two in their final opportunities to stake a claim.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Bill KostrounLinebacker Chris McCoy (94) turned in a solid performance as a starter in Thursday's finale.
So with all that, here’s a somewhat educated guess on how the 53-man roster will look Saturday at 6 p.m. Expect a couple of changes in the next days as Roseman and his staff look for help on the waiver wire.
Quarterbacks (3): Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Matt Barkley. No explanation necessary here.
Running backs (3): LeSean McCoy, Bryce Brown, Chris Polk. It’s a high-attrition position, so it wouldn’t shock me to see Matthew Tucker stick and Kelly go light elsewhere.
Tight ends (3): Brent Celek, James Casey, Zach Ertz. If Casey’s hamstring injury is a problem, Clay Harbor could wind up back in the TE meeting room.
Wide receivers (6): DeSean Jackson, Riley Cooper, Jason Avant, Damaris Johnson, Greg Salas, Russell Shepard. That might be a little high, but Kelly likes to have a lot of options.
Offensive line (10): Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans, Lane Johnson, Allen Barbre, Matt Tobin, Julian Vandervelde, Dennis Kelly, Matt Tennant. Could Watkins edge out Tennant? Sure, but I see Eagles cutting another tie to the Andy Reid era.
Defensive line (7): Fletcher Cox, Isaac Sopoaga, Cedric Thornton, Bennie Logan, Vinny Curry, Damion Square, Clifton Geathers. Went with Geathers over Antonio Dixon, but could go either way.
Linebackers (8): Connor Barwin, Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans, Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, Chris McCoy, Jake Knott, Emmanuel Acho. It was hard to leave Everette Brown off. It wouldn’t be a shock if Eagles went heavy here: Linebackers make key special-teamers.
Defensive backs (9): Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Boykin, Jordan Poyer, Patrick Chung, Nate Allen, Earl Wolff, Kurt Coleman, Brandon Hughes. This group is subject to the most change after deadline.
Specialists (3): K Alex Henery, P Donnie Jones, LS Jon Dorenbos.
- Maybe the most significant thing that happened for the Eagles was the hamstring injury that sent tight end James Casey to the locker room in the first half. The severity wasn’t immediately known (and given Chip Kelly’s casual approach to dispensing injury info, may never be known), but staying healthy is the No. 1 priority in a fourth preseason game. So an injury to a guy expected to be a key part of the offense can’t be good.
- This one last chance to impress before roster cuts resulted in more impact defensive plays than in the first three preseason games combined. If coordinator Bill Davis is looking for reserves who can step in and make an impact, he had to like what he saw from:
-- Inside linebacker Emmanuel Acho, who sacked Jets QB Matt Simms on a blitz, played solidly against the run and forced a Konrad Reuland fumble in the second quarter. In the first half alone, Acho was credited with eight tackles. Acquired from Cleveland in the Dion Lewis trade, Acho sure looks like the third-best ILB on the team right now behind starters DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks.
-- Brandon Graham, who bull-rushed Simms on the Jets’ first possession and wrapped him up in the end zone. Simms threw the ball away, an intentional-grounding play that resulted in a safety. Graham still needs work on his pass drops (an understatement), but he can get to the QB from the OLB spot.
-- Chris McCoy, who started at the ROLB spot and tormented Jets tackle Jason Smith. McCoy dropped an interception on the first play from scrimmage -- a negative, sure, but he was in position to make it -- and sacked Simms for a 6-yard loss on the third play. McCoy got around Smith and hit Simms from behind, knocking the ball loose.
-- Everette Brown, the guy singled out by Pro Football Focus for his play against Jacksonville, ended the first half by sacking Simms and knocking the ball out of his hands when the Jets were in the red zone. Eagles fans would recognize the failure to get even a field-goal attempt from Marty Mornhinweg’s days as Andy Reid’s lieutenant.
- On the other side, a few of the veterans who are trying to stick just did not impress. Safety Nate Allen gave up a 23-yard completion to Zach Rogers on a third-and-19 play. He had decent coverage on Michael Campbell on a later Jets possession, but did not make any real impact. Of course, neither did fifth-round pick Earl Wolff, who started alongside Allen.
- Inside linebacker Casey Matthews had a very rough night. If he makes the team, it is going to be because he’s that valuable on special teams. Matthews had gap control and a chance to tackle Kahlil Bell in the backfield, but ran into a teammate instead. Bell ran into the end zone for an all-too-easy 8-yard TD. Matthews had a defensive holding penalty two plays before that.
- The only significant competition on the offensive side is for the backup spots along the line. With the starters sidelined, it was interesting to see who Chip Kelly lined up out there. Allen Barbre, who played two games at left tackle in place of Jason Peters, was at left guard. Undrafted rookie Matt Tobin, a 6-foot-6, 300-pounder from Iowa, started at left tackle. With Dennis Kelly expected to miss at least a couple of regular-season games because of a back injury, there is an opportunity for a backup tackle. Michael Bamiro, the massive but raw rookie from Stony Brook, started at left tackle. He looked massive and raw, especially in the early going. Danny Watkins was at right guard. He looked like Danny Watkins. Julian Vandervelde looks very much like he’ll make the team as the backup center.
- There was no reason to ponder whether Nick Foles should have been given a longer opportunity to compete for the starting QB job. He did not have a great game. But then, he was playing behind a dreadful offensive line against a Jets defense that blitzed more than usual in the preseason. It was also clear that Kelly was using as little of his offense as possible. Foles fumbled the ball away on the first series. He succeeded in finishing the game, and the preseason, without an injury.
- By the second half, when Matt Barkley took over at QB, the line had settled in a little bit. Barkley engineered a 16-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. On the downside, he threw the Kevin Kolb-patented pick-six with two minutes left in the game. Barkley didn't get enough on an out to Jeff Maehl. Antonio Allen stepped in, intercepted and returned it for a TD.
- In the midst of a sea of vanilla, Kelly suddenly called one of the triple-option plays the Eagles frequently ran in a recent practice. Foles faked a handoff, started running to his left, then whipped an overhand lateral to wide receiver Greg Salas. Surprised Kelly put that on film. Also, that play seems certain to result in a turnover at some point.
- The injury plague continued at cornerback. Trevard Lindley limped off the field in the third quarter with a right ankle sprain. The Eagles have two corners, Curtis Marsh and Brandon Hughes, sidelined with broken hands. They are so thin there that safety Kurt Coleman was playing corner even before Lindley went down.
- Speaking of which, Coleman would seem to be one of the guys on the bubble here. The fact that he played both safety and cornerback could help his case for making the team. You never know when you’re going to be caught short in a game. On the other hand, it could mean Coleman is so far out of the running at safety that Kelly and Davis weren’t interested in seeing him there.
- If the cutdown to 75 was an indicator, Kelly is likely to do most of his roster work Friday, the day before the deadline to reach 53.
Justin Tuck made it clear after the first time he played against him that he was impressed with Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. Tuck said Wednesday that he would actually pay to watch Griffin race Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.
Speaking of fast guys, Giants rookie running back David Wilson is in line for an increased number of carries in the wake of Andre Brown's season-ending injury. Tom Coughlin said he told Wilson it was time to "ratchet it up."
I do not know who will win Monday night's game between the Redskins and the Giants, but I do know the Redskins go into the game with a great deal of confidence about it. They beat the Giants twice last season, had a lead on them in the final two minutes of their Week 7 game in New Jersey this year, and believe they match up well against the Super Bowl champs.
The Redskins are monitoring injury situations with left tackle Trent Williams and linebacker London Fletcher, each of whom sat out practice Wednesday. Obviously, if Fletcher doesn't play, it's going to be stunning national news. Sounds as though they should both be able to recover in time, but like I said, they'll keep an eye.
Can Dez Bryant make the Pro Bowl? This season? Calvin Watkins ponders the question. My guess is that he cannot make up the production and reputation deficit between him and the higher-profile NFC wide-receiver stars, but he's played well enough in recent weeks to warrant a spot in the conversation.
The Cowboys' website writes that "signs point to" running back DeMarco Murray being healthy enough to play Sunday night against the Eagles. Murray has been out since injuring his foot against the Ravens in Week 6.
Whether the Eagles plan to make lineup changes in the secondary over the final five games of this season, no one seems ready to say. But you can expect major changes in the secondary this offseason.
Eagles linebacker Casey Matthews, who played for Chip Kelly at Oregon, thinks Kelly would do well in Philadelphia if the Eagles decided to go in that direction for head coach.
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- The question many Philadelphia Eagles fans and observers have had about DeMeco Ryans (other than, "Why did the Texans give him up for so little?") is whether he'd be able to play all three downs at middle linebacker. Ryans came off the field in the Texans' nickel defense last year, and he's a year removed from a serious injury, so people have wondered.
"It's good to be back in the 4-3," Ryans told me after a recent practice. "The 3-4 wasn't something I couldn't handle. I think I played well in the 3-4, and we had a good defense there. But it's cool being back in the 4-3. It's comfortable."
Ryans has looked comfortable on the field in practice, identifying offensive formations and calling them out for the defensive linemen and his fellow linebackers to hear. He played fairly well in the preseason opener against the Steelers, helping out on a couple of tackles but missing a key one on running back Jonathan Dwyer after forcing him outside. But one of the big reasons the Eagles brought him in was to improve their communication on defense with a seasoned leader in the middle. GM Howie Roseman said the Eagles identified Ryans as a potentially available guy because Houston had undergone a defensive scheme change and was going to have salary cap issues, but he said his conversations with Houston GM Rick Smith fortified his opinion of Ryans as the answer to the Eagles' problems.
"Rick told me in our first conversation, 'My owner calls him "Cap." He considers him the captain of our team,'" Roseman said. "So we just felt like it was very important that we get the quarterback for our defense, that we had somebody that was able to take control and calm things down."
Part of Ryans' challenge is getting used to playing linebacker behind the Eagles' Wide 9 defensive line arrangement, which leans on the linebackers to take responsibility for gaps and control the opposing running game. Ryans said the Wide 9 isn't completely unfamiliar to him, but that it does require some practice.
"When you're in the Wide, sometimes you can get an offensive lineman up on you quicker, versus the 3-4 under front we played in Houston," Ryans said. Sometimes the 4-3, with the guys being wide, the tight ends will have free releases up the field. So you have to be cognizant of those guys getting up on you a lot faster than they would if the end was in tight. Once you recognize the formation and see how they're set up, depending on where the end is playing, you have to kind of understand how that tight end is going to release. And with the end being out wide, the tight end definitely can't go wide. He has to come up and inside on you, and most of the time he has free release."
Ryans understands the concepts and his responsibility within them. His job now is to practice so that they become second-nature, and to work with the younger linebackers on either side of him -- guys like Mychal Kendricks, Brian Rolle, Jamar Chaney and Casey Matthews -- to help make it second-nature to them.
"He's a savvy vet," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said of Ryans. "He's so even keel -- never gets too up, never gets too down. And when he speaks, everybody listens. He's in the perfect position. The MIKE linebacker is where I think he's supposed to be. And he's a run stuffer who can also play in coverage, so it's good having him."
It might have been the greatest need position for the Eagles to fill this offseason, and they believe they found the perfect guy to fill it.
"I didn't think the expectations were too high, but I knew that the timing might not match up as quickly as everyone wanted it to," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said after practice last week. "Because you would hear, 'Oh, they're going to be this, going to be that,' and then you'd come out in practice and you could see us blowing plays. Yes, we could be there, but we weren't there yet. That's what I was feeling in training camp. Right now in training camp, it feels completely different."
Last week, before the Eagles' training camp was rocked by Sunday's news of the death of coach Andy Reid's son Garrett, the atmosphere was serene and businesslike. The players have been practicing together since February, when Asomugha and quarterback Michael Vick were organizing players-only workouts at the University of Pennsylvania. Late July welcomed them to one of the hardest-hitting camps in the NFL. Their motivation is clear and simple: They were 8-8 last year and believe they should have been better. They admit to being downright angry about the way the 2011 season went.
"I think there's a determined effort to try to maximize our opportunity," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. "You see it from the players. You see it from the coaches. You see it from the support staff. And I think last year, maybe you underestimated how long it takes to acclimate."
No such issues or excuses this time around. This is basically the same group as last year, with new guys at middle linebacker and left tackle. All of the coaches who were new to the team or their roles last season are back. All of the new schemes implemented last year by defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, defensive line coach Jim Washburn and offensive line coach Howard Mudd are familiar by now, and everybody should be more comfortable in them. If the Eagles flop again, there won't be anywhere to look for explanations other than within. That's why this August's focus is internal, on the things that are important rather than any hype they might be attracting.
"I don't want anyone buying into anything," Asomugha said. "I just want us to get into this season and just play the way we know how to play. I'll be completely honest with you: Our team looks very good. Obviously it's camp. We're not playing against anybody, but we're under specific instruction. Don't talk. Don't blow this thing up. Don't nothing. Let's just get in the season, and let's just start playing football."
Once they do that, the Eagles believe that this time around, everything will be just fine.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Can Vick lead them to greatness? No player in the league is under more pressure in 2012 than Vick. The brilliance of his 2010 season disappeared under the disappointment of his injury- and interception-riddled 2011, in which he failed to take that critical next step in his late-career development as a leader and a quarterback. The popular narrative is that this is the first time since 2006 in Atlanta that Vick has had a real offseason as a team's starting quarterback. He began 2010 as the Eagles' backup, and the 2011 offseason was wiped away by the lockout. The result, everyone says, is that Vick has spent more time at the team facility, working out, studying film and applying himself to details in order to get better.
"It's all evident," Vick said of his 2011 film review. "A lot of the turnovers I had, I think eight of them, were on balls that got tipped, so I need to try and release the ball a little higher, do something differently. There's nothing more gratifying than learning from a mistake. Interceptions are going to happen, but you try to keep them to a minimum and think about ball control."
The more focus on detail, the better for Vick, who has long relied on his unusual and considerable talent to carry him through. As last season proved, being a quarterback is about the little things, much more than just what you can do with your arm and your legs.
"I see him just being smarter," wide receiver DeSean Jackson said of Vick. "He's taking a leadership role where he can be coached and be taught by other people as well. He's not at a point where he doesn't feel like anybody can tell him anything. He interacts, and he wants to know what it is that he's doing something wrong. And if he is doing something wrong, you can just get on him, just like a regular individual, a regular player."
A misfit in the 3-4 defense the Texans implemented during his rehab, Ryans is more comfortable playing the middle linebacker spot in the Eagles' 4-3. He is healthy and looking like the player who was universally loved and respected by Texans teammates, who called him Cap. The Eagles' defense, which started unprepared rookie Casey Matthews at middle linebacker last September, should benefit from Ryans' veteran presence.
"You see that stability there," Reid said. "The game's slower for him than it would be for a rookie. So he's able to just kind of get everybody lined up, get everybody settled and calmed down."
Roseman said it was a priority for the Eagles to find "the quarterback of our defense," and Ryans is aware that he was brought in to correct 2011's biggest defensive flaw. Ryans is trying to keep those expectations as calm as he's trying to keep his defensive teammates.
"It's not going to take one person to fix all the problems," Ryans said. "It takes everybody working together and finding out how we can make all 11 guys play better and have a better defense."
What the Eagles like about Ryans is that he can teach everybody just how to do that. And he can play a little too.
"It's not like we just got a guy off the street who has some experience," Asomugha said. "This guy is a big-time player."
3. Replacin' Jason Left tackle Jason Peters may have been the best player on the Eagles' roster last season, and that's no slight to anyone else. Peters was a monster blocker who was critical to the success of the offensive line and to the breakout season of running back LeSean McCoy. But Peters injured his Achilles in the offseason and is out for the season.
His replacement is free-agent signee Demetress Bell, who is athletic like Peters and has the potential to be an adequate replacement. Bell's issue has been staying healthy and on the field, but so far his teammates say he is looking good and picking up Mudd's complex blocking schemes.
"He's one of the best options we could have had to replace Jason," left guard Evan Mathis said. "He displays great athleticism. He has a hunger to learn and a hunger to get better. And what's good for him is, Jason had a monster season, so he can go look at the film of Jason having a monster season, take what he's learning from Howard, apply it to what he's doing on the field and just try and replicate that and do exactly what Jason was doing. He's making strides daily."
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
For all that went wrong last season, the Eagles managed to finish 8-8 and weren't eliminated from playoff contention until Week 16. Had they managed to hold just one of those blown fourth-quarter leads -- against the 49ers, Falcons or Giants, say -- the discussion of their 2011 might be very different. They played well enough at the end of last season, and in the first three quarters of their September games, to prove to themselves they can be as good as they think they can be. If they can cut down on the costly mistakes, and if they get the mental boost they say they got from their season-ending four-game winning streak, it's not a long journey from where they were to a division title.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
So much comes down to Vick. With a backup corps that comprises Mike Kafka, Trent Edwards and rookie Nick Foles, it's more important than ever for Vick to stay healthy. He hasn't played 16 games in a season since 2006, and the Eagles were 1-2 in the three games he missed last season. When he is at his best, Vick gives the Eagles advantages at the position over any team in the league. He can do things with his arm and his legs that other quarterbacks can't. But his relatively small size and all-out style of play have created a history of injury that can't be overlooked when forecasting his -- and the Eagles' -- season. If he doesn't play well, or if they lose him for an extended period of time, it's going to be difficult for them to compete with the top teams in the NFC.
- Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is a breakout candidate. He was sick at this time last year and wasn't able to get a lot out of training camp, and he had injury issues throughout the season. He is 100 percent healthy now, and he gives the Eagles a speed threat opposite Jackson in the wide receiver corps. Don't be surprised if Maclin has a better statistical season than Jackson.
- I think McCoy will miss Peters at left tackle. The Eagles ran outside a lot last season, and Peters' upfield blocking was a huge help to McCoy's ability to break long runs. Having watched the Eagles work on their inside running in camp, I get the impression they're so strong in the middle of the offensive line -- especially given how much better 2011 first-round pick Danny Watkins looks at right guard -- that McCoy will be able to run successfully between the tackles more than he did a season ago.
- Brandon Graham is the 2012 Eagles in microcosm. Fans are sick of hearing how good he is supposed to be and just want to see it. The 2010 first-round pick looks fantastic in the early going and should be able to make a contribution as part of the rotation at defensive end. Reid says the plan is to rotate eight guys on the defensive line and "throw fastballs, if we can, at the offensive line." A healthy, productive Graham subbing in to give Trent Cole or Jason Babin a breather would go a long way toward enabling that.
- Jamar Chaney was playing well enough to look like the starter at weakside linebacker before a hamstring injury in the second week of camp sidelined him. The starter could be Matthews or Brian Rolle if Chaney can't keep his momentum going. Rookie Mychal Kendricks is supposed to start on the strong side, but the Eagles are taking things slowly with him. Don't be surprised if, as with Watkins a year ago, his role is bigger in the second half than it is at the start.
- Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the starter at cornerback opposite Asomugha, looks spry and comfortable in his new role. He played the slot cornerback position last season, which he never had before, and should be better on the outside.
- Rookie Brandon Boykin could win the slot corner job ahead of veteran Joselio Hanson. Boykin is also helping as a kick returner.
- It's possible the Eagles could go without a fullback. They didn't use one much last season, and they like what backup tight end Brett Brackett has been showing in camp. Philadelphia could use him or Clay Harbor along with Brent Celek in multiple tight end sets.
The Cowboys have big problems on the interior of the offensive line, as they did last year and actually kind of did before all of this year's injuries set in. So they're bringing in a bunch of guys they had last year for workouts and to see if they can help. I wish them luck with that.
The good thing the Cowboys have going for them on the offensive line is second-year tackle Tyron Smith, who was a complete animal last year as a rookie right tackle and is, in practices, impressing the league's best pass-rusher.
The additions of DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks, the late-season development of Brian Rolle and Casey Matthews and the strong training camp performance so far of Jamar Chaney made some of the linebackers the Eagles used last year expendable, so they traded Moise Fokou and Greg Lloyd to the Colts for cornerback Kevin Thomas and a pick. They needed the cornerback depth more. Trade happened while I was in the car on Route 78 East, so that's why I didn't mention it until now.
Special teams coach Bobby April says the punting competition is dead even between Chas Henry and former Cowboys punter Mat McBriar. They need to see these guys punt in games. McBriar looks great. The only question is if the health of his foot holds up. If it does, he's likely to beat out Henry.
John Keim's Thursday practice report is characteristically comprehensive, and includes notes on the cornerback situation as well as that of Chris Cooley.
Mike Shanahan believes that Robert Griffin III brings enough skills on the field and in the locker room to help cover up potential weaknesses in other areas of the team, Jason Reid writes.
New York Giants
The Terrell Thomas injury situation has reached a confusing stage at which even Giants coach Tom Coughlin says he doesn't know what to believe anymore. And it sounds like there's no definitive answer coming until the middle of next week.
Eli Manning is a funny guy. He said he told David Carr to take his shirt off while running post-practice sprints so the Giants could get some of the same coverage the Jets are getting. The Giants like to bag on the Jets. The Jets make it easy. And yes, Manning really is a funny guy.
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Real quick, before I head home...
- Thursday's Philadelphia Eagles practice wasn't as hard-hitting as Wednesday's was, but it was much hotter and there was a parade of guys leaving early with cramps and/or injuries. Those included running back LeSean McCoy and safety Nate Allen (cramps), safety O.J. Atogwe (groin) and linebacker Jamar Chaney (hamstring). Chaney was headed for an MRI, but none of the other issues were thought to be serious. It seems as though Andy Reid is trying to see how much his players can take, perhaps in an effort to make sure they don't lack toughness or stamina once the season begins and there are fourth-quarter leads to protect.
- I thought DeSean Jackson was very active in Thursday's practice, and after speaking with him in the morning I took notice of the variety of routes he was running, including the underneath ones. "Defenses game plan on me," Jackson told me in the morning. "So all the downfield routes, all the deep routes that we always had success with, last year teams tried to prevent that and started backing up deeper. So I think whatever it is as far as underneath routes, getting the ball in our hands earlier and faster just so we can catch and make runs, I think that's going to be huge for us this year as well. Just not always trying to go deep for the home run."
- Middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans looked like the proverbial "quarterback of the defense" as he called out the offense's formations and ordered the players around him into different looks and coverages depending on what he saw. Ryans left practice briefly with some kind of physical issue, but he only missed a play or two and was able to finish without any problems.
- Once McCoy left, running back Dion Lewis ran with the first-team offense and looked good. I thought he was particularly impressive in traffic, whether it was catching the ball with a crowd around him or skittering around and finding a hole. He's clearly the primary backup to McCoy. As for the rookies, Bryce Brown still looks like the better, quicker and more decisive runner than Chris Polk, though he needs to do some work on his blocking.
- Chaney was working as a first-team linebacker before he got hurt. His injury could result in an opportunity for Brian Rolle or Casey Matthews to assert himself as a possible starter along with Ryans and rookie Mychal Kendricks.
- The defensive linemen who are playing as the first-team unit with all four starters out -- Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Darryl Tapp and Derek Landri, made life difficult for McCoy as the Eagles worked on their inside running in 9-on-7 drills, though it should be noted that the defense is the side that has nine in that drill.
- Second-year safety Jaiquawn Jarrett made a nice play to close on and break up a deep pass from Michael Vick to Jackson in team drills.
- Cox, the first-round draft pick, got through the line a few times against third-team offensive linemen, but in general he looks like a rookie tentatively working his way through drills as he learns. He's massive and athletic, but he definitely looks like someone who's learning. Which is to be expected.
- That's it for me from Eagles camp, though you will see plenty more posts based off of the interviews I did while here. Eagles Camp Confidential is currently scheduled for Monday, so look out for that. And I will complete my NFC East training camp tour with a stop in Oxnard, Calif., on Monday and Tuesday to see the Cowboys. That's all for now. Heading up the highway. Enjoy your evening.
This is what Kurt Coleman, who's vying for one of the starting safety spots, had to say about it to the Eagles' team site:
"When you put the pads on, it really separates the boys from men -- people who want to hit, and people who are scared to hit," Coleman said. "In this game you can't be scared to hit anybody. So I think that’s what the fans get to see, and it's a fun time for us to go out there and really knock some heads."
Now, clearly, Coleman is not in agreement with the thesis behind my first paragraph. But that's OK, because as an NFL safety he shouldn't be and because his point applies in particular to his position. Coaches everywhere will tell you that it's impossible to evaluate the safety position without watching players practice in pads. So much of what the safeties do is keyed around their ability to hit. And to this point, since OTA and minicamp practices were all non-contact and all training camp practices have been so far, the Eagles' coaches haven't seen their safeties hit anyone yet. So they don't know how Coleman or Nate Allen or Jaiquawn Jarrett or newcomer O.J. Atogwe really look.
Today, they can hit each other. Jarrett, the second-year safety whose reputation coming out of college was that of a fearsome hitter, can actually start showcasing some of the ability that led the Eagles to draft him. Atogwe, who was banged up for most of last season with the Redskins, can start trying to prove he can hold up physically under the strain of contact. It is these full-pad practices, and perhaps the preseason games even more so, that will allow the Eagles to determine who their starting safeties should be and how good they should expect to be at that position.
Similar points can be made about linebacker, where rookie Mychal Kendricks is looking to nail down the strongside linebacker spot and Brian Rolle, Casey Matthews and Jamar Chaney are competing at the weak side. To this point, the Eagles likely have been able to evaluate their linebackers in coverage and gauge their speed and their ability to react to what the offense is doing. But the linebackers in the Eagles' schemes are going to have to make some plays, and putting pads on them will help allow them to make more.
And if you've been to training camp and watched running backs in a non-contract drill, you know it's kind of anticlimactic. Yeah, they look good whizzing through that line, but ... well, no one's allowed to really try hard to stop them. Starting today, the Eagles can see more clearly how Dion Lewis, Bryce Brown and Chris Polk handle the rigorous part of their assignment as they compete for the backup running back job behind LeSean McCoy.
So that's why I think today's Eagles practice matters a little bit more than those that have come before it -- because the positions at which they're taking the closest looks are the ones you really need to watch in pads.
Projected starters: MLB DeMeco Ryans, SLB Mychal Kendricks, WLB Brian Rolle
Reserves: Jamar Chaney, Keenan Clayton, Moise Fokou, Akeem Jordan, Casey Matthews, Greg Lloyd
Potential weakness: Rolle is working with the starters at the weakside linebacker spot, but he's going to have to show improvement as a tackler in training camp if he wants to hold onto that job. Chaney, who has been a starter at the strongside and middle spots the past two years, has the speed and size to claim the spot if he takes to it in practice and Rolle keeps whiffing on tackles. The linebackers in the Eagles' "Wide-9" defensive scheme need to have enough speed to cover tons of room, but they also need to be able to wrap up in the open field. If Rolle is a liability in that area, the Eagles could find themselves mixing and matching at linebacker again.
Keep an eye on: Kendricks. It was his speed and athleticism that led the Eagles to select him in the second round of the draft in April, and they see him as an ideal fit in their defense. He will get every opportunity to win the starter's job on the strong side, and early reports from OTAs indicate that he's been one of the fastest players on the field and shown a nose for the ball. The Eagles obviously aren't afraid to throw a rookie into the mix as a starting linebacker. They did it last year, to their detriment, with Matthews. But Kendricks has more going for him right off the bat than Matthews ever did, and if he is the starter in Week 1 it won't be by default. It will be because the Eagles are excited about what he can do for them on defense right away.
Casey Matthews' second year has to be better than his first, if only because he's not going to have to be the Eagles' starting middle linebacker by default and in spite of being unqualified for the job. Now, Matthews can learn, develop and work his way into NFL playing time the way he was always supposed to. He spoke with Les Bowen, who also took a very up-close photo.
Ashley Fox spoke with Michael Vick, who told her he knows this will be "a critical year" for himself and for coach Andy Reid.
Stephen Bowen is still recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, but he plans on being ready to join his Redskins defensive linemates in time for training camp.
Santana Moss and Anthony Armstrong are well aware that the Redskins have added a lot of people at wide receiver, but that doesn't stop them from wanting (and working) to return to the larger roles they once occupied in the offense. Remains to be seen how the wide receiver situation shakes out, but either of those guys likely needs someone from the Pierre Garcon/Josh Morgan/Leonard Hankerson group to be injured or ineffective in order to get that opportunity.
So Jerry Jones answered a question about whether or not the Cowboys' Super Bowl window was closing in the vaguely affirmative, and because it's late May and it's the Cowboys this became a huge thing, and so people had to ask Tony Romo about it and he said not really and so you can expect a lot of people to be talking about this again today. Personally, I think it's all very silly, and that if the defense gets better the window will stay open and if it doesn't it will never open.
Bruce Carter and David Arkin were working with the starters at linebacker and guard, respectively, this week at OTAs. They're trying to get younger guys reps with the starters in the hope that it'll help their development. But while Carter is in a competition with free-agent signee Dan Connor at the inside linebacker spot opposite Sean Lee, it's likely that Connor and Mackenzy Bernadeau get those spots once the season starts.
New York Giants
The message for the Giants as they began their offseason workouts was that, as great as it was to win the Super Bowl in February and get their rings last week, it's time to move on and focus on 2012. As was the case when they reached the playoffs last year, the Giants are likely to benefit from the fact that their coaches and veteran players have been through this before.
Big disappointment for Giants cornerback Brian Witherspoon, who re-injured the ACL that cost him the 2011 season and, thus, would appear to be out for this season as well. Attrition injuries like this, in non-contact drills, are reminders of how fragile this all is for these players, and how close each one of them is to having it taken away.