BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- A year ago, as excitement swirled around the free-agent-happy Philadelphia Eagles and preseason predictions called for big things, something still didn't feel quite right.
"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. And 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.
"Yeah, 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's, with new guys at middle linebacker and left tackle. All of the coaches who were new to the team or their roles last year 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, and 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? There is no player in the league under more pressure in 2012 than Vick. The brilliance of his 2010 season was away 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 than ever before 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 year proved, being a quarterback is about the little things, and 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."
2. The "quarterback of the defense." The big player acquisition of the Eagles' offseason was middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, whom they acquired in a trade with the Houston Texans prior to the draft. Ryans is a well-respected veteran who was emerging as one of the top linebackers in the league before his 2010 Achilles injury. 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's also healthy and looking like the player who was so universally loved and respected by Texans teammates, who called him "Cap." The Eagles' defense, which started unprepared rookie Casey Matthews as its middle linebacker last September, should benefit from Ryans' veteran presence in the role.
"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. But he's 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."
Sure, but what they like about Ryans is that he can help teach everybody just how to do that. And who 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 year, and that's no slight to anyone else. Peters was a monster blocker who was critical to the overall 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 year. His replacement is free-agent signee Demetress Bell, who's 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's looking good and picking up Mudd's complex blocking schemes.
"I think 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 year, the Eagles still 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 -- we might be having a very different discussion about their 2011. They played well enough at the end of last year (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, and with a backup corps that currently comprises Mike Kafka, Trent Edwards and rookie Nick Foles, it's more important than ever for him 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 year. When he's 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 his 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 this time last year and wasn't able to get a lot out of training camp, and he had injury issues throughout the season. But he's 100 percent healthy now, and he gives the Eagles a big-time 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, because the Eagles ran outside a lot last year and Peters' upfield blocking was a huge help to McCoy's ability to break long runs. But 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 year ago.
Brandon Graham is the 2012 Eagles in microcosm. Fans are sick of hearing how good he's 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. So that 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 year, which he never has before, and should be better on the outside.
It's possible the Eagles could go without a fullback. They didn't use one much last year, and they like what backup tight end Brett Brackett has been showing in camp. They could use him or Clay Harbor along with Brent Celek in multiple tight end sets.