NFL Nation: Cary Williams

PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles went 4-4 at home last season, 4-5 if you count the playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints.

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Hunter Martin/Getty ImagesThe addition of 1,600 to Lincoln Financial Field should help further turn around the Eagles' fortunes at home.
"We left a bad taste in our mouths last year, losing at home," cornerback Cary Williams said earlier this month. "We lost a lot of games at home. Those are things that we want to right this season."

It turns out 2013 wasn't some kind of anomaly. The Eagles' September loss to the Dallas Cowboys was their ninth consecutive at Lincoln Financial Field. Over the past 10 years, the Eagles' record at home was 44-36. Their road record was 45-34-1.

As the blog Bleeding Green Nation points out, that makes the Eagles the only team in the four major North American sports leagues with a better road record. And that's what Williams was talking about trying to correct.

Nine of the last 10 years, of course, Andy Reid was the Eagles' coach. Chip Kelly is only on the hook for one season with a better road record than home record. To Kelly's credit, the Eagles won their last four home games of the regular season in 2013. They started the year 0-4 at home, as the quarterback knot featuring Michael Vick and Nick Foles untangled itself.

That home loss to Dallas, the ninth straight at home, was the game in which Foles played poorly in the first half and was knocked out with a concussion. The next week, Vick was injured during a loss to the New York Giants. Both of those games were finished by Matt Barkley.

Foles returned to action Nov. 3 in Oakland and threw an NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes in a win over the Raiders. The Eagles went 7-1 in the second half of the season -- and undefeated at home.

Until the playoffs, of course. Despite home-field advantage, they lost to the Saints, 26-24.

Would the Eagles have been better off on the road for that game? It's hard to make that case. Their struggles at home are mystifying, but the Saints were simply a better team in that game.

Can the Eagles restore their home-field advantage in Kelly's second season? They will benefit from the addition of 1,600 seats, which should mean 1,600 more vocal cords, as part of renovations to the Linc. Mostly, they will benefit from being a better team in the second year of Kelly's tenure. And that's what Williams was talking about.

"I think we're going to be much improved from last season," he said. "We understand what's expected of us. We just want to continue to build off what we did last year and be better. I think we're on the right path."
PHILADELPHIA -- Jordan Matthews, the second-round pick from Vanderbilt, has gotten a fair amount of attention during the past two weeks of OTA practices.

He’s gotten quite a bit from quarterbacks, who like throwing to a 6-foot-3 target with good hands. He’s gotten attention from defensive backs, who go where the ball is going. And Matthews has gotten a fair amount of attention from reporters working the who-will-replace-DeSean-Jackson angle.

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Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAs the Eagles search for ways to replace DeSean Jackson's explosive plays, new running back Darren Sproles will be part of the solution.
That is understandable enough. The release of Jackson, a Pro Bowl receiver in his prime, was the most puzzling move yet during Chip Kelly’s tenure as head coach. Whatever you think of the move, and the explanations or lack of same, the Eagles created a need for themselves and Matthews is the draft pick destined to be seen as the solution to that problem.

But that’s not really fair. The truth is, the Eagles have to replace the element of speed that Jackson provided. They can do that a number of ways. Matthews might not have quite that elite speed himself, but he can be part of the mix in Kelly’s offense.

“I can see Matthews has a quick first step,” veteran cornerback Cary Williams said. “I can see him being very explosive out of breaks. And once he gets his hands on the ball, he looks like someone who can break a couple tackles and take a simple, six-yard curl into an 80-yard play.”

For now, Matthews is running with the second team as the slot receiver. That has more to do with Kelly’s approach to teaching rookies than anything. Chances are, Matthews will replace Jason Avant in the slot, with Jeremy Maclin, back from a torn ACL, stepping into Jackson’s spot on the outside.

Maclin has good speed, but not Jackson speed. The Eagles added elite speed when they acquired Darren Sproles in a trade with New Orleans. But as Kelly was quick to point out last week, Sproles is a running back. He’s not a wide receiver.

Still, Sproles’ speed can have the same effect on defenses as Jackson’s did. He can force defensive coordinators to account for him, and that is half the battle. Kelly’s ability to deploy his other weapons, to take advantage of the space created by that speed, is the other half.

“We knew [Sproles] was a really, really talented player, and when he got here, he showed that right from the jump,” Kelly said. “We heard from the coaches that coached him what an intelligent football player he is and learned that from the first day he was in this building, and how sharp he is and how dedicated he is.

“I talked to Norv Turner (who coached Sproles in San Diego) and he remarked to me when I saw him at one of the pro days, he said, ‘You'll have to slow him down because he only knows one speed.’ And that's the same thing you see. Darren practices and trains at one speed. It's awesome. He fits in with the culture that we want in terms of preparation, but it's everything we wanted when we got him here.”

Kelly’s ability to move Sproles around, and to mix and match all his other offensive weapons, will give the Eagles plenty of versatility this season. It is that, more than Matthews or any other one player, that will replace Jackson’s speed.
PHILADELPHIA -- All things considered, last season was a pretty successful one for the Philadelphia Eagles. With a new head coach, Chip Kelly, and with radically different offensive and defensive schemes, they managed to win the NFC East and reach the postseason.

Sure, they lost 26-24 to New Orleans in the wild-card round, but that was a pretty good rookie campaign for Kelly and his team, right? That’s one point of view. Cornerback Cary Williams had a different one.

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AP Photo/Julio CortezCary Williams' horse collar tackle on Darren Sproles proved costly -- it gave the Saints a short field on the game-winning drive.
“The way we went out last year,” Williams said this week, “it wasn’t necessarily something we could be proud of. ...Every season, every team wants to focus on winning the Super Bowl. When you fall short like that, it leaves a nasty taste in your mouth. So I think everyone that’s here is hungry. I think everybody that’s here is motivated. Everybody here wants to win.”

Immediately after the playoff loss, Williams bristled at questions about a penalty he drew late in the game. While covering a kickoff, Williams found himself alone behind Saints' return man Darren Sproles (who is now with the Eagles). Williams said he had to find a way to bring Sproles down, and the result was a horse-collar penalty that gave the Saints the ball at the Eagles 48-yard line. Williams was fined $15,750 for the tackle.

Right after the game, Williams was annoyed by questions about the play. Five months later, he has a different outlook.

“Even myself, getting that horse collar,” Williams said, “I felt I could have made a better tackle than that. There were times I felt I could have stopped a running back in a tackle. I ended up letting a guy drag me along instead of taking out his legs. There were some plays that left a bad taste in my mouth. There are several guys out here who feel the same way.”

How the players respond to that sense of disappointment means everything. For Williams, it means being at every day of organized team activities. Last year, after signing with the Eagles, he missed a lot of offseason work.

“It was no offense to anybody out here,” Williams said. “I was just doing some personal things. Last year was last year. Coach understood. I’m here now. I’m in meetings, participating. All I needed to get done in the offseason last year is done.”

Williams clearly feels like a part of this team in a way he couldn’t have felt just by signing a contract last offseason. There is an investment involved now.

“I just think that everybody’s hungry,” Williams said. “We left a bad taste in our mouths last year losing at home. We lost a lot of games at home. Those are things that we want to right this season. It starts here in OTAs. We’ve got to continue to work. We’ve got to take every opportunity as an opportunity to better yourself, individually. It’s about camaraderie, about building that trust in your teammates. Once we get that down, we can have a pretty good season.”

The Eagles had a pretty good season in 2013. One of the most encouraging signs for 2014 is the sense 2013 wasn’t good enough.

“To me,” Williams said, “that’s not very impressive. We’ve got to do better than that. We’ve got to improve. I think we’re on the right path.”
PHILADELPHIA -- You learn more about what an NFL team thinks from what it does than from what it says.

The Philadelphia Eagles know they need to improve their defense if they’re going to repeat as NFC East champions and make more noise in the postseason. The Eagles allowed more passing yards per game than any team in the NFL in 2013. That is an obvious area to address.

“I think we can be better than 32 [ranked],” cornerback Cary Williams said. “I think we’re going to be much improved from last season.”

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AP Photo/Michael PerezCary Williams and the Eagles won the NFC East in 2013 despite allowing the most passing yards per game in the NFL.
The Eagles drafted outside linebacker Marcus Smith of Louisville in the first round of last month’s draft. But there’s a real chance Smith won’t start ahead of Trent Cole right away. Indeed, the only definite new starter will be former Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins. During OTA practices the past two weeks, 10 of the 11 starters from the end of last year were still at the top of the depth chart.

And that’s how you know what coach Chip Kelly, GM Howie Roseman and defensive coordinator Bill Davis really think. If they believed the defense was simply devoid of talent, they would have done more in free agency to add some. Instead, they appear convinced that it’s more important for the current players to grow within Davis’ 3-4 defensive scheme than to shuffle personnel.

“Overall, the whole defense has grown because we’re more comfortable with what we’re doing,” inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans said.

Last year, Ryans was adjusting to the 3-4 after playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. He wound up playing more snaps than any inside linebacker in the NFL in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s because Ryans stayed healthy, but also because Davis desperately needed his awareness and knowledge on the field on every down.

Ryans will likely carry just as heavy a burden in 2014. But the addition of Jenkins will help ease the strain a bit. Jenkins replaces Patrick Chung, who was hampered by injury last year, and rookie Earl Wolff, who replaced Chung as a starter.

“Malcolm is going to be the leader in the back end,” Ryans said. “He’s a guy who gets the guys in the right position. He can make the plays you want to make. He’s a great addition to our secondary.”

That should help the entire secondary play as a cohesive unit. So should some more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Eagles began to identify and develop strong players in their front seven last season. That process should continue and bear fruit in 2014.

Defensive end Cedric Thornton will begin this season as a starter rather than as a curiosity. Bennie Logan will be the nose tackle. Cole will be in his second season as a linebacker after spending 2013 making the transition from defensive end. Ryans, Cole, Connor Barwin and Mychal Kendricks should all be better after playing together for a full season.

Best of all, the defense experienced some success in that first year. The Eagles finished strong, earning the division title with a victory in Dallas in Week 17. Their first-round playoff loss to New Orleans showed them exactly where they need to get better.

“We understand what is expected from us,” Williams said. “We’re going to continue to build off what we did last year. I think we’re on the right path.”

Kelly, Roseman and Davis think the same thing. Their actions this offseason say so.
A theory: The media-savvy NFL didn't create this three-day “legal tampering” period to facilitate negotiations between teams and pending free agents. The real reason was to create three more days of intense fan interest and fevered speculation.

Acknowledging the lack of real news, here are some thoughts pertaining to the Eagles as the actual free agency period draws near:
  • Don't get locked into the names the Eagles reportedly contacted. Yes, they almost certainly did contact the agent for Carolina safety Mike Mitchell. That information leaked out all over the place. Does that mean the Eagles have targeted Mitchell as their solution at safety? Maybe. But all it really signifies is that someone in Mitchell's camp chose to share the Eagles' interest, which could range from casual to intense. The reality is, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman is almost duty-bound to take the pulse of every free-agent safety who has one. It is that big a need for this team, and Roseman loses nothing by getting a feel for what each player is looking for. What if Jairus Byrd or Antoine Bethea really want to play for Chip Kelly and would take a slightly less-than-market deal? It isn't likely, but as long as there's a hint of a possibility, there's nothing to lose, and much to gain, by checking in with them.
  • Nothing matters until Tuesday when deals can be done. If Roseman has his eye on a particular free agent, someone he feels he has to pounce on right away with a major offer, he doesn't want to telegraph that to the rest of the league. That's why I think there has been so little reported “interest” in some of the bigger-name free agents. Having your team linked to a guy like Byrd or Seattle's Michael Bennett would serve only to give your division and conference rivals the heads-up that they may need to make a pre-emptive strike. And if you're a GM who has targeted Byrd -- just to take a random example -- it might be smart to let him spend the three-day tampering period thinking interest in him isn't that high. By Tuesday afternoon, he may be itching to take the first market deal on the table.
  • If the Eagles go after Champ Bailey -- who will be 36 when the season starts and has been hobbled by foot injuries -- it will be hard to defend their policies when they decline to risk big money on a 27-year-old Pro Bowler such as Byrd. The Denver Broncos are the definition of a team in win-now mode. They released Bailey for a reason. He may be able to keep his superb career on life support for another year or two by moving to safety, but giving him that opportunity would defy everything Roseman has said about building a team for the long term.
  • If Saints running back Darren Sproles is released, that is the kind of player the Eagles should be very interested in. Chip Kelly was very impressed with (maybe even envious of) the Saints' diverse running backs when he was preparing for the playoff game against New Orleans. Sproles is 30, but he still brings elements to an offense that complement LeSean McCoy's game and would give Kelly plenty to work with. It doesn't hurt that Sproles returns kicks -- including the one that all but won that playoff game for the Saints.
  • I'm perplexed when people say Green Bay's reported four-year, $39 million deal with Sam Shields represents a wild shift in the market for cornerbacks compared to last offseason. There just weren't any $9- to $10-million-a-year corners on the market a year ago. The Eagles signed Cary Williams from Baltimore at $17 million for three years. That's not because the market was down. Williams is solid, but he wouldn't be getting $9-million-a-year this year, either.
Any list of the Eagles' needs starts with their secondary, which is understandable when a team is ranked last in the NFL in pass defense.

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AP Photo/Damian StrohmeyerCary Williams and the Eagles cornerbacks could benefit from quality play at safety.
That's why many analysts, experts and fans think the Eagles will focus on safeties and cornerbacks in free agency and the draft. And they certainly might. But there's one thing I think gets overlooked in all this.

The cornerback play may have looked worse than it actually was because of the quality of the safeties. By improving their safety performance, the Eagles may find that Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Boykin are perfectly adequate cornerbacks.

One step further: Improve the pass rush, which virtually disappeared late in the season and in the playoff loss to the Saints, and the whole secondary would look better.

This doesn't mean the Eagles should pass on a quality cornerback in the draft, if there is one they like when they are on the clock. It is a position where you almost can't have too much talent or depth.

But Williams and Fletcher, the two starting guys on the outside, may not be as urgent a problem as some seem to believe. They were nowhere near perfect, to be sure, but pass defense is a product of cooperation and synchronization.

Williams played for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens the year before. He had Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard at safety. They were more likely to help their cornerbacks out than to leave them hanging.

After the Eagles lost to New Orleans in the wild-card round, Williams seemed especially frustrated.

"We had too many mental breakdowns in the secondary," Williams said. "We didn't put ourselves necessarily in the best situations to win. That was really the issue with me, man. It was frustrating out there -- situations that you know are coming, that you've seen over and over on film, and they don't necessarily go right. The right call isn't being made. It's frustrating. Drew Brees saw those mistakes we made and was able to capitalize on those situations."

Williams wasn't excluding himself or the other cornerbacks from his critique. But you definitely got the feeling, watching that game and those that preceded it, that the major breakdowns were at safety. That is why Nate Allen was not among the impending free agents signed to new contracts last week, and it is why Patrick Chung could well be gone before training camp.

Buffalo's Jairus Byrd, by consensus the top free-agent safety, combined for 33 interceptions and forced fumbles in his five seasons. In four years with the Eagles, Allen had a total of seven.

Signing Byrd would make the Eagles much better, obviously. But there is a lot of room between his production and Allen's that would qualify as improvement. And improvement at safety should contribute to better play from the corners.

Reassessing Eagles LB DeMeco Ryans

February, 19, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA -- You can trust your eyes or you can trust your eyes.

Trust them when Philadelphia Eagles inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans is on the field and you see a veteran who was playing, according to his defensive coordinator, at a Pro Bowl level late in the 2013 season.

Or trust them when you see the orange box in the Pro Football Focus graphic and the image of Ryans in the NFL.com photo display of veterans likely to be released by their teams for salary reasons.

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AP Photo/Paul SpinelliInside linebacker DeMeco Ryans had 4 sacks and 2 interceptions in his second season with the Eagles.
Reading through last week’s positional analysis of the Eagles’ inside linebackers, I certainly didn’t portray Ryans as a huge issue. Bearing in mind that the Eagles moved from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, and that Ryans was in charge of getting everyone lined up correctly and maintaining order, the 29-year-old had a solid season. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis backed that up.

"DeMeco is the leader of our defense, and he's having an outstanding Pro Bowl year,” Davis said in November. “We couldn't be happier with everything DeMeco is doing for us."

In its look at the Eagles’ projected 2014 lineup, PFF classified Ryans as a “below-average starter/adequate role player” -- one of four orange boxes on the site’s graphic representation of the Eagles' defense. Cornerback Cary Williams and safeties Patrick Chung and Earl Wolff were the others (free agents, including Nate Allen, were not included).

NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal included Ryans on his list of veteran players whose 2014 salaries make them candidates to be released.

“His reputation and salary far exceed his play on the field (especially on passing downs),” Rosenthal writes. “Do the Eagles want to pay $6.9 million for leadership?”

Two quick reactions: Ryans provided more than leadership, especially as the defensive line improved in front of the linebackers. Logic suggests he can be even more effective as the rest of the defensive players improve within Davis’ scheme.

But Rosenthal and the guys at PFF aren’t making this stuff up. They know their stuff and viewed Ryans’ play with dispassionate eyes. So it might make more sense that the Eagles spent a fair amount of time talking to inside linebackers during Senior Bowl week. Jimmy Kempski of philly.com noted Eagles personnel talking to LSU’s Lamin Barrow, Wisconsin’s Chris Borland, Illinois’ Jonathan Brown, and Florida State’s Christian Jones.

Ultimately, I think Ryans is still starting for the Eagles in September even if the Eagles draft his long-term replacement. Davis is not going to want his defense to take a step back while a rookie learns the system and how to diagnose offensive formations. Free agency doesn’t seem like a viable option -- if the Eagles are going to pay top dollar for a veteran, they’re better off with Ryans.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If the Titans lose Alterraun Verner as a free agent, it shouldn’t set off a panic attack.

As much difficulty as the team has had solving personnel problems at quarterback and on the offensive line, at pass rusher and linebacker, it’s a franchise that’s shown a quality ability to scout, draft and develop cornerbacks.

ESPN.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss pointed out the Titans' success in this department on Sunday.

Since major headache Pacman Jones was drafted sixth overall in 2005, the Titans have drafted nine cornerbacks.



Five of them are solid NFL players, two of them still have the jury out and two of them busted.

If the team had a similar record at more positions, they’d be in a lot better shape.

And if Verner leaves, which I suspect he will, fans should have a reasonable amount of hope the Titans will be able to replace him.

Ask yourself, were you upset when Finnegan left for St. Louis? Because it was his departure that created room and opportunity for Verner.

Shady shaky on Seahawks' Sherman

January, 31, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA -- Honestly, your humble narrator was going to let this one pass without comment. LeSean McCoy is a lot of things, especially a hypertalented running back, but elder statesman is not one of them.

The guy who sported a boxing-style championship belt on the field after clinching the NFL rushing title has a problem with Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman? Are the pot and the kettle available for comment?

McCoy
Asked on Sirius XM's "Evans and Phillips" show if he would want Sherman on his team, McCoy said, “Not in the locker room in Philadelphia, no. It’d be too much.”

Too much? This is the Eagles we’re talking about: the team that signed Michael Vick fresh out of prison and saw him develop into a leader, the team that weathered the Riley Cooper incident, the team that endured DeSean Jackson openly sulking through the 2011 season, the team that signed temperamental cornerback Cary Williams a couple months after he shoved an official in the Super Bowl.

Those Eagles could probably withstand an elite, playmaking cornerback whose crime against humanity was shouting into Erin Andrews’ microphone.

Jackson was asked about the Cooper incident on ESPN’s "First Take" Friday afternoon. He admitted that it took quite a while for him and other teammates to get past the racial slur that Cooper uttered on that notorious video recording.

“I’m not going to say I forgave him right away,” Jackson said. “I had to keep my distance from him (at first).”

The key, whether it was Cooper or Vick, was getting to know the individual and taking the mature view. Those are two things McCoy didn’t do when it came to Sherman. The guess here is that if they somehow wound up on the same team, McCoy would like Sherman just fine.

How the Eagles handle trash talking

January, 29, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly hasn’t publicly addressed trash talking specifically -- he tends to let his veteran leaders police the locker room -- but he has zero tolerance for any physical escalation.

Williams
When the Eagles practiced against the New England Patriots for a few days during training camp, the on-field chatter developed into a shoving match between Eagles cornerback Cary Williams and Patriots wide receiver Aaron Dobson. Kelly and Bill Belichick had agreed on their policy, and both players spent the rest of that practice session on the sideline.

In December, Williams lost his temper in the fourth quarter of an embarrassing 48-30 loss in Minnesota. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis benched Williams after he drew an unnecessary roughness penalty.

The Eagles have a couple of major trash talkers, notably Williams and wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Kelly doesn’t seem to mind as long as things don’t get out of hand.

The next big thing: Eagles

January, 23, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA -- With the draft so far off this year – May! – the next major item on the Eagles’ to-do list is deciding on a strategy for free agency, which begins March 11.

General manager Howie Roseman has repeatedly said the team will continue to avoid huge free-agent deals in favor of making a number of smaller, less risky investments on the open market. That approach brought Connor Barwin, Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Donnie Jones last offseason. It also brought Patrick Chung, James Casey and Kenny Phillips, moves that didn’t hamstring the franchise when performance didn’t equal compensation.

Before getting to March 11, though, the first order of business is deciding how to handle the current Eagles with expiring contracts. That group includes Michael Vick, who wants to explore opportunities to start, wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, and safeties Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson.

The Eagles could have extended any of those contracts before now, so they’re clearly willing to risk losing any or all of those players once the market opens. The best guess here is the team will wait and see if the market convinces Cooper, Maclin and Allen that their best option is to remain in Philadelphia on reasonable contracts. If not, then adios.

There are a handful of veteran players whose contracts could dictate some action. Will the Eagles hang on to players like Williams, Casey, Trent Cole, Brent Celek and Jason Avant?

Once those decisions are made, the Eagles can move on to the next Next Big Thing, signing free agents and preparing for the May (May!) draft.
PHILADELPHIA -- Richard Sherman's intense, almost scary sideline interview after Sunday’s NFC Championship Game provoked a variety of equally intense reactions around the country.

For an Eagles fan, the reaction probably should be something like this: Yes. That is exactly what the Eagles need more of -- not less, but more.

Williams
No one is condoning Sherman’s choke sign or his apparent taunting of San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree. But that on-the-edge ferocity, that borderline antisocial attitude -- that is what Cary Williams meant from the moment the free-agent cornerback started talking during training camp last summer.

Williams had played with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in Baltimore, had been part of a defense that actually intimidated opponents. He had his own history of over-the-top behavior, which included shoving an official during an on-field scuffle in the Super Bowl last year.

Maybe the Eagles signed Williams in spite of that history. Or maybe they signed him because of it. Either way, that edgy, angry personality was something the Eagles desperately lacked on their defense over the past few years. In fact, one of the great mysteries of Andy Reid’s decline is how he allowed his defense to erode into an apathetic unit that played as soft as wet tissue in 2011 and 2012.

Enter Williams, Connor Barwin, Bradley Fletcher and new defensive coordinator Bill Davis. Enter a whole new attitude.

It takes time to get from the passivity of 2012 to the ferocity of defenses like Seattle’s, San Francisco’s and Carolina’s. The Eagles aren’t there yet, but they are at least headed in that direction now.

“I think we took some steps,” Williams said after the Eagles’ first-round playoff exit. “Like I said before, it’s going to take years for that. It’s not just a one-year situation. For people to fear you in this league, you have to do it on a consistent basis. You have to be out there flying around, you have to make plays.”

That part can’t be overlooked. Sherman didn’t just shoot his mouth off in the immediate aftermath of a game-winning play. He made the game-winning play, running stride for stride with Crabtree, elevating at the perfect moment and swiping an accurate pass away. It was a play few cornerbacks are capable of making.

But the attitude is part of it. Both teams in the NFC title game had that aura of toughness and backed it up. It seemed as if players were slow to get up after every whistle. And while the gruesome replay of NaVorro Bowman’s knee injury is hard to watch, the remarkable thing is that he held on to the football throughout.

The Seahawks are going to the Super Bowl because their defense forced Colin Kaepernick to turn the ball over three times in the fourth quarter. That’s the bar the Eagles have to clear to compete in the NFC in the next few years.

That means getting better on defense, but it also means getting nastier and more intimidating. The rest of the world may be reacting to Sherman’s behavior, but Seahawks fans are celebrating a trip to the Super Bowl.

“In order to get any type of respect, you have to do it consecutively and consistently,” Williams said. “As far as I’m concerned, we made great progress. We’re not necessarily perfect. We’re not necessarily the greatest defense. We still have some work to do.”
 

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 11
Preseason Power Ranking: 25

Biggest surprise: Easy. Nick Foles. He started six games as a rookie in 2012, winning one of them and pretty much disappearing amid the debris of a 4-12 season. He seemed like a terrible fit for new coach Chip Kelly's offense, especially in contrast to the mobile Michael Vick. When Vick pulled a hamstring, Foles seized the starting job with epic numbers: 119.2 passer rating (third best all time), 27 touchdowns and two interceptions (best ratio ever). Foles won eight of his 10 starts and led the Eagles to the NFC East championship. Anyone who says they saw Foles' season coming is fibbing.

Biggest disappointment: The outcome of Saturday night's playoff game against New Orleans -- which says something about how thoroughly Kelly changed the culture here. No one expected the Eagles to win their division and reach the playoffs, but once they did, plenty of people expected them to win the first-round home game. But LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher, didn't have his best game, and the Saints caught the Eagles off guard by running the ball so much themselves. The Eagles appeared capable of beating almost anyone, including the Saints, which made the loss hard to swallow.

Biggest need: Defensive difference-makers, especially in the secondary. The cornerbacks were solid and improved steadily by season's end, but a shutdown corner or legitimate playmaking safety would help a lot. A close second would be a pass-rushing threat, preferably from the outside. Trent Cole had a good year making the transition from defensive end to linebacker, but he's not going to play forever. Funny: For the midseason version of this, I listed quarterback as the biggest need. That's how shocking Foles' performance was.

Team MVP: LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing and in total yards from scrimmage, setting Eagles franchise records in both categories. No one could argue with you if you named McCoy MVP of the team, or even of the NFC. But McCoy was the running back when the Eagles were 3-5 at the midway point. It wasn't until Foles took over the starting quarterback spot that the Eagles began winning games. That seems like the very definition of "most valuable." Nevertheless, the Eagles' first NFL rushing title since Steve Van Buren probably earns McCoy the team MVP award.

 

New Orleans SaintsAl Bello/Getty ImagesThe Eagles had their chances but couldn't do the little things to beat the Saints.
PHILADELPHIA -- Quarterback Nick Foles warmed up on the sideline, waiting for another chance, for one more possession.

It never came. Instead of running onto the field to try to lead the Philadelphia Eagles to one more score, Foles watched the New Orleans Saints celebrate a 26-24 playoff victory. Instead of regrouping for a playoff game against the Carolina Panthers next Sunday, Foles and his teammates will spend the offseason picking at the seams of a game they let slip away.

"It's tough right now," Foles said. "There are a lot of emotions and I'm holding it together. ... I'm hurting inside right now in my heart."

"They killed us slowly," running back LeSean McCoy said. "It was a terrible feeling. There was nothing we could do but watch."

By the time Shayne Graham's 32-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired, there was nothing they could do. But for the 59 minutes and 57 seconds before that, there was plenty they could have done.

That's why these are the hardest games to lose, the ones in which a dropped pass here, a missed field goal there accumulate like individual snowflakes until a team's hopes are buried in an avalanche. On Saturday afternoon, the Eagles were improbable NFC East champions with a chance to do something special in coach Chip Kelly's first season.

By midnight, they were finished. Buried.

"It's just disappointing," Kelly said. "I don't think us winning the division or getting to the playoffs was a surprise to us. I just think everybody is really disappointed that we're not moving forward."

"I've never been out of the first round of the playoffs," left tackle Jason Peters said. "I felt like this is the year. But we got knocked out and we're at home now. That kickoff, the missed field goal, a couple drops, that sack -- there's a bunch of stuff that went wrong that's messing with me right now. Just got to get over it."

It will take some of them longer to get over than others. Peters is 31. He tore his Achilles tendon twice and had it surgically repaired twice. After missing the entire 2012 season, he returned this year and earned another Pro Bowl berth. He doesn't know how many more chances he's going to get.

Cornerback Cary Williams won a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens last year. He was seething after losing this game, to this team, with so much at stake.

"I don't know whether it was the moment or what it was," Williams said. "But we've got to get better in that scenario, in these situations. We failed. We lost to a team that wasn't necessarily better than us. They weren't better than us, period."

Williams was in the middle of the single play that cost the Eagles most dearly. Foles hit tight end Zach Ertz for a 3-yard touchdown to give the Eagles a 24-23 lead with 4:54 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Shoot the final gun there and Foles' remarkable season is extended by the kind of fourth-quarter comeback that burnishes quarterbacks' reputations. Instead, the Eagles had to kick off. Darren Sproles took the ball 2 yards inside his own zone and somehow got through the Eagles' first wave of tacklers.

"He broke contain," Williams said. "I'm the safety valve there. I didn't want to dive, because if he steps out of my tackle, it's six points. I just wanted to get the man down, just give our defense a chance to get on the field and make a stop."

[+] EnlargeCary Williams and Darren Sproles
AP Photo/Julio CortezCary Williams' horse collar tackle on Darren Sproles proved costly -- it gave the Saints a short field on the game-winning drive.
Williams went high, tackling Sproles and drawing a penalty for a horse-collar tackle. The Saints got the ball at the Philadelphia 48. They ran the ball, converting three first downs and draining the clock until calling a timeout with three seconds left. There would be no time for Foles and the offense to get that one last chance.

"The game came down to us as a defense making a stop, and we knew it was going to come down to that," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "That is what the playoffs are all about. Whoever is on the field last has to stand up and make a play."

But it was all the plays before that created the situation:

Foles held the ball too long and took a sack that turned a makeable Alex Henery field goal try into a 48-yard miss.

Wide receiver Riley Cooper dropped a third-down pass in the third quarter with nothing but green in front of him.

Linebacker Mychal Kendricks slapped the ball from Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's grip, but a replay showed the fumble occurred a moment after Graham's knee touched the ground. Instead of a turnover, the Saints kept the ball and kicked a field goal.

Foles' pass to McCoy on third-and-6 in the red zone picked up 5 yards. Instead of a touchdown and a 21-20 lead, the Eagles kicked a field goal and trailed 20-17.

Those are the little loose threads that the Eagles will pick at when they reflect on this game. It didn't matter that they had exceeded expectations to get to this point. They had a chance to keep playing and they fell short.

"There was a missed opportunity tonight," Eagles owner Jeff Lurie said. "We were a dangerous team."

They will be a different team in 2014. Change is inevitable. All of them know that. And while there is every reason to expect good things from Kelly and Foles in the future, nothing is certain.

"It hurts whenever you lose a game that you know you should have won," center Jason Kelce said. "We all expected to do a lot better in the playoffs. As a player, the careers don't last very long. The opportunities you get in the postseason, you have to try to seize them. We didn't seize the day here."


PHILADELPHIA -- A few thoughts on the Philadelphia Eagles' 26-24 playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints Saturday night:

What it means. Chip Kelly's impressive first season as coach of the Eagles ends with an erratic performance in a playoff loss. Kelly's offense was thrown out of rhythm all game by the Saints' defense and was never able to gets its uptempo, aggressive approach into gear. Quarterback Nick Foles' dream regular season ended with an inconsistent performance. Foles wasn't to blame for the loss, but he didn't deliver the heroics necessary to beat Drew Brees and the Saints. The Eagles can feel good about their progress from a 4-12 record in 2012 to a 10-6 record and a division title, but they also know they let a winnable home playoff loss slip away.

Game changer. Foles threw an ill-advised pass to Jason Avant in the third quarter. Avant had to turn and jump and was an easy target for Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis. Lewis drilled Avant, knocking the ball loose. But Lewis also knocked himself out of the game with a head injury. Moments later, Foles threw a jump ball to DeSean Jackson, who had been held without a catch up until that point. The 40-yard gain kick-started the Eagles' comeback from a 20-7 deficit to a 24-23 lead. Corey White, the victim on that completion, committed a 40-yard pass interference penalty to set up the Eagles' go-ahead touchdown.

Happy returns. Big special teams plays made a huge difference in the fourth quarter. Jackson, frustrated on offense much of the game, danced down the left sideline for 29 yards to give the Eagles good field position. They turned it into a field goal, closing to within 20-17. After the Eagles scored a touchdown to take a 24-23 lead, Darren Sproles got outside on the kickoff return. He might have gone the distance, but Cary Williams dragged him down from behind. The 39-yard return and 15-yard horse-collar penalty gave the Saints the ball at the Eagles 48 for their game-winning drive.

Stock watch. Steady: Chip Kelly. Let's put it this way. Kelly coached a much better season than he coached in this particular game. There's no shame in getting outmaneuvered by a couple of veteran coaches like Sean Payton and Rob Ryan. But there's no denying that's what happened, either. The Saints couldn't get anything going in the first half. It took a field goal as time expired for them to get to six points. But they came out sharper and better prepared in the second half, building that 20-7 lead and then driving for the game-winning field goal in the final minute.

What's next. The Eagles will go into the offseason knowing they have a coach and quarterback they can win with, and that is a huge step. They also know where their biggest needs are. The future is bright, even if the Eagles missed an excellent opportunity to do something special in this postseason.

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