NFL Nation: Howard Mudd

Cowboys in better shape than Eagles

November, 8, 2012
11/08/12
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Jason Garrett/Andy ReidAP Photo/Getty ImagesJason Garrett and Andy Reid's teams are both 3-5, but it's Garrett who's in a stronger long-term position with his team.

Back in August, when they looked ahead to their Week 10 matchup against each other, the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles probably envisioned two rivals in the thick of a race for the postseason, hooking up in a game packed with glorious import.

Sunday's game in Philadelphia is not that. It is a game between two 3-5 teams ranked near the bottom of the league in scoring offense who have combined to win exactly one game since September. Let's just say the first-place Giants aren't going to be glued to their televisions sweating this one out.

The winner of the Cowboys-Eagles game on Sunday may plausibly be able to convince itself its season is not over, though the road back to contention will remain difficult. The loser will have the same record as the Redskins and probably will be thinking about offseason plans. But just because both of these teams are in the same leaky Week 10 boat doesn't mean they share an identical long-range outlook. I don't think either will rebound and reach this year's playoffs, but in the short term and beyond, the Cowboys are the team in considerably better shape. Here's a look at the reasons why:
    [+] EnlargeRomo
    Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireThe Cowboys are trying to sign Tony Romo to a contract extension, despite the quarterback's uneven play lately.

  • Quarterback: Tony Romo is not having his best season, this is true. He's thrown a league-leading 13 interceptions against just 10 touchdowns, and his passer rating is just 82.2. He's never finished lower than 90 in a season in that category. After he had his best statistical season in 2011, more was expected, and disappointment is understandable. But Romo's still got more track record as a top NFL quarterback than the Eagles' Michael Vick does, and the Cowboys are trying to sign him to a long-term contract. Management and the players believe in Romo and are prepared to move into the future with him as their quarterback. The Eagles, assuming they don't make a miracle recovery, are likely to opt out of Vick's contract at the end of this season and rebuild with rookie Nick Foles or look for someone else. The Cowboys have far greater stability at the most important position.
  • Head coach job status: Obviously, the Eagles' Andy Reid is a better and more accomplished head coach than the Cowboys' Jason Garrett. But his situation is a far greater fiasco. Regardless of any outside perceptions or assumptions, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has expressed nothing but strong support for Garrett as his head coach. So unless the players choose to read and get caught up in all the Sean Payton speculation, they don't have reason to wonder who's going to be coaching them next year. By contrast, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie gave Reid an apparent ultimatum before the season to finish over .500 or lose his job. The players know all about that, and Reid is obviously much more uncomfortable and (justifiably) worried about his job status than Garrett is about his. It's an inescapable issue that hovers over the Eagles right now, and it has to be affecting players. If you don't feel like your coach is going to be around next year, you necessarily have to wonder whether you will be too.
  • The offensive line: The Cowboys' offensive line isn't about to win any awards, and it obviously will need upgrades in key places in the offseason. But within the context of 2012, it is showing improvement week over week. The Eagles' line keeps losing starters to injury and disintegrating. The Cowboys also have a franchise left tackle in Tyron Smith around whom they can build. The Eagles don't know whether or when they'll get franchise left tackle Jason Peters back from his Achilles injuries, or whehter he'll be the same player he was before he got hurt. The Eagles' offensive line schemes are specifically tied to the teachings of second-year line coach Howard Mudd, and (see last paragraph) there's no guarantee he's back next year, which means they might need to reconstruct the line in the mold of a new coach. There's more uncertainty in an area that is absolutely vital to any kind of success, as the Eagles have seen this season. The Cowboys' line is a mess, but with Smith at left tackle and Bill Callahan coaching it, it at least can see the path forward.
  • Defensive identity: The Cowboys' defense is one of the toughest in the NFL this year under second-year coordinator Rob Ryan. Led by DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher up front and with Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne doing what they were brought in to do at cornerback most weeks, Dallas knows what it wants to do and is doing it consistently. The Eagles' defense is on its third coordinator in the past two years and seems unable to get everyone on the same page from quarter to quarter, let alone from game to game. The pass rush has vanished, the coverage schemes are unreliable and the firing of coordinator Juan Castillo for Todd Bowles preceded their worst two defensive games of the year. The Eagles are going to have major decisions to make about their defensive schemes and personnel once this season ends.
  • The schedule: After Sunday, five of the Cowboys' remaining seven games will be at home, and only one (Week 15 versus Pittsburgh) will be against a team that currently has a winning record. The Eagles also face only one winning team (Week 17 at the Giants), but four of their final seven games are road games and four are division games. If you believe either of these teams can make a run, or that the Giants may yet come back to the pack, the Cowboys' remaining schedule appears more favorable. So their short-term outlook is better too, for all of those other reasons and this one.

Sunday's matchup may look like a game between two teams with nothing going on. But everything is relative, and in the big picture it's actually a game between two teams moving in somewhat opposite directions. And the Cowboys are the team that looks as though it's trending up.

Eagles are a study in 'miscalculation'

November, 6, 2012
11/06/12
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Amid all of the perfectly justified rip jobs and sky-is-falling coverage of the Philadelphia Eagles' latest loss, this short item by Jeff McLane caught my eye. He's got someone with the Eagles telling him Andy Reid's bye-week firing of defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was a "miscalculation." This comes as neither news nor a surprise to anyone who's been tracking the Eagles over the past two seasons, during which it appears "miscalculation" has been the hallmark of the front office's game plan.

Yeah, when you watch the Eagles play, it's easy to get caught up in the on-field, in-game issues. Why don't they run the ball more? Why can't Michael Vick make pre-snap reads? Have they quit on Andy Reid? Stuff like that. But I think if you look back over the past two years, it's easy to see that the flaws with this team are flaws of construction, and that the miscalculations are myriad and extensive. A partial list, in no particular order:

    [+] EnlargeMichael Vick
    AP Photo/Brian GarfinkelSigning QB Michael Vick to a $100 million contract appears to be a costly move for the Eagles.
  • Deciding on Vick as a $100 million franchise quarterback based on the spectacular aspect of the way he played in 2010, ignoring the likelihood that his issues reading the field, making audibles and adjusting on the fly were too ingrained to overcome in his 30s. And no, it's not that they should have kept Kevin Kolb or that they didn't get great value for him in the trade. It's just that tying so much of their 2011-12 success to Vick is going to set them back as they head into 2013 and beyond. And the bust potential that Vick came with at the time of the contract was high enough to make it a questionable decision at best.
  • Signing Nnamdi Asomugha on the presumption that he'd play like a top shutdown cornerback, then playing him in zone coverage for his first year because they didn't have the guts to move Asante Samuel. This resulted in their having to trade Samuel for nearly nothing a year later, and Asomugha has struggled at times this year in one-on-one coverage against speedy wideouts.
  • Drafting Danny Watkins in the first round after hiring Howard Mudd to run the offensive line. Mudd found Jason Kelce in the sixth round, identified him as the type of guy who could play his scheme and quickly molded him into a top NFL center. Surely, he could have found a guard in the fifth or seventh that fit his profile and done the same with him, and the Eagles could have used that first-rounder on something more immediately helpful. And no, the Eagles could not have imagined the extent to which injuries would ravage their offensive line this season, but it does seem as though they could have found backup players better suited to adapt quickly to Mudd's blocking schemes. Perhaps if they hadn't been so focused on bringing in high-profile, ultimately useless skill-position backups like Vince Young and Ronnie Brown last year, this could have been more of a point of emphasis.
  • Designing a defense predicated on the down linemen selling out for sacks, then failing in 2011 to support the defensive line with anything resembling adequate linebacker play.
  • In 2012, after bolstering the linebacker corps, failing to adjust anything about the defensive line scheme even though the whole league knew they'd be selling out for sacks on every play. The extent to which opposing offensive coordinators have appeared to be ahead of Castillo, Todd Bowles, Jim Washburn or whoever's been in charge of setting up the Eagles' defense on a given week this year is staggering.
  • Making Castillo the defensive coordinator in the first place, then of course firing him during the bye week just because they felt like they had to do something.

Look, I understand this is an exercise in second-guessing. I fell for it, as did a lot of the people who have been writing about this Eagles team for the past two years. Philadelphia's roster-construction efforts the past two springs and summers looked good as they were going on, and I for one failed to spot the number of flaws that have ultimately manifested themselves. The very good lesson, for those of us who write the NFL, is as usual about waiting for the games to be played before making broad conclusions about how they will go.

As we look back on it now, though, not much the Eagles have done in assembling their roster over the past couple of years has worked. There's the occasional DeMeco Ryans or Fletcher Cox, sure. The DeSean Jackson contract is a good one for them, and I don't think it was necessarily wrong for them to spend resources this past offseason locking up cornerstone pieces like Trent Cole, LeSean McCoy and Todd Herremans for the long-term. But in terms of building a Super Bowl contender in the short term, Reid and the rest of the people who run the Eagles have failed spectacularly. The product they've put on the field simply isn't as good as they believed it to be, and they are likely to pay for their run of miscalculations with their jobs.
Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce has significant knee ligament damage, and while the team isn't ruling him out for the year, season-ending surgery remains a possibility. At the very least, they must be prepared to play without him for four to six weeks. For an offensive line that already lost its best player, left tackle Jason Peters, to an Achilles injury in the offseason, this is certainly not good news. But I don't think it's a season-crippling bit of news for the Eagles, and here's why:

Dallas Reynolds, who replaced Kelce on Sunday and is slated to replace him going forward, is not just some guy the Eagles plucked off the street when they got in a jam. He spent three years (which is the maximum allowable number of years) on the Eagles' practice squad before making this year's 53-man roster as Kelce's backup. He did not win that spot by default. There was competition. He had to beat out two other players for it. Reynolds was offensive line coach Howard Mudd's pick to fill this exact role, and the reason is that Mudd believed he was ready to fill in if Kelce got hurt.

This is no real stretch. Kelce was a rookie last year and had Mudd's scheme down cold almost from the beginning. It was something of a surprise in 2011 training camp when everyone realized Kelce might win the starting job ahead of Jamaal Jackson, but by midseason it made all the sense in the world. Reynolds could conceivably play well enough to make everyone forget they were ever worried about this. He worked to learn Mudd's schemes all of last year and in training camp this year. And if you ask an Eagles offensive lineman, he'll tell you that Mudd's blocking schemes can take a little time to learn but that once you've got them down, you've got them down. Kelce, Evan Mathis and Danny Watkins all stand as examples of guys who figured it out all of a sudden and never looked back. It's possible Demetress Bell, who went in at left tackle Sunday and played well after King Dunlap got hurt, could be the latest such example.

Point is, the Eagles have faith in Mudd and his ability to put together an effective run-blocking and pass-protecting offensive line. They do not fear a lack of depth, because they believe they created competition for their backup spots and that it made everyone better. Kelce is a very good player who will be missed, but I think it's more than a little bit possible that Reynolds will fill in just fine.

All-NFC East Team: Week 1 Update

September, 12, 2012
9/12/12
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One of the in-season features I really liked last year was our weekly, running All-Division Team, where we'd pick the best player at each starting position in the division and continue to update it as the weeks went along. Over the course of the year, some things changed from week to week (I could never seem to figure out cornerback, mainly because very few NFC East cornerbacks were having good years) and some players solidified their positions with consistent excellence (LeSean McCoy jumps to mind).

Anyway, it's back. We'll do this every Wednesday. And while it is meant to be an All-Star team based on cumulative season performance to date, each team has so far played only one game. So for this week only, yes, this All-Division Team is based only on the performances of the past week. This week's team includes nine Eagles (they did play very well on defense), seven Redskins, five Cowboys, five Giants, one DeMarco, one DeMarcus, one DeMeco and a Dominique.

I'll give you the team and then offer some comments at the end. Enjoy.

Quarterback: Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins

Running back: DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys

Wide receiver: Kevin Ogletree, Cowboys; Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles

Tight end: Martellus Bennett, New York Giants

Fullback: Darrel Young, Redskins

Left tackle: Trent Williams, Redskins

Left guard: Evan Mathis, Eagles

Center: Jason Kelce, Eagles

Right guard: Chris Snee, Giants

Right tackle: Todd Herremans, Eagles

Defensive end: Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants; Jason Hatcher, Cowboys

Defensive tackle: Rocky Bernard, Giants; Fletcher Cox, Eagles

Outside linebacker: Ryan Kerrigan, Redskins; DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys

Inside linebacker: Sean Lee, Cowboys; DeMeco Ryans, Eagles

Cornerback: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Eagles; Josh Wilson, Redskins

Safety: Kurt Coleman, Eagles; Antrel Rolle, Giants

Kicker: Billy Cundiff, Redskins

Punter: Chas Henry, Eagles

Kick returner: Brandon Banks, Redskins

Punt returner: Brandon Banks, Redskins
  • Quarterback was obviously very close between Griffin and the Cowboys' Tony Romo, who both had excellent games in big road victories. Griffin edged out Romo because of his rushing yards and a little bit of added degree of difficulty for the venue in which he won. Both quarterbacks excelled at keeping plays alive and finding success downfield in difficult circumstances. Each handled the rush well. Could have flipped a coin.
  • Maclin was a close call over Washington's Pierre Garcon for that receiver spot, but Maclin played more and caught more passes, so he got the nod.
  • Bennett might or might not continue to catch passes for the Giants, but regardless of whether he does, he's going to merit a look here each week. That guy can seriously block.
  • Williams' and Kelce's were the only performances among the offensive linemen that I thought were particularly strong. The other three offensive linemen were kind of best-of-a-bad-bunch selections on a week in which none of the lines played very well. The Eagles' linemen do stand out at bit when you watch the games back, though. I wonder how much of that is the difference between Howard Mudd's blocking schemes, which require linemen to push upfield and establish new blocking points, and a more standard scheme. Washington's line played okay, and I thought about Will Montgomery at center over Kelce.
  • Defensive end was tricky. Pierre-Paul didn't get a sack, but he was clearly the most disruptive player among the 4-3 ends this week and required an overload of attention from the Cowboys. Hatcher gets the other spot over Jason Babin, which I admit is rare -- a 3-4 end beating out a 4-3 end on a team like this. But that word "disruptive" again is the best to describe Hatcher's night against the Giants.
  • Ditto Kerrigan at outside linebacker. What a game he had.
  • Rolle played the run very well, which is something the Dallas safeties didn't do in the same game. Now, maybe they weren't asked to. I understand that's possible. But Rolle's individual performance deserves the recognition.
  • Fine debut for Cundiff, who showed on kickoffs why they got him. Six of his nine kickoffs were touchbacks.

So that's the first one of these. I welcome your thoughts.
In our NFL previews, the consensus is the Denver Broncos will win the AFC West.

However, “Monday Night Football” analyst Jon Gruden is not so sure. In a conference call with media members, Gruden was asked what his expectations for the Peyton Manning-led Broncos are in 2012. Gruden isn’t sold that Manning and the Broncos will be great.

“I think the realistic expectation is for Peyton Manning to be a big factor in the Broncos winning the AFC West and having a double digit win season, because that's all he's done for the last 10 or 12 years as a starting quarterback,” Gruden said. “But, as I look at it, I hate to be a devil's advocate; I think the schedule is tough. The battery of Tom Moore, Jeff Saturday, Howard Mudd, the men that trained him and helped develop him and put that offense in for him are no longer with him. I think he's doing a lot of things on his own from installing the offense to calling the offense to executing the offense. He's going to have to do it with a very short period of time and a lot of young players around him.

“So I think it's going to be a little bit more of a struggle than people remember. But I do think physically he's back, he's quick, he looks natural to me behind the center. I think a realistic expectation is 8-8 if you ask me.”

Meanwhile, Gruden, later in the convenience call, Gruden talked up San Diego first-round pick, pass-rusher Melvin Ingram.

Here are Gruden’s thoughts on Ingram: “Well, I loved Melvin Ingram at South Carolina because he did it from a lot of different alignments. He rushed over the center. He rushed over the guard. He rushed it right end and left end, and I think that's going to really help him well.”

Observation deck: Eagles-Patriots

August, 21, 2012
8/21/12
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The story of the Philadelphia Eagles' 27-17 preseason victory over the Patriots on "Monday Night Football" was one of quarterbacks. Eagles starter Michael Vick was knocked out of the game by an injury for the second time in two weeks, taking a shot to the ribs that required X-rays (which were negative) and raising old red flags about his fragility and the manner in which his style of play contributes to that. That injury, combined with Mike Kafka's absence due to his own injury, pushed rookie Nick Foles into significant playing time, and Foles looked very good.

Foles was 18-for-28 for 217 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. It was his second impressive performance of the preseason. And while it's important to note that he has not played against first-team defenses, it's also worth raising the question of whether Foles could beat out Kafka for the No. 2 quarterback spot behind Vick. He's a rookie, and he'd likely make more mistakes than Kafka would if pressed into fill-in duty. But in practices and games he has shown a stronger arm and better touch on deep throws than Kafka has, and that matters in Philadelphia's speed-based offense. That difference alone could set Foles apart if he continues to impress and Kafka can't get on the field, and Foles showed impressive poise Monday night, along with the ability to handle many different aspects of the playbook.

I don't personally believe the Eagles can contend this year if Vick has to miss a significant period of time. But if he does need to sit out here and there due to injury, the Eagles and their fans have at least seen something from Foles that would make them feel a little bit better if they had to go with a rookie.

Here are some other things I noticed/saw/thought about the Eagles on Monday:

1. What was Andy Reid yelling about? I am certain that, if the Eagles have a great season, the head coach's first-half sideline shouting match with Cullen Jenkins and the defense will be looked back upon as a brilliant bit of motivation and leadership. I am equally sure that, if the Eagles have a poor season, that exchange will be regarded as a sign of insurmountable discord. Of greater likelihood than either of those is that it was an emotional outburst by a coach who was getting sick of dumb third-down penalties. And if you're worried about whatever happened there causing lasting damage to coach-player relationships, Reid's track record more than earns him the benefit of the doubt.

2. That said, penalties are unforced errors and a worthy subject of coaching scorn, even in the preseason. I've written many times here that preseason games are poor predictors of regular-season performance, because we don't know which teams are game-planning for these games and which are not. But penalties have little or nothing to do with whether the opponent is scheming to beat you. They're about discipline, attention and focus. The Eagles had 16 of them on Monday, for a total of 131 yards, and I would not be looking forward to my next practice right now if I were an Eagles player.

3. Mychal Kendricks was a defensive star in this game. He showed speed and instincts closing on running back Shane Vereen on a screen pass early in the game, and he got himself into the backfield to disrupt a couple of running plays. The Eagles' big linebacker addition was veteran middleman DeMeco Ryans, but Kendricks looks as though he could be an asset on the outside. The Eagles' defensive scheme is going to make its linebackers look bad at times. Even at its best, it relies on aggressiveness by the linemen up front. Because of they, they're likely going to get a lot of sacks and pressure a lot of quarterbacks. But an offshoot of that aggressiveness is that sometimes over-pursuit will open them up to the possibility of a big play. That puts a lot of responsibility on the linebackers to limit those plays, and when they don't, it's going to look ugly. The Eagles seem willing to accept that risk in exchange for the long-term reward their pressure schemes bring them. And they appear better equipped this year to limit damage at the second level.

4. Don't forget Brandon Boykin. The Eagles' fourth-round pick is more than holding his own in his fight with veteran Joselio Hanson for the role of nickel cornerback. He also showed explosiveness on a kickoff return and helped cause a turnover with his speed as a gunner on the punt coverage team. Hanson looked good in his turn at cornerback, too, but what Boykin brings on special teams should keep him on a roster and, at the very least, a persistent threat to Hanson's spot.

5. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie looked very active and very good before leaving the game with a shoulder injury. Reid said Rodgers-Cromartie wanted to go back in and didn't sound overly concerned.

6. King Dunlap played the whole first half at left tackle, and Demetress Bell was flagged for a couple of penalties during the second half. At this point, it would not be a surprise if the Eagles opened the season with Dunlap as the starting left tackle. It also wouldn't be a surprise if Bell worked to learn the schemes in a backup role and threatened to take the job back from Dunlap as the season went along, the way Danny Watkins did last year at right guard. Howard Mudd's schemes aren't easy for everyone to get right away.

7. The Eagles have some tough roster decisions at defensive line, but Phillip Hunt is going to be impossible to cut. Say whatever you want to say about his size, but they don't have anyone faster among their pass-rushers (which is saying something), and he's just made too many plays to overlook.

8. Punter note! Mat McBriar averaged 49.8 yards on his four punts. Chas Henry dropped both of his inside the 20 and one inside the 10. I don't think it's a real competition if McBriar proves himself healthy, but it's nice to see that Henry won't go down without a fight.
Newsy little Saturday up there at Lehigh with the Philadelphia Eagles. Quarterback Michael Vick is planning to practice in spite of the thumb injury he suffered in Thursday night's preseason opener. But backup quarterback Mike Kafka is not, because he broke his left (non-throwing) hand in that game when a Steelers player stepped on it. Rookie Nick Foles, who threw two touchdowns in the game, is taking second-team reps as Vick's backup. And left tackle Demetress Bell has been dropped to the second team after a poor Thursday performance, and King Dunlap is working as the first-team left tackle.

Got all that? Let's take the last part first.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
Eric Hartline/US PresswirePhiladelphia rookie QB Nick Foles was sharp in his preseason debut on Thursday night.
Bell is the tackle the Eagles signed to replace star left tackle Jason Peters after Peters tore his Achilles tendon (twice) this offseason. His demotion is obviously not a good sign for the Eagles' ability to replace Peters, but it's also not necessarily permanent. Recall last year, when first-round pick Danny Watkins wasn't ready to start the opener at right guard but was able to ascend to a starter's role during the season. Offensive line coach Howard Mudd's schemes can be difficult to pick up, and it's possible that Bell needs more time. There are 29 days until the Eagles' regular-season opener in Cleveland, so he has that time if he needs it. And if he needs more, the Eagles (as they showed with Watkins) will give it to him. Dunlap has worked for a year in Mudd's system as a backup and spot starter, and I'm sure the Eagles feel they can get by with him there for a couple of weeks if need be. If Bell never gets any better, and Dunlap has to be their 16-game starter at left tackle, the Eagles could have a big problem. But today's news isn't "Bell out for season," it's "Bell needs more work."

The Kafka news is interesting because news about the backup plan for Vick is always interesting. There's a feeling of inevitability about Vick getting injured and missing time at some point during the season, so Eagles fans want to know who's next in line. The plan was for Kafka to be that guy in this, his third season on the roster and in the offense. But now they're estimating he's out three weeks with the broken hand. And given the way Thursday night went, that doesn't help him.

Interesting that Foles, and not veteran Trent Edwards, is getting the second-team snaps. Foles looked very good Thursday, completing 6-of-10 passes for 144 yards and those two touchdowns. The Eagles' third-round pick this year out of Arizona, Foles has great arm strength and great size. Should Vick get hurt and Foles be the replacement, the results would likely be spectacular in two different directions -- some eye-opening throws and plays mixed with (likely too many) damaging rookie errors. He still needs time in the offense and working on mechanics and footwork before he's a viable replacement. Even if he does throw the ball better down the field right now than Kafka does, that doesn't mean he's going through his progressions the way the Eagles need him to. Giving him the second-team reps is a good way to speed along his education. Edwards has experience, and the Eagles think he fits their offense well, so they could put him in there in a pinch in a real game. But in preseason, the Kafka injury is a chance to educate and evaluate Foles against a little bit better competition than he otherwise might have seen.

The question is how quickly Kafka gets back, and whether this injury hurts his spot on the depth chart or even the team. At this point, I'd have to think not. But his absence will give the other Vick backups a chance to make their cases.
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."

[+] EnlargeDemeco Ryans
AP Photo/Brian GarfinkelThe Eagles believe veteran DeMeco Ryans will provide the defense with stability at linebacker.
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.

OBSERVATION DECK
    [+] EnlargeJeremy Maclin
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNow fully healthy, WR Jeremy Maclin has the tools to have a career season in 2012.
  • 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.
  • Rookie Brandon Boykin could win that 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 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.
When Demetress Bell (whose first name was Demetrious back then) replaced Jason Peters in Buffalo, Peters was not there to help him. Now that Bell must replace the injured Peters as the starting left tackle with the Philadelphia Eagles, he has the benefit of rooming with Peters at training camp. This has resulted in somewhat perpetual education for Bell as he gets up to speed with the Eagles' offensive line schemes and prepares for a season as a very important part of the offense. Per Jeff McLane:
"I've got Jason Peters in my dorm room and Howard Mudd in the classroom," Bell said. "What else could you want?"

Bell
Bell
Peters, whose ruptured Achilles tendon led to the Eagles' acquiring Bell in early April, reported to Lehigh University just like the rest of his teammates, even though he is likely out for the season. The five-time Pro Bowl tackle is rehabilitating his injury here, but he also is assisting Bell, a friend and former Buffalo Bills teammate.

"I think it's a good situation being able to learn from that, to be around that guy and ask him what he did to be the best left tackle in football," guard Evan Mathis said. "He's in the same system with the same coach, and he can watch film and see exactly how those techniques apply and how Jason achieved his success."

Back when the Bills traded Peters to the Eagles, Buffalo coaches were excited about Bell as his replacement. He is viewed as a very athletic left tackle who should be able to do some of the things the Eagles had Peters do last season in terms of upfield blocking. Now, of course, you can be the second-most athletic left tackle in the world and still not be able to do those things as well as Peters did them in 2011. But the hope the Eagles have is that the step back they'll take from Peters to Bell will be a small one, and not a devastating one. The fact that he's spending his time at Lehigh with Peters is a good sign.
Michael VickRich Schultz/Getty ImagesThe Eagles and QB Michael Vick failed to meet expectations last season. Will 2012 be different?
Have you heard? The Philadelphia Eagles are having a great offseason. Yeah, again. They settled the DeSean Jackson contract mess, extended deals for a few key veterans, stole middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans from the Texans and, according to many analysts, may have had the best draft of any team in the league. If the season were starting today, I guarantee they'd be the most popular pick to win the NFC East, ahead of the Super Bowl champion Giants and everyone else.

But me, I'm not so sure. I need to see it from the quarterback.

Michael Vick will enter the 2012 season under more pressure than any other quarterback in the NFL. The Eagles have told anyone who'll listen that they believe last year's team was too talented to go 8-8, that it got better as the year went along and that the four-game winning streak that closed their season can have a carryover effect into 2012. But no matter how true any of those assertions turn out to be, it's still going to be up to Vick to cash them in.

The defense took a lot of the heat for the Eagles' 2011 disappointment, and early on it did struggle to come together. But it finished eighth in the league in fewest yards allowed and tied for the league lead in sacks. If the defense does that again, it's going to be tough to blame whatever goes wrong on that side of the ball.

It was on the offensive side that Vick turned the ball over 14 times during last year's 3-6 start, coughed up the Arizona game by playing with broken ribs and not telling anyone and then missed three games during which backup Vince Young threw enough interceptions to make Vick look like the world champion of darts. Vick was as responsible for the Eagles' flop of a season as anyone else was, and it's worth making a point of that as the Eagles look ahead to 2012 with high hopes. Because that word -- "responsible" -- is the one the Eagles would most like Vick to keep in mind.

[+] EnlargeJay Ratliff
Eric Hartline/US PresswireMichael Vick is an explosive runner, but he must stay healthy for the Eagles to be a title contender.
The Eagles don't need Vick to be the dazzling, electrified, high-speed wonder he was in 2010. It'd be nice, but no one expects him to repeat that once-in-a-lifetime performance and no one ever did. What the Eagles wanted from Vick in 2011 was to evolve a bit as a top-level quarterback -- to assume more responsibility for the offense, not to mention the ball and his own body. Vick has undeniable athletic talent of a sort no one else in the league could ever dream. But what he has yet to do is take that critical next step that transforms quarterback talent into quarterback success.

The quarterbacks who become great in the NFL are the ones who treat the position as a craft to be perpetually honed and refined. Vick had that opportunity in 2011 as a clear starter on a team that surrounded him with brilliant weapons. At the urging of new offensive line coach Howard Mudd, who prefers things to work this way, Vick was for the first time in his Eagles career given the responsibility of calling the protection at the line of scrimmage -- of reading the defense before the snap and calling out the assignments for the linemen based on what he saw. At the beginning of the year, it caused confusion, as one might expect. But even as the year went on, Vick struggled to get in sync with his line.

Part of that is the style with which he plays -- running around behind the line, determined to keep plays alive past a point at which most quarterbacks would have thrown the ball out of bounds. But that's part of this responsibility theme, too. Part of Vick's maturation as a quarterback needs to include knowing what he should and shouldn't try -- and when. If he becomes more responsible about knowing the right and wrong times to take chances, that'll help his protection, his turnovers and his health.

And he has to take care of those last two things above all else. No team can afford to turn the ball over as much as the Eagles in did in 2011, and the Eagles can't afford to play without Vick. As proud as they are of their draft, last year's free agency and the depth of talent on their roster, they're not a contender if Mike Kafka or Nick Foles or Trent Edwards is the guy taking the snaps for an extended period of time. Just as they weren't a contender last year when Young was under center. The Eagles' offense is built around Vick and must run through him or it's not going to operate on the level required of a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

So the pressure on Vick isn't just to win -- it's to be responsible. To think more carefully about his throws and his other on-field decisions. To keep the big picture in mind. If he can do this -- if he can take these next critical steps in his development as a quarterback, even at the age of 32, Vick is good enough to cash in his opportunity. He's good enough to pilot an offense that has Jackson and Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy to playoff glory. He's good enough to come up with that signature game-winning fourth-quarter drive his résumé still lacks. He's got the talent and he's got everything in place around him to help him succeed. But once the curtain goes up on this 2012 season, it's going to be on Vick himself to make sure he does. It may well be the best and last chance he ever gets.
The Philadelphia Eagles used their second pick of the sixth round (No. 30 in the round, No. 200 overall) to select Miami offensive lineman Brandon Washington. He played tackle last year at Miami but guard the two years prior to that, and the Eagles announced him as a guard, which is where he projects to play in the NFL. At 6-foot-3, 320 pounds, he feels a little big for a Howard Mudd guard. But perhaps his experience at guard and tackle is part of the appeal for a team that was looking to add bench depth behind its offensive line starters.

As we wrote when the Eagles picked tackle Dennis Kelly in the fifth round, the Eagles allow Mudd to have some say in deciding who they pick at the offensive line spots, and he tends to like a certain kind of player with which he believes he can work. Under Mudd, the Eagles' offensive linemen have to be quick and athletic to get out and block from a position upfield from the one in which they start, and maybe they saw something on tape with Washington that made him think he'd take to it.
We have reached the add-depth portion of the NFL draft, and the Philadelphia Eagles have added some depth -- not to mention height -- at a position of need. With the 18th pick in the fifth round (No. 153 overall), the Eagles took Purdue tackle Dennis Kelly, who is 6-foot-8 and 304 pounds. Kelly moves into the backup offensive line mix following the injury to starting left tackle Jason Peters and the signing of new starter Demetress Bell and the re-signing of backup tackle King Dunlap.

Kelly is a project lineman, but the project lineman that offensive line coach Howard Mudd got in the sixth round last year was Jason Kelce, who emerged as the Eagles' starting center last summer and held that position all year. So Kelly becomes Mudd's next developmental guy, and the speed with which he picks up Mudd's blocking schemes will determine how quickly he can be a contributor on the line for the Eagles.
The Philadelphia Eagles announced Friday that star left tackle Jason Peters ruptured his right Achilles tendon while training earlier this week and will have surgery Monday to repair it. This is a crushing blow for an Eagles team that believed its offensive line would be a strength in 2012. The Eagles didn't announce a timetable for recovery, but it's safe to assume that Peters will miss most and possibly all of the 2012 season.

Ponder
Peters
Peters is one of the very best tackles in the NFL and will be nearly impossible to replace. But replace him they must. They re-signed free-agent King Dunlap to a one-year contract Friday, which will help because he's their best backup tackle. But Dunlap doesn't project as a 16-game starter for a team with championship dreams, so they'll have to look at other options.

They have two second-round picks in addition to the 15th overall pick in the first round of next month's draft, so it's possible they could package some picks and move up in the draft to get someone like Iowa's Riley Reiff. The Minnesota Vikings have indicated a desire to trade out of the No. 3 spot in the draft, so if the Eagles wanted to really get crazy, they could trade all the way up there and pick USC's Matt Kalil.

But those are big deals and tough to pull off, and the Eagles' efforts to make such a move likely would be hampered by the fact that everyone now knows they need a tackle. So they're more likely to look at other options. The best remaining tackle on the free-agent market is Demetrius Bell, who's had offers from teams to play right tackle but may have been holding out for a left tackle job (or at least left-tackle money). The Eagles have the cap room to sign someone like Bell, and if Peters were to come back during the season or next year they'd have impressive depth at tackle.

Regardless of what they do, the Eagles will be hurt by this. Peters was one of the few reliable players they had in 2011, and because he's so good and so athletic in a division that features so many great edge pass-rushers, his was a spot that inspired supreme confidence -- not just a lack of concern. The Eagles had planned to return their entire 2011 offensive line intact, and now the other four members of it will have to get used to a new left tackle, and whoever the new left tackle is will have to get used to them and to Howard Mudd's unique blocking schemes. Won't be easy, but it now becomes one of the major offseason issues facing the Eagles.

Eagles could lose Evan Mathis

March, 15, 2012
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Evan Mathis was one of the pleasant surprises of the Philadelphia Eagles' 2011 season. Picked up in one of their least-trumpeted offseason transactions, he stepped into the starting left guard job in training camp and performed as one of the top guards in the entire league. He learned Howard Mudd's blocking schemes quickly and provided reliability and leadership on the offensive line. The Eagles would like to have him back.

Mathis
But the Eagles have not been paying attention to unrestricted free agents -- even the ones who could be on the way out of their own locker room. Defensive end Juqua Parker signed with the Browns on Thursday. And as Jamison Hensley tells us in his daily AFC North wrap-up, Mathis could be closing in on a new deal with the Baltimore Ravens.
"I think it's a good fit," Mathis told the Carroll County (Md.) Times. "We had a good meeting."

Asked if a deal is imminent, Mathis said: "We're not at that point yet."

Now, just because Mathis is gong to dinner with the Ravens doesn't mean the Eagles are out of it. First of all, Baltimore's only about an hour's drive from Philadelphia, so he could easily get back and see the Eagles on Friday even if he wakes up in Baltimore. Second, he played for the Eagles this year, so it's not a place he'd have to visit before signing. And third, these things can be handled on the phone. But the fact that the Ravens are putting a big push on, and that Mathis is talking so positively about them, makes you think the Eagles are in danger of losing a key piece of their very good 2011 offensive line. And with the top guards on the market already having signed elsewhere, they could have a hard time finding a sufficient replacement.
The Philadelphia Eagles announced Saturday that they had "released" secondary coach Johnie Lynn, which on its face isn't a surprising move. The Eagles had a disappointing season, the defense's propensity for allowing big plays was a major reason why, and as Eagles head coach Andy Reid surveys his personnel -- coaches and players alike -- it's reasonable to expect some tinkering.

But the move with Lynn leads one to wonder what else might be coming. Former Eagles defensive assistant Steve Spagnuolo, who won a Super Bowl four years ago as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator, was just fired as head coach of the St. Louis Rams and is looking for work. The Eagles' defensive coordinator is Juan Castillo, who this time last year was their offensive line coach and did in fact look overmatched at times in his first season on the defensive side of the ball. But Castillo is a longtime member of Reid's staff, and even if they are looking to upgrade at coordinator with someone more accomplished, such as Spagnuolo, it's likely the Eagles would just want to fire Castillo and make him the scapegoat, considering the difficult position in which Reid put him.

It's also unlikely that they could give Castillo his old job back. He was replaced at offensive line coach by Howard Mudd, and even if Mudd decided to move back into retirement, things wouldn't be so simple. Mudd installed completely new blocking schemes and techniques that bear little resemblance to what Castillo was coaching before Mudd replaced him. The Eagles' linemen bought in completely to Mudd's teachings and performed well, and it's likely that, even if Mudd were to leave (and there's no reason to believe he would, other than his health), they'd likely want to continue to teach and practice Mudd's technique.

So if, hypothetically, the Eagles want to hire Spagnuolo (or anyone else) to replace Castillo as defensive coordinator, and if they don't want to fire Castillo, they'll need a place to put him. There is now an opening at secondary coach, so you know ... just sayin'. Worth paying attention to, especially if Reid is planning more changes down the line on his defensive staff.

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