Call it the “Dream Team,” call it a “dynasty,” or simply call it a team that has yet to cash in on its potential.
For the second year in a row, a comment from an Eagles quarterback has brought attention to the one thing missing from head coach, executive vice president of football operations, and de facto sultan Andy Reid’s resume: a Super Bowl win.
As the Eagles arrive to camp this season, they had experienced a relatively quiet free-agency period. Last year’s offseason was spent acquiring big names: Nnamdi Asomugha, Vince Young, Jason Babin, Ronnie Brown and Cullen Jenkins. This season, by contrast, has been fairly quiet, other than quarterback Michael Vick’s dynastic aspirations.
Three questions must be answered in order to determine whether the Eagles will back up Michael Vick’s bold statements.
If they flop again, Philadelphia’s recent front-office changes might make their way down to the once-untouchable Reid. He has been handed complete oversight of his team, and therefore will shoulder all repercussions for failure, along with any accolades for success.
Will Mike Vick show enough this season for the Eagles keep him through the end of his contract?
After taking over the starting quarterback position in 2010, Vick responded by posting a quarterback efficiency rating of 100.2 and a touchdown to interception ratio of 25:6. He began the 2011 season with a promise to become a better pocket passer.
With concern regarding his already-declining speed and the greater longevity derived from a well-rounded game, the stage was set for the continuing development of the new-look Michael Vick.
Playing under heightened expectations, Vick made poor decisions and his play regressed. He posted an 84.9 rating and even more telling was his 18:14 touchdown to interception ratio. Vick was making poor decisions and demonstrated the same deficiency in pre-snap reads and anticipation.
It was a strong indictment that he had hit his ceiling and will only continue his regression upon his inevitable physical decline.
Already the Eagles have taken steps to mask his deficiencies at the line of scrimmage, taking the responsibilities of pre-snap blocking assignments out of Vick’s hands and charging them to center Jason Kelce. Although Vick has veto power over the calls, the Eagles are taking an essential quarterbacking duty away from Vick. The goal is to allow him to process only the pass coverage and make better decisions.
Since blocking assignments are dependent upon reading the safeties’ pre-snap alignment, Vick has a much better vantage point to read them. If a center, whose view is obstructed, can make better pre-snap reads than Vick, then that might be the final straw in the long debate regarding Vick’s evolution as a pocket passer.
Over the course of his career, Reid has shown that he will not hesitate to pull the trigger on a quarterback change. The secret to his longevity is to make shrewd, sentiment-free football decisions.
With Vick’s $100 million contract being in reality worth much less than advertised, the Eagles are in the position to rid themselves of him whenever necessary. Reid will maximize the remaining years of Vick’s productivity, and then cut the cord before he falls too far.
When Mike Vick goes down, who will step in, and how will that affect Vick’s future in Philly?
With his lengthy history of coaching up quarterbacks just to flip them for draft picks, what tricks might Reid have up his sleeve with his current stable of signal callers? Who will go the way of Kevin Kolb, Donovan McNabb and A.J. Feely: traded for a second-day draft pick?
For team with a quarterback who only once played a complete season, back-up quarterback is an important position in Philadelphia. With Vick all but guaranteed to miss some time with injuries, the back-up quarterback needs to be capable of sustaining any playoff hopes in spot starts.
Northwestern product Mike Kafka spent some time in relief last season and lived up to his scouting report: cerebral quarterback with a very weak arm. Luckily for Kafka, the Eagles’ timing-based offense partially overcame his deficiencies in arm strength. During camp, the Eagles are working on changing his grip on the football, which is reportedly increasing his velocity.
His steady play will allow him to beat out free-agent signing Trent Edwards as a back-up. Edwards was unable to unseat the hideously inaccurate Kyle Boller in Oakland last season, leading to his cut-down-day release. Edwards will suffer a similar fate in Philly.
Third round draft selection Nick Foles is the bridge to the future. He has a strong arm, with the zip to drive throws outside the numbers. He displays great touch on deep throws, above-average accuracy, and, although slow, does not experience a drop-off while throwing on the run. He is alert in the pocket and avoids pressure while keeping his eyes downfield.
Why would such a great arm talent was still available in the third round? His game needs refining.
While he is an accurate thrower, he must display a greater anticipation and throw his receivers open. He can fit passes into tight windows, but does not read coverage as well as a pro quarterback must. In short, he is the perfect project for the quarterback guru in Reid.
A few years still remain before the pounding that Vick has taken over the course of his career begins to erode his physical skills. That should provide the perfect window for Foles to develop into a productive starter for the Eagles. While the development of Kafka reeks of the smoke-and-mirrors coaching up of sub-par quarterbacks like Feely into second-round draft picks, Foles has the talent to become Reid’s next star.
While Reid’s history as a quarterback guru bodes well for Foles’s future, his development is dependent on the continued presence of Reid. A new coach prefers his own.
Are Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo coaching to keep their jobs next season?
Reid, who, like Bill Belichick, is not afraid to make unconventional decisions, has quietly filled in holes on his roster this year through the draft, a singularly-minded decision making process, and quietly executed underrated trades and signings. Although the Eagles came out of the gates slowly last season, the team gelled down the stretch and was briefly in the running for the NFC East title. This coincided with a defense that finally grew comfortable in its new scheme.
The move to promote highly respected offensive line coach Juan Castillo to defensive coordinator, his first stint on that side of the ball, brought Reid’s decision-making under fire.
Castillo installed a new system with long-time defensive line coach Jim Washburn’s wide-9 alignment and that drastic of a change by an inexperienced coordinator was rightfully questioned.
While Washburn’s pass rushers excel in the wide-9 technique, which focuses on penetration and pressure, Castillo did effectively compliment the team’s best unit. An effective coordinator tailors a system to the strengths of his players. With an inexperienced linebacking corps, Castillo mis-cast the personnel needed to compliment the penetrating defensive front.
This system puts a great amount of pressure on linebackers, as defensive ends line up aligned to the extreme outside, in a sprinter’s four-point stance, in a singular mission to get upfield.
With a mandate of shedding blocks and playing disciplined in their run fits, Castillo threw rookies Casey Matthews and and Brandon Rolle in the deep end before they fully learned how to swim at the pro level. Both nearly drowned, but Rolle surfaced down the stretch with flashes of playmaking ability.
Despite the improved play with Jamar Chaney moving to the middle, the trade to acquire DeMeco Ryans was essential to Castillo’s success. Slowed last season after recovering from an Achilles tear, Ryans will return to form and provide the thumping presence in the middle that the defense desperately needs.
This allows Matthews to continue to improve as a situational outside linebacker on passing downs, spelling rookie Mychal Kendricks. Chaney moves back to his natural position at weak-side linebacker, where he will compete with Rolle to start.
The potential beneficiary another trade, this one sending cornerback Asante Samuel to the Falcons, is Nnamdi Asomugha.
Asomugha was forced to play zone defense for the first time in his career after joining the Eagles and he played awkwardly. He had made his name in press-man coverage, and playing in zone coverage negates the qualities that made him such an attractive free agent.
A positive sign of Castillo’s improvement will be shown if he tailors his defense to take advantage of his cornerback’s strengths. Playing mostly man coverage would put Asomugha in a position to return to the shutdown-cornerback level that he was at in Oakland.
Acquired in the Kevin Kolb trade, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was another cornerback forced to play out of position last season. With the crowded depth chart, DRC was forced to play the slot and struggled.
With Samuel gone, Rodgers-Cromartie and his long, 6-foot-2 frame will move back to the outside cornerback position, where he is better equipped to guard the sidelines. He would also benefit from a switch to man coverage with his size and speed.
By trailing in the receiver’s hip pocket, Rodgers-Cromartie uses his blend of size and closing speed to position himself between the receiver and the ball. Covering smaller, shiftier slot receivers on underneath routes was a misuse of his talents.
It remains to be seen whether Castillo has the ability coaching the defensive side of the ball to succeed with the wealth of talent he possesses, but his unit’s steady improvement is an encouraging sign. Absent a complete turnaround, look for Castillo to be in the market for another job as an offensive line coach.
Reid will be back on the sidelines at Lincoln Financial Field in 2013 barring a complete meltdown. Famously tight-lipped and well-versed in the duality of coach speak, Reid surely has a plan to turn the Eagles into a dynasty. Just don’t count on hearing him say it.