If the Eagles don’t improve on their 8-8 slate of 2011, or fail to make the playoffs for a second straight year, head coach Andy Reid will likely not return for a 15th season.
Last NFL season started with the threat of a players’ lockout and the labeling of a veteran-laden Philadelphia Eagles squad as a “Dream Team” by an erstwhile Eagles’ backup quarterback. Three months later that same QB would throw four interceptions in a lopsided loss that dropped the Eagles’ record to 4-8. Four straight wins to close out the 2011 campaign could not undo what had already been deemed a season in ruins.
The Birds failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007 (earning a berth nine times in the last 12 years), and five of their eight losses were the result of blown fourth-quarter leads. Numbers-wise both their offense and defense ranked among the best in the league, but mistakes in crucial situations doomed them.
This year’s NFL season is starting with the looming reality of a referee lockout and one of the youngest Eagles’ rosters in their long history, including 10 rookies who never played a down in the NFL and 31 of their 53-man lineup with three seasons in the league or less. Enough veteran talent returns to make jelling together as a top contender a real possibility for the Birds — quarterback Mike Vick, receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, tight end Brent Celek and defensive end Trent Cole, running back LeSean McCoy and newly signed two-time Pro Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans being among the more notables — but owner Jeff Lurie made it clear in his Aug. 30 state-of-the-team media address that head coach Andy Reid would not be around after this season if the Eagles finished 8-8 (and/or failed to make the playoffs) again.
In that meeting Lurie emphasized that extending Reid’s contract during the season would not even enter into talks, and while sympathetic to the tragedy the coach endured over the summer with the death of his eldest son, Lurie asserted that personal and professional relationships must remain separate in the corporate world.
“I think [Reid] will always have our support,” said Lurie. “Everybody in this community, Andy will always have our sympathy and support. But this is a business. You are there to win and win big, and you have to separate the two. All of the analysis will be on Andy Reid the coach.”
The dawn of Reid’s 14th season lacks the theatrics of recent years at the quarterback spot, but it is not without drama entirely. Vick was injured in the preseason and, while a four-time Pro Bowler with excellent athletic skills, has only played through an entire 16-game regular season schedule once in nine years as a pro (six years with Atlanta, three with Philadelphia). His number-one backup going into the preseason was shaping up to be Mike Kafka, but Kafka broke his hand and Nick Foles showed incredible poise (40-for-63 passing for 553 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions) for a rookie drafted in the third round (out of the University of Arizona) to earn the backup spot. Kafka was released and Trent Edwards, a fifth-year NFL veteran out of Stanford, is the Eagles’ number-three signal caller.
Vick remains the key to the Eagles’ success, but staying injury-free has been an issue with him. Last year he showed flashes of the brilliance that defined his 2010 return to the NFL, but he had a career-high 14 interceptions last season (against 18 passing touchdowns), and only rushed for one TD (versus nine in 2010). The litmus test for the Eagles will be how they emerge from a six-game stretch starting Sept. 30, where they play five teams that were playoff contenders in 2011 (the Giants, Steelers, Lions, Falcons and Saints).
Along with tight end Celek (62 catches for 811 yards), wide receivers Jackson (58 for 961) and Maclin (63 for 859) were favorite targets who return, and leading rusher McCoy (1,309 yards on 273 carries) is also a receiving threat out of the backfield. The rest of the birds’ backfield is extremely young, including rookie running backs Bryce Brown out of Kansas State and Chris Polk out of Washington, and fullback Stanley Havili of USC is in just his second pro season. A veteran core of huge offensive linemen return in tackles King Dunlap (6-foot-9, 330 pounds), Todd Herremans (6-6, 321), Dennis Kelly (6-8, 321) and Demetress Bell (6-5, 311), and guards Evan Mathis (6-5, 302) and Danny Watkins (6-3, 310). Five-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters (6-4, 328) is a key offensive lineman still recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in May.
Ryans is a middle linebacker the Eagles acquired from Houston who averaged over 100 tackles per season in his first four years in the NFL, but suffered an Achilles tendon injury last year. The Eagles are banking on him being the impact player he was prior to the injury. The linebacker core also includes six-year veteran Akeem Jordon, second-year players Casey Matthews and Brian Rolle, and rookie Mychal Kendricks. Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is a 10-year veteran who shined for Oakland but thus far has not played up to expectations for the Birds. Veteran talent joining him in the defensive secondary are Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Brandon Hughes and Curtis Marsh. Three safeties each in their third seasons (Temple product Jaiquawn Jarrett is in his second year at safety) are Nate Allen, Colt Anderson and Kurt Coleman. Anderson, still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in week 13 of 2011, was the Eagles’ best player on special-teams punt coverage last year. Defensive tackles include veterans Cullen Jenkins (6-2, 305) and Derek Landri (6-2, 290), second-year player Cedrick Thornton (6-4, 309) and rookie Fletcher Cox out of Mississippi State (6-4, 298). Defensive end Jason Babin is one of the NFL’s top pass rushers, registering a career-high 18 sacks last year in his second straight Pro Bowl year, but has been sidelined since July 28 with a calf sprain. Fellow two-time Pro Bowler Cole is one of the best run-stopping defensive ends in the NFL.
Chas Henry is a second-year punter out of Florida who averaged 36.1 yards per kick, and second-year placekicker Alex Henery made 24 of his 27 field-goal attempts (88.9 percent, long of 51 yards) and was a perfect 46 of 46 on point-after-touchdown kicks.
2012 Philadelphia Eagles Schedule:
(Home games in CAPS)
• Sunday, Sept. 9 at Cleveland, 1pm
• Sunday, Sept. 16 vs. BALTIMORE, 1pm
• Sunday, Sept. 23 at Arizona, 4:05pm
• Sunday, Sept. 30 vs. NEW YORK GIANTS, 8:20pm
• Sunday, Oct. 7 at Pittsburgh, 1pm
• Sunday, Oct. 14 vs. DETROIT, 1pm
• Sunday, Oct. 21 Bye Week
• Sunday, Oct. 28 vs. ATLANTA, 1pm
• Monday, Nov. 5 at New Orleans, 8:30pm
• Sunday, Nov. 11 vs. DALLAS, 4:15pm
• Sunday, Nov. 18 at Washington, 1pm
• Monday, Nov. 26 vs. CAROLINA, 8:30pm
• Sunday, Dec. 2 at Dallas, 8:20pm
• Sunday, Dec. 9 at Tampa Bay, 1pm
• Thursday, Dec. 13 vs. CINCINNATI, 8:20pm
• Sunday, Dec. 23 vs. WASHINGTON, 1pm
• Sunday, Dec. 30 at New York Giants, 1pm
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