The Philadelphia Eagles' take-no-prisoners approach to free agency has raised eyebrows and drawn comparisons to an NBA team known for amassing free-agent talent last year.
"I feel like we are the Miami Heat of the NFL," newly-signed Eagles defensive end Jason Babin wrote on Twitter Saturday. "Except we win the final game."
Babin's proclamation is bold, but no bolder than the Eagles' moves since the lockout ended. The arrival of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie gives the Eagles one of the top cornerback duos in the league, and if Asante Samuel stays with the team the Eagles will have better depth at corner than anyone in the league.
Babin and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins joined the Eagles as well, and will play under the league's best defensive line coach, Jim Washburn, who the Eagles hired in January. On the offensive side of the ball, the Eagles added underrated depth by signing receiver Johnnie Lee Higgins and tight end Donald Lee.
Eagles president Joe Banner admitted the Eagles' mentality approaching the season was "all-in," per Tim McManus of Philadelphia Sports Daily.
"We must win a Super Bowl to feel satisfied with the season," Banner said. "There's a big focus on relieving the stress and pain of having been so close so many times and not winning it all. We're very focused on getting that knot out of our stomachs."
With such candor about the loftiness of their expectations, the Eagles are welcoming the pressure that accompanies being the team to beat. Of course, the NFL's answer to the Miami Heat wouldn't be complete without football's wanna-be LeBron James. The Eagles added former Titans quarterback Vince Young to their roster Friday night to be Vick's backup. Young referred to his signing as part of the Eagles' development into what he called a "dream team" in a media session Saturday.
"From Nnamdi [Asomugha] to [Dominique Rodgers] Cromartie, to Jason [Babin] to myself," Young said. "I know they are going to do some more things. It's just beautiful to see where we're trying to go."
Being Vick's backup is the perfect opportunity for Young to shut up, play really well when Vick gets hurt and misses a game or two, and get a big contract next year. Instead, his first move when he got to Philadelphia was to continue shooting off his mouth and showing he still lacks the maturity that has been his biggest question mark throughout his career.
No NFL player can fill the LeBron James role as fittingly as Young does. Like James, Young is by far the most physically gifted player in his league. He has prototypical quarterback size and running back speed, a dangerous combination, and the strides he took as a passer in 2010 were remarkable.
However, it is much tougher to dominate with talent alone in the NFL than it is in the NBA. Young's lack of dedication to improving his craft has caused him to fail to live up to his potential at this point in his career. With only flashes of James-like athletic dominance, Young is known more for making James-like proclamations of greatness, without a résumé to justify such talk.
If Vick gets hurt and Young plays well in his relief, can Andy Reid trust Young to quietly return to the bench without raising a stink about who should be the starter? At this point, the answer to that question is no. Although having Young in the fold minimizes the on-field ramifications of an injury to Vick, the locker-room drama that comes when Young doesn't get his way can derail a promising team.
Conflict between Young and former Titans coach Jeff Fisher took a 5-2 Titans squad to a disappointing 1-8 finish. By signing Young, the Eagles ensured they would not have to throw the entire game plan out the window if Vick gets hurt. On the other hand, they also assumed the risk of the wheels falling off of their season when Young tells his coach "I'm walking out on your motherf------ ass."
The likelihood of quarterback drama doesn't change the staggering amount of talent the Eagles have gathered this off-season. Without a doubt, the road to the Super Bowl runs through Philadelphia in the NFC. Teams need to be assembling their rosters now with an eye on escaping Lincoln Financial Field with a win in January.
The Green Bay Packers recognized the necessity of building their roster to beat the Eagles, signing fullback John Kuhn to a three-year contract. Fullbacks and tight ends across the league should be happy about the Eagles' offseason moves, because their value increased when Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie landed in Philadelphia.
Whether Samuel stays with the Eagles or not, the Eagles' 4-2-5 nickel package will put a better combination of players on the field than their base 4-3. Putting two running backs and one tight end, known as 21 personnel, on the field forces the Eagles out of their nickel package and makes them expose their Achilles heel, their linebackers.
Even if the Eagles get their hands on free agent middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, the rest of the team's linebacking corps sorely lacks depth and experience. For this reason, smart offensive coordinators will use 21 personnel and rely on the running game to defeat the Eagles.
Running against a Washburn-coached line is a safer bet than passing. Washburn spreads his line wider than any other defensive line coach in the league. The result of such a wide line is the ability to generate a ferocious pass rush, but leaves linebackers with the responsibility of closing off running lanes. When the linebacking corps is the weakest part of the defense, Washburn's line scheme leaves the linebackers vulnerable to the run.
Jenkins, a massive gap-clogger in Green Bay, will aid the Eagles' run defense, but he can be negated with savvy planning. Lining up in the I-formation with 21 personnel allows the quarterback to motion the tight end to make the offense's strong side whatever side of the line Jenkins is not occupying. Doing so allows the center and weak-side guard to double-team Jenkins, while the weak-side offensive tackle matches up against the weak-side defensive end.
The offense can then run a variety of run plays to the strong side, with both the fullback and the tight end lead blocking for the running back. If the Eagles' defense starts putting a safety on the line of scrimmage to aid in run support, the offensive coordinator can start calling pass plays that leave the fullback and tight end matched up against linebackers; a match-up the Eagles will struggle to win.
Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie will stymie opponents' attempts to keep pace with the Eagles by scoring through the air. As a result, engaging the Eagles in a shootout is a recipe for failure. The best way to outscore Philadelphia is not to match its aerial production, but to keep its offensive weapons on the sideline for as long as possible.
Of course, not every team has the personnel or the offensive creativity to execute such a game plan. Beating the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011 will be a tough task. However, a ball-control game plan leaning heavily on 21 personnel exploits defensive match-ups against the Eagles and limits their offense's opportunities to score, providing the best chance of handing the "dream team" a rude awakening.
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