Monday, January 18, 2010

The Philadelphia Eagles Must Learn from Brian Dawkins to Win a Super Bowl

Broncos vs. Eagles

Ten days ago, the Philadelphia Eagles concluded yet another season with the bitter disappointment of unfulfilled Super Bowl aspirations. After 43 years in the NFL's Super Bowl Era, the Eagles remain one of fifteen teams that have never taken home the Lombardi Trophy. Much will be debated in the 2009-2010 postmortem, but this year's failure arguably traces back to one fateful decision last offseason.

Surely, winning a Super Bowl is a lofty goal and a daunting task. Each year, only 1 of the league's 32 teams realizes this dream. Or, expressed another way, all things equal at the outset of a season, each team has a paltry 3% chance to be holding the trophy at the end. From a historical perspective, it is somewhat staggering to see that just eight teams have garnered 72% of the 42 Super Bowl Championships to date.

So, you can see, the Eagles and their fans have a great deal of company, but this offers no solace in Philly. Misery may love company, but not in this city. Considering the teams loyal and passionate fan base, and the Eagles multiple flirtations with greatness over the past decade, the dismay, distress and disenchantment tends to be much more intense amongst this team's fan base.

Over the past ten years during the Andy Reid/ Donovan McNabb generation, the Eagles stoked fans hopes by advancing to the NFC Championship Game five times and the Super Bowl once, but failed to be the one team spraying champagne when all was said and done. Prior to 2000, although disappointment was abundant, fans had little opportunity to feel the anticipation of winning it all as the Eagles only made it as far as the Championship Game and Super Bowl in that magical 1980 season under Dick Vermeil.

When put into this historical perspective, the Eagles' success over the past decade is in marked contrast to the prior period- in a very positive way. It is not even close. Clearly, owner Jeffrey Lurie and his regime have done a remarkable job of transforming the Eagles organization into a perennial contender that is the envy of many franchises around the league.

A significant part of that metamorphosis relates to the work of Reid and the quarterback he chose to lead the way on the field. But, like any successful business or entity, a good deal of it traces to the organizational philosophies and practices that are put into place. Some are highly apparent and some are subtle, albeit influential. These run the gamut from risk taking to decision making to salary administration to continuity and more.

One philosophy that has governed the team is to catch players on their upside and avoid investing in those who's skills may diminish over the contractual horizon. Surely, there is some sensibility to this approach, especially when viewed superficially.

Why not always get the most bang for your buck? Some previous Eagles regimes have been guilty of the opposite, hanging onto and tying up valuable cap space with veterans whose skills had clearly diminished. Sustainability is always a delicate balance.

When viewed against this back drop, the current philosophy towards players advancing in age has served the organization moderately well. Of course, it is often conjecture in terms of how a departed player would have performed.

This season began with great promise in Philadelphia, but the team's fateful decision at the end of last February may have doomed the season all along. It was then that they allowed fan favorite and now seven time All-Pro Brian Dawkins to be lured away from the organization that has been his professional home for his entire accomplished career.

In the case of Dawkins, the folly of letting him walk is validated in many different ways and clearly evident to die hard Eagles fans. His addition propelled the Broncos defense to the top of the NFL rankings after being one of the worst a season ago. Players, coaches, fans and writers around the league recognized his still abundant talents and contributions by naming him to this year's Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams.

More locally, as the Eagles progressed through the regular season, and then were dismantled by the Cowboys in back-to-back games, the impact of Dawkins' absence became painfully apparent. The 'Boys repeatedly loped across the middle of the field on slants and curls. They took advantage of the Eagles shoddy tackling with bubble screens and draws.

These tactics were relatively rare with the specter of Dawkins jacking up receivers who dared to go there or hurdling forward in run support to level running backs. Besides making opponents cast a wary eye to always account for him, Dawkins set a tone and raised the bar for the rest of the Eagles defenders. His leadership was sorely missed from the season's opening kickoff through their somber exit in Dallas.

Lurie, Reid, Joe Banner and the Eagles organization need to learn from this regrettable decision not to sign the team's spiritual and emotional leader for the previous dozen years. In retrospect, it has become abundantly clear how big a role Dawkins has played in the new millennium success. Players of Dawkins caliber are few and far between- and especially rare when they are also undeniable leaders and role models.

The current Eagles regime has crafted a winning philosophy and approach, but must extract wisdom from its most recent failings. Rather than remain steadfast in its approach to aging veterans, particularly team icons such as Dawkins, the team needs to recognize that exceptions are always warranted. The sum total of some player's worth to the team is more than just his physical talents.

One can only hope that this administration realizes its major faux pas in letting Dawk finish his career in any other uniform than midnight green. Adjusting some of the policies and practices that have gotten them to the precipice is critical to get them over the hump to ultimately realize that ever elusive championship. The first litmus test will be their handling of Sheldon Brown and Brian Westbrook this offseason.

Lurie and crew would be wise to cast an eye across the street to get a chemistry lesson from the Phillies. The two neighboring teams have shared similar histories, but have taken divergent paths of late with the city's baseball team capturing a World Series title in 2008 and coming close again in 2009.

Somewhere along the way, the Phillies organization realized the secret recipe combines talent, attitude, mental toughness and leadership. Dawkins brought all of the above to the Eagles- and would have been worth every penny that it would have taken to keep him. And, I can not help but think, if not for this regrettable decision eleven months ago, this season might have ended very differently.

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