Saturday, January 30, 2010

Seven (Semi-Controversial) Steps to a Super Bowl Title for the Philadelphia Eagles

NFC Championship: Philadelphia Eagles v Arizona Cardinals

Now that some proverbial grass has grown under our feet since the season ended, it becomes easier to make an assessment of the Philadelphia Eagles. Objectivity tends to increase as the raw nerves quiet down and the disappointment fades from this season's crash landing in Dallas.

Make no mistake, though, Eagles fans are still painfully aware of the cruel hidden crater that suddenly enveloped what seemed to be a promising season. In the relative blink of an eye, an NFC East title and a no. 2 playoff seed became a return trip for the no. 6 playoff entrant to battle the division champion Cowboys.

Besides the postseason degree of difficulty being substantially raised, the beating imparted by the Cowboys in the regular season finale also pierced the Eagles bubble of confidence. And, importantly, when the Cowboys pretty much administered a deja vu encore performance six days later in the playoffs, it exposed the Eagles flaws for everyone to see.

The bottom line is that the Eagles were not as good as they appeared when they were reeling off six straight wins and positioning themselves to win the NFC East. However, the gap they need to close to make them a true Super Bowl contender is not the wide chasm that seemed to be ripped open in Dallas.

Many in the Philadelphia media and Eagles fanbase have already concluded that the situation calls for profound changes. Some have suggested that it is time for the team to move in a totally different direction and launch into a re-building phase.

Of course, the most consistent themes involve moving on from Andy Reid and/or Donovan McNabb. To a certain degree, this comes with the territory of their respective roles as the two most influential individuals in the organization's quest for the ever elusive Lombardi Trophy, but it also glosses over what might actually get it done.

Followers of the NFL over the past decade know that the Eagles have been flirting with a championship, having advanced to the NFC Championship Game five times and the Super Bowl once over that time frame. They persist in their arduous journey, but can't seem to land at their destination.

Contrary to popular consensus, I remain in the camp that says the best path to a Super Bowl title is to finish paving the existing road rather than take a jack hammer to it and start all over again. With that in mind, here are my seven steps to bringing the Lombardi Trophy to Philadelphia.

1. Sign Sheldon Brown to an extension.

Sheldon Brown had arguably his best season and is an important cog in the Eagles defensive scheme. Additionally, he serves as a role model for younger players with his mental and physical toughness.

The team has no one prepared to step into a starting cornerback role. A creative reworking of Brown's contract to secure him for three years and reward Brown for his commitment and contributions would ensure the necessary cornerback tandem to run the Jim Johnson scheme as well as send a positive message throughout the locker room.

2. Trade Michael Vick before the draft.

During the regular season, Michael Vick made it clear that he still desires a chance at being a starting quarterback in the NFL. The Eagles should accommodate him and extract something of value for their mostly failed experiment this season. There are several teams around the league who desperately need a quarterback and Philadelphia still holds an option on the former Pro Bowler for next season.

It was clear that teams around the league had interest in him last summer when the Eagles shocked the football and animal lover world by inking him to a deal. Since then, Vick has only enhanced his value by staying out of trouble, displaying a more humble, team oriented approach and flashing his pre-incarceration talents late in the season.

It is reasonable to assume that teams such as the Bills, Panthers, Browns, Raiders, Rams, Redskins or Bucs would take a shot on him for a 2nd or 3rd round draft choice considering there are so few options. With yesterday's news from Kurt Warner, you can add the Cardinals to the mix since Matt Leinert has done little to evoke confidence- and, of course, it would seem wise for the Vikings to acquire an insurance policy while they wait out the annual Brett Favre watch.

3. Acquire hard hitting free safety through the draft or free agency.

The Cowboys highlighted the tremendous void created by the departure of Brian Dawkins and the lack of hitters in the Eagles secondary. The 'Boys almost made a mockery of the situation by relentlessly running slants and curls back-to-back weeks because no one feared going across the middle. It was so bad that Roy Williams actually looked like the player Jerry Jones thought he was acquiring.

In addition to the impact on pass defense, a hard hitting free safety would also be highly beneficial in run support. The Eagles defensive style works best with a free safety who can come up to the line to blitz and stick running backs.

Because it appears that a new Collective Bargaining Agreement will not be in place, some potential free agent candidates such as the Packers Nick Collins, the Colts Antoine Bethea and the Rams O.J. Atogwe will become restricted. This makes a signing less likely, so using a high pick to draft a safety seems imperative.

USC's Taylor Mays, Georgia Tech's Morgan Burnett, Georgia's Reshad Jones and LSU's Chad Jones fit the mold and all may be available in the second round. Florida State's Myron Rolle would be an ideal addition due to his intelligence, leadership skills and overall athelticism. Tennessee's Eric Berry and Earl Thomas are the most athletic and highest rated safeties on the board, but would represent a trade off for ballhawking skills.

4. Veer away from team philosophy to draft a quality every down linebacker.

Overall, the best thing that can happen for the Eagles defense next season would be the return of Stewart Bradley. He was evolving into a leader and a force on the football field prior to going down with a knee injury before training camp officially began. Along with the departure of Dawkins, his absence had profound impact on the Eagles defensive schemes and struggles throughout the season.

Bradley possesses every down skills capable of stuffing the run and dropping into coverage that could not be replaced by anyone on the Eagles roster and was routinely exploited by opponents. This was especially true with the Dallas Cowboys in the final two games as they repeatedly ran audibles based on the skill sets of the Eagles personnel on the field.

History suggests that it takes almost a full season for players to fully recover from major knee surgery and regain their former level of play. Accordingly, the Eagles would be wise to sign a free agent or use a high pick to draft another scheme-diverse linebacker to go along with Bradley.

Unrestricted free agent Karlos Dansby would be a great addition, and at 29, would still be within the strike zone of organizational philosophy. The draft offers only one sure fire prospect worth selecting in the first round in Alabama's Rolando McClain; however, there are several players such as Florida's Brandon Spikes available in rounds 2-3.

A high pick obtained for Vick would help give the Eagles the maneuverability and/or depth of picks to be able to get a safety and linebacker who could make an immediate impact. The team already has four picks in the first three rounds, so filling weaknesses in the secondary and at linebacker, while also being able to take at least one best available player on the board, is well within their reach.

5. Rework Brian Westbrook's contract and go back to the future.

Since their season ended, many media reports and talk show hosts have suggested that Brian Westbrook's days are over in Philadelphia. This has been based upon his injury history, his lack of use in the Wild Card Game and the current terms of his contract.

More simply put, the consensus is that Westbrook will not be worth $7.25 million with continuing ankle, knee and head trauma issues. For his part, Westbrook has not indicated that he wants to retire or leave the team.

The best solution for the Eagles is to go back to the future. The team should return Westbrook to the same specialty back role in which he had been highly successful early in his career and renegotiate the terms of his contract accordingly.

By paying him -and- playing him less, it would be the ultimate win-win. Westbrook could avoid the beating and accumulated toll on his body, while extending and finishing his career with the Eagles. In return, the team would get an explosive back adept at running draws, catching balls out of the backfield and blocking- as well as retain a respected team leader.

LeSean McCoy, Leonard Weaver and newly signed Martell Mallett can do the heavy lifting. Westbrook would provide the perfect complement if used in a more limited capacity that would keep him fresh.

6. Shore up and set the offensive line before training camp.

Heading into training camp, the Eagles as well as outside experts felt that offensive line would be a particular strength. After letting veterans Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas walk via free agency, the team signed Stacy Andrews and traded for Jason Peters. With former Pro Bowler Shawn Andrews returning from injury, there was reason for optimism.

Unfortunately, things started to go awry from the outset and the team was forced into a game of musical chairs across the offensive front all season. The brothers (Shawn taking another sabbatical and Stacy never finding his form) provided nothing to the team, others were dinged up and center Jamaal Jackson suffered a season ending knee injury in December.

The Eagles cannot afford to head into training camp with any uncertainty regarding the Andrews Brothers. Over the next few months, the team needs to use whatever means necessary (including behavioral analysis, Rorschach testing or a "Wipe Out" obstacle course) to make a definitive call whether these two players are in or out.

If the latter, they need to move on quickly. The best course of action would be to stray from organizational practice in the Andy Reid era and sign a seasoned veteran as a stop gap measure for 1-2 years. The Titans Kevin Mawae or Packers Chad Clifton are two potential free agents that come to mind that could be integrated with a little creativity. Think of pulling a reverse Runyan or Thomas.

7. Extend McNabb and let him finish the job.

Alright, why not save the best and most controversial step for last? The clamor about trading Donovan McNabb has been hot and heavy since the twin meltdowns in Dallas.

Between his lack of production in those games, the same absence of a Super Bowl Championship as all of the previous Eagles signal callers, his press conference performances and his pre-game air guitar stylings- consensus amongst the Philadelphia media and fanbase seems to lean towards launching the Kevin Kolb era.

Speculation about Warner and Favre retiring has only served to ramp up these discussions since McNabb would appear to be a great replacement on each of those teams. Of course, the fact that football pundits throughout the country see him as an ideal fit on these Super Bowl contenders is the exact reason that the Eagles should not let him go.

Unless the Eagles are convinced that they will not be able to field a team around him that is strong enough to win, it would be crazy to part ways. Kolb appears to be one of the better back-ups in the league, but it is a pipe dream to think that he will become a franchise quarterback.

Now that Warner has officially announced his retirement, it is doubtful that Philadelphians would suggest that Arizona break up their team and start from scratch. And, they didn't win the Super Bowl with Warner, but you would be hard pressed to find Cardinals fans who believe they have a better shot with Leinert.

Interestingly, though, they covet McNabb. The Eagles have him, along with the same type of nucleus that could land the Lombardi Trophy, so why not finish the job in Philly?

The gap between the current Eagles team and being a true Super Bowl contender can very reasonably be closed heading into next season. Seven relatively simple and semi-controversial steps is all it will take. The Eagles are close- its no time to turn back now.

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