The 2016 season offered many of the same moves and, ultimately, feelings of optimism offered in 1999. The Eagles' new head coach (Andy Reid) used the second overall draft pick that spring to select a quarterback (Donovan McNabb) and return normalcy and a sense of organization to the team.
By season's end in '99, the Eagles felt they had a young, ascending quarterback in McNabb with a supporting cast that included pieces that would be vital to the team's rise in the seasons to come. There was hope after the bottoming-out of the Eagles in a 3-13 1998 campaign.
As we assess the Eagles of 2017, the similarities to 1999 are very apparent. Doug Pederson enters his second season as the head coach following a 7-9 first year that had its share of ups and downs, but in the end provided a feeling that the Eagles were "moving in the right direction," said safety Malcolm Jenkins, who, like cornerback Troy Vincent way back when, has a keen perspective of the state of the team. Carson Wentz, selected second overall in last April's draft, started 16 games at the quarterback position and left no doubt that he is a player on the rise and that the Eagles have a franchise-type player at the game's most important position.
And, after 2015's hit-rock-bottom level of dysfunction organizationally punctuated with the removal of head coach Chip Kelly, the Eagles have since stabilized the front office and feel as confident as they've felt in a long time that the current structure is sound and poised to make the right moves in the offseason ahead.
As we look ahead to an uncertain future of free agency and the 2017 NFL Draft, let's take a moment to see what the Eagles accomplished in that free agency period following the 1999 season. Reid and the Eagles laid the foundation in the first season together and took steps in the months that followed that propelled the Eagles into the postseason in 2000.
The most significant move the Eagles made came in February's free agency, and it provided immediate impact: the team signed right tackle Jon Runyan from Tennessee to a six-year contract that made him the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history.
"It was going to take something to get me out of Tennessee and here I am," Runyan said on the day he was introduced to the media. "There's a great feeling around here. The team is moving in the right direction. They stepped up and made the decision easy on the business end."
Signing Runyan started a successful offseason during which the Eagles hit on several key moves, some of them very much under the radar. They added defensive tackle Paul Grasmanis in free agency, and Grasmanis helped with defensive line depth through the 2005 season. In March, the Eagles signed linebacker Carlos Emmons from Pittsburgh to play the strongside position in Jim Johnson's defense. Emmons started for four seasons with the Eagles. They brought in long snapper Mike Bartrum from New England, and Bartrum became a rock-solid member of the special teams unit until he suffered an injury in the 2006 season that ended his career. Brian Mitchell, a nemesis as a member of the Washington Redskins, was signed to help the return game and add depth in the offensive backfield.
The draft included key pieces like defensive tackle Corey Simon and wide receiver Todd Pinkston (although the rest of the draft stunk frankly), and later brought in some players who helped – they traded for tight end Jeff Thomason, safety Tim Hauck was re-signed as a free agent, and defensive tackle Darwin Walker was claimed off of waivers from the Cardinals.
The Eagles also said goodbye to some players who had made an imprint on the franchise like Pro Bowl linebacker William Thomas, starting center Steve Everitt, and even placekicker Norm Johnson, who spent 1999 a veteran aide-de-camp, if you will, for David Akers in Akers' important developmental season.
Then the Eagles opened the regular season in Dallas, the Pickle Juice Game, and surprised the Cowboys with an onsides kick to start it off on the way to a 41-14 victory. Reid and the Eagles landed in the playoffs, defeating Tampa Bay in the Wild Card round before losing at the New York Giants.
Will the similarities to the Reid Era continue this offseason? That remains to be seen. The rules of engagement in free agency have changed. Players like Runyan aren't often available as teams have so much more salary cap room to use to retain their key, young players. But the point it this: The Eagles did it right in 2000 by hitting on many of their moves. They weren't all flashy, big-dollar acquisitions. They were smart, strategic decisions to help the Eagles in both the short term and for the seasons ahead.
The Eagles have their plan in place for free agency, subject to change as the winds of the season change. They know they have limitations with regards to the salary cap. They know the talent pool might not be as deep in free agency. With the foundation in place, the Eagles are moving forward needing to make the right decisions, flashy headlines or not.