It has been a long offseason. A good one, yes, but long. When 2011 ended with a victory over Washington to get the Eagles to 8-8, the immediate future was unclear. Would the Eagles make franchise-rattling changes? Would the roster, impacted so greatly prior to the '11 campaign, again undergo a remake?
How would the Eagles react to what Chairman/CEO Jeffrey Lurie termed "the most disappointing" season of his tenure?
And so now we're here. Training camp opens with high hopes, the highest of hopes, and also with the understanding that there is a tremendous amount of work ahead for this football team.
As it turned out, the offseason did bring with it significant changes, certainly to the front office but also to the roster. Cornerback Asante Samuel was traded. The Eagles brought in an impact middle linebacker in DeMeco Ryans in another trade. Star left tackle Jason Peters went down with a blown Achilles tendon, replaced in free agency by Demetress Bell.
By and large, in relative terms, the Eagles return fairly intact from a roster standpoint. They've got terrific continuity on the offensive side of the ball, with nine starters in place from last year. Only Bell and fullback Stanley Havili are newcomers to the projected starting lineup. On defense, Ryans starts at middle linebacker, rookie Mychal Kendricks starts at SAM linebacker and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie replaces Samuel opposite Nnamdi Asomugha at cornerback.
Otherwise, and this is assuming that tackle Mike Patterson comes all the way back after brain surgery, the defense is what it was, only better. A significant addition is defensive backs coach Todd Bowles, and we'll see the impact he has on the secondary when practice kicks into gear and then when the games begin.
I thank you for being here the entire offseason, through all of the conjecture and the ups and downs of waiting for changes to occur. I feel like I've just been filling space up until this moment, when we can actually see how good the Eagles are and where their strengths and weaknesses are, rather than just speculating day after day, week after week.
I think the Eagles have a chance to be a mighty fine team, but how can we really know until September 9 arrives? Training camp brings with it the usual excitement of seeing a team come together, but also the angst of injury and the concern of chemistry and the intangibles that mean so much when football starts.
Where have the Eagles improved the most? On paper it appears the defense is much better, particularly at the linebacker positions. If Ryans is as good as he looked in the spring, and if he shows that he is all the way back two years removed from his Achilles injury, the Eagles will have their best situation at middle linebacker since the prime days of Jeremiah Trotter. Kendricks stepped right into the starting lineup after the Eagles drafted him in the second round in April, and the moment was clearly not too big for him in the spring. He looked great.
The depth up front defensively is, potentially, enviable with the additions of draft picks Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry, the return to good health of Antonio Dixon and the urgency of Brandon Graham.
The secondary has promise, of course, and it also has question marks and that's why they play the games.
Other than Bell on offense, the Eagles return the same, explosive, versatile group that moved the ball so well between the 20-yard lines, but that bogged down in the red zone. How do the Eagles improve inside opponents' 20-yard lines?
We're not going to find out much in training camp practices about the return game on special teams, but the four preseason games will be telling. How do the Eagles add punch on kickoff returns, and can DeSean Jackson return to his previous glory in the punt return game after last year's dropoff?
You can go up and down the roster and point to various questions and all are valid. We're in the period of self-discovery for this football team, but at least we can now see the proof on the practice field.
Finally, yeah!!, the football is here. Training camp begins in the tranquil setting of Bethlehem, Pa., amid the madness of thousands of Eagles fans making their daily trip to watch practice. It's going to be a great three-plus weeks, all the way until the Eagles return to the NovaCare Complex in mid August.