More than anything -- the evolution of quarterback Michael Vick, the development of the young Eagles, the added punch on special teams -- the progress of the defense will define 2012.
Defense wins championships, as we have seen time and time again in this wonderful league, and the Eagles' has undergone more change than just about any in the NFL the last couple of seasons.
Who started in 2010 and remains today? Tackle Mike Patterson, end Trent Cole and safety Nate Allen and that's it. Three of 11.
Since that 2010 season, when the defense had so many ups and downs in the post-Jim Johnson year, the Eagles have worked very hard to overhaul the group. Cole and Patterson were mainstays, and remain so, and they have been stable parts of the D since the 2005 draft. Allen was a rookie starter in 2010, on his way to a strong NFL debut prior to blowing out his patellar tendon in December.
The rest of the starting group, eight players of 11, is different. The coordinator is different. So is the line coach, the linebackers coach, the cornerbacks coach and the coach in charge of the safety positions.
That's a tremendous amount of change, players and coaches, in a very short period of time. To think, in retrospect, that the Eagles could build a defense blending talent, scheme and cohesiveness and minus the luxury of spring practice sessions was foolhardy. Maybe the Eagles rushed into the change. Maybe they needed to take the step back defensively to, as we enter 2012, take the hopeful two or three steps forward.
In those final four games of 2011, the Eagles permitted a miniscule average of 11.5 points per game. They did it against suspect offenses, to be fair, but they did it. They turned loose the pass rush, clamped down in pass coverage and expanded the scheme implemented by rookie coordinator Juan Castillo.
Then they took what they had, tweaked the mix with the additions of standout linebacker DeMeco Ryans, brought in some high-end talent in April's draft, upgraded the coaching staff with the hiring of defensive backs coach Todd Bowles and ...
And what? And how good is the defense going to be? I envision Bowles dictating the coverage scheme with Jim Washburn configuring the front seven, and with Castillo managing the whole kit and caboodle. The personnel overhaul has resulted in a defense that is, potentially, as talented as any defense we've seen in the Andy Reid era. The Eagles seem loaded up front, with depth galore. The linebackers, led by Ryans, are better on paper than the franchise has had in years and years and years. The secondary matches up nicely with its blend of size and athletic ability.
You understand from watching football for so long that everything starts up front, and that if the Eagles deliver with their pressure packages from the front four, and get the requisite physical play and downhill style from the linebackers, the defense is going to be difficult to beat. Quarterbacks aren't going to have a lot of time to sit in the pocket. There aren't going to be many second-and-short and third-and-manageable situations for offenses to enjoy.
I have the sense that hiring Bowles will be one of the underrated genius moves in the league's coaching ranks this season. He comes with a wealth of experience and he understands pressure football, and playing to his personnel strength. In cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Bowles had a pair of long, athletic corners who can press at the line of scrimmage and who can turn and run in deep coverage. They have to play tough football, gritty football, to satisfy Bowles. I like the attitude he brings to the defense.
Combine that with the tenacity of Washburn and the Eagles have the makings of something special on defense.
How good does the defense have to be to win the Super Bowl? The key stats to me are performance in the red zone, takeaways and third-down efficiency. I know everyone gets caught up in the points allowed, and it was certainly a reference here at the top of the story. But the course of a 16-game season is different, and the defense is measured in other ways. Those three stats are at the top of the list for me.
How many games will the Eagles need to win by the tune of, say, 17-10? Maybe not many, not with this offense. I'm not sure how many old-fashioned defensive struggles the Eagles will be in.
But they certainly have to show they are capable of winning low-scoring games. They have to have the defense straight up win a game or two during the course of the season. They need the defense to establish a certain swagger in the preseason and throughout training camp, and they then need to go out and play punishing football starting September 9.
To answer the question, yes, the Eagles can be an elite defense. There's a lot of work ahead, no doubt about it. The Eagles have made so many changes in the last couple of years, a total overhaul of the defense.
Everything is in place for success, and a season hinges upon it. You win championships with defense, right? The Eagles know it well enough to have spent two years turning the defensive roster upside down, so that now it is right side up for 2012.