Nobody saw it coming, not after week after week of stellar play by the Eagles defense. Nobody figured that the defense, one that had carried the Eagles to the playoffs and then through two rounds to the NFC Championship Game, would be unable to hold on to a one-point lead with 10 minutes to play in Arizona.
But it happened. It's over. The Cardinals drove 72 yards in 14 plays and scored the winning points last Sunday, using a mix of the run and the short pass and, finally, a well-executed screen pass that ended up in the end zone. All day, the Cardinals countered Jim Johnson's blitz scheme by using a screen play to the blitz side and then throwing to the "hot" receiver away from the blitz.
The strategy worked, and the Eagles went home in stunned silence.
That disappointment, though, should not obscure what the Eagles defense accomplished in 2008, nor should it dim expectations for 2009. This defense will be back, and if the off-season goes accordingly, should be better than it was in 2008.
Why? There are plenty of reasons. Johnson left this season knowing that his young group, one that has been overhauled in the last couple of seasons, returns nearly intact, and with the anticipation that some of his less-experienced players should take the next step ahead in their development.
After a couple of blips during the season, the defense was outstanding in the second half of the year, and it was against terrific in playoff wins over Minnesota and New York. The defense did not have a good first half against Arizona, nor did it preserve the fourth-quarter lead. The agony that the defense felt after the loss is something that will carry through the off-season, no doubt.
It should serve as extra motivation, but it should not deter from the major steps the defense made all year. If a couple of things break right, the Eagles should be one of the best defenses in the league once again in 2009.
Now, there are some issues the Eagles must address. They have three key players about to become unrestricted free agents, safety Brian Dawkins and cornerback Joselio Hanson. Dawkins is prepping for his seventh Pro Bowl and is the reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Month. Dawkins isn't the player he was years ago, but he is still a very productive player and, obviously, the heart and soul of the defense. Retaining Dawkins would allow the Eagles to keep continuity in the secondary and, at the same time, bring youngster Quintin Demps along as he masters the scheme.
Hanson blossomed in the role of the nickel cornerback and he gave the Eagles a secure feeling and productive play as the third corner. Hanson can play in the slot, too, and his versatility is important here. However, he may be a tough player to sign, so Hanson's situation is one to watch.
The third player due to be an unrestricted free agent is Sean Considine, who shared time as a reserve safety. He also played well on special teams and became a good player in his niche role here.
Otherwise, the defense is loaded with answers. Johnson has to sort through some options up front. The Eagles know they have Pro Bowl talent in end Trent Cole and, really, Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley. The latter two haven't made the Pro Bowl, but they are right there and at times they were dominating in 2008, especially against the run.
Otherwise up front, the Eagles have a lot of talent hoping to mesh again. Trevor Laws should make a significant step in his second season at tackle. Victor Abiamiri is on the come after a big improvement in Year 2. Ends Chris Clemons and Juqua Parker add effort and speed to the left side. Darren Howard had 10 sacks in the rotation. Bryan Smith needs to come on in his second year, and the Eagles expect him to do so.
At linebacker, Stewart Bradley is a future Pro Bowl player. Chris Gocong was an improved as any player on the team on the strong side, and Akeem Jordan emerged as the starter and a very promising player at WILL. Omar Gaither can start or back up at any of the three linebacker spots. It will be interesting to see how hard both Joe Mays and Tracey White push for playing time.
The questions in the secondary notwithstanding, the group back there is really good. Asante Samuel is a Pro Bowl player, Sheldon Brown is coming off one of his best seasons and Quintin Mikell is a terrific strong safety. The Lito Sheppard situation is one that needs to be dealt with, because Sheppard was simply not in the rotation this year. He is a great talent who clearly did not embrace his role as a third cornerback and, in fact, was bypassed by Hanson midway through the season.
Johnson's defense ranked high in just about every statistical category in 2008. The Eagles will continue to tweak what they have, knowing they have a lot. They have a good, strong, deep group here. Nothing goes as planned, so the Eagles must prepare for curveballs and injuries and players who don't live up to the expectations set forth for them.
A full season of excellence was not wiped out by a tough game in Arizona. Johnson spoke highly of his defense all year, and he won't back down now. This is the strength of the team at the moment, and the group here is clearly more set. The defense, then, goes away from 2008 smarting from the struggle in Arizona knowing it did not play its best game, and believing that many more suffocating efforts will follow next season.