They won 11 games, went 4-2 within the NFC East, took a six-game winning streak into the playoffs and did it all with new faces scattered throughout the offensive and defensive lineups. They will remember how it felt to be 11-4 after that last-minute win over Denver and they will remember what it was like after the playoff loss to Dallas, the second in seven days to the Cowboys. So now the question begs: Are the Eagles that close, or will they tear things apart and build from the ground up?
It seems a preposterous if/or, really. Oh, there are some very high-level decisions to make in the coming months, and the debate will rage interminably about the quarterback situation, and nobody takes 11 wins lightly or places too much of an emphasis on those victories because the Eagles did not achieve the ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl. The Eagles are going to consider every pro and every con of the season that came and went and thrilled and chilled and, ultimately, disappointed.
But they will not rip it all up. It makes no sense to do so. What the Eagles have done, in the span of the time since they lost the NFC Championship Game to Arizona to the loss at Dallas, is build back the roster, make it younger and create another window-wide-open scenario. The Eagles have holes -- two convincing loss to Dallas highlighted those needs -- but a smart, efficient off-season will go a long way toward improving this team substantially.
You want to know the young pieces, right? You want to me prove my point, correct? Easily done.
Let's start on offense, where the Eagles boast a group of young skill-position players who are as deep and as talented as any young group in the NFL. Receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin have a chance to be off-the-charts good as a twosome, and Jason Avant is as effective as any slot receiver in the league. Brent Celek is a tremendous young talent at tight end, and in fact that whole position is underrated and intriguing. I'm looking forward to seeing Martin Rucker in training camp, I think Cornelius Ingram has extraordinary athletic ability if he can stay healthy and Alex Smith -- who is scheduled to be a restricted free agent should there be no Collective Bargaining Agreement -- will benefit from an off-season in a stable environment.
Running back LeSean McCoy should take a huge step forward in the off-season as he works in the conditioning program and gains some strength and gets his body into NFL, tip-top shape. No doubt there are questions about Brian Westbrook and his future, and that is one of the primary issues of the off-season. Eldra Buckley was a standout on special teams and ran hard and played well when he got the chance.
Fullback Leonard Weaver is just too good of a fit here to play elsewhere in 2010. Again, he is due to become a restricted free agent and is a player the Eagles have to make a decision on after they struck free-agent gold with him for 2009.
The offensive line has some excellent pieces in place, and it also has some question marks. The Eagles need to make the right moves with both Shawn and Stacy Andrews. Both are excellent talents and both were missing pieces this season. Can the Eagles count on one of them or both of them in 2010? Who is the center? Jason Peters and Todd Herremans showed flashes of teaming for dominance on the left side of the line, but what can be done to have them play together at a consistently-high level?
Quarterback is, yes, the daily topic with all Eagles fans. The good news is that Andy Reid has a multitude of options, and he will sort through them before deciding on his three quarterbacks and the depth chart for next season.
So that is the offense, and that group has decidedly fewer question marks than does the defense. As the Eagles addressed the offense with so many of their needs last off-season, you could reasonably expect them to do the same on the defensive side of the ball starting on March 5, when free agency begins.
Sean McDermott has some pieces in place, but he needs more. He needs more punch from the pass rush, with Trent Cole a Pro Bowl player and some good role players around him. But role players historically aren't the ones to step up in the playoffs, and the Eagles need another top-level pass rusher. That is easier said than done, however. Every team wants another premier pass rusher. Nobody has enough. Having two and even three players that offenses have to account for is the goal, and the Eagles only have one, Cole.
The linebacker situation in 2009 was a revolving door as McDermott experimented liberally. Losing Stewart Bradley was a huge blow to the group, but having Omar Gaither go down with a season-ending injury and then missing Akeem Jordan for a month threw this group into a perpetual state of change. McDermott went with Jeremiah Trotter, the tried and true veteran who hadn't played in two seasons as the final, desperate stopgap and it just didn't work to the level of winning in the playoffs.
Looking ahead, though, it may not be as bad as it seemed last year. Bradley should be healthy to play, although you never know how close to his top, top level he will be early in the season. Will Witherspoon looked plain tuckered out late in the season after not having a bye week all year. He will be a much better player at WILL after an off-season to get healthy, gain some strength and really learn this system. Playing next to Bradley will help enormously. At 263 pounds, Bradley engulfs blockers and frees up others to make plays.
The SAM position is an interesting one, and it is an area that potentially could use an upgrade. Chris Gocong lost his job late in the season to rookie Moise Fokou, who isn't the prototype there because of his slight frame, but who has long arms and can run and cover. He might have something going here, and if he applies himself the right way in the off-season, you never know with Fokou.
Gocong is due to be a restricted free agent if there is no new CBA, but you must wonder about his future here after his tough season.
Tracy White is an ace on special teams and a good nickel cover linebacker whom the Eagles would probably like to have back. Joe Mays blossomed into a standout on special teams and now must take his game from the line of scrimmage up a notch to earn some trust from the coaches.
Should the Eagles look to upgrade the linebackers? No doubt about it. Having Bradley back is a good thing and a huge boost, but the Eagles need more plays from their linebackers.
The secondary has its share of questions, notably at the free safety spots. The Eagles aren't giving up on Quintin Demps, who needs to make the most out of a crossroads-kind of off-season, and Macho Harris, who is going to benefit from a strong next several months. Still, you get the feeling that they will look for a major upgrade here.
Heck, the Eagles can't take anything for granted on defense. They can challenge every position and make the defense better, deeper and more physical.
The great news is that so many of the pieces that won 11 games return. And if you want to argue that the Eagles won 11 games against so-so competition, I'll ask you what you thought of the schedule when the second half of the season began and the Eagles were 5-3 on the way to San Diego. Turns out that some of those teams expected to be outstanding after strong starts -- the Giants, the Broncos, the 49ers -- faded in the end. Fine. A win is a win is a win.
And, no question, the Eagles had their hats handed to them against Dallas three times. The Cowboys are the team to beat in the NFC East and maybe, as the playoffs unfold, in the conference. Dallas felt the way 12 months ago after the butt-whipping the Eagles put on them to end the Cowboys' season.
What did Dallas do? They shed some players who no longer fit into the locker room (namely Terrell Owens) and they kept the group together and focused on improving from within. The Eagles should take the same course, for the most part. They have the resources to add here and there -- six draft picks in the opening four rounds -- and they must take advantage to complete a roster overhaul that began 12 months ago and has given the Eagles a wide open window for many years of success once again.