Some people are nervous. Can the Eagles really be a Super Bowl contender with three rookie starters at key positions? How about all the new faces in the locker room? Don't forget about the turnover on the coaching staff. That's a lot of change and uncertainty in a sport where chemistry and stability are critical.
These are legitimate questions and concerns, but they aren't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes uncertainty is good. It forces people to get out of their comfort zone. I think it is important to study past Super Bowl winners to take a look at how they managed to break through and win the big game. There used to be some formulas for winning, but that's really changed in the free agency era. We now see all kinds of different teams winning the Super Bowl.
CAN THE EAGLES WIN WITH JUAN CASTILLO?
Three of the past four Super Bowl winners had a defensive coordinator in his first or second year with the team. The Giants, Saints and Packers run very different defenses so it isn't that a coach came in with a specific style. The point is that the coach changed up what was being done and got the players to play at a higher level.
I think sometimes coaching staffs can get tunnel vision in regard to schemes and players. Bringing in new coaches can lead to change through a simple tweak or a major overhaul. A fresh set of eyes can diagnose a problem and offer up a solution that the previous group struggled to fix. Sean McDermott wanted to run a complex defense that gave offenses multiple looks and made life confusing for them. Juan Castillo could tell very quickly that those ideas just didn't fit the players well. There was too much thinking and not enough attacking going on.
Castillo simplified things and the players seem to love the new scheme. The defense has allowed 44 points in three games this summer. The team has 14 sacks. Last summer, the defense gave up 87 points and totaled six sacks in the four preseason games. Castillo has yet to prove he is the answer at defensive coordinator, but the results so far are good. The Pittsburgh game was ugly and that's a reminder that Castillo and the defense are still a work in progress.
CAN THE FREE AGENT FRENZY REALLY WORK?
Loading up on free agents generally isn't the way to get to the Super Bowl. There are a few notable exceptions. The first team to do that was the 1994 San Francisco 49ers. They had a good squad in place on offense, but the defense needed help. They added some cornerback named Deion Sanders. The team then added a slew of veterans, some starters and others just as role players. They signed Gary Plummer, Rickey Jackson, Richard Dent, Tim Harris, Charles Mann and Ken Norton. The veterans went there knowing that winning was more important that getting the most money. That focus helped build good chemistry and the defense finished in the top eight in both points and yards allowed. If you have the right mix of players, they can come together quickly.
The 2001 Patriots team was loaded with mid-level free agents on offense and defense. That group was able to come together and overachieve due to the quarterback play of Tom Brady and the coaching of Bill Belichick. Brady wasn't a star player, but he was clutch and brought out the best in those around him. Belichick was a master at getting the most out of marginal players. I think he did a better coaching job in 2001 than he did in 2007 when his Patriots went 16-0 and barely lost in the Super Bowl. That team had elite talent. The 2001 team had some good players, but also a lot of average talent that Belichick was able to get maximum production out of.
The 2009 Saints added some key free agents to their defense in order to get over the top. They didn't go crazy, but signed starting defensive backs Darren Sharper and Jabari Greer. Anthony Hargrove became a key role player on the defensive line. Chris McAlister, Pierson Prioleau and Anthony Waters were veteran free agents who helped in more limited roles.
The 2011 Eagles have plenty of new faces, but I genuinely believe these are the right type of players. Derek Landri isn't here due to a mega-deal. He wants a job. He wants to win. The same can be said about Evan Mathis, Ronnie Brown and Jarrad Page. Jason Babin came back in large part because he wanted to play for Jim Washburn. Vince Young wanted a chance to play for Andy Reid. The Eagles spent big money on Nnamdi Asomugha and Cullen Jenkins, but neither player has shown the least bit of ego. While the Eagles do have a lot of new players in the fold, it sure feels like they are more interested in winning than headlines and paychecks. If true, this group of guys can work well together and help to push the team over the top.
ARE THERE TOO MANY ROOKIES IN KEY SPOTS?
So how about playing rookies? That has surely got to be a deterrent to postseason success in the NFL. In a word, no. Green Bay had four rookies start in the Super Bowl last year. Those players were offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga (a first-round pick), running back James Starks (a sixth-round pick), defensive end C.J. Wilson (a seventh-round pick) and linebacker Frank Zombo (a rookie free agent). Wilson actually started in place of cornerback Sam Shields to counter the Steelers rushing attack. And yes, Shields, too, was a rookie free agent last season. Think about that for a minute. The Super Bowl champs started four rookies down the stretch and two of them were undrafted. In a word, wow.
The 2009 Saints also had some youth in their lineup. They had a rookie punter in Thomas Morstead. They also had a rookie defensive back in first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins who started about half the season. They had two other players who were first-time starters. The team had a slew of second-year players. Obviously, the Saints found the right balance of youth and experience.
The 2008 Steelers were mostly a veteran team, but had a first-year starter at right guard in Darnell Stapleton. The 2007 Giants had a couple of rookies that saw extensive time in the secondary including Aaron Ross. They had other rookies serve as role players and backups like current Eagle Steve Smith and tight end Kevin Boss.
The Eagles head into the 2011 season with rookies projected to start at middle linebacker, center and right guard. They also are going to have rookies at both punter and kicker. That sounds scary, but it isn't unprecedented. Remember the 1994 Niners team from before? They had rookie starters at fullback, right guard, defensive tackle, SAM linebacker and punter. The backup quarterback was also a rookie. If you have a veteran coach, veteran quarterback and a solid core in place, you can mix in rookies.
ADVERSITY CAN BE YOUR FRIEND
Finally, keep in mind that adversity can be important in forging a championship team. The Packers suffered a ton of injuries last year. They struggled to play the run. They lost overtime games to mediocre teams (Washington, Miami). The Packers didn't panic. They made some changes and the new players stepped up and helped the team to go win the title.
The 2009 Saints lost their left tackle early on and had to rely on some guy named Jermon Bushrod to protect Drew Brees' blind side. The guard beside Bushrod was in just his second NFL season. That young left side did a good job and the Saints won the title.
The 2008 Steelers had major issues with their offensive line. They gave up 49 sacks. The Steelers only ran for 1,690 yards. Holes weren't there and Willie Parker wasn't the kind of back to power over defenders. There was no simple answer to this problem. Ben Roethlisberger had some magical moments. The defense was stingy at times and other times made huge plays that changed games. You may recall James Harrison's goal line interception in the Super Bowl that he ran back for a score.
We don't know if the Eagles are in fact a Super Bowl team yet. The one thing I can promise is that the 2011 season will not be all sunshine and rainbows. There will be some obstacles to overcome, either in terms of injuries or players not panning out as expected. No team has everything go exactly as expected.
A championship team is a little bit like a lab experiment or maybe cooking, but without an exact recipe. You experiment, adapt and continue tweaking things until you get the right mixture. Unfortunately, only one team every year has that right mixture. The Eagles head into 2011 with enough ingredients to win a title, but there are some key questions to be answered. Don't be afraid of the uncertainty. That just might bring out the best in this team.
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