On Monday, the shock of the news that defensive coordinator Jim Johnson was taking a leave of absence was apparent. On Tuesday at the NovaCare Complex, one day before the team starts a mini-camp for selected veterans and rookies, reality set in. Players talked about Johnson's situation, about Sean McDermott's role in this camp to oversee the defense, and the idea of leadership in the locker room on defense.
It has been a topic to discuss ever since Brian Dawkins signed with Denver as an unrestricted free agent. Who fills the void in the locker room? Who provides the emotional spark? Who is the go-to leader on defense?
These are questions that are going to be answered during the course of the season. The Eagles return 10 starters to a defense that ranked third in the NFL last year. There are a lot of players who are well-versed in the scheme, who understand the X's and O's, who know the snap-second adjustments that need to be made.
At some point this year, though, the players in the locker room are going to establish a pecking order of leadership, of seniority. The candidates are many, from Sheldon Brown to Quintin Mikell to Asante Samuel to Stewart Bradley to Brodrick Bunkley to Trent Cole. All of them are emotional guys. All of them are respected in the locker room. All of them have the credentials from what they've done on the field.
Now, they face a stern test, for however long it lasts. This camp isn't for players like Mikell and Brown and Samuel, etc. This camp is to learn more about Macho Harris, and to see some of the younger veterans and the newest Eagles integrate into the system. McDermott is not going to skip a beat teaching the X's and O's here.
But there is a large shadow cast here without Johnson. Everyone has to step up and fill the void.
"I think we're all competitive and hungry and we work hard every day," said Mikell. "Jim obviously means a lot to my career and to every one of these player's careers. We wouldn't be here without him. But we know what he expects and we know what Sean McDermott expects. We know how to prepare for the season. We'll take care of things on that end.
"The leadership thing is something we've been answering throughout the off-season. I'm very confident that we have the right mix of players in the locker room. We have players who have been together for a pretty long time. I don't think that part of it is going to be a problem at all. Guys are going to step up. That's the nature of the business."
Said Cole: "Everybody pushes each other to be a better player. I'm going to be my same way. I'm not going to change the way I approach the game. We have leadership. We have a defense that has a chance to be better than it was last year. I'm excited about playing with this group of guys."
In a lot of ways, this is the new generation of Eagles players on both sides of the ball. You think back through the years during Andy Reid's era and all the great players on defense like Troy Vincent and Hugh Douglas and Jeremiah Trotter and Carlos Emmons and Bobby Taylor and they all played well here and then they all left and the Eagles replaced them and the beat, as it does throughout the NFL, goes on.
Now it is Dawkins who is gone. And, for the time being, Johnson is not going to be at practice.
"We have to pick up the pace for him," said cornerback Joselio Hanson. "Simple as that. We have to help each other. I know we will do that."
We're here in the latter stages of May talking about a huge intangible that won't show up until September and beyond. In times like this, a team learns a lot about itself, about whether the individual components fit perfectly into the sum of the team. If a defense isn't "connected" on and off the field, it just doesn't play up to its ability and then, in the biggest of big moments, players are looking around for that certain someone to step up and make the big play.
I don't think that will happen with this defense. The Eagles have talent, have experience, and have a year they have shared all the emotional ups and downs and ups and downs again that last season spawned. They still have the pain in their sides from the loss in Arizona, when the Cardinals took the first drive down the field and scored a touchdown and then came back late in the fourth quarter to take the decisive lead with another touchdown drive.
At the same time, nobody can ignore the losses of Dawkins and Johnson from an emotional and a tactical and a cerebral standpoint. How do the Eagles overcome and thrive and grow? The answers aren't apparent now, for sure, but the questions sure are valid.