In the aftermath of back-to-back losses to the Dallas Cowboys and the crushing end of a promising 2009 season, the Eagles wasted very little time planning ahead. They took some time to clear their heads, first and foremost.
And then they got down to work.
"We knew we needed to get better," said head coach Andy Reid. "There wasn't one particular area or position that we necessarily focused on. The season didn't end the way we wanted, and we knew we had a lot of work ahead."
Since that time in January, the Eagles have been as active as any team in the NFL. They revamped the front office – Tom Heckert left as general manager, replaced by Howie Roseman – and they added to the coaching staff – hiring special teams coordinator Bobby April and defensive backs coach Dick Jauron – and they made sweeping changes to a roster that won 11 games and reached the playoffs in '09.
"We wanted," said Roseman, "to get faster and to get younger and we wanted to bring in good football players who love to play the game. I'm excited about our team."
It's hard not to be excited – and curious – about the new-look Eagles, who have only three players – kicker David Akers, punter Sav Rocca and defensive end Juqua Parker – over the age of 30. This is a team loaded with young talent, players who need to continue to develop, of course, but a roster filled with promise.
And as the Eagles look toward training camp, it's worth examining the off-season that was around the NovaCare Complex, one that will shape the team for much of the next decade.
FIRST STEP: COACHING STAFF, FRONT OFFICE
It didn't take long after the playoff loss to the Cowboys for the Eagles to get right into the action. A losing season in Buffalo resulted in a purging of that team's coaching staff, and one of the coaches who came free was Bobby April – who essentially exercised a clause in his contract and became a coaching "free agent" -- known in NFL circles as the very best special teams coordinator. The Eagles, looking for dominating play in all phases of their special teams and hoping to find some coaching consistency, terminated the contract of Ted Daisher and hired April in mid January, just days after the playoff loss to the Cowboys.
The opportunity to hire, in Reid's words, "one of the best" special teams coach in the league was something the Eagles couldn't pass doing. April's performance in his 18 NFL seasons through 2009 was legendary – his Bills teams were ranked first in an extensive annual special teams rankings in the Dallas Morning News three of the six years April was with the Bills – and Reid wanted to upgrade a group that already sparkled at times with Pro Bowl performers DeSean Jackson, David Akers and Jon Dorenbos.
Later in the month of January, the Eagles promoted Roseman to general manager, replacing Heckert, who had gone to Cleveland, and hired former NFL head coach and long-time defensive mind Dick Jauron as a senior assistant/defensive backs coach. The team also made a significant move to promote Barry Rubin to the head strength and conditioning coach.
It made for a busy January, even if fans didn't take immediate notice. A couple of months later, the fans would tune in more intently as the Eagles addressed the roster.
SHAPING THE TEAM
Roseman promised to be aggressive as the team's general manager. He had overseen the draft process the previous couple of years and Roseman was not shy one bit about making moves. His approach, coupled with the Eagles' aggressive philosophy and Reid's wheeling and dealing ways during the draft promised to make for a very interesting off-season player-acquisition period. After a slow February as the Eagles assessed free agency and laid out the blueprint for the months to come, March arrived with great anticipation.
Moves in free agency, though, were few in the early going. The Eagles did not get into the first weekend of action, after which most of the prime free-agent talent was off the board. Instead, the Eagles focused inward initially, signing fullback Leonard Weaver and wide receiver Jason Avant to contract extensions, and to begin the philosophy of moving on without some familiar names.
They released linebacker Will Witherspoon, announced the intention to release running back Brian Westbrook, traded wide receiver Reggie Brown and released defensive lineman Darren Howard, offensive tackle Shawn Andrews and wide receiver Kevin Curtis. By that time, the Eagles had dipped into free agency, signing restricted free agent running back Mike Bell, adding defensive back Marlin Jackson and re-acquiring wide receiver Hank Baskett, an unrestricted free agent.
On March 16, the Eagles sent disappointing defensive end Chris Clemons to Seattle for defensive end Darryl Tapp and promptly signed Tapp to a three-year contract.
"He plays very hard on every snap and he is the kind of player we want here," said Reid, a statement he would make many times through draft weekend. "He'll fit in here very well."
April brought about the most dynamic changes. Separate trades sent cornerback Sheldon Brown and linebacker Chris Gocong to Cleveland and in return the Eagles acquired draft picks they would use later that month, as well as linebacker/defensive end Alex Hall.
On Easter night, of course, the Eagles made national headlines when they traded franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb to Washington for a second-round draft pick this year and a conditional four-round draft pick in 2011.
It wasn't necessarily a shocking move to trade McNabb – the fan base had been on alert throughout the off-season – but that he went to Washington was the stunner.
"Unfortunately, things like this happen in the National Football League and I've said this before, when we talk about Brian Dawkins and Brian Westbrook, if you're lucky enough to stay around as long as when I have, then you're going to go through situations like this where you have to go in a different direction," said Reid. "Obviously we have a lot of confidence in Kevin Kolb to make this decision. He will be the starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles. As far as Washington goes, we thought that this was best for Donovan and obviously the compensation was right. Again, obviously, we thought through this like we do every move we make."
With McNabb's trade, the road to the starting job was cleared for Kolb, and the Eagles had the pieces they needed – 11 selections – to head into draft week armed and dangerous.
DRAFT WEEK: MOVES GALORE
Interest in linebacker Ernie Sims simmered for weeks. Detroit sent out word, according to league people, that Sims was available at the price of a second-round draft pick. Once the ninth pick in the 2006 draft and an every-week starter with the Lions, Sims did not fit into Detroit's scheme. Entering the last year of his contract, Sims was expendable.
The Eagles played the game. They waited. They had preliminary discussions. And finally – after the price had gone down -- on the Monday before the draft, they pulled the trigger on a deal that sent a fifth-round draft to the Lions and received Sims, whom they immediately plugged into the starting WILL linebacker spot.
"He just plays so fast and physical; he throws his body around," said Roseman. "I think the fans of Philadelphia are going to love Ernie Sims."
As the Eagles then put the finishing touches on their draft plans, rumors swirled that the Eagles were primed to move up in round one, that they had their eyes on Texas safety Earl Thomas and Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan, that they were going to be moving often in the 2010 draft.
And they did. More than ever.
By now, of course, you know what happened. The Eagles moved up in the first round and selected Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham with the 13th overall selection. They took South Florida safety Nate Allen at No. 37 overall. They made six trades and drafted a franchise-record 13 players, nine of them on the defensive side of the ball.
In a span of an off-season, the Eagles turned over much of what fans considered the face of the franchise. McNabb, Westbrook, Sheldon Brown, Andrews, Curtis, etc. They brought in youth and speed and "high-motor players" and "character guys."
And they head into training camp having accomplished what they wanted to accomplish, believing the window for success is wide open for years and years to come.
"We kept everybody busy and we had our plan and we were able to get a lot of things done," said Reid. "We have a lot of energy here, a lot of excitement."