The moment that Brian Dawkins signed with Denver as a free agent in 2009, the Eagles launched a series of changes from which they have not recovered.
This is a defense that has tried so many times to get it right since then. Dawkins' departure happened a short time before Jim Johnson announced he was taking a leave of absence due to his illness -- Dawkins signed with Denver on March 1 and the announcement of Johnson's leave of absence came a couple of months later, in May -- and those two events triggered a period of change from which the defense has yet to recover.
On the coaching side, Sean McDermott replaced Johnson and stayed for two years until he was dismissed following the 2010 season, a division-winning campaign that ended with a loss in the playoffs to Green Bay. Juan Castillo stepped in as defensive coordinator prior to the 2011 season and remained until early this year, when he was moved out and replaced by Todd Bowles.
Four seasons, three defensive coordinators.
The situation at safety has changed even more. The Eagles felt that Quintin Mikell would become the leader in the secondary with Dawkins gone, and that they would find a solution at the other safety spot. In 2009, they used Sean Jones, a free-agent addition, and draft pick Macho Harris at the position. Jones wasn't fast enough to play in coverage and Harris, a fifth-round selection after a great career as a cornerback at Virginia Tech, couldn't make the transition to safety.
In the 2010 draft, the Eagles used a second-round pick on Nate Allen and then a seventh-round selection on Kurt Coleman, and Allen quickly moved into the starting lineup alongside Mikell. While Allen had his ups and downs, he clearly had ability and the defense played well enough -- although the leaks were showing, particularly in the red zone -- on the way to a 9-4 record. Nine and four and anybody complained? Oh, to be 9-4 in 2012 ...
In Game 14 of that season, one that has been pointed to as a dividing line in recent Eagles history, Allen tore up his knee in the first half in a game at the New York Giants. We remember that game, of course, as a "Miracle Of The Meadowlands" comeback as DeSean Jackson returned a punt to win the game, but it was much more than that. Allen's knee injury set him back, and it's fair to wonder if he has fully recovered physically.
The Eagles have not been the same since that remarkable win, in many ways. Michael Vick escaped the Giants blitz in that game and generated a for-the-ages comeback win. He was blitzed incessently from that game on and the offense paid the price with a flurry of turnovers and poor play in the red zone.
And the safety positions, once a bedrock of the defense, have not stabilized since then.
The Eagles head into Sunday's game against Washington with Coleman and Colt Anderson as the starters. Allen has been benched after his inconsistent performance this year. The Eagles have not been able to find answers after Dawkins left in free agency, we know that, but they've also not been able to replace Mikell, the undersized, solid performer who went to St. Louis and has not missed a game in two years for the Rams. He's been a starter and a good player for St. Louis.
Meanwhile, the Eagles are searching for answers at safety.
Allen's lack of progress has clearly hindered the plan. Coleman has been the starter for much of the last couple of seasons and he's had his moments, but he hasn't become a game-changing player. The selection of Jaiquawn Jarrett in the second round of the 2011 draft was a flat-out mistake as Jarrett was released early this season.
As the Eagles plan for the 2013 season and beyond, they don't really have the answer to a very pressing question: Who are the safeties to be counted on as starters?
"It's been a tough season. I feel like we put in a lot of hard work this offseason," said Coleman. "We expected to not only win the division, go to the playoffs, but we had aspirations of going to the Super Bowl and winning it.
"It's just been a character-building year for myself and the team. Hopefully everything remains intact and we can continue to build and try to improve and make another run next year."
The safety position has evolved to the point where it has become a weakness in many NFL cities. It's very, very hard to find players who are fast enough to cover all of these freak athletes at wide receiver and tight end, and still have the strength and the bulk physically to play in the box and support the run defense.
The Eagles' defensive scheme has basically changed four times since Allen and Coleman were drafted -- they started in McDermott's plan, a knockoff of what Johnson did so masterfully, then Castillo added his wrinkles, then Bowles made some adjustments and then, when the Eagles fired Jim Washburn as the defensive line coach, it changed again for the back four in the secondary.
So much change has not aided the development of Allen or Coleman. Stability would help, but is that happening in the near future?
Anderson has played well as a starter in the last couple of games, but he is not ideally suited as a 16-game starter. Anderson, who plays with tremendous heart and desire and who has terrific skills and the ability to run after his rehab from a torn anterior cruciate ligament 14 months ago, would be challenged to start in this league. In an ideal world, he would be a backup safety and a superstar on special teams.
But this isn't an ideal world. And Anderson has stepped in and done a nice job. And he's scheduled to be a free agent after the year, which raises all kinds of questions about his value now that he's got some game tape as a starter.
Looking ahead, there aren't a plethora of safety prospects projected to be high draft picks in April. There generally aren't a lot of outstanding safeties in free agency, either, and the whole concept of free agency has been challenged in the league with all of the cap room each team seems to have and with the mixed history of success for free agents in the NFL.
So what do the Eagles do?
It may take some time to find the next Brian Dawkins, or even the next Quintin Mikell. The Eagles aren't going to give up on Allen or Coleman, but they can't count on them as starters, either. There is no doubt they would like to have Anderson on the team in 2013. They must continue to challenge the position, and perhaps even David Sims, acquired as the team firmed up its 53-man roster in September, will emerge as a factor at some point. Right now, he's been moved aside as Anderson stepped in and stepped up.
There has been too much change throughout the defense in these last few seasons, and no group has been hit harder than the safeties. The last line of defense could very well be the first priority to improve after this year is over, but it just isn't that easy to get right, as these last few years have taught us.