When the Eagles opened the 2009 regular season in Carolina, they did so with an offense featuring new starters at tackle (Jason Peters, Winston Justice), at guard (Nick Cole, Stacy Andrews) and at fullback (Leonard Weaver). Tight end Brent Celek hadn't been a full-time starter in his NFL career. By season's end, rookies Jeremy Maclin (wide receiver) and LeSean McCoy (halfback) would emerge as starters and key contributors.
In fact, only three holdovers from the 2008 offense stayed in place for that first month of the season -- quarterback Donovan McNabb, wide receiver DeSean Jackson and center Jamaal Jackson. Todd Herremans missed five games with an injury before returning at left guard. Kevin Curtis opened the season as the starting wide receiver before injuries sent him to the sidelines.
It was an amazing makeover for the offense, which used the off-season prior to strip away age at tackle (both Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan were free agents) and became significantly younger during the year at halfback (McCoy replacing Brian Westbrook) and wide receiver (Maclin replacing Curtis). The Eagles went on to score a franchise record number of points. The offense was more explosive, more consistent and certainly more complete than in recent years, even with the young Eagles in key roles. Yes, the group sputtered in the losses at Dallas, but the entire team played poorly and that is another story for another day.
The point is this: The Eagles were able to overhaul the offense, become so much younger, and still have a potent attack. Now, when you look at this group with the football, you have to be excited. Never have the Eagles had such talent at the skill positions. Never have the Eagles had such explosiveness on offense. They've added Mike Bell for depth at running back, and they have brought back Hank Baskett to help at wide receiver, and the Eagles certainly have a decision to make at quarterback (again, another story for another day) and they are likely to address the offense at some point in the draft, but by and large the Eagles transitioned the offense without skipping a beat.
They won 11 games and reached the playoffs with what amounted to an offense that introduced so many new faces in critical places.
It appears, as we take stock of what the Eagles have done on defense in the last month, they are trying the same approach on defense. They have made some bold moves, ones that you may or may not agree with. They released linebacker Will Witherspoon, who came to the team midway through 2009 and who at least appeared to solidify an injury-ravaged group of linebackers. They released Darren Howard, who one year ago reached double digits in sacks and who has the versatility to play defensive end and defensive tackle. They traded linebacker Chris Gocong, a former third-round draft pick who never seemed a good fit after playing defensive end in college. And in the same deal that sent Gocong to Cleveland, the Eagles dealt cornerback Sheldon Brown to the Browns, opening up a sizable hole that has many wondering who will step in.
If it all seems a little bewildering, well, it is understandable. Why are the Eagles allowing good players to leave in a year when there is no salary cap and when the Eagles don't yet have upgrades necessarily in place?
And this: If the Eagles are rebuilding, why don't they just come out and say it?
General manager Howie Roseman insisted on Friday after the trade with Cleveland was announced that "rebuilding is not in our vocabulary," and his point of view is obviously very important. The word "rebuilding" offers the impression that a team is willing to take a step back to take two steps forward, that the team is OK with sacrificing a season to improve in the years to come. The Eagles don't look at it that way. They know they have to improve as a defense and they know they have positions they must upgrade. How they are going to do that, of course, is a question only the decision makers can answer.
Where can the defense get better? Everywhere, honestly. When a defense has troubles as it did at times down the stretch last season and certainly in the playoffs, every position is put on notice. So the Eagles, instead of bringing back what they had and adding to it, have shed some of the players they don't see as fits in the future, have added some draft picks, have acquired a player they really like in end Darryl Tapp, and have put together a plan they hope comes together.
The intention here is to not take a step back. The intention is to transition on defense as the Eagles did with the offense last season. The draft brings with it 10 selections, and you can bet your Midnight Green heart that those 10 picks will be used in every way imaginable as Andy Reid and Roseman dance around the draft in the most creative ways. Last year's draft weekend was a celebration of trades and moves up and down the draft board. In two-plus weeks, the Eagles could be every bit as active, if not more.
No doubt the Eagles want to be younger, faster, more physical on defense. They traded away Brown, who was a durable player, who was a physical player. Now they have to upgrade the spot. They like the starting experience Ellis Hobbs brings to the table, and they think Joselio Hanson is a talented cornerback. A couple of younger corners, Dimitri Patterson and Geoff Pope, are going to get a very substantial look. Macho Harris may get some snaps in the spring to see if he is a fit at cornerback. Marlin Jackson is a talented player, but the health questions make him too much of a wild card right now to count on, at least from this perspective.
Trades? Very possible. The Eagles have put together a couple of significant ones already in the off-season, and we haven't even hit the active time in the trade market. The draft? No question the Eagles will address the defense in a draft that is said to be stocked with quality players on that side of the ball.
Nobody can say with a straight face that the process is complete. And right now, the Eagles have some areas to improve. If the season started tomorrow ...
Hey, guess what? The season doesn't start tomorrow. The Eagles have more work to do. They have the blueprint of last year's overhaul of the offense to follow. They need to draft better on defense than they have in recent years, no question about it. They have to find young, talented, hungry, physical, aggressive players. They need impact.
Are the Eagles relying too much on the draft? We'll see what they have up their sleeves. We'll see how Roseman responds in his first off-season as the team's general manager. This is his time to establish his stamp on the team, and he has wasted no time putting the wheels in motion on massive changes.
But a "rebuilding" situation? That isn't the idea here. The idea is to execute something that is very difficult to do in the NFL: Get younger and get better all at the same time. That is the goal here. The Eagles aren't finished, not by a long shot. They have gotten younger, for sure. But have they gotten better? It is a question nobody can answer until we see the final product on the field.