2012 Philadelphia Eagles: Time to Create a New Identity

My 2012 Philadelphia Eagles Preview, as well as predictions for the rest of the NFL.

Over Labor Day weekend, Reuben Frank, on the heels of Jimmy Kempski's revelation that the Eagles are the second-youngest team in the league, penned an article entitled "Eagles hope youth translates to Super Bowl." At the end of the piece, he wrote:

The Eagles have tried every other way to win and still no sign of a Lombardi Trophy in the lobby of the NovaCare Complex.

So maybe trying to get there with youth and speed is the answer. Maybe trying to simply out-sprint everybody else to the Super Bowl will work. Nothing else has.

Oh, Reuben, the Eagles have tried every other way to win a Super Bowl? Really, you're sure on that? Because I think there's at least one way they haven't tried.

When you look back at even the great Andy Reid teams of yesteryear, they always lacked a certain snarl to them on offense. There was just something missing. A toughness, a killer instinct. The Eagles rarely (never?) had that we-will-run-the-ball-down-your-throat-and-there's-nothing-you-can-do-to-stop-us attitude on offense. Nowadays it's not just on offense where the team lacks toughness -- that candy ass personality plagues the defense, too. Ever since the departure of Brian Dawkins and passing of Jim Johnson, the Eagles have sported what has to be one of the league's most pathetic tackling units. When Johnson was running the show, he directed a formidable and fearsome squad, populated with guys who were set on seek-and-destroy mode at all times.

The present Eagles brain trust loves smaller, faster players who can fly around the field. The drawback with that, however, has manifested itself at the second and third levels, where linebackers and defensive backs routinely either whiff completely, fail to wrap up, or just get run over in their attempts to prevent ball carriers from gaining extra yards. It's been a fucking epidemic, and I didn't see overwhelming evidence in the preaseason to suggest that marked change is on the horizon. Yeah, the defensive line is menacing and ferocious getting after the quarterback, but it was last year too. That outfit still had trouble against the run, and Antonio Dixon, the best run-stopper on the roster, was released after a lackluster preseason in which he looked lost in Jim Washburn's scheme. Shoddy tackling, general confusion, coverage breakdowns, gaps that even I could run through, susceptibility to the screen pass, inability to get off the field on third down, committing a moronic penalty that negates a big play or stop. Those remained problems this preseason. Sound familiar? On top of all that, we're banking on Juan Castillo, in just his second year coaching defense, being able to match wits with shrewd, battle-tested offensive coordinators. Does that not terrify you? Because I'd say it still qualifies as cause for concern (0:26).

Aside from the defense, if this Eagles regime ever wants to win a Super Bowl, Andy Reid needs to sublimate his ego and defy his core offensive principle as a football coach. It's time to get mean. It's time to get nasty. The Eagles need to add a smash-mouth, power component to the offense. One that helps them control the game, that grinds out yards while wearing down the defense, that wages a war of attrition on the body and mind of opponents. I know, I know, fat chance. Their stubbornness never ceases to amaze me. This is what's wrong with the Eagles: They don't truly intimidate other teams, and they lack the brute force to compel opponents into submission. Teams might fear the Eagles' speed and home run potential, but they don't fear their ability to beat them when the game is on the line.* Now, I understand that offenses have evolved and passing wins in this league. I'm not trying to say otherwise. What I am trying to say is the Eagles are soft -- that is their style, and it has been for years. In my opinion, it is the predominant reason why they so often shit themselves late in close games. Soft doesn't win in this league (neither does stupid, another unflattering character trait they've personified), and no matter how sexy and effective the aerial assault might be, you still have to run the ball to win certain games. The Eagles tease you by pretending to understand and abiding by that principle for two, maybe three games each season, before reverting to their irresponsible, pass-happy insanity and leaving you with blue balls.

*Edit: It's not only because of the Swiss cheese defense that this team blew so many fourth quarter leads last season. The offense's failure to shorten the game by running the ball with authority also played a major part in the collapses.

Let's take a look at the defending Super Bowl champions, shall we? Instead of only emulating the Giants' blueprint on defense, perhaps the Eagles should take a page from their offensive philosophy, seeing as how, you know, that has also been a vital part of their success. The Giants, who had the worst rushing attack in the league last season and were forced to build the offense around Eli's arm, still made a concentrated effort to cultivate an identity of power and toughness by running the ball (especially in the playoffs).* I guess that's what pisses me off the most, the selectivity the Eagles display in order to appease their we're-going-to-win-our-way agenda. They NEED to finally incorporate a rugged mentality into their own identity on a consistent basis. They HAVE to make other teams fear them physically. That doesn't necessarily mean a 50/50 pass/run ratio, but how about, say, 53/47? Otherwise, as I wrote last year (and the year before that), expect 2012 to be a case of "same shit, different season," especially with this gauntlet of a schedule. I'm already bracing myself. Jesus, I hate watching my team play like a bunch of pussies.

*Edit: Ok, so what I should have written here is that the Giants didn't ABANDON the run during their playoff games (aside from against San Francisco, which was understandable). My bad, guys, I apologize. Profusely. Thanks to all the sharp individuals who were sure to call me out on this. I couldn't have done it without you. Oh, and by the way, here are the pass/run ratios of the six Super Bowl winners prior to the Packers and Giants:

2009 Saints – 52/48
2008 Steelers – 52/48
2007 Giants – 54/46
2006 Colts – 56/44
2005 Steelers – 41/59
2004 Patriots – 48/52

I did the above research for this article that I wrote nearly two years ago. Does that do anything to satisfy everyone clamoring for some substance to support my style?

Side note: When the Colts won the Super Bowl, it was Howard Mudd's line and the rushing game on offense -- not Peyton Manning -- that carried them through the playoffs (save for the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots when they had to rally from an early 21-3 deficit). Of course, the defense was lights out, too, but you understand my point.

I've been begging for years for this to happen, but now it's an even more pertinent plea. LeSean McCoy is the best player on this team, arguably the best running back in football, and the offense should be built around him first and foremost anyway. The coaches, like the players, need to stop talking about what they will do and actually do it. If keeping Michael Vick healthy is really a priority, then shifting to a more balanced approach that limits his dropbacks and relies on a capable offensive line and talented trio (quartet?) of running backs -- more Dion Lewis, Bryce Brown, and Chris Polk, please -- would be in the team's best interests. Remember the three-headed monster days of Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook, and Correll Buckhalter? That was fun. Now, if the coaches are hypocrites, Vick -- who needs to be saved from himself because he can't change his biological hard-wiring and basic urges as an athlete, no matter how hard he might try -- will be dropping back to pass 30 or more times per game and indubitably take a severe beating in the process. Operating the offense in such a manner, which makes it inevitable that he's going to suffer a significant injury, is counterintuitive and DOESN'T MAKE ANY FUCKING SENSE! Using history as a guide here is recommended, and it would suggest limiting the number of times Vick is exposed to taking a hit. The current methodology on offense isn't conducive to ensuring that he stays healthy and plays the full season. But this is classic Andy Reid, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Please, try something else, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD! (0:17)

Then again, a Vick injury means we'll get to see Nick Foles thrown into the fire. Deep down, we all know he's the future quarterback of this team, and it's okay to allow yourself to be excited after watching him in the preseason. If the thought of a serendipitous Bledsoe/Brady-like twist of fate has danced around in your head, you're certainly not the only one (I wonder who'd play the part of Mo Lewis?). Foles is going to be a starter in this league, a good one too. I've seen so many local media and national pundits claim the Eagles can't win if Vick has to miss extended time because of an injury. You know something, I disagree. If the Nick Foles era has to begin sooner than planned, so be it. I'm kinda ready, actually, since it is my belief that Michael Vick is too unaware (in the pocket), indecisive, erratic, and unreliable to lead his team to the Super Bowl, much less win it. He's also shown an alarming inability to adjust* to what defenses have been throwing at him since the Vikings opened Pandora's box in Week 16 of the 2010 season. With the recent trend of rookie quarterbacks coming into the league and holding their own, why can't Foles make the jump? He's obviously been quick to master the voluminous playbook -- no easy task -- and is lightyears ahead of where any other quarterback has been at such an early stage in development during the Andy Reid era. Consider that Foles wasn't exactly surrounded by a bevy of NFL-level talent, excepting Juron Criner, at Arizona, so give him the weapons the Eagles have on offense and see what happens. Take a risk and dare to dream, people. The ironic thing is that Foles -- because of his natural instincts, quick decision-making, poise, and accuracy -- profiles as a more ideal fit than Vick for the kind of offense Reid and Marty Mornhinweg want to call.

*(Oh, why hello there, David Murphy.)

In closing, I'd like to infuse some Passover Seder spirit into this article. Please, somebody tell me, why is this season of Eagles football different from all other seasons? There's only one way it can be: The Eagles themselves have to be different. Will that happen? I doubt it, even with Reid's job hanging in the balance.

Edit: But I sure HOPE they are different because it would mean I could enjoy watching my team again. Bryce Brown and Chris Polk can BOTH play, and each brings his own unique style to complement Shady's Barry Sanders-esque sublimity. Brown blends speed and power in a way that made McCoy invoke a Bo Jackson comparison. Bo Jackson! For those of you, like me, who are part of a generation that didn't get to watch Bo in his heyday, the existence of YouTube is truly a blessing. That is some SERIOUS praise from Shady (who, in the linked article, makes it sound like this season the Eagles might earnestly use the multi-back system as more than just a token element of the offense -- PLEASE LET THIS BE THE CASE). Also, as we saw in the preseason, Polk relishes the bruiser role; he lowers his shoulder, straight runs people over, and inflicts pain on the defense. He can actually muscle his way to get the tough yards. It's awesome. The cherry on top: Polk is a polished pass blocker who can be trusted on passing downs. Dion Lewis is a nice niche player, but Brown and Polk's respective skill sets could ultimately make him obsolete. Keep Shady fresh, give the two rookies more snaps!

Predictions

NFC East

(Week 2 Edit...)

1. Cowboys (10-6)

Breakout player/s: Barry Church (SS). Big, strong, solid athlete who can tackle and cover. He's flashed in his time as a backup and special teamer and now steps in as the starter in a revamped secondary. Call it a hunch. If the first game is any indication, Kevin Ogletree (WR) is the breakout candidate on offense.

Other: As far as the best MLBs in football who get little to no hype, Sean Lee leads the pack. He's everywhere.

1. Giants (10-6)

Breakout player/s: Martellus Bennett (TE). I was originally going with the rookie David Wilson (RB), but as I watched the opening Giants/Cowboys game of the season, it struck me: Oh, right, Eli loves throwing to his tight end. Look what he did for Jake Ballard and Kevin Boss. Bennett is a huge target -- basically the same size as Ballard, actually -- with superb athleticism. He is primed for a breakout season now that he's no longer stuck behind Jason Witten in Dallas. Also, Ramses Barden (WR), who at 6'6" is a mismatch for every cornerback in the league. He's got skills, too, just needs to get on the field. Could be this year's Victor Cruz.

2. Eagles (9-7)*

Breakout player/s: Phillip Hunt (DE). Move over, Cameron Wake, there's a new CFL-import DE ready to make his mark in the NFL. I can't remember the last Eagles DE I've seen who strip sacks the QB as well as Hunt. Couple that with his unparalleled burst and explosion off the edge, and you've got a fumble-forcing bat out of hell.

More: Derek Landri is the man, Mychal Kendricks is a stud, and I'm a big fan of Cedric Thornton, while David Sims will be starting in place of either Nate Allen or Kurt Coleman before the bye week. Just as he did during his three years at Tulsa, the diminutive Damaris Johnson -- who Andy Reid said reminds him of DeSean Jackson (can't find the link, but I remember reading it) -- will send fans into a delirious frenzy numerous times as both a punt returner and receiver on offense. He's an electrifying talent and will serve as yet another big-play weapon for the Eagles. Lastly, I'd like two-TE sets to become a staple on offense because in addition to a commitment to the run, I want to see more of Clay Harbor as a receiver. I also hope the significant inclusion of Brent Celek in the passing attack that took hold after the fifth game of last season carries over into 2012. Get him the football. Pretty please.

3. Giants (8-8)

Breakout player/s: Martellus Bennett (TE). I was originally going with the rookie David Wilson (RB), but as I watched the opening Giants/Cowboys game of the season, it struck me: Oh, right, Eli loves throwing to his tight end. Look what he did for Jake Ballard and Kevin Boss. Bennett is a huge target -- basically the same size as Ballard, actually -- with superb athleticism. He is primed for a breakout season now that he's no longer stuck behind Jason Witten in Dallas. Also, Ramses Barden (WR), who at 6'6" is a mismatch for every cornerback in the league. He's got skills, too, just needs to get on the field. Could be this year's Victor Cruz.

3. Cowboys (8-8)

Breakout player/s: Barry Church (SS). Big, strong, solid athlete who can tackle and cover. He's flashed in his time as a backup and special teamer and now steps in as the starter in a revamped secondary. Call it a hunch. If the first game is any indication, Kevin Ogletree (WR) is the breakout candidate on offense.

Other: As far as the best MLBs in football who get little to no hype, Sean Lee leads the pack. He's everywhere.

4. Redskins (6-10)

Breakout player/s: Aldrick Robinson (WR). Speed kills. I felt Robinson was a prospect who flew under the radar going into the 2011 draft. He flashed in the preseason and is an explosive playmaker on a team severely lacking them. Robinson is the Redskins' only true deep threat and should work his way into the offense as a regular sooner rather than later. At the very least, just tell him to run as fast as he can down the field and let RG3 air it out.

NFC North

1. Packers (13-3)

Breakout player/s: Randall Cobb (WR) is the hot name here (and with good reason), so instead I'll go with Alex Green, a dual threat who should emerge as the team's starter at RB. On defense, it's D.J. Smith (ILB), who first caught my attention last preseason as a rookie (scroll to the bottom). He was a record-setting tackler at Appalachian State and will fill a similar role for the Packers. Smith is only 5'11", but the dude is built like a brick shit house at 240 pounds, possesses elite level instincts, and can lay the wood. I bet he gets compared to Dexter Coakley, also an Appalachian State alumn.

2. Bears (10-6)*

Breakout player/s: Kellen Davis (TE). Davis is 6'7", 270 pounds, and ran a 4.6 coming out of college. He is the starting TE in an offense that, with Mike Martz gone and Mike Tice calling plays, will heavily feature the position as part of the passing game and allow him to develop into something more than just a red zone specialist. I can't imagine Jay Cutler not looking for this monster target in the middle of the field.

3. Lions (8-8)

Breakout player/s: Ryan Broyles (WR). If Broyles' knees don't explode, he'll be one of the league's elite slot receivers in no time.

4. Vikings (7-9)

Breakout player/s: Kyle Rudolph (TE). Loved him in college, and I get the sense that Christian Ponder will be looking for his safety valve receiver frequently. Also, Jamarca Sanford (FS), who very quietly had himself a nice season in 2011.

NFC South

1. Saints (11-5)

Breakout player/s: Isa Abdul-Quddus (SS). First, I thoroughly enjoy saying his name. Second, in recording just 16 total tackles last season, Abdul-Quddus forced FIVE fumbles (tied for third in the league). That's because he hits with devestating, annihilating force.

More: I love what the Saints did this offseason from a personnel standpoint while the fallout from the bounty scandal sought to cripple the franchise. Hiring Steve Spagnuolo then signing Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne (who I wanted on the Eagles), and a reborn Brodrick Bunkley were all strokes of genius. I think the defense will be a real source of strength, and we all know what the offense will do with Drew Brees at the helm, even if Sean Payton won't be around. I see a Super Bowl contender when I look at the roster on paper and get the feeling this is a team that will be all kinds of galvanized after what transpired over the summer.

2. Falcons (9-7)

Breakout player/s: Jacquizz Rodgers (RB). A homeless man's version of Darren Sproles and easily my favorite player from the 2011 draft. If you don't like Jacquizz, you don't have a soul.

3. Buccaneers (7-9)

Breakout player/s: David Martin (RB) is getting all the hype, but the most impactful player could end up being the Bucs' initial first round pick, Mark Barron (SS). Mason Foster (MLB) is another player to watch on defense.

4. Panthers (7-9)

Breakout player/s: Picking Luke Kuechly (OLB) is too much of a copout. Instead I'm going with Brandon LaFell (WR), who's poised to emerge from the aging Steve Smith's shadow, and Haruki Nakamura (FS), who finally gets his chance as a starter after years on the Ravens as a steady backup and top-end special teams player.

NFC West

1. 49ers (11-5)

Breakout player/s: Chris Culliver (CB) was someone I really liked going into the 2011 draft and quickly earned playing time on what was the league's best defense last season. He remains the nickel corner for now but has starter ability. Also, Kendall Hunter (RB) should take on more of a workload as the wear and tear on Frank Gore's body begins to take its toll.

2. Seahawks (9-7)

Breakout player/s: Russell Wilson (QB). OH MY GOD HE THROWS JUST LIKE DREW BREES!! DID YOU KNOW THEY'RE ROUGHLY THE SAME SIZE?? MUST COMAPRE!! For real, though, I like Hustle Wilson and hope he succeeds. Looked great in the preseason, that's for sure. On defense, it's definitely K.J. Wright (OLB), who combines size, speed, athleticism, and smarts. He's a Pro Bowler in the making.

3. Rams (6-10)

Breakout player/s: Robert Quinn (DE). I was skeptical about him prior to the draft because of how he played against top tier competition in college. Never mind about all that, Quinn is a freak and showed last season he's just scratching the surface of his potential. Playing opposite Chris Long doesn't hurt his cause either.

4. Cardinals (5-11)

Breakout player/s: You know what, I kinda like John Skelton. Anyway, Rob "take it to the" Housler (TE) has the size, athleticism, and raw ability to emerge as the one of the next superfreaks at his position, while rookie Justin Bethel's (FS) extraordinarily long arms have already enabled him to become a kick-blocking demon on special teams -- granted, in the preseason -- just as he was in college (FROM: Presbyterian).

Wild Card: 49ers over Eagles, Bears over Cowboys Giants

Divisonal: Packers over Bears, Saints over 49ers

Championship: Saints over Packers

AFC East

1. Patriots (13-3)

Breakout player/s: Chandler Jones (DE). I thought Jones was the best DE in this past draft class, and he wowed everyone at training camp. I've even heard/read the Jason Pierre-Paul comparison drawn on more than one occasion. Not too shabby. Also, Aaron Hernandez will have a better season than Rob Gronkowski.

2. Bills (9-7)*

Breakout player/s: Arthur Moats (OLB). I thought Moats would break out in 2011 after an eye-opening end to the 2010 season, but a position switch to MLB helped stagnate his development. Now back on the outside, where he thrived in 2010, I'll cast my lot with Moats again. Hard-nosed player who's underrated as a blitzer. The candidate on offense is T.J. Graham (WR), a rookie speedster from North Carolina State who will be featured in the slot and can take the top off a defense. He's also a dangerous returner and holds the ACC record for all-time kickoff return yards with 3,153.

3. Jets (6-10)

Breakout player/s: Ugh, fuck this circus of a team and their attention-mongering antics. Seriously. I hyped Temple product Muhammad Wilkerson (DE) a lot going into last year's draft, so I'll stick with him. Hey, maybe Chaz Schilens (WR) will finally stay healthy long enough to take advantage of the fact that he's 6'4", 225 pounds, and ran a sub-4.4 coming out of college. Oh, right, it won't matter because he has Mark Sanchez/Tim Tebow throwing him the ball. I'm not kidding nor exaggerating when I say Greg McElroy is the best quarterback on the roster.

4. Dolphins (5-11)

Breakout player/s: Sean Smith (CB). I'm recycling another name from last season, partly because I'm lazy and partly because I still believe in his size/talent combination. I also predict that Charles Clay (FB/H-Back/TE) will lead the team in receptions.

AFC North

1. Steelers (11-5)

Breakout player/s: Chris Carter (OLB). James Harrison is 34 and breaking down. Enter football's new Chris Carter; this one plays defense. I watched him terrorize the opposition at Fresno State, and after seeing him in the preseason I feel he's ready to do the same in the pros. He's in the perfect scheme for his talents as a pass rusher and gets to play opposite LaMarr Woodley. Cortez Allen (CB) is another second-year player to watch and, like Carter, someone who intrigued me coming out of college (FROM: The Citadel). He's got size, ability, and plays physically. There's no reason he can't overtake Keenan Lewis for the second starting cornerback spot.

2. Ravens (10-6)*

Breakout player/s: Paul Kruger (OLB). "KRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUG." That's going to be the chant from the crowd at M&T Bank Stadium when Kruger makes a play, right? He registered 5.5 sacks on 15 total tackles in limited time last season. Now the fourth-year pro out of Utah is starting, replacing Jarret Johnson as the Ravens' white defensive player du jour. Expect Kruger to build on his 2011 performance and become a household name in 2012.

3. Bengals (7-9)

Breakout player/s: Vincent Rey or Dan Skuta (both OLB) are candidates on defense but start the season in backup roles. For that reason, I'll go with Mohamed Sanu (WR). Given what's in front of him at the position, he should ascend to the #2 spot.

4. Browns (3-13)

Breakout player/s: Uh... Josh Gordon (WR)? Just looking at this roster is depressing. At least they have Jabaal Sheard (DE).

AFC South

1. Texans (12-4)

Breakout player/s: Clay Matthews clone Brooks Reed (OLB) is a sagacious pick to lead the league in sacks, but it's his backup, Bryan Braman (OLB), who piques my interest. Why? Because this dude is one crazy you-know-what. He's notorious for being arrested in college (FROM: West Texas A&M) for manufacturing psilocybin, the active principle in psychadelic mushrooms. Sweet. Looking at his picture from back then, I'll just say the charge doesn't exactly surprise me. Since the arrest, however, Braman has cleaned up his act. An undrafted free agent, he established himself last season as perhaps the Texans' best special teams player. Oh, and he made a tackle sans helmet.

2. Colts (8-8)

Breakout player/s: T.Y. Hilton (WR) and LaVon Brazill (WR). This rookie wide receiver duo will serve as Andrew Luck's (who is very for real) second and third options at the position behind Reggie Wayne. Both showed plenty of potential in the preseason, and Hilton's 4.3-speed is legit.

3. Titans (6-10)

Breakout player/s: Perhaps Jared Cook (TE), finally? Though given that he burned me last year, I'll go with Colin McCarthy (MLB). He's right up there with Sean Lee as far as emerging star MLBs go.

4. Jaguars (4-12)

Breakout player/s: Rashad Jennings (RB) is the obvious choice here, given Maurice Jones-Drew's holdout and how that typically adversely affects players throughout the season. Before tearing his ACL in the preseason, Jenning was actually a good bet to break out last season based on how he played in 2010. I'm still holding out hope for Austen Lane (DE), as well.

AFC West

1. Chargers (9-7)

Breakout player/s: Prior to breaking his ankle in the preseason, Vincent Brown (WR), long a favorite of mine dating back to his days at San Diego State, would have been the clear choice. Since he won't be back until late October at the earliest, I'll go with Vaughn Martin (DE) instead... because he went to the University of Western Ontario (after transferring from Michigan State).

2. Broncos (8-8)

Breakout player/s: Eric Decker (WR). Yeah, you could say I'm a huge fan. I had Decker as a breakout player for last season, and, despite the Tebow wishbone offense, he had plenty of shining moments that made you think, Hey, if this guy ever has a real quarterback throwing him the ball, he could put up some great numbers. Peyton Manning should be the best thing that ever happens to him. I think Decker goes for 90 catches, 1,200 yards and double-digit touchdowns.

3. Chiefs (7-9)

Breakout player/s: Jon Baldwin (WR). As far as physical ability goes, Baldwin is up there with any wide receiver in the game. He can be a dominant player, perhaps even the best from his draft class (which includes A.J. Green and Julio Jones), it's just a matter of whether he can stop being a foolish, selfish, and disruptive jackass long enough to harness his talents.

4. Raiders (6-10)

Breakout player/s: Miles Burris (OLB). Love his style, tough as nails, and totally fits that Raiders persona. I first noticed Burris -- who shows a knack for getting to the quarterback on the blitz -- when watching San Diego State to get a look at Vincent Brown and have been a fan ever since. It's not at all a surprise to me that he's their starting weakside linebacker for Week 1.

Wild Card: Steelers over Bills, Ravens over Chargers

Divisional: Texans over Patriots, Ravens over Steelers

Championship: Texans over Ravens

Super Bowl XXXXVII: Saints over Texans (IN YOUR FACE, GOODELL! First time the city hosting the Super Bowl will feature its home team -- might as well have them winning, too. Now, would Roger ever allow such a spectacular egg-on-his-face scenario to take place? Guess we'll find out.)

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