Last week we finally got some good news on the lockout front. The owners and the group formerly known as the NFLPA did some negotiating and reportedly made some actual progress. There was a ground swell of optimism about the situation that we've not had since probably March. It is great to have things headed in the right direction. We need a resolution so we can get back to football. If an agreement is reached soon enough, we could have training camp (not necessarily at Lehigh) and preseason games.
Juan Castillo and the Eagles defense desperately need time to practice. Castillo is adjusting to being the defensive coordinator. All of the positional assistants need time to adjust to the new players and revised scheme. There could be several new starters, even a couple of rookies. The more practice time, the better.
Lost in all the talk of the revamped defense is the fact that the offense needs practice time as well. I mentioned in last week's column that Michael Vick had not been the starting quarterback in training camp since 2006. Even a player with Vick's talent and experience needs practice time. Training camp is when the quarterback and his receivers work out the subtleties of the passing game. They're able to really get their timing down. The receivers can tell Vick where they want the ball on certain routes. The Eagles passing attack was outstanding last year. The point of practice is to get even better. The old saying is that practice makes perfect.
Think about Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. Both are Hall of Fame players. They made each other better by practicing relentlessly. They worked each spring and summer. They practiced hard during the season. Heck, they practiced before each game. Those two didn't combine for 114 touchdowns by accident. They did it through talent, hard work, and lots of practice.
Vick instantly had a good rapport with Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson, and Jason Avant last year. That led to some big plays and a productive, explosive offense. Now we need the offense to take the next step, becoming more consistent. Vick returned from an injury on November 7 against the Colts. The Eagles scored 26, 59, 27, 26, 34, 30, and 38 points in the next seven games. That all led up to the most meaningful regular season game of the year, a Tuesday night meeting with the Vikings. The Eagles needed a win to stay alive for the number two seed in the NFC. The offense struggled all night long and only put up 14 points. The next week was the meaningless Backup Bowl vs Dallas. After that was the Wildcard game with Green Bay. The offense was wildly inconsistent in that game, but only put 16 points on the board.
All the big plays and explosive offense went away in the two most important games of the year. There were a variety of factors that contributed to the situation. This is where a full off-season of work together can make a difference. Vick and the receivers need to hone the little things so that the offense can play small ball when that is needed. You can't count on 80-yard bombs to Jackson. They're great when they happen, but an offense must be able to move the ball methodically in some situations.
It will be interesting to see what changes Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg make to the offense. They built the 2010 Eagles around Kevin Kolb. There are adjustments to be made. Kolb is a righty, Vick a lefty. Kolb is mobile, but Vick is very mobile. Vick obviously has the stronger arm. The coaches have no limitations with what they do with Vick from a physical standpoint.
Every year the coaches tweak the offense to fit the personnel. In 2002 the offense featured a lot of three-receiver sets because of Antonio Freeman. In 2003 the offense used more two-tight end sets because of Chad Lewis and L.J. Smith. In 2004 the ball was fed to Terrell Owens. In 2006 and 2007 Brian Westbrook became the key to the offense. He was truly a workhorse back in those seasons. In the last few years the offense has really become a three-receiver attack once again. The Wildcat was mixed in the last few years.
The changes for 2011 will be dictated by personnel. If the coaches think Clay Harbor is ready to emerge as a really good tight end, maybe there are more two-tight end sets. If Riley Cooper is the guy the coaches see developing, maybe there will be more four-receiver sets. If the Eagles go after Plaxico Burress or Reggie Bush, the offense would adjust to fit those guys in. We'll just have to wait and see what changes the coaches have in mind.
No matter what, it will be important for Vick and the offense to have a strong summer of practicing. One area that will be completely new is the offensive line. There will be returning starters, but the blocking scheme will be vastly different. Vick and the skill players will need some time to adjust to how the linemen block in the new system. The linemen won't give ground initially, the way they did in Castillo's system. That means Vick may have more space between him and the rushers at times. That also means they could be tougher to run against. Last year ends were invited to come upfield and the tackles then rode them deep of Vick. That created natural running lanes. This year the tackles will engage the ends at the line. It will be easier for the ends to keep track of Vick from that angle.
New line coach Howard Mudd preaches to the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly to help his linemen out. Vick has a habit of holding the ball too long. You can bet Mudd will talk to Vick on a regular basis about getting the ball out quicker this summer. That's an area where Vick does need to improve. I think regular practice with the starters will help him a lot. He's already made great progress from where he was in his Falcons days.
I already mentioned Harbor and Cooper. I do think those are the skill players that will benefit the most from getting in practice time this summer. Each player made good strides last season, but still had their rookie moments. Harbor is really talented. He spent time as a normal tight end last year, but also lined up out wide and in the backfield. He showed promise as a blocker and receiver. He's a terrific athlete. I expect him to be a factor this season. Chad Hall is the offensive player who probably needs practice the most. He worked his tail off last summer, but was rusty. This is make or break time for him. He's got to show the Eagles he can play at the NFL level.
The offensive line is the position group that will have the most focus this summer. We have to find out who the starters will be. Mudd doesn't have any special ties to these players. He doesn't see Winston Justice as a player he drafted early and wants to succeed. Mudd doesn't see Dallas Reynolds as a hard working member of the practice squad. Mudd looks at the group and sees bodies. He'll give everyone a chance to show what they can do in his system. Mudd wants to find the five best blockers and get them on the field. He has to do this somewhat quickly so they can have plenty of practice time together. Cohesion is a critical factor in the success of an offensive line.
The Eagles finished second in the NFL in yards gained in 2010. They were third in points scored. They set a team record for points scored in a season. The key skill players are all coming back. All of that sounds great and makes you feel confident, but there is still work to do. The offense needs to get better so that they can come through late in the season and in the playoffs. Having a good training camp and preseason will be important if the offense wants to take the next step and be consistent, as well as explosive.