The Eagles expect to be a Super Bowl contender in 2011. What lessons can they learn from last year's champs, the Green Bay Packers?
The goal every year is to win the Super Bowl. With that in mind, let's look to last year's champ, the Green Bay Packers, and see what lessons can be learned and how they might relate to the 2011 Eagles.
One of the fears that some people have about this year's Eagles is that they might be too young to really contend for a Super Bowl. Packers fans would tell you different. Green Bay got key contributions from rookies. They had four rookie starters in the Super Bowl. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga was taken in the first round. Running back James Starks was taken in the sixth round. Defensive end C.J. Wilson was taken in the seventh. Linebacker Frank Zombo was undrafted. Think about that. The Packers had four rookie starters and only one of them was taken before the sixth round. Wow.
The Packers normally didn't start Wilson. He was in because Pittsburgh was such a run-heavy team. The player who did normally start was another rookie, cornerback Sam Shields. Like Zombo, he was undrafted. Punter Tim Masthay wasn't a true rookie, but 2010 was his first year of NFL action. He spent some time with the Colts in the summer of 2009, but didn't make the team.
Stud tight end Jermichael Finley got hurt early in the season and missed the rest of the year. The Packers didn't panic. They gave his job to rookie Andrew Quarless. He responded with 33 catches. Tom Crabtree also helped out. Like Masthay, he wasn't a true rookie but was seeing his first NFL action. Crabtree caught a touchdown pass in the Packers wildcard win over the Eagles.
Green Bay didn't go into the season planning to start all of these rookies. They did have a pair of rookies in the starting lineup on opening day, Shields and safety Morgan Burnett. Shields wasn't planned, but they hoped for Burnett to be a starter. Green Bay did have rookies as key backups and role players from day one. That is part of their organizational philosophy. The Packers have the attitude that if they draft players it is because they believe in them and want to give those players a chance to show what they can do. The Eagles have a similar mentality, but do believe in free agency more than the Packers.
How will rookies impact the 2011 Eagles? We're just projecting for now, but I think we will have Alex Henery as the kicker, Jaiquawn Jarrett as the strong safety, and Danny Watkins as the right guard. It is possible Casey Matthews will start at one of the linebacker spots. Stanley Havili could contribute as a running back or win the starting fullback spot from Owen Schmitt. The other rookies might surprise and become key role players or get a shot at starting due to injury, but I don't project any of them to win jobs right off the bat. As for non-rookie first year players, it is possible Phillip Hunt and Ricky Sapp could be regular role players. A.Q. Shipley could be in the mix for the starting center position.
The Eagles will be young, but I don't think they will be too young to compete for a Super Bowl. The key to all of this is having a strong core of players in place. You can then fit pieces in around the core players. The Eagles offense is pretty loaded. The defense will undergo some changes, but we're still talking about a group with Trent Cole, Asante Samuel, and a solid set of defensive tackles. Guys like Moise Fokou, Jamar Chaney, and Nate Allen should be classified as ascending players. I still fully expect the Eagles to land a top flight player to handle the right cornerback spot. The defense has some good pieces already in place.
There will be change during the season. Injuries affect all 32 teams. Green Bay did a great job of dealing with them and finding players to step in and play well. Linebacker Erik Walden bounced around for three years before joining the Packers last October. In the season finale against Chicago, a crucial game, Walden had 12 tackles and three sacks. Safety Charlie Peprah had a total of 27 tackles in his first four years in the league. He spent three of those with Green Bay and was a Falcon in 2009. He returned to the Packers in 2010 and had 63 tackles. Peprah had 10 tackles in the Super Bowl, the highest total on either team. Defensive tackle Howard Green was added in October and helped the Packers down the stretch. He played some defensive end as well. Green is a massive run stopper so he didn't post great numbers, but he was important. Prior to his arrival, only two opponents were held under 100 yards rushing in a game. With Green, that total rose to seven opponents. Granted, more games were played with him than without, but the run defense was significantly better.
As you look at the Eagles roster and depth chart now, remember that not all of these players will be around in December and January. Last year the Eagles came up with Owen Schmitt, Colt Anderson, and Gerard Lawson as contributors after the season started. Other players were added, but offered little. Reggie Wells was a serious disappointment. Derrick Burgess had a short return to the Eagles that didn't go as hoped.
One area that is a lot different between the Eagles and Packers is coaching. The Packers added Dom Capers and the 3-4 defense prior to the 2009 season. That was the year when they had to adjust to a new scheme and style of coaching. There were serious highs and lows. It paid off in 2010 when there was coaching stability and the players did know the scheme inside-out.
The Eagles basically revamped the whole defensive coaching staff. The scheme will remain a 4-3, but it will be different than what was done over the past couple of years. It won't be as great of an adjustment as what Green Bay went through. Remember what Brett Favre did to that defense in 2009? He made the Packers look awful. They also struggled in the playoffs. The Eagles should have an easier time of it and should not struggle as much. In six of 17 games the 2009 Packers allowed 30 or more points. That all changed in 2010 when only the Patriots were able to score more than 30. And that came from a total of 20 games.
The Packers had enough offensive firepower to get through 2009's inconsistent defense and be a playoff team. The Eagles have enough firepower to do the same thing. If the new coaches mesh well with the players and the scheme works well, there is no reason to think the Eagles can't contend for the Super Bowl this year.
So what are the important lessons to take away from all of this? Most important, don't be afraid to play young players. If they are talented and fit what you do, give them a chance. Not all will work out, but maybe more than you think. If you add players from other teams or the street, find specific roles for them. You can't expect a new player to do exactly what you wanted back in training camp. You have to mold the role to the player. All of this is happening on the fly. Finally, it doesn't hurt to be lucky. Look at Walden's three-sack game. Derrick Burgess had 2.5 sacks in 2004. He played pretty well that year, but couldn't seal the deal. A guy like Walden comes from nowhere to get three sacks in one day.
I don't know if Andy Reid was heavily influenced by Green Bay's defensive change prior to 2009, but obviously he did the same thing in terms of changing the coaches and the scheme. It will be interesting at some point in the future to hear Reid reflect back on the situation and explain what outside influences did affect his decision to make the defensive changes.
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It looks like the lockout and CBA mess is going to finally be over (fingers crossed). I can't wait until this is all a distant memory and we get back to some sense of normalcy. I think we're all dying for that first transaction to take place. I don't care if it is a big free agent move, simply signing an undrafted rookie, or just putting Ellis Hobbs on the retired list. Just give me some action.
Things will go crazy soon. There's going to be a flurry of activity in the next few weeks. It could be one of the craziest two week periods in the history of the NFL. I can't wait for all the fun to start.