A post on the Eagles board at Philly.com got me thinking. What are the keys to the Eagles season in 2007. Having spent so much time debating the fine point of the Eagles off-season moves (with more coming re- the Draft) what can I speculate about regarding what needs to happen to the team to contend for a chance to be in playing in Arizona in Feb.
Overall Team Key #1 - First and foremost, the Eagles need Donovan back. Coming off a torn ACL is never easy and while Carson Palmer did very well last year, he didn't find his QB groove for a little while. That might work in Cincinnati, but Eagles phans need to remember this come September; he probably won't be 100% back and rarin' to go, no matter what the press clippings say. That isn't to say he won't play, or that we should go with A.J. (though I think he could get us by for a few weeks). But make no mistake, this team will not contend without its QB1. If McNabb can stay healthy and get stronger as the season goes on, we'll be fine.
Which leads me to Offensive Key #1 - balance. In order to lighten the burden the team usually heaps on McNabb's shoulders (and keep him upright), the Eagles need to run the ball. I think Reid's commitment to letting Marty Mornhigwheg call the plays suggests this will be the case but we cannot expect to call on McNabb to pass 45-50 times a game 3-4-5 weeks in a row and expect good results.
Offensive Key #2 - Working in a young, new Big Back. I know the Eagles re-signed Buck for another two years, and I know that Westbrook is actually fairly underrated at getting those tough yards (we don't seem to use him enough), but getting a bruiser complement to WB and Buck, someone who can catch the ball too, but somehow who lay the wood to an opponent from either the FB or RB position would be nice, and would really help us maintain that balance (see point 1).
Offensive Key #3 - Production by Curtis/Brown, maturation by Baskett and Avant. I know a lot of folks wanted to see Donte' Stallworth stick around for a while. So did I. But Kevin Curtis is not a bad replacement - or at least he doesn't appear to be. They both got blazing speed, and while Donte' is bigger, Kevin has got better hands. They both can make the tough catch in traffic, I just think that Curtis has a slight edge in making the reception. We'll see sometimes Donovan's passes aren't the easiest things to catch - Curtis will have some adjusting to do. As for Reggie. He had his best game with Stallworth out of the line-up, so while a lot of folks considered DS our Top WR - Reggie's not that far off. If he continues to step-up, he will be a complete and consistent threat at WR. Our second year men, Hank Baskett and Jason Avant should be fine. I don't anticipate that the Eagles will draft a WR, and I'd love to see HB continues to blossom. He came outta nowhere last year and did very well. I still stay Hank's acquisition is the best thing Billy McMullen ever did for this team (we traded BM to Minnesota for the undrafted Hank Baskett)....If Avant can force his way onto the field as a reliable possession/slot guy, it could portend the ends of Greg Lewis' tenure with the team (or maybe not).
Overall Team Key #2 - the second or third d'uh already in this post: Improved Play by the Defense. Ok, quit groaning and don't second guess your decision to click on over here, this key has a point - it leads into the section on individual defense points on which the Eagles need to improve:
Defense Key #1 - Improved play by the defensive tackles. Cole, Kearse, Lito and Dawk might get the lions share of the attention, but its the boys in the middle of the D-Line that set the tone (or don't as was the case too often last year). JJ's defensive style it predicated on technique and speed, not matching size on size as many of us would like to see. But I tell you what, the play of Bunkley, Patterson, Reagor, Ramsey and Rayburn (our present core of DTs) will go a long, LONG way to deciding the overall effectiveness of the Eagles defense. It will make or break our D. If the DTs don't command attention, it reduces the effectiveness of our speed-rushing ends, and too often allows opposing teams to get a lineman on our backers....NOT GOOD...it also plays into...
Defense Key #2 - Restoring the DL-rotation. The Birds D was at its best last year, early on, when we had a very effective 8-man rotation going. The Giants game turned on its head, and the Birds lost Jevon to a season ending injury in O.T. BAM - thing went downhill fast after that...this goes hand-in-hand with DT improvement, but it factors in the need for Kearse to come back healthy (he was injured very early in the season, and should be back to form quicker than McNabb) and for Howard to not disappear in the second half of the season. A lot depends on 4 linemen (Kearse, Howard, Bunkley and Ramsey) who for various reasons, were not available or did not produce as much as expected last season.
Key #3 - Weighing-In. There are some playing weight concerns for some on the Def. Foremost in my mind - Sean Considine. It was painfully obvious after seeing some decent-sized to big back lead cleat marks on his chest, that Strong Safety run support was a little much for his current playing weight. Considine can hit, and he's got good tackling technique, and I like him (unlike a lot of others), but he's not in the same class of hitters like Michael Lewis was for the Birds. A lot of us expect the Eagles to address the safety position early in the draft. And its true. getting a real-live young hitting play-making would be very nice, but SC could be counted on to provide stability/run support in nickel packages, etc, and if he can add a little bulk w/o losing speed, then I think that'll help the D absorb the losses we've had on the back-line. The second weighty issues concerns Trotter, who admitted to not being in the greatest playing shape year. If he can trim off some excess weight, that'll make the banging his knees take a little easier. Also, if the rotation is going, and the DTs play better, he can do what he does best - play downhill. Early in series. Then in obvious pass situation, we can rest him.
Key #4 - Dawkins staying ageless and Lito staying healthy. Lito and Dawk are the two cornerstones of our defensive backfield. While Sheldon, Michael Lewis and Considine all chimed in occasionally last year - our two most consistent play-makers on D were Lito Sheppard and Brian Dawkins. PERIOD. If either one is missing for any significant period of time, our D is going to suffer next year - no doubt in my mind. Which is why the team needs to fine Dawk's long-term replacement this year. I know Brian will play thru the next 2 years of his contract, but waiting until next year to find a safety is stretching it a bit in my opinion.
Overall Team Goal #3 - Improved Special Teams. (ok another d'uh moment). I'm talking all the way around. Better coverage, better kicking, better RETURNS.
Question #1 - Will the Eagles find an answer to their return game woes at the feet of either Jeremy Bloom or Bethel Johnson. Both have the jets, but I'm not sure how much experience either has at punt returns...we need someone for both, and unless we happen to score a DB with return skills in the draft.....The Eagles have been missing a return game for two seasons now (ever since the loss of JR Reed between the '04/'05 seasons). Mahe was fairly reliable, but unspectacular and never a threat to break one all the way.
Question #2 - Can Aussie wonder Saverio Rocca displace Dirk Johnson. Dirk (great name by the way) flashed goodness in 2005, and pedestrian mediocrity in 2006. Rocca is a massive Australian rules footballer who can boom kicks 60-70 yard. He is simply a phenom in AFB and has been an icon there for 15 years. Now at 33, he wants to jump across the pond. Heck this guy could be kicking for us for the next 5-6 years. Personally, I really hope he can make the adjustment to the American game. I wanna see the Roc boot the rock out da Linc!