Taking It to the House goes “Back to the Future” to find the answer to the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive woes
Growing-up and living in the Philadelphia area and now covering the Eagles has afforded me the chance to have a pretty strong lense into both the team and their fanbase. And I have to tell you, that this week after all the “Dream Team” talk going into the 2011 season plus the early failures of the current Birds – record of 1-2 in the NFC East basement after consecutive disturbing losses. That the Birds’ most recent loss, a 29-16 home opener defeat to the hated New York Giants, has made Eagles’ fans probably more angrier — during the regular season – than any other time that I can remember in Andy Reid’s 193-game tenure over 13 years at the helm of the Philadelphia Eagles franchise.
And with Reid responding to a post game press conference question in a cantankerous way by saying, ““Let’s talk some football here.” I am more than willing to do just that by starting with some history. In doing my research for this piece, I tried to remember some of the other seasons/milestones where Reid, who everyone knows is the all-time winningest coach in team history with a record of 119-75-1 and a regular season win percentage of 61.3% , clearly was on the proverbial “Hot Seat” with the fans and media in this town and how the Birds responded. Though it was very hard to find a singular regular season moment where the lynch mob was hotter for Reid, mostly due to his underachieving defense and linebackers than right now, I think I may have located a time.
So let’s jump into Dr. Emmett Brown’s Back to the Future time machine and go back to September 14, 2003. Reid has just left another “I Have to Do a Better Job” press conference with fans and the media hot on his trail after an embarrassing 31-10 loss to the New England Patriots. On this day, the Patriots went up and down on the Eagles’ smallish defense while producing 309 total yards and no turnovers. New England quarterback Tom Brady was able to torch the Birds for 3 TDs including two to little-known tight end Christian Fauria, who had a field day catching passes against Eagles’ linebackers. The loss marked the Eagles’ second straight defeat to open the 2003-2004 season, leaving them at 0-2 and the bottom of the NFC East home. Plus to make matters worse, they were entering their bye week accompanied by two weeks of “Reid Must Go” talk. Alright does any of this sound familiar….well everything, but the bye week. This definitely was one of the “Monday Morning Quarterback” instances where I can remember the white-hot regular season ire of the fans and media that sounds even remotely close to the days following the Giants’ loss.
But before we delve further, let’s look back to the beginning of that season. In Reid’s 5th season at the reins for the Eagles, the franchise entered the 2003 -2004 season with very high hopes despite coming off a tough 2002 season that ended with the catastrophic 27-10 loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs in the NFC Championship that closed the city’s beloved Veterans’ Stadium – sorry for going back there again. Even after a loss, that some say “ripped” the heart out of Philadelphia, people thought Reid and his staff had learned from their “I have to do a better job” mistakes (Got Away from Running the Ball, Eagles LB’s sub par, Problems in coverage with their safeties, and a quarterback that struggled to make plays in the pocket when it mattered most in games) to emerge with some optimism entering the new season. And Hey and why not, the Birds at this stage in the Philly Sports landscape were still the only sports story in town – Phillies were improving as they moved to their new stadium Citizens Bank Park, the Sixers magical 2000-20001 season was long gone and Allen Iverson’s act was fading fast, and the Flyers continued to have the Stanley Cup evade them.
The 2003 – 2004 NFL Season was going to be the one where the Eagles and Reid finally got over the hump. It was Year 5 of Reid’s “Super Bowl Winning Big Plan” from his “huge” notebook, that he had written at the foot Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Holmgren, and had impressed owner Jeff Lurie enough to hire him way back before 1999 NFL Season. In the off-season before the 2003 -2004 season, the Eagles front office, i.e. Reid, went about retooling his defense that struggled in the NFC Championship game loss to the Bucs – especially their linebackers. In that infamous game, the Eagles won in almost every offensive statistical category – more yards (312 to 308) and first downs (20 to 15) — except where it matter most, “On the Scoreboard”. The two other driving stats of that playoff loss showed some other serious chinks in Reid’s defense’s armor were turnovers (Eagles’ 3 to Bucs’ 1), the lack of sacks (Eagles’ zero to Bucs’ two), and big plays allowed (average completion of 12.95 with a game-breaking 71-yard crossing pattern that will forever live in Philly Sports Infamy).
So after that terrible loss that closed the Vet, the Eagles front-office went about fixing a defense that was ranked 2nd in the NFL in 2002 with the following numbers 241 pts allowed (15.1 pts per), 34 turnovers produced including 23 fumble recoveries and 15 interceptions, and allowing 1660 rushing yards to rank 9th overall in the NFL. To say the least that defense looked, on paper, like a serious contender and one name, the late Jim Johnson, had a lot to do with it — but more on that later. As we fast forward to the Monday Night Football home opener onSeptember 8, 2003where the team opened its brand new palace, Lincoln Financial Field, their linebacking crew was totally revamped. With only veteran strongside linebacker Carlos Emmons returning, now gone were former high-draft Barry Gardner (still chasing Joe Jurevicius), free agent signee Levon Kirkland, and Shawn Barber. The updated group featured new middle linebacker Mark Simoneau (traded from New Orleans for a 4th and 6th round draft pick), new weakside linebacker Nate Wayne (signed from Green Bay Packers) and the aforementioned Emmons.
To say the least, the linebackers were considered smaller – lacked a thumper in the middle — than the year before and most of the NFL’s other units. But the idea was that they would be much faster, better in coverage, and would be able to run downhill to make more game-changing plays – again does any of this sound familiar. However the fans ire was turned up to boiling point levels after the Eagles played terrible in their stadium opening Monday Night Football 17-0 loss again to head coach Jon Gruden’s Bucs. And the anger and fury was just further exacerbated by the aforementioned embarrassing loss to the Patriots followed by a bye week. To Reid and his staff’s credit, it was during time off from the team’s early bye, that the players and coaching staff were able to make adjustments that fueled a streak of winning 12 of their next 14 games while finishing 12-4 and at the top of the NFC East.
The bright side of the 2003 -2004 season was that Eagles’ staff, particularly veteran defensive master Jim Johnson were able to find inventive ways for their smallish fast unit to succeed. Alright, I know that this team eventually lost their 3rd NFC Championship Game in a row to Carolina Panthers. But right now let’s concentrate on the regular season and adjustments. Though the group finished 22nd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (2071 yards with a healthy 4.5 yard per carry average), Johnson’s unit featuring assistants Steve Spagnuolo (defensive backs coach) and Ron Rivera (linebackers coach) were was able to make the adjustments necessary through run blitzes and other tactical changes to turn an ugly early season around. The group fueled by a secondary featuring probably the NFL’s best set of cornerbacks (Pro Bowl player CB Troy Vincent, CB Bobby Taylor, Lito Sheppard, and Sheldon Brown) and Pro Bowl pocket-pushing DT Corey Simon – sounds a lot like 2011’s Asomugha, Rodgers-Cromartie, Samuel, and Jenkins – were able to become a contender. The 2003 Eagles Defense produced 35 sacks and 26 turnovers and had a solid run into the playoffs, despite being termed “Smallish” and sometime having difficulty in stopping the run.
Now back to the present, it is Andy Reid’s 13th season in Philadelphia and fans are wondering if he ever will lead the team to their long-anticipated Super Bowl victory. The fans that have waited over 50 years for an NFL Championship have groan weary and frustrated by the head coach’s non-answers, to what they perceive as, the same glaring weaknesses. Plus his press conference that to put it mildly are “Surly”. With the big-time free agency moves that the front office made to bolster a team that was “close” to the Super Champion Green Bay Packers in a 2010 NFC Wildcard loss, expectations are now at “Super Bowl or Bust” Levels. I have even heard several long-time Reid apologists start to waver on the notion, that the statistically successful head coach, is the right man for the job. Through 3 weeks of play, the highly-touted Eagles’ new Wide-9 defense led by rookie defensive coordinator Juan Castillo has produced the following numbers: 77 points allowed (ranked 24th in NFL), 593 passing yards (8th), 394 rushing yards (30th), 12 sacks, and 3 turnovers (22).
I know Birds’ fans don’t want to hear it, but there is still plenty of time for the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles to get back in the race. As history has shown, 1-2 teams can advance to the playoffs — since 1990, 22 teams have started 1-2 and still qualified for the postseason, including the best case scenario, the 2007 Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. Reid and company have faced a record of (1-2) three other times before (2000, 2003, and 2007) and have usually managed to pull a rabbit out their hat to save their respective seasons. Reid’s combined record in those (1-2) starting seasons is a respectible 31-17 with two trips to the NFChampionship Game, so all is not lost.
I think a good start to an Eagles’ comeback and starting to get back in the good graces of the fans and media in Philly is putting a whipping on the Niners this week. Who knows maybe a good win over Sain Francisco – BTW didn’t cross the 50-yd line until the 3rd quarter in their Week 2 win over the Bengals — could stop some of the many calls for Reid’s head. But the big question still out there is, “Will Castillo and a relatively inexperienced defensive staff be able to make adjustments like Johnson?”.
When Reid hired Castillo he said of his energetic former offensive line coach, who was taking over for beleaguered former assistant Sean McDermott — finished ranked 21st in NFL in points allowed while having an NFL 25-year high opponent redzone scoring percentage of 77%. “If you talk to the players and coaches around the league, what might seem a little strange is just a very confident move and one that will take our defense to another level. I look forward to that combination of Jim Washburn and Juan Castillo and the rest of the staff that we’ll add in the future. I’ve seen good defensive coaches, including Jim Johnson, go down to Juan’s office to talk to defensive football.”
So now the time is our’s, to see if the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles can make the defensive adjustments necessary to truly make this a “dream” season.