Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Take These Broken Wings
I'm out of here for about a week and a half, starting late on Thursday the 23rd, for a vacation in Italy with my wife. If all goes to plan, when I get back on the evening of April 3, the Phillies will be 1-0 and the temperature will actually reflect the season known as "spring," rather than this 30-something degree unpleasantness we've had for most of this month.

But while I'm actually feeling pretty good about the Phillies right now--though, in deference to The Navigator, I'm not making any predictions--my other favorite team isn't looking so strong. I speak, of course, about the Philadelphia Eagles.

In sports, I believe that when teams enjoy a sustained run of success, they get arrogant and come to believe they're smarter than the competition. One bad year is too easily dismissed as an aberration; sometimes it takes a half a decade of regular beatings for humility to return. Sometimes--think of the 1980s-era Phillies, who didn't even start to smarten up until a decade-plus on the receiving end of ass-kickings--it takes a lot longer than that.

As Rich Hoffman wrote in Wednesday's Philadelphia Daily News, this year we're going to find out whether the Eagles really are as smart as they think they are. Right now, my strong hunch is that they aren't, and that we're more likely to see more sub-.500 seasons than a return to the top of the NFC East. The 2006 Eagles right now look like a seven-win team to me, given the issues of age, health, and quality of division opponents. And even that might be optimistic.

Here's an easy way to think about it:

1) Thanks to advancing age and accumulated injuries, the remaining players from the team that went to Super Bowl XXXIX, by and large, won't be as good in 2006 as they were in 2004.

2) Of everyone else, pending the April draft, we've probably lost more starter-level talent (Owens, Burgess, Simon, Chad Lewis, Mayberry--all of whom were solid or better for that team) than we've brought on from 2004 til now (Howard, Gaffney, Barber, Brown, Patterson). If Jon Runyan signs elsewhere, the gap widens further.

3) The division opponents are all now considerably better than they were in 2004. None look to me like probably Super Bowl teams, but all three are probably 8-11 win clubs. If the defensive players Parcells drafted last spring develop as expected, Julius Jones stays healthy, and TO more or less behaves, the Cowboys might be as strong as any club in the NFC. (Dear god, I'm not sure I've ever written a more galling sentence.)

4) Andy Reid's regime has not been so good in the draft--or, more to the point, developing the talent brought in from the draft--that we should hang our hopes on what happens in late April.

Another way to think about it is that NFL clubs win by outplaying their opponents on the lines and at the skill positions. Again, just thinking about the NFC East, the Eagles come up short in both dimensions. For playmakers on offense, they've got Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Reggie Brown, Jafar Gaffney, and LJ Smith; Dallas has Drew Bledsoe, Jones, TO, Terry Glenn, and Jason Witten. I'll take McNabb over Bledsoe; do the Eagles look better anywhere else? You could make a case for Westbrook over Jones, but the bigger, younger guy is likely the better bet going forward.

Up the Jersey Turnpike, the Giants have Eli Manning, Tiki Barber, Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey. Again, McNabb's my preferred quarterback, though that gap will close. Otherwise, it's all Blue. Down I-95, the Redskins have Mark Brunell, Clinton Portis, Santana Moss, Brandon Lloyd or Antwaan Randle-El, and Chris Cooley. This is a recording: McNabb (if healthy) is the best quarterback in the division. And you could argue that LJ Smith is a better tight end than Cooley (who's listed as a fullback on the 'Skins' depth chart, for what that's worth).

Overall, I think it's clear that the Eagles have the worst overall talent at the offensive skill positions in the NFC East. And it's not particularly close; while McNabb is pretty clearly better than either of the veteran passers in Dallas and Washington, both guys can manage a game just fine--which minimizes the difference. Now, if the Eagles had a clearly superior offensive line, maybe that would make up for the deficit at the skill positions. Would you argue that they do? I sure wouldn't: the sacks-allowed and rush-per-carry stats peg their line (admittedly depleted by injuries) as substantially worse than either New York's or Washington's, and just a bit better than Dallas. With former Pro Bowler Runyan possibly leaving and fellow tackle Tra Thomas coming off a serious back injury, there might be more room for decline than improvement.

Rumor this afternoon (Thursday) is that Runyan might come back after all... but I'm out of time, and might (or might not) talk about the defense when I return. Suffice it to say that I don't think things are quite as bad on that side of the ball, but if they don't take a defensive tackle with their first draft pick, I'll be pretty upset.

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