Thursday, August 25, 2011

On the Eagles: This Dream Team has more than a few question marks

By John McMullen

PHILADELPHIA - Panic after a disastrous performance in Pittsburgh last week was tempered a bit on Thursday when the Eagles dominated Cleveland en route to a 24-14 win in the all-important third preseason game at the Linc.

But that doesn't mean this "Dream Team" doesn't have any question marks.

Philadelphia, of course, has already gotten more than they bargained for when they signed Vince Young and Jason Babin.

Young had a big time pedigree coming out of Texas but he's a backup here, a second-stringer some ill-informed observers think should be running the scout team instead of the lightly-regarded Mike Kafka. To say it's not Young's place to call this version of the Eagles a "Dream Team" is an understatement.

But, he did and the media took off with it.

Jason Babin compounded V.Y's faux pas when he compared Philadelphia to the Miami Heat. Forget the fact that the Heat lost in the NBA Finals, Babin, who was a first round bust until blossoming at 30 years old under Jim Washburn in Nashville last season, really shouldn't be comparing any of the Eagles players to LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, unquestioned giants in their sport.

Michael Vick and Nnamdi Asomugha are great players but they are not Ray Lewis or Adrian Peterson never mind Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.

Already Andy Reid and Joe Banner bristle when they hear the "Dream Team" tag thrown around.

Yeah, this is a very talented club but there are a lot of moving parts. Anyone who has studied the Washington Redskins since Daniel Snyder arrived in the nation's capital can tell you football is a sport best served by continuity.

Adding pressure to this group, which is still just getting to know one another is an unneeded and unwanted distraction.

The Eagles are unquestionably one of a few legitimate Super Bowl contenders but calling them the favorite in the NFC ahead of Green Bay or New Orleans is probably premature at this point.

There are just too many questions and here's eight burning ones Reid and Company must answer to reach their ultimate goal.

1. Is Casey Matthews the answer in the middle?

Rewind to 2008 and you would have thought Stewart Bradley was the second coming of Dick Butkus when the Eagles' brass talked about him. In truth, he was a slightly above average player that took a nose dive after a knee injury in '09. Now we are supposed to believe Casey Matthews is Ray Nitschke.

Granted anyone who’s already written off Matthews after his disastrous performance in Pittsburgh last week is just panicking. After getting steamrolled by Peyton Hillis early tonight, Matthews settled down and played

“I definitely felt better this week," Matthews said. "I obviously felt more comfortable. Last week against the Steelers was really my first week. I think it was only seven or eight plays, so I really couldn’t get in a rhythm. I definitely felt more comfortable this week and knew what to expect. I felt like it slowed down a lot—That’s what I feel was the biggest change from last week to this week and I was getting more blocks and making plays.”

It’s far too early to make any concrete observations about him as a player but for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, it's astonishing that the Eagles are ready to let a fourth round rookie quarterback their defense with absolutely no offseason work. Meanwhile, Matthews has also been leaving the field in the nickel, a defense you are in about 50 percent of the time these days in the NFL, meaning the so-called "leader" of the defense is on the sidelines half the time.

“It looked like he made some plays," Reid said when aked about Matthews. "Those inside linebackers, you have to look at the tape, so I’ll go back and do that. It looked like he did a good job of getting everyone lined up. He’s a pretty smart kid. The important thing with these young guys is that we give them time to grow each week as they get better.”

Those holding onto the security blanket of Jamar Chaney may be more pie-in-the-sky than the Eagles themselves. Chaney was a seventh round pick last year that provided a bad defense with a little spark late in the season. That's a long way away from being the next Seth Joyner. And remember, if the Eagles loved Chaney at the mike, why in the world wouldn't they have given him some, heck any reps, there at training camp? He didn't get one.

2) Is the offensive line good enough?

There has been a bit of a philosophy shift here with Howard Mudd taking over for Juan Castillo. Mudd likes athletes that excel in a zone blocking scheme and that's why is trying to shove rookie center Jason Kelce down your throat. Listed at 282, Kelce is a runt by today's NFL standards and its hard to believe he won't struggle with the powerful nose tackles that populate the NFL these days. Kelce started against Cleveland and piloted a line that looked very confused at times. In fact, rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor was the
lone bright spot for the Browns, blowing up both Kelce and fellow rookie Danny Watkins on a number of plays.

Jason Peters remains the most talented left tackle in the NFC but figures to remain maddingly inconsistent. Todd Herremans is good enough to win with and I think Watkins should be OK at right guard after a few growing pains. Both Watkins and Kelce looked extremely slow off the ball tonight. Right tackle also remains a big question mark and that position is more important here since it's Vick's blind side. Ryan Harris was brought in to be the starter but a balky back has put him on the sidelines next to last year's option Winston
Justice, an average player on good days but a far better option than King Dunlap.

"The offensive line did well," Vick exaggerated after he left the game tonight. "I'm proud of those guys. We can always improve, starting with me."

Reid was more honest with his assessment.

"There was a little confusion in a lot of areas there," the coach said. "It was a combination of things. It was a combination of the set-up point by the quarterback, and the blocking scheme up front. That’s about as detailed as I can get for you.”

The best case scenario would be to start Jamaal Jackson at the pivot, kick out Herremans to right tackle and let veteran Evan Mathis handle left guard but that option hasn't even been broached.

“I’m going to go back and look at the tape before I make any decision," Reid said. "I thought [Jason] Kelce did a nice job for the time when he was in there, and Jamaal [Jackson] did a nice job when he was in there. Actually, [Mike] McGlynn also got some snaps in there and I thought he did a nice job from what I could see. Let me take a peek at the tape, and I’ll have a better idea.”

3. Is Babin really that much better than Juqua Parker?

You are about to find out. Parker is due $3.5 million this year has been banged up. It's hard to imagine the Eagles carrying Trent Cole ($3.9 million), Babin ($6.5 million) and Parker, making the 11-year Oklahoma State product the likely cutdown casualty. Both Parker and Babin are really situational pass rushers and while Juqua certainly never had a year like Babin did with the Titans last season, he's been the far more consistent player over an extended period of time.

4. Can Castillo develop into a quality defensive coordinator.

Offensive line coach to defensive coordinator?

Moving Castillo is either incredible hubris by Reid or flat-out genius. People in the know rave about Castillo's work ethic and attention to detail. There's no doubt he will put in the time and do everything possible during the week to help the Eagles prepare but there is a knack for calling the right defense at the right time and it remains to be seen if Castillo has it.

He also must also overcome the natural doubt that will pervade his players when the chips are down. Remember, most were on board when Sean McDermott replaced the late Jim Johnson but the minute things started to turn, there were rumblings about McDermott's lack of experience. Castillo will face a very
similar hurdle and it may have already started in Pittsburgh where poor gap control combined with some bad defensive schemes morphed into a perfect storm that resembled Hurricane Irene.

Castillo steadied things against the Browns but that's inferior competition.

5. The corners are great but what about those safeties?

Nate Allen still isn't ready, Jarrad Page is a pedestrian player and Kurt Coleman, while a very smart guy that is always angling to improve, just isn't athletic enough to be a difference maker. The triumvirate of Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback will certainly take some heat off whoever is playing the back end but you still need competent parts over the top.

“I didn’t see anything that jumped out to me that he didn’t do well or that I thought was a critical error," Reid said when talking about Page, who started against the Browns. "He got turned around on one play, but he ended up making the play on the tight end. I didn’t see anything that jumps out at me that was a negative.”

6. Two rookie kickers?

I can already picture former WWE champion "The Miz" grabbing the microphone, staring at Andy Reid and belting out "Really...Really...You are really going with two rookie kickers Andy Reid." David Akers was not only the best placekicker in Eagles history, he's one of the best in NFL history and despite what Don Tollefson or Dave Spadaro might tell you, Alex Henery isn't "splitting the uprights" on a consistent basis. Sav Rocca was average at best here so you can live with any hiccups from Chas Henry but Akers' rock solid consistency will be missed.

7. Can Vick handle the blitz?

The NFL is a copycat league but most coaches, with the exception of Bill Belichick, are very slow moving copycats. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier gave the rest of the league a blueprint for handling Vick when he and his defensive coordinator Fred Pagac sent Antoine Winfield from the slot about a million times late last season. Tom Coughlin attempted something similar earlier and stymied Vick for most of the game until the world's most athletic quarterback finally burned him.

You can bet others were watching and have now have had the time to implement game plans to handle Vick. It's now Vick's move in the chess match and he must adapt, something he seems to be struggling with. He had a number of late throws in Pittsburgh and again tonight. Also, he was really rescued from another interception by a horrible personal foul call on Cleveland's D'Qwell Jackson.

Vick just hasn't been sharp with his downfield passes through three preseason games.

“In this game you have to take what the defense gives you," Vick said. "If they’re playing 30 yards off then you’re not going to be able to go deep. You have to take advantage of what you’ll be able to get underneath.  You just have to let it develop.  It’s a tough game. You have a lot of smart coaches around this league and smart players. So some times you just have to finesse it.”

8. Is Young a competent backup at QB?

Young is never going to be a conventional signal caller so those looking for a 63 percent completion percentage or a 100.0 passer rating are always going to be disappointed. That said, what he has been by and large, is a winner. As long as the Eagles don't try to pound a square peg in the round hole and attempt to turn Young into a pocket passer, they will have a better option than Kevin Kolb if Vick gets injured for a game or two.

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