On The Edge Blog

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Eagles making a late run at Weapon X?

I'll save my sadness about the potential of watching my first Eagles season since 1995 without Brian Dawkins patrolling the free safety position for when he actually chooses the Denver Broncos. At this point, it has been nearly 20 hours since the San Francisco Chronicle reported that he was leaving the Eagles, and nothing definite has been confirmed.

To me, that means either he is having deep second thoughts about leaving Philadelphia, or the Eagles' front office is making a strong push to keep him.

Personally, I think it's both. I think the Eagles are upping their offer, and that if Dawkins really wanted to sign with the Broncos, he would have done it this morning after sleeping on it in Denver last night.

This is great sign for the Eagles fanbase because I received about a dozen text messages last night from people who basically said "W.T.[expletive]" about the possibility of seeing Dawkins in another uniform, and I feel the exact same way. And that wasn't even all Eagles fans. A few Redskins and Ravens fans from college were among those texters.

The only way that the Eagles can let him leave is if the Broncos offer him an obscene amount of money. I heard an offer of 3 years and $21 million was discussed at one point, and that is far too much money to spend on someone who does more emotionally than in coverage.

Honestly, I think Quinton Demps will be better than Dawkins in 2010, but not 2009. There needs to be a transition period, and the Eagles should think about that before letting Weapon X walk away.

...Keep checking back for more updates on free agency throughout the weekend.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Another Andrews for the O-line?

Various media outlets (ProfootballTalk.com was the first I think) are reporting that the Eagles have signed Bengals offensive tackle Stacy Andrews to replace Jon Runyan at right tackle.

Stacy, who is coming off of a knee injury that is not believed to be a serious concern for 2009, is the older brother of Shawn Andrews, and hopefully this signing will improve Shawn's disposition, and get him into training camp this summer with a smile on his face.

So what does this signing mean for the rest of the offensive line?

Stacy, who was franchised in 2007 by the Bengals, is a bigger, younger version of Runyan. His style of play and long reach allows him to seal off the edge like Runyan does, but his youth and additional strength will give him the push that Runyan lacked the last few years when run blocking.

In addition to ending Runyan's 9-year run as the Eagles' starting right tackle, this signing probably signals the end of left tackle Tra Thomas' time in green as well. For Thomas to stay with the Birds, he would have needed to re-sign before free agency started, because the Eagles have several internal options to replace him at left tackle.

When the Eagles tendered a contract to restricted free agent guard Nick Cole, it seemed like a sign that Cole was going to get a starting spot on the line, especially after his strong play in December and January after Max Jean-Gilles was lost to injury.

With Cole starting at one of the guard positions, the other guard spot and left tackle will be filled by Shawn Andrews and Todd Herremans. Both players have held starting guard spots for the Eagles, but each was a standout tackle in college, which is something Andy Reid talked about in the days leading up to the free agency period opening.

It's sad to see Runyan and Thomas go, but due to age and injury, neither player was effective at run blocking anymore, which is a sign that it's time to move on.

In other free agency news...

* Correll Buckhalter is scheduled to visit with the Denver Broncos today, and the Mile High City would be a perfect place for Buck to end up. Their zone blocking scheme fits his one-move running style, because he hits the hole hard and fast, and doesn't rely on a cut-back move to gain yardage. Hopefully it works out for him.

* Rumors have the Eagles in the bidding for T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and his own words have him wanting to come to Philadelphia. However, he said on ESPN last night that he also would be happy with Minnesota, Seattle, and a few other teams.

* Published reports out of St. Louis said that the Eagles are talking about trading Reggie Brown and middle-round draft pick for Torry Holt.

* John Clayton of ESPN.com reported that it would take a first- and a third-round pick to get Anquan Boldin in Eagle-green.

* Could Donovan McNabb be pushing for his former Syracuse teammate Marvin Harrison to sign with the Eagles? Harrison will be 37 when the 2009 season begins, and his numbers and health have declined greatly in the last two seasons, so I would pass on Harrison, especially taking his legal issues into account.

If all four of these rumors are true, I cannot understand why the Eagles wouldn't have Boldin and Holt in Philadelphia today. The Eagles filled a need at right tackle already, and can't get a top wide receiver with the combined value of their two first round picks, so why not use a few picks to get a true difference maker --Boldin-- and a guy with great hands and experience as a number one receiver -- Holt?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Free agency won't help the Eagles

I have to be honest, I’m a junkie for the NFL offseason. I watch the NFL Network more during the offseason than during the regular season because I can’t get enough of free agency rumors and the build up to the NFL draft.

However, this offseason is different. On the Coffee with Kahuna show on WBCB 1490 AM last week, I broke down the Eagles’ potential moves when the free agency period begins at 12:01 a.m. on Friday morning, and it does not look good.

Heading into free agency, the Eagles’ goals should be to re-sign Brian Dawkins and Tra Thomas, find either a linebacker or a defensive end who can get to the quarterback, add a big running back, and bring in either a wide receiver or a tight end that can catch 100 passes.

That seems like a lot of work, but other than Dawkins and Thomas, who both will probably be signed between the time I write this and the time you read this, none of those things can actually happen in this free agent market. Those guys don’t exist this year because it is a weak class, and the only real talent has already been slapped with the franchise tag because of how lousy the rest of the free agents are this offseason.

The only available players who can get to the quarterback are Julius Peppers and Terrell Suggs, and while either franchised player could be had for the hefty price of two first round picks and a big fat contract, neither are actually worth the price.

At wide receiver, everyone seems to be foaming at the mouth over Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh’s comments about wanting to play in Philadelphia. The only problem with Housh is that he’s not the answer! The last thing the Eagles need is another guy who has never been a number one receiver, and can’t make a big play.

Housh, who is 6-1, 199 pounds, hasn’t made a catch longer than 46 yards in the last four seasons, and his yards per catch has gone down every year since 2004, despite playing opposite Chad Johnson, who routinely drew double coverage during Housh’s best years. He also isn’t getting any younger, as he will be 32 next season, and the last thing the Eagles need is an aging possession receiver who averaged less than 10 yards per catch last season. Yes, he would be an improvement over Reggie Brown or Greg Lewis, but he wouldn’t be the go-to-guy that many fans are hoping the Eagles will find.

Moving to running back, the two best options are Darren Sproles, who is smaller than I am, and was franchised, and Derrick Ward, who is no bigger than Correll Buckhalter, and isn’t really a better option. A big running back will have to come through the draft or trade.

The only realistic free agent signing that would impress me would be adding Lorenzo Neal to play fullback. While no Baltimore Raven rushed for 1,000 yards in 2008, as a team, the Ravens rushed for 2,376 yards, which is nearly 700 yards more than the Eagles.It was the first time since 1996 that Neal didn’t lead a running back to more than 1,000 yards, but that clearly was the result of the Ravens using a three-back system, and not a diminishing set of skills.

After all of this analysis, I was ready to give up on free agency, because all rational thought was telling me that this offseason would be a dud for our Birds, but then, just days before the NFL spending bonanza was set to begin, published reports had Donovan McNabb telling the Eagles that they need to improve the weapons around him, or else!

And that would mean no contract extension, and potentially an angry trade request, which would usher in the Bobby Hoying, err...Kevin Kolb era.No matter how many denials are given in the days after I write this column, I will assume these reports are accurate because Superfive has to be tired of taking the blame for late game failures when his receivers aren’t getting separation or are looking for flags instead of hauling in key passes. He has to be tired of coming oh so close and falling just short.

So what does McNabb’s threat mean?

It means that suddenly, all of those Anquan Boldin and Tony Gonzalez trade rumors have a little more merit, because when McNabb actually talks, the Eagles’ front office listens.The last time he specifically asked for better receivers was after the NFC Championship game loss to the Carolina Panthers, and a few months later, the Eagles acquired Terrell Owens.Before the 2005 season, he told the front office that Brian Westbrook was the best player on the team, and the front office stopped dragging their feet and agreed to a contract extension with number 36. Before last season, McNabb asked for more playmakers, and in came Asante Samuel and DeSean Jackson.

This season, McNabb is hinging his future with the Eagles on their ability to improve on offense. I would bet that improvement happens, but not through free agency. The Eagles’ glut of draft picks and cornerback Lito Sheppard should be valuable enough as trade bait to make a splash this offseason.

Predictions: My guess is that the Eagles make only depth moves on defense after re-signing Brian Dawkins, but they add two players out of the following group: Tony Gonzalez, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Anquan Boldin, Kellen Winslow Jr., Braylon Edwards, Chad Johnson, and Michael Bush.

Like the “On the Edge” Blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show, where, this week, we will talk about the first 15 hours of the NFL free agency period, as well as the rumors surrounding the Flyers as the NHL trading deadline approaches.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Where's our Wheaties box!?!?!

As Spring Training opens for the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, I was looking for a topic to start off the season, but I didn’t feel like devoting an entire column to steroids or the useless multi-year signings of Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard.

But I’m still going to address both topics in my typical angry manner.

Seriously, we didn’t gain anything but happy thoughts and goodwill from those signings because the contracts didn’t lock up either player for anything more than their arbitration years. Hamels and Howard are guaranteed to be here no longer than they were guaranteed to be here at the start of last season.

I could have written a few full columns about Alex Rodriguez and steroids but every one of them would have ended with MLB Commissioner Bud Selig saying that the league is really trying to clean up the sport. The problem is that he is lying. He is a big fat liar!

In reality, Selig, who made more than $18 million in 2008, looked the other way when steroid talk really picked up in the 1990s because the bulked up, homer-happy league was finally reuniting with the fans it lost due to the 1994 strike. Selig should just quit and let someone competent run the league and enact a meaningful steroid policy. It should probably be someone who can read a weather forecast during the World Series or someone who asks questions when he sees used needles in clubhouse trash cans.

And by the way, how come J.C. Romero gets suspended for 50 games for following his union’s instructions and buying over-the-counter supplements in the mall, but A-Roid gets a sad face from Selig as his punishment when he deliberately took steroids to boost his performance? Where’s the justice in that?

So while avoiding writing about those two topics, my friend, who was surfing the Internet instead of working, sent me a link to http://www.HomerDerby.com, which posed the question, “Why aren’t the 2008 Phillies on a Wheaties Box?”

Honestly, I was so excited from seeing the first championship of my lifetime that I didn’t even realize General Mills snubbed the Phillies and us fans. Maybe I didn’t notice because the only cereals I eat are Fruit Loops or anything with marshmallows, but nonetheless, I immediately became enraged when I saw this!

Now, we have all seen Wheaties boxes with athletes on them, including champions of all sports and random Olympic heroes, but where are our 2008 Phillies? The advertisement on every box of Wheaties says “The Breakfast of Champions,” but apparently not all champions, because our Phillies are nowhere to be found.

I understand that not every sports team gets a Wheaties box when they win it all, but this was the first championship for Philadelphia in 25 years! Our 25-year drought was the longest for any city with teams in all four major professional sports. How could that not be worthy of a box of Wheaties?

The last four World Series champions have been on the cover of Wheaties boxes, and I even have a box of Maple Frosted Wheaties with my boyhood idol, Roger Clemens, on the box in a Toronto Blue Jays uniform. (Yes, I do believe he used steroids, but they didn’t make him better, they only kept him healthy longer. His fastball lost 7 mph, but he learned a curveball and a splitter to compensate for it.)

Clemens got on the box just for playing in Canada! Apparently Canada became so completely devoid of sporting champions once Wayne Gretzky became irrelevant, that Wheaties just started honoring people for choosing to play in the Great White North.

So instead of just complaining about General Mills slighting an entire championship-starved city, I decided to find out why. I contacted the General Mills Media Line, and here is the e-mail response I received from Shelly Dvorak of General Mills: “There are many team and individual champions, and we salute their efforts. However, only a select few champions are chosen to be honored on the Wheaties box.”

That was basically a shrug of the shoulders, so it is still a mystery as to why the 2008 World Series champions aren’t enshrined in the cereal aisle at our local supermarket.Maybe if we put our missing Wheaties box on the side of a milk carton it will help us get some answers.

By the way, if you want to complain to General Mills, you can call them at 1-800-248-7310, or submit an e-mail through their Web site, http://www.generalmills.com/.

Like the “On the Edge” Blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show, where, this week, we will talk about the start of Spring Training for the Phillies, and the results from NFL Combine, and how it affects the Eagles’ draft plans.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Success might be fleeting for Eagles’ defense

(Part three of a three-part series)
After breaking down the Eagles’ coaching and offensive deficiencies, it’s now time to see where the defense can improve.

You might think that it would be tough to find fault with Jim Johnson’s crew because they finished third in the NFL in overall defense, but you would be wrong. The defense is as much to blame for the Eagles not making the Super Bowl as any other part of the team.

Starting with the NFC Championship game, the defense gave up 32 points, and gave up big yardage along the way, allowing the Cardinals to rack up 369 yards, including five drives of more than 50 yards.

The defense also allowed 20 or more points in seven of the Eagles’ 16 games this season, and blew leads against Dallas, Washington, and New York. They may have been ranked quite high and won their share of games this year, but they also cost the Eagles a few battles along the way.

The question for this column, as was the question for the previous two, is what can be done to fix these problems for next season?

The first battle the defense faces is the health problems of its coordinator, Jim Johnson. Obviously, he should focus on taking care of himself and being as healthy as possible, regardless of whether he stays with the team or not, but if he chooses his health and family over the Eagles, the defense will need even more work.

Assuming Johnson returns to the Eagles for the 2009 season, the Eagles need to get at least two playmakers for the front seven, because none of those guys, including Trent Cole, make an offensive coordinator lose sleep at night.

On the defensive line, Broderick Bunkley and Mike Patterson are great at the starting tackle sports, but you don’t expect big plays out of those guys.

On the ends, the Eagles desperately need to improve because Trent Cole can easily be taken out of the game by using a tight end or a running back to chip him, and Juqua Parker is no longer an every-down player.Even back-up defensive end Chris Clemons is only a threat coming off the edge when a linebacker or safety is running an overload blitz with him.

With the guys they have now, the defensive line can’t make a big play out of a four-man pass rush, meaning the Eagles don’t have the ability to get to the quarterback and turn 1st-and-10 or 2nd-and-4 into an obvious passing down on the next play. The Eagles can only get sacks when blitzing six or more guys, which means the secondary is put into dangerous situations because the front seven can’t get the job done.

Moving to the other half of the front seven, the Eagles’ linebackers are solid against the run, but can’t defend the pass, and don’t come up with game-changing plays.Out of the four linebackers who played significant time for the Eagles—Stewart Bradley, Chris Gocong, Akeem Jordan and Omar Gaither—only Stewart Bradley should really be starting in the NFL, and even he has a huge drawback, as he is worthless on passing downs.

Those four guys combined to record 5.5 sacks, 1 interception, and 3 forced fumbles this season. I didn’t realize how average these guys were until I saw Steelers linebacker James Harrison running down the sideline in the Super Bowl for a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown.

By himself, Harrison had 16 sacks, 7 forced fumbles and 1 interception in the regular season. His stats dwarfed the numbers of all four of our linebackers combined!

For a team is forced to blitz its linebackers because of the poor production of its defensive ends, the Eagles linebackers should have been racking up the sacks, but that clearly didn’t happen.

Now for the worst-case scenario. What if Jim Johnson decides to retire?This defense has been good for the last 10 years because of Jim Johnson’s schemes, but if he chooses family over the Birds, this defense immediately drops to the bottom third of the NFL.

The Eagles haven’t had a defensive end who could get to the quarterback on any given play since Reggie White, so the majority of the Eagles’ sacks have come from Jim Johnson’s scheming. Without Johnson, the Eagles are going to have a miserable time trying to get to the quarterback, and I don’t care how good the guys in the secondary are, if an NFL quarterback isn’t being pressured, he has all day to throw, and eventually someone is going to get open for a big play.

Overall, the defense isn’t in terrible shape, but it is walking a fine line between great and completely ineffective, which we saw during this up and down season.

However, adding a defensive end that can actually get to the quarterback would make a huge difference. Bringing in someone like Terrell Suggs or Julius Peppers (or even both!) would do wonders for the unit by taking pressure off of Trent Cole, while also easing the burden on the secondary because teams would have to use an extra blocker more often to protect the quarterback.

At linebacker, Gocong needs to go. Bradley and Jordan are solid enough, but the strongside linebacker in this defense needs to be able to cover tight ends or get to the quarterback, and Gocong can’t do either. His inability to make plays causes Bradley, who could be a star with the right guys around him, to be less effective in the middle, and it also forces strong safety Quintin Mikell to play closer to the line of scrimmage instead of playing the “centerfielder” role that Baltimore’s Ed Reed plays so well.

Looking back over the last few columns, the Eagles were lucky to make the playoffs, let alone the NFC Championship game, and there is plenty of work to be done this offseason if the Eagles are serious about making a run at their first Lombardi Trophy.

Like the “On the Edge” Blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show, where, this week, we will talk about the start of Spring Training for the Phillies, and the trade rumors surrounding the Flyers.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Super Bowl shows what Eagles lack

(Part two of a three-part series)

That was probably the most suspenseful Super Bowl since, well, last year’s Super Bowl, but as thrilling as it was, the most striking part of the game was realizing how much upgrading the Eagles’ offense needs.

It’s strange to think that a team that held a lead in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game needs a lot of work to reach the Super Bowl, but after seeing the Cardinals and Steelers trade comeback touchdown drives, I don’t think the Eagles are even close.

I realize that this year’s offense set a franchise record with 416 points, and Donovan McNabb set a franchise record with more than 3,900 passing yards, but when they need one yard or one final scoring drive, this offense isn’t up to the challenge. However, with some key additions and an open mind, it could be up to the challenge in 2009.

Head coach Andy Reid always talks about success on offense starting from the trenches, so I’ll start with the offensive line. The big guys up front excelled in pass protection, allowing just 23 sacks, however they were awful on running plays, as the Eagles averaged just 4.0 yards per carry, down from 4.7 in 2007, and 4.8 in 2006.

The problem with the offensive line is a combination of age, injury and being out of position.The first upgrade is easy. Shawn Andrews needs to return from his back surgery and depression, and reclaim his place as one of the best offensive guards in the NFL. When the Eagles need to pick up one yard, all they should do is follow Andrews and they’ll move the chains, regardless of how much the ball-carrier weighs.

Moving outside, tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas have gotten slower and get less push on running plays. Both are free agents this offseason, and were solid this year, but the offense can’t support two guys who are unable to drive a defensive end backward on 3rd-and-1. Out of the two, I would keep Runyan because he makes fewer mistakes in pass protection, and also is a vocal leader in the locker room.

Without spending any money, the Eagles could move Todd Herremans from guard to left tackle, where he played in college, and I think he would thrive at his old position. Herremans has excellent footwork and rarely misses a block in pass protection, but at 6-6, 321 pounds, he is not a guard. That frame is ideal for playing tackle and pushing around a 260-pound defensive end, but not for driving a 340-pound defensive tackle to open a hole for a running back.

Nick Cole, filling in for Max Jean-Gilles, who filled in for Andrews, played quite well at right guard, and could easily move to left guard to round out the offensive line.

Now that the offensive line is sorted out, the Eagles need to decide who should be running through the holes they create. I’m going to be quite unpopular with this next opinion, but it has to be said: Brian Westbrook needs to take a lesser role in the Eagles’ offense.

At this point in his career, Westbrook is only effective when he is 100 percent healthy, which only happens once or twice per month. When Westbrook is even slightly banged up, he is just another undersized running back who can’t carry the full load.Back in 2003 or 2004, Westbrook would play through the pain and still be the ultimate weapon on offense. Now, when he is hurt, he can’t run away from a linebacker on a passing route, and on the ground, his Dance Dance Revolution stutter-step doesn’t work against anyone because the speed burst isn’t there to follow it.

The Eagles need a real running back, such as Oakland’s third running back, Michael Bush, or Ohio State running back Chris Wells to get 15 to 20 touches, and drop Westbrook down to 10 or 15 explosive touches per game. Correll Buckhalter, who is a free agent, will not be back because he is not the 20-touch player the Eagles need.

Finally, let’s talk about the quarterback and his wide receivers. I’d be blind to say that Donovan McNabb doesn’t have his faults, but by my count, there are 21 teams that would love to take him off our hands, so let’s keep him around.

I will admit that he starts very slowly and suffers from serious bouts of inaccuracy, but those faults are highlighted because of the lack of weapons around him. If the Eagles could run the ball, they could survive a game or two when McNabb is struggling.

As I watched Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger lead fourth quarter touchdown drives during the Super Bowl, it became even more clear as to why McNabb doesn’t lead those comeback drives. He doesn’t have a Larry Fitzgerald or an Anquan Boldin. He doesn’t even have a Hines Ward or a Santonio Holmes. In his 10 seasons with the Eagles, McNabb has worked with just two 1,000-yard receivers. Arizona had three of them just this year!

With two minutes left in the game, the defense knows the Eagles are going to pass, and Kevin Curtis and DeSean Jackson, while good for the first 55 minutes of the game when the threat of a running play is there, cannot get open consistently against six or seven defensive backs.The Eagles have a speed guy in Jackson and two possession guys in Curtis and Jason Avant, but they need the guy who draws double coverage every play.

Could it be Boldin by trading one or both of those first round picks to Arizona? Could it be Michael Crabtree out of Texas Tech by moving up in the draft?

It doesn’t matter how they do it, but if McNabb is coming back, they can’t keep asking him to do it alone. The Eagles have wasted the best years of McNabb’s career, but if, at 32 years old, he can get this team within a few minutes of the Super Bowl, imagine what he could do with real talent around him.

Next week, I’ll break down what the Eagles’ defense needs to do to improve, especially considering that defensive coordinator Jim Johnson could choose health and family over the Eagles.

Like the “On the Edge” Blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show, where, this week, we will wrap up the 2008 football season, and discuss how the Flyers and Sixers are faring as the calendar turns to February.
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Name: Matthew Fleishman, Yardley News Editor
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