It’s the only word for a season of heightened expectations for a team and a city so desperate for a title. With all of the free agent acquisitions and the amount of pure talent amassed this year, there is no other way to describe the season than as a failure. A complete and absolute failure. So how does a team that was stacked at many positions and with a coach entering his 13th year at the helm of a team stumble their way to an 8-8 record? With my vision now 20/20 after 16 games, here’s how I saw the Eagles this year.
A couple of things to remember before the position by position report card (because really, at its heart, football is a team sport) ….
Offense: Ranked 4th in the league by yardage and 8th by points scored, this was all undone by a league worst 36 turnovers (including 24 interceptions). Very simply, this was a case study in why protecting the ball is so important. If the Eagles were just average in giving the ball away, they’re in the playoffs (and I have a reason to pull out my vintage Ron Jaworski jersey at least one more time before September).
Defence: Here too, the stats lie a bit on the overall effectiveness. The Eagles ranked 8th in yards allowed, 10th in points allowed, middle of the pack in turnovers generated and led the NFL in sacks with 50. A very respectable performance, except many of those stats were padded in games against teams that didn’t make the playoffs. Take out their performances since starting the season 4-8, and the Eagles rank in the bottom third of the league in all defensive measures.
Special teams: As shown in a great statistical analysis here, the Eagles were almost dead on average in overall special teams performance (kicking, punting, returning, coverage) when adjusted for factors outside of their control. Looking deeper two critical weaknesses become apparent: (1) the kick/punt returning was near the bottom of the league; and (2) their punting performance ranked 27th out of 32 teams; combine those two together, and the Eagles end up losing the field position battle too often in games – that is the hidden yardage for the opposition that doesn’t show up in the core offensive and defensive stats above.
Here’s how I saw the performance position by position, and in some cases, player by player.
Offensive line (grade: A) – One of the few bright spots. What started out as a perceived weakness, really showed excellent form after the first game as a run blocking line. As the season went on, the grouping of Peters, Mathis, Kelce, Watkins and Herremans began to pass protect as well. This line has a nice blend of youth and experience and should the Eagles be able to keep Howard Mudd (OL coach) around for another year, this should be a strong point in 2012.
Wide receivers and tight ends (overall grade: C) – This unit just didn’t work in 2011. Jackson (grade: D) looked disinterested most of the year and didn’t play fearlessly as he needs to. Avant (grade: C), although generally reliable, had some untimely drops. Cooper (grade: C) is still struggling to find his niche as a 3rd or 4th receiver. Maclin (grade: B) became the team’s #1 WR this year and was the best of the bunch, but was still very quiet and inconsistent for long stretches of many games. At TE, Celek (grade: B) was solid and had some spectacular contributions once Vick starting finding him as the year wore on.
Running backs (overall grade: A) – McCoy (grade: A) had a breakout year and nearly won the rushing title. Everytime he has the ball, he’s a threat for a big play. The other running backs (Brown, Lewis) saw only spot duty through the season and I expect the Eagles will look elsewhere for complimentary backs in 2011. Schmidt at FB doesn’t get on the field much but is a capable blocker.
Quarterback (overall grade: C) – Let’s first dispense with grading backup Vince Young (grade: F). He was terrible. With the exception of the 17 play drive in the 4th quarter to beat the Giants, he was cover your eyes bad and ruined the game I got to go to in Seattle. Vick (grade: C) was only ok. He turned the ball over far too often and his inability to slide or run out of bounds ended up costing him a few games as starter. He continues to show athleticism which is unmatched, but the errors he made cost the team games this year. As a short QB, he’s got to find a way to eliminate the number of tipped and deflected passes at the line of scrimmage.
Defensive line (overall grade: B) – 2011 was a strong year for the front 4. In particular, the line was able to exert pressure on the opposing QBs without needing to blitz (which did put them at a disadvantage in stopping the run until some scheme changes were made around the middle of the year). Babin (grade: B) came close to leading the league in sacks but is one dimensional and was weak against the run. Cole (grade: A) had another 10+ sack year and is dangerous against the run and pass – he’s the true star of the DL. Jenkins (grade: B) provided stability and leadership. Patterson (grade: B) doesn’t have flashy stats, but is solid and a key cog. The Eagles use a rotation to keep their D-line fresh and the other guys (Parker, Landri, Tapp, Hunt, Laws) all played well in more limited duty.
Linebackers (overall grade: D) – This unit really struggled until the last quarter of the season. Generally undersized and fast, they took poor angles in tackling, had difficulty covering RBs and TEs in the passing game and lacked the physicality needed to play in the front 7 (with the notable exceptions of games vs the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins in the first 3/4 of the season). Rolle has speed to burn but was very inconsistent. After a very difficult start, Matthews started to look more comfortable over the last few games but it’s hard to see him as much more than a situational contributor next year. Jordan, Chaney and Clayton look like reasonable supporting pieces, but not as the featured full-time players they were in 2011 where they broke down too often. Significant attention needs to be paid to this position group in the offseason.
Cornerbacks (overall grade: C) – Outside of the red-zone, this unit probably scores out as a B, but their play in the red zone drops them a letter grade in my books. Samuel (grade: B) had a strong season, but will likely not be back in 2012. Asomugha (grade: C) played ok, but had some very high profile mistakes throughout the year. Rogers-Cromartie (grade: C) was underwhelming, but in a theme for the defence as a whole, played better in the second half of the year. Hanson (grade: C) is serviceable as a 3rd or 4th corner but struggled when his playing time increased due to injuries with the rest of the group.
Safeties (overall grade: D) – Red-zone coverage failures and inconsistency drop their grade to D. Allen is an enigma – at times he looks like a good young prospect, at other times he looks like a lost rookie. Here’s hoping that with a completely healthy off-season he can play up to his promise in 2012. Jarrett looked over-matched at times and didn’t do a great job in run support. This is a position the Eagles have to address in the offseason.
Kicking (Henery – grade: B) – The rookie looked good throughout the year. He cost the Eagles the game against the 49ers with 2 misses, but other than that, was very accurate. He doesn’t have a big leg. I watched him in warm-ups in perfect conditions in Seattle and he was barely making 53-54 yard kicks. Kick-off performance was 19th in the league in average starting position for the opposition which is a bit of a weakness. Henery needs better kick coverage to hide his weaker than average leg. He can’t boom every kick for a touch back like so many other kickers in the league.
Punting (Henry – grade: D) – Another rookie, he looked uncomfortable at the angle punting game and trying to down punts inside the 10. He doesn’t have a big leg, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Eagles really try to improve this position next year. The Eagles ranked 27th in the league in net punting average (much of that on the punter, their coverage/pursuit looked at least average to me). As a side note, the punter the Eagles released (Rocca, to the Redskins) had a career year for Washington.
Kick/Punt Returning (grade: D) – What was a strength in 2010 was a team weakness this season. On the punt return the Eagles ranked 27th in average return length – Jackson couldn’t break any long returns and frequently lost yards looking for the big play. The Eagles had 3 turnovers on punt returns this year – not acceptable. On the kick return, I can’t remember one being brought back past the 40 all year and the Eagles ranked 31st in return average. A few fumbles didn’t help either. The returners and the blockers need a massive overhaul.
Specialty Coaching – This was a real mixed bag. Starting with the positives, you could see the positive impact of Mudd (grade: A) coaching of the OL and Washburn (grade: A) coaching the DL. Those two units were significantly improved over 2010. Special teams coordinator Avril (grade: D) had a rough year as the Eagles ranked at the bottom of kicking and returning stats in terms of field position and net averages. Overall defensive coordinator Castillo (grade: C) struggled until the last few games. He never coached defence until this year and it showed. Offensive coordinator Mornhinweg (grade: C) had his ups and downs – he still falls in love with the passing game and forgot he had a pro bowl running back for long stretches of games; overall he did a reasonable job in play-calling except in relying too much on the pass while Vick was injured.
Head Coach (grade: C) – The million dollar question for Eagles fans was whether Andy Reid will be back in 2012 – on Tuesday we learned he will be. He was better in some aspects this year (replay challenges), but struggled with some familiar problems (timeouts and game management seem to be some form of kryptonite to him, and I can’t explain him promoting his OL coach into the defensive coordinator role for this season). He still has command of the locker room as evidenced by the finish of the team which counts for something. I think this year he’ll have to do a better job of selling his 2012 plan to team management. I hope one of the items on his list is returning to having a team of high quality guys. His recent experiments with highly talented but lower character guys (going back to TO, DJax this year, and dare I say it, Michael Vick) hasn’t panned out yet.