How did Nnamdi Asomugha's skills erode so quickly?

How did Nnamdi Asomugha's skills erode so quickly?
February 28, 2013, 9:45 am
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All those folks out there who thought it was a bad idea for the Eagles to sign Nnamdi Asomugha, raise your hands.

Sorry, I don’t believe you.

I know, everyone wants Asomugha gone. They don’t care that the Eagles will have to stuff $4 million in his pocket on the way out the door. Fine, do it. Just send him on his way. It doesn’t matter where.

It is easy now to say that Asomugha was a bad fit. We saw the Eagles' secondary. We saw how pitiful it was -- the Eagles allowed 60 touchdown passes the last two seasons -- and we saw how utterly lost Asomugha appeared. It was a disaster, no doubt.

But I don’t recall anyone predicting this when the Eagles signed him. Quite the contrary -- almost everyone hailed it as a master stroke. I did, too. I thought the Eagles had landed a great player. So it is not fair to criticize them now. Let’s face it, we all were wrong.

I talked to a lot of people around the league, prior to the signing and after, about Asomugha, who was considered the prize of the 2011 free agent class. Everyone I spoke with agreed Asomugha was the real deal. No one suggested his skills were diminishing. No one hinted that his attitude was poor.

A few people noted he wasn’t a very physical player, but as one personnel man said, “How many physical cornerbacks are there? Very few.” No one saw it as a real issue. The consensus was, yes, Nnamdi will be expensive, but he is worth it.

Then came word that the Eagles signed him – five years, $60 million – and that started the hype about the Dream Team and we all know how that turned out. But now that we are dismantling it, people are trying to figure out how it all went wrong. Asomugha is in many ways the face of that failed experiment, which is why I think the Eagles have to let him go.

But I reject the revisionist history that says Asomugha was never that good and he was overrated all those years in Oakland. That’s not true.

I recall one night during the 2010 season when Brian Baldinger and I were watching tape at NFL Films. We finished breaking down the Eagles game and Baldinger, a former NFL player who works as a football analyst for Comcast SportsNet, said: “Got a minute? Let me show you something.”

He put on the tape of an Oakland Raiders game.

“You want to see how the cornerback position should be played?” he said.

We had just finished watching either Dimitri Patterson or Ellis Hobbs so, yes, I was ready for something better.

So for the next hour, we sat and watched Nnamdi Asomugha. Baldinger had already gone through the tape earlier in the day. He pointed out how Asomugha locked down receivers, one-on-one, how he used his long arms to jam them at the line. He bumped them and kept them from getting into their routes. He destroyed the timing between the quarterback and the receiver. Only three balls were thrown to his side. None were completed.

“That’s a clinic on how to play the corner,” Baldinger said.

It only confirmed what I had heard and read about Asomugha. He had allowed just one touchdown pass in three seasons. There were only 13 passes completed on him in all of the 2010 season. So when the Eagles signed him in July, 2011, it made perfect sense to think it was a great move.

So how did it go so wrong?

Well, it didn’t help that he walked into an Eagles defense that was in a state of disarray with a miscast Juan Castillo serving as coordinator. They were playing a tricked-up front (the wide nine) and trying to fit three Pro Bowl cornerbacks into two spots, which meant Asomugha found himself playing more zone defense. He looked confused and uncertain playing in space. The geometry of the game – the angles he took to the ball, the angles he took to make a tackle – was different.

In Oakland, Asomugha played almost exclusively on the outside, one-on-one with a man right in front of him. He didn’t have to read or adjust; he just had to stay with his man. It was a good fit for him with his height and long arms. He played it so well that teams did stop throwing the ball to his side. He had eight interceptions in 2006 and just three in the next four years combined.

But with the Eagles, he was in an unfamiliar role in an unfamiliar defense and teams were quick to take advantage. He was burned by the Giants' Victor Cruz in Week 3 and for the first time in his career, he was singled out for criticism. It hurt his confidence. He became tentative to the point where he didn’t even resemble the player who made three Pro Bowls in Oakland.

It was a bad season but I was one of those people who expected Asomugha to rebound in 2012. I thought with Asante Samuel gone and the cornerback situation clarified that Asomugha would return to form. During mini-camp, he talked about being “100 percent more comfortable” than he was the year before.

I wrote: “If Nnamdi Asomugha were a stock, I’d be buying in.”

And I would have gone bust just like the Eagles.

Last season, it appeared at 31 Asomugha had lost his speed. He never was blazing fast but last season he actually looked slow. Receivers were able to run by him. With more teams throwing at him, it exposed weaknesses we had not seen before. For example, his ball skills were shockingly poor. He couldn’t adjust to a ball in the air. In the final game of the season, Giants rookie Rueben Randle made him look silly with a pair of touchdown catches.

It is hard to believe that the cornerback we watched on tape that night in 2010 was the same player who appeared so inept last season. Whether his physical ability has eroded that much in two years is hard to say, perhaps it has.

But for him to have any chance of getting his career back on track, he needs to go to another team. With a fresh start in a new city, maybe he can regain his confidence. It would be very hard for him to do that here. The best thing for the Eagles and Nnamdi Asomugha is to go their separate ways. 

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