10 Reasons To Be Optimistic About 2011 Eagles: A Season Preview

10 Reasons To Be Optimistic About 2011 Eagles: A Season Preview

Any goodwill from an action-packed offseason is gone. Everywhere you turn, somebody is assailing the offensive line, the linebackers, the coaching staff, the front office, the quarterback. Excitement still lurks beneath the skepticism, but a lot of outward enthusiasm washed away after one dismal preseason performance against the reigning AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Now many observers are anticipating the Birds will stumble out of the gate.

It's funny how quickly attitudes can change, and the triviality of some of the events that cause these shifts in perception. Rather than attempt to convince fans everything will be okay, and sweep some legitimate concerns under the rug, we wanted to take a different approach this year. With only a few days left until kickoff, why should you get excited for this season? Why should you believe in this team?

I usually hate this kind of list, so it's not ordered... other than to spread the interesting parts throughout the post.

Kurt Coleman
2009 was not a banner year at free safety for the Eagles. The defense failed to replace Brian Dawkins' production or leadership or ability or competence through Quintin Demps or Sean Jones. That void in their secondary prompted the front office to draft three safeties in the last two years, using two second round picks and a seventh rounder.

Who would have thought last year's seven might be the most promising of them all?

While Nate Allen continues his recovery, and Jaiquawn Jarrett suffers from a steeper-than-normal learning curve, Coleman is beginning to get comfortable in a starting role. A first team All-American at Ohio State, Coleman slid in the draft due to his size and athleticism, or lack thereof. What he lacks in those areas, he is making up for with the other traits that made him a collegiate standout: intelligence, leadership, and the combination of hard-hitting and sound tackling.

Time will tell how far those will take Coleman, but he has already shown a knack for flying to the ball. In three starts (one post-season) last season, Coleman had 19 tackles and in interception, and he's followed it up with a strong preseason, making 11 stops against Pittsburgh in Week 2. It's a small sample size, we know, but Coleman isn't going to get outsmarted or out-fundamentaled on a football field. On the contrary, he's going to solidify the back end of the secondary.

Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb
Anybody who isn't confident in the Birds, raise your hand. Are they not at least in a better position to succeed than Donovan McNabb or Kevin Kolb?

Nothing against either quarterback, but it would be difficult to watch them do well while the Eagles floundered. And while both McNabb and Kolb are now with clubs who could compete for a playoff spot, there aren't too many people out there ready to label the Vikings or Cardinals championship contenders.

Riley Cooper
Call me crazy, but I think a bigger potential problem area than people are letting on could be the wide receivers. Jeremy Maclin and newly acquired Steve Smith only started practicing recently, and DeSean Jackson tends to disappear for games at a time. We might see all of their numbers take a step back this season, to varying degrees.

Which is why the emergence of Cooper could be vital to the efficiency of the offense. He was already getting more opportunities down the stretch last season, and he got plenty of reps with the ones this summer, starting in all four of their preseason games. And even though it wasn't the result any of us would have chosen, it says something that Vick was confident enough to go to him with the game on the line in last year's Wild Card loss against Green Bay. Cooper is also the biggest receiver in the group, which may help in the red zone, especially if Maclin is slow to recover his strength.

We're not ready to predict a breakout season for last year's fifth rounder, but he figures to play an important role in the offense this season, which might open up some windows for the rest of the wide receivers.

The New York Giants
You almost have to feel a little bad for the Giants. They spend the last two years rebuilding their defense, surrounding their solid core of Osi Umenyiora, Johnathan Goff, and Terrell Thomas with big money free agent signings such Antrel Rolle, and using early draft picks in the likes of CB Prince Amukamara and DT Marvin Austin. Half of those guys are already done for the season, and a couple of others will miss an extended amount of time.

The Gmen were clearly assembling a unit they hoped would contain the explosive Eagles offense, but times are tough in the Meadowlands. They've lost six straight to Philly already, including last season's deflating miracle, and the defense should be as lean as ever. What was shaping up to be the top competition in the NFC East appears to have fallen back into the pack after being decimated by injuries, which should make the Eagles' road to securing the division and its playoff spot a lot easier.

Daniel Te'o-Nesheim
We hate to make a point at the expense of a young man whose only fault may very well be he was drafted too high, but when the Eagles waived Te'o-Nesheim on cutdown day, one year after selecting him in the third round, it was as important a gesture there is. Rather than cling to a project the franchise was invested, the front office gave his roster spot to CFL star Philip Hunt, who shined during the preseason. In other words, the organization was willing to admit a wrong in order to keep the better player.

Of course, that's exactly what they should always do, but sometimes front office politics get in the way. You want to give a kid every chance to succeed before you give up and part ways, and even then, a little part of you probably still sees something there. The Eagles instead made the decision to put the best product on the field, even if it means they wasted one of their precious draft picks.

DTN's career may not be over--he went unclaimed, and landed on the Birds' practice squad--and of course, it would be best for everybody if it suddenly clicks for him. The organization says they are going for it though, and in this case, their actions matched their word.

Asante Samuel and Nnamdi Asomugha
Last year, opposing quarterbacks targeted Asante Samuel 35 times, and Nnamdi Asomugha 31 times, the lowest totals of any two starting cornerbacks in the league. Asomugha didn't put up gaudy numbers, merely shut down his side of the field, while Samuel made offenses pay with seven picks and held receivers to an unbelievable 3.2 yards per attempt.

Everybody knows these
guys are really, really good, but we're not sure people realize yet how good that is? The Samuel-Asomugha combo makes last season's Darrelle Revis-Antonio Cromartie duo look pedestrian by comparison. Quarterbacks simply aren't interested in throwing the ball at either of these two, which could become problematic, because now the defense is taking away both perimeters. That's going to create a lot more chances for nickel corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who is a dangerous playmaker in his own right, not to mention an improved pass rush.

Of course, the middle of the defense is largely untested, and offenses will undoubtedly attempt to exploit this area of the field. It's a lot harder when the defense knows where the ball is going though, so unless Samuel or Asomugha rapidly decline, anticipate this being one of the top pass defenses in the league in any measure.

Vince Young
The Eagles may begin this season with a questionable offensive line protecting their 100-million dollar man, but they did opt for a warranty that covers the offense in case their equipment breaks.

No way Young is as far along as Vick, who had a full season to digest the offense before ever seeing serious action, but VY did impress during the preseason. He completed 32-of-48 passes for 330 yards and a touchdown, and carried for another score, although he did turn it over twice. Still, he was effective until hurting his hamstring in the final preseason game, and with his winning track record, there is reason to be confident the offense will manage should he be pressed into a game situation this year.

Bobby April
All of the spotlight has been on either Jim Washburn and Howard Mudd as the brilliant, veteran coaches who were brought in to whip this team into shape, while the only attention that has been paid to the special teams has been focused on rookie kickers Alex Henery and Chad Henry. April, oddly, has become a forgotten man.

Prior to his joining the Eagles last season, the Bills routinely had one of the top special teams units in the league, the credit belonging to April. He came in with the reputation as the top special teams coach in the league, and by the end of last season, the change was starting to pay dividends.

In his second season, the unit should be better than ever. They have a wealth of promising young talent to mold on the coverage units, and it might be a group that's capable of taking points off the board, as they already blocked two field goals this summer.

April can't kick the ball for either of the rookies, but it would be a surprise if the unit as a whole regressed this year. In fact, if the kicking game comes together, this will be one of the team's most underrated strengths.

LeSean McCoy

When analysts talk about the Birds' offense, it's usually Vick first, then DeSean, and possibly even Maclin before they finally get around to McCoy. Maybe that's a symptom of the coaches' de-prioritizing the running game, or maybe the other guys are flashier. McCoy might be just as important as any of them though, and if you thought last year was a breakout season for Shady, there's a lot more where that came from.

McCoy has filled Brian Westbrook's old role so suitably, we'll probably stop calling similar backs "Westbrooks" soon and start calling them "McCoys." Last season, Shady averaged 5.2 yards per carry en route to his first 1,000 yard season, hauled in 78 passes, and scored nine total touchdowns. He was one of the top dual threats in the league, and this was only the beginning.

McCoy is a Pro Bowl back in the making, all he needs is more chances. It's hard to envision he could be any more involved in the passing game--though there was an awful lot of checking down versus Cleveland a couple weeks ago--but as he becomes more dominant carrying the pill, and the offensive line continues adjusting, his role in the offense could be more important than ever.

Not unlike in the old days, the Eagles' offense won't go through the wide receivers or tight ends. The offense will go through the McCoy position, and the real McCoy will go to his Pro Bowl.

Resilience
The thing about intangibles is they can exist, and they can also mean nothing. Resilience won't score any points this year. It won't make an offensive lineman block DeMarcus Ware any better. It won't help a linebacker tackle Brandon Jacobs. When we look at the film, we will not be able to measure resilience.

But this team has it. Whether it's Mike Patterson playing through a brain condition, Jeremy Maclin hanging tough through an off-season where he battled a serious unknown illness, Steve Smith coming back from microfracture surgery much faster than his own team's doctors thought possible, or Mike Vick and everything he has been through, there are fighters everywhere you look on this roster. Their resilience was on full display last season when they came back from a 21-point fourth quarter deficit in a division rival's building to win in regulation, and made the playoffs in a year where few observers even gave them a chance.

The one thing you can't do is quit on this group; not when they are down in the fourth quarter, not if this season gets off to a slow start, not after a bad loss to a worse team, not even if it looks like they are in danger of making the playoffs. The Super Bowl Champion Packers needed to win in Week 17 to secure the sixth and final playoff spot. Maybe the Birds will falter early, maybe not, but there is a lot more to like about this team right now than there is to fear.

Kickoff is Sunday at 1 p.m. What about this team has you optimistic for the 2011 season?

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

BOX SCORE

Brett Brown was ready to do it Wednesday night. The matchup against the Kings presented an opportunity to experiment with playing Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together. That pairing had to wait two days, though, after the Kings game was postponed

On Friday, Embiid and Okafor shared the court for just under 13 minutes in the Sixers' 105-88 loss to the Magic (see Instant Replay), who also rolled out a duo of bigs in Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic. 

“I thought we had our moments,” Embiid said. “We shared the ball, we made shots. Obviously we need to play more together and learn how to play with each other.”

Embiid and Okafor first played together for 5:29 in the second quarter. They scored all of the Sixers' 12 points during that time, including a pair of threes by Embiid. They also combined for five boards. The Sixers outscored the Magic, 12-9, with the bigs in together.

The benefits of the floor spacing was apparent. Oftentimes in the game, Okafor could be seen open at the basket with a hand up for the ball while Embiid was also getting looks from long range. 

“I liked our spacing, I liked the high-low stuff we were doing,” Brown said. “I think when you post Joel, that Jahlil is going to play sort of hide-and-seek on the other side of the floor, and work that low zone, and become — I hope — a potent offensive rebounder. When you post Jahlil, Joel has the ability to space to three.”

Brown turned to Embiid and Okafor again in the fourth. At that point, the Magic had a 23-point lead. Their next 7:25 together was a chance to give them a long run in live game action. They combined for another 12 points and four rebounds. All of their buckets were layups, dunks or free throws. Both teams scored 19 points with Embiid and Okafor in that segment.

Both Embiid and Okafor finished the game with double-doubles: 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists for Embiid; 16 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks for Okafor. 

“I thought they played well together,” Vucevic said. “I thought it was tough to guard them because they’re both really good offensively.”

Okafor credited his friendship with Embiid, which dates back to high school, as a key to coexisting well on the court. Both emphasized their off-the-court relationship would help them in a game situation. 

“I think the communication piece went really well,” Okafor said. “He was talking to me, I was talking to him.”

Scoring and communication always seemed to be the easier parts of the pairing to tackle. Defense, though, was the challenge given that one of the centers would have to guard the four spot. Okafor noted their transition D as an area that needs improvement.

“We’re both used to going right to the rim,” Okafor said. “I think I had a couple easy buckets. That’s something we’ll be able to fix.” 

Brown had based his decision of when to play Embiid and Okafor together on the matchups. While the two could boast their own edge on the offensive end, Brown didn’t want to play them in a scenario in which they’d be at a huge defensive disadvantage. 

“It’s not offense to me, it’s defense. That’s the thing that is most challenging,” Brown said. “We want to play fast. We want to put points on the board. You don’t want to play in the 80s. You don’t want to do that, that’s not our sport anymore. So you want to make sure that you're capable of guarding the opposition.”

Vucevic noticed the challenge from an opposing perspective. He understands the necessary changes since playing alongside Biyombo.  

“It takes time for them to get adjusted, especially for the guy that will be playing the four defensively,” Vucevic said. “They’re not used to that because they always back down to the paint guarding the fives. It’s a different look. They have to work on it, communicate, and I think they’ll be fine.” 

On a night with few highlights in a 17-point blowout loss, Brown was able to take away a positive from this anticipated duo.

"I thought Jahlil and Joel did a really good job," he said. 

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Joel Embiid didn’t see four quarters of basketball from the Sixers in their 105-88 loss to the Magic Friday night (see Instant Replay). Their efforts were inconsistent as they fell flat in long stretches and allowed the Magic to build up double-digit leads as high as 29 points.

The Sixers gave up a 16-0 run in the first and shot just 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) in the quarter. The Magic, who had lost a one-point game to the Grizzlies in Memphis the night before, rallied together to seize this opportunity.

“They just made a lot of shots that we didn’t,” Embiid said. “That’s the game, but we didn’t play hard all 48 minutes and we need to do a better job next time.”

The Sixers didn’t break 30 points until 4:33 to go in the second and attempted just two free throws in the first half. By the end of the third, the Magic had a 21-point lead which they held on to with in ease in the fourth. 

The Magic outshot the Sixers on all areas of the floor: 47.4 percent to 37.9 from the field and 50.0 to 28.1 from three. While the teams had nearly equal percentages from the line, the Magic shot 18 for 26 compared to only 7 for 10 from the Sixers. 

“They missed a lot of shots,” Magic forward Jeff Green said. “We got stops, were aggressive, guys just played hard and created for one another and played as a team.”

Covington injured
The Sixers are waiting to learn more news on the extent of Robert Covington’s injury. In the fourth quarter, Covington exited and did not return after suffering a left knee sprain when he collided with T.J. McConnell chasing a loose ball in front of the Sixers’ bench. If the starting small forward has to miss time, Sixers head coach Brett Brown is thinking ahead to possible lineup changes. 

“We'll try to figure out what his next week represents,” Brown said. “If we aren't with him, maybe there's a chance we can look at Dario [Saric] a little bit at the three.”

Covington is averaging 8.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 27.5 minutes per game. Saric has been coming off the bench at power forward behind Ersan Ilyasova. He started 10 games earlier this season at the four spot. 

Embiid honored
The Sixers honored Embiid during a timeout for being named NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month (October and November). Embiid was appreciative of the award and has his sights set on the bigger picture this season.

“All the hard work I’ve put in, it feels great,” Embiid said earlier in the day at shootaround. “Obviously, maybe the bigger picture is Rookie of the Year, that’s what matters. … I don’t have my mind set on that. But if I can get it, that would be nice.”

Brown sees this recent showing as just a glimpse into what Embiid will be able to do over his career. Embiid leads the Sixers with 18.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. 

“This in infant stages, early days for him,” Brown said. “His body of work, given his lack of playing basketball, really is jaw-dropping for what I think he can be. To jump in and get rookie of the month I think is a real, sort of, quick snapshot view of him now. I think what he’s going to be is going to be extremely special.”

Embiid also is shooting 51.4 percent from three, including 3 for 5 against the Magic. When asked if he would like to participate in the three-point contest All-Star weekend, he said "it would be nice" and noted he would have to work on the speed of his release.