How the Eagles Positioned Themselves to Win Free Agency

How the Eagles Positioned Themselves to Win Free Agency

A closer look at some of the moves, or non-moves, that set up the Eagles to sign their huge incoming free agent class.

The $64,000 dollar question around the league right now—and even in Philadelphia—regarding the Birds' incredible free agent haul is, "How did this happen?" One week ago, the defense was like a running gag, with their offensive line-coordinator, punchless pass rush, and the crater-sized hole at right cornerback. Today, that unit is part of what is commonly being referred to as a "Dream Team."

So what was it? Joe Banner didn't just wake up one day and say, "We're going for it." No, this was carefully planned going all the way back to last year, a plan that's been brilliantly executed from the moment the curtain was lifted on free agency. And the answers to the question "How," well... those are actually in plain sight.

About 2010...
Think back to last year, when the Eagles weren't spending wads of cash in free agency. Their top acquisition was Marlin Jackson, whose sole purpose was to push first-year free safety Nate Allen for the starting job, a job that nobody (thoughtful) expected him to win. Meanwhile, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Julius Peppers was putting his mark on a record contract in Chicago.

What the casual fan might have missed about last year's signing period was that it lacked top end talent. Peppers was out there, along with one or two others, but the quality declined sharply from there. Rule changes in the final year of the old collective bargaining agreement made many of the anticipated free agents restricted, minimizing their actual availability.

Rather than load up on mediocre talent asking for top dollar, or outbidding the Bears' insane offer for Peppers (which was aided by their lack of a draft after the Jay Cutler trade, not to mention the urgency to put a team around him), the Eagles didn't budge. In fact, they got rid of the majority of their own overpaid veterans, and instead focused on the draft.

It turns out, after all the bickering, this was a wise decision. Most observers felt the Birds were at least a year away from truly competing anyway. While adding Peppers would have been a major coup, the rest of the barren market would have only served to eat up the budget, and maybe appease fans—although, probably not once they would have seen the caliber players that money could buy.

One year later, being frugal in free agency's off-year, when there was no immediate need to make a splash in the first place, set them up to spend like crazy in 2011. The big difference this time around was the full roster of unrestricted free agents hit the market, and then some. This key difference allowed the front office to make impact moves, and not just moves for the sake of making moves.

Sometimes it pays to be "cheap."

Cost Cutting: Akers and Rocca
To those of you who are still upset the Eagles will allow rookies to handle kick and punt duties in 2011, the questing we pose to you today is this: would you rather have David Akers and Sav Rocca, or Jason Babin? Or Vince Young? Or Cullen Jenkins?

That was essentially the decision the front office made this year. By allowing both Akers and Rocca to depart, the Eagles probably slashed an estimated $5 million or more in salary from their kicking game alone. The combination of Alex Henery and Chas Henry will make decidedly less than that, in fact, well under $1 million in 2011.

That gave the organization an additional $4 million to play with in free agency, which is almost exactly what Young and Jenkins are expected to make, or a sizable portion of Babin's salary. Without that extra cash, one of those players most likely never lands in Philly.

And what have the Eagles lost? Akers was a fan favorite, but he is getting up there in years, and could not be counted on forever. Rocca was improving, but certainly not irreplaceable. As substitutes, they chose the top kicker in the draft, and signed the 2010 Ray Guy Award winner for best punter in college football.

Is it a risk? Sure. A calculated risk.

More Cost Cutting: Expendable Parts
Then there was the Brodrick Bunkley trade. Immediately following the Eagles surprise addition of Cullen Jenkins, it was revealed the defensive tackle had been shipped to the Browns. He eventually wound up in Denver for a pick in 2013 for whatever reason, but the modest return the Birds received for Bunk was never the meat of the deal.

Due to his bonus money, Bunkley's cap figure in 2011 was set at nearly $2 million. Jenkins' estimated salary this season is $4 million. By trading Bunk, who was set to become a free agent next season anyway, they were able to free up nearly half the money necessary to pay Jenkins this year.

What's more, the Birds don't carry any additional risk into 2012. Barring a crazy-productive season, Bunk's chances of returning next season were basically none. He simply has not lived up to being the 14th pick in the 2006 draft. Meanwhile, Jenkins' contract is voidable after this season, so if he doesn't work out for whatever reason, the team can go right back to square one with their defensive tackle situation.

Upon closer examination of the roster, more releases could be on the way. Unless Asante Samuel is traded, Joselio Hanson's cut looks like little more than a formality. That will remove roughly $1.7 mil from the books. They also may not need both Juqua Parker AND Darryl Tapp now, so cutting one of those guys is another $2-to-$4 million in relief.

"Winning Tradition"
That's the term players like Nnamdi Asomugha and Cullen Jenkins have used to describe this franchise. We've had to cope with so much heartbreak over the last decade, we often forget this team is viewed quite differently around the league. They are seen as a well-run organization, and the perennial contender that they historically are. Those details were crucial here.

While many fans have long called for the head of Andy Reid, the continuity in the Eagles power structure was likely a significant factor in the team's ability to move quickly on several fronts, i.e. trading Kolb, signing Babin, signing Nnamdi—all while preparing for a camp that was about to begin.

Maybe they're not the "gold standard," but let's be real: this wave of free agents does not come here without the stability that is a direct result of Reid's success. And while what he's accomplished will always be diminished to some extent until he finally wins the big one, there is no denying the Eagles are reaping the rewards like a team that's already done it.

Whether you like the head coach's and organization's philosophies or not, as long as the current structure is in place, the Birds always have a shot at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year. Free agents recognize that, which is why no shortage of them has been willing to come here.

Michael Vick
It's all about Vick, isn't it?

Well, yeah... sort of. I was one of those who were of the opinion that the Eagles should keep Kevin Kolb, and instead see what was out there in a trade for Vick. My justification was Kolb was the younger, more conventional option, and Vick still had a lot to prove in areas such as consistency and reading defenses. Plus, the compensation would have been far greater.

So much for conventional. What my plan did not account for—not even the slightest bit—was how much Vick's presence would mean during this free agency period. Let me say this again so that it's clear: players are choosing Philadelphia, at least in part, because Michael Vick is the quarterback here.

If I may, the Eagles have "street cred" now. They took a chance on the athlete's athlete, the o
ne guy that still amazes other professional football players unlike any other, when he was at his absolute lowest point. Vick has rewarded the franchise through his hard work and bouts of stellar play, but the bonus prize is some of Vick's fans, or just players who respect what the team did for him, are joining the squad.

Nobody could have accounted for this in August 2009, when we were all wondering what Vick was even doing here, and how soon he would be traded for whatever picks they could get. But it's happening, and it's all because Jeffrey Lurie and Andy Reid were willing to give him a second chance.

It's fitting, because right now even the most jaded fan should be giving those two a second chance. If this isn't considered doing everything it takes to win, I don't know what is.

Phillies can exhale after bullpen nearly blows 10-0 lead

Phillies can exhale after bullpen nearly blows 10-0 lead

BOX SCORE

The moment when the ball struck first baseman Tommy Joseph’s glove for the final out of the Phillies 10-8 win over the Mets — dealing a major blow to their rival’s wild card hopes in the process — felt more like a collective exhalation than a moment of celebration (see Instant Replay).
 
Two days earlier, the bullpen faltered suddenly. A game-tying two-run homer by Jose Reyes in the ninth was the first body blow. The game-winning three-run homer by Asdrubal Cabrera was the knockout.
 
Saturday, the collapse occurred over the course of five innings as the Phillies let a lead that was once 10-0 slip away, one drawn-out at-bat after another.
 
Missing, of course, was the moment of impact in the proverbial slow-motion car crash, thanks to well-placed sinkers and four-seamers from Michael Mariot.
 
“The bullpen’s been sputtering,” manager Pete Mackanin said in an understatement.
 
Joely Rodriguez entered in the sixth inning with a 10-4 lead to face a string of lefties and it quickly became apparent that he did not have his fastball. A middle-in four-seamer that caught too much of the plate was slapped for a double by Mets shortstop Gavin Cecchini, his first major-league hit and a run. A second run scored when a little dribbler by third baseman T.J. Rivera died on the third base line, leaving Rodriguez with no play.
 
“He just didn’t throw quality strikes,” Mackanin said.
 
Even the normally-reliable Hector Neris struggled on Saturday. In his 77th outing of the season, Neris walked two straight batters and then surrendered an RBI double to Cecchini of his own which narrowed the lead to 10-7 and thrust the uncertainty of a save situation onto Mackanin.
 
Mariot was given first crack at the ninth inning one day after Mackanin said he would give Jeanmar Gomez a break from closing duties.
 
Mariot’s audition got off to a rough start. He gave up a pinch-hit solo home run to Jay Bruce — who had been mired in an 0-15 slump — with one out in the ninth and then walked Eric Campbell and Michael Conforto after a pair of grueling at-bats that lasted a combined 18 pitches.
 
The two hitters fouled off eight of Mariot’s pitches and took several four-seamers that just missed the plate.
 
“I was pretty upset about that,” Mariot said of the four-seamers that missed. “I was hoping to get at least a swing or maybe a call on those. Talking to [catcher] A.J. [Ellis], I think he said that they missed but I was hoping at least one of them to get called a strike.”
 
Gomez was up in the Phillies’ bullpen but Mariot ensured that Mackanin wouldn’t need to throw the recently-struggling closer back into the fire in a high-stress situation.
 
Mariot was able to locate his fastball when he needed to most. He fooled Lucas Duda with a two-seamer that the slugger popped out to Freddy Galvis and got Travis D’Arnaud to ground a four-seamer outside right back to him.
 
“I just told myself: ‘keep throwing strikes and good things will happen,’” Mariot said.
 
He threw just enough strikes to ensure that the Phillies didn’t end up on the wrong end of what would have been the Mets’ biggest comeback in team history.

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College football wrap: Auburn upsets No. 18 LSU with controversial finish

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College football wrap: Auburn upsets No. 18 LSU with controversial finish

AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn was ready to try anything to get a win for his Auburn Tigers.

Malzahn relinquished offensive play-calling duties. Following his daughters' advice, he traded his usual game-day visor for a cap. And then, when the clock expired and LSU players were celebrating an apparent last-second win, the Auburn coach put all his faith in a ruling he couldn't control.

Daniel Carlson kicked six field goals and Auburn beat No. 18 LSU 18-13 on Saturday night after officials ruled Danny Etling's apparent last-gasp scoring pass came after time expired.

Malzahn said he knew there were only zeroes on the clock before the snap to Etling.

"I was pretty confident time had expired," Malzahn said. "It was just a matter of going to the booth and confirming it."

Etling rolled to his right and found D.J. Shark in the back of the end zone on a 15-yard pass, setting off a short-lived celebration by LSU players (see full recap).

Hornibrook proves he's ready in Badgers' win over Spartans
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- By the time Alex Hornibrook's first start was over, there wasn't much question about whether he could handle one of the toughest road tests in the Big Ten.

Hornibrook threw for 195 yards and a touchdown, and 11th-ranked Wisconsin turned its early-season showdown with No. 8 Michigan State into a rout, beating the Spartans 30-6 on Saturday.

"You've got to have respect for a guy whose first start is against a Michigan State defense," Wisconsin running back Corey Clement said.

"He's going to come out the next game and do even better. I think he's just getting his feet wet."

The freshman quarterback outplayed fifth-year senior Tyler O'Connor, his Michigan State counterpart. The Badgers (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) were the better team in the first half and then outscored the Spartans 17-0 in the third quarter (see full recap).

No. 23 Rebels find their rhythm, beat No. 12 Georgia 45-14
OXFORD, Miss. -- Mississippi quarterback Chad Kelly faked the handoff and then took off running toward the end zone. A few seconds and 41 yards later, the quarterback had cruised through the middle of the Georgia defense and into the end zone untouched.

It was pretty much that easy for the Rebels all afternoon. Ole Miss finally built a lead it couldn't give away.

No. 23 Ole Miss rolled to a 45-14 victory over No. 12 Georgia on Saturday, building a 31-0 lead by halftime and a 45-0 advantage by midway through the fourth quarter.

Kelly threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns. Ole Miss (2-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) broke a 10-game losing streak in the series dating to 1996 (see full recap).

Dobbs rallies No. 14 Vols to 38-28 win over No. 19 Gators
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- This time, Tennessee delivered the comeback.

And in the process, the Volunteers took out 11 years' worth of frustration on Florida.

Joshua Dobbs accounted for five second-half touchdowns Saturday and No. 14 Tennessee erased a 21-point deficit to beat No. 19 Florida 38-28 and end their 11-game losing streak in the annual series.

"I didn't see anybody blink," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "Nobody flinched. They just kept playing."

This marks the first time Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 SEC) has beaten Florida (3-1, 1-1) since 2004. The Volunteers had lost to Florida by one point each of the last two years despite leading in the fourth quarter of both games (see full recap).