The Long, Depressing History of the Ongoing Search for Linebackers

The Long, Depressing History of the Ongoing Search for Linebackers

By the time the Eagles finally reached Super Bowl XXXIX, their regular starting linebackers were Jeremiah Trotter, Dhani Jones, and Mark Simoneau*.

Trotter was on his second of three stints with the Birds, and even though he was still playing at a fairly high level, the knees were shot. Jones was brought in over the off-season to replace the dependable Carlos Emmons, who left during free agency due to the organization's policy of treating 30 year olds like lepers -- but compared to today, we actually had it pretty good. Once Trot was back, Simoneau slid into Nate Wayne's spot, which basically had been a revolving door since Andy Reid and Jim Johnson arrived, the lone bright spot being their one-year rental of Shawn Barber.

They never quite found that ideal lineup though, but as you can see, it wasn't for lack of trying. Fast forward seven seasons, and the same holds true today. Contrary to popular belief, the Eagles have tried -- but failed -- to assemble a stable group of linebackers.

It's the number of attempts that make this such a sad tale.

PART I
Our story begins like so many do, with the draft.

Believe it or not, the Eagles used second round picks on Barry Gardner and Quinton Caver in Reid's first three seasons, although neither materialized. Of course, Reid was not the head of personnel during those early years, a detail worthy of this footnote. (However, Reid was promoted to executive VP of football operations shortly after the '01 draft, which suggests he may have had a great deal of influence over that class.)

The next three years, Reid stayed true to perceptions. The only pick the Eagles spent on a linebacker between '02 and '04 was sixth-rounder Tyreo Harrison, who never started a game. Instead, they visited the free agent well periodically, fruitlessly dipping their bucket into a puddle until there was nothing left on the roster but cast-offs. They weren't developing ANYBODY.

Finally, Reid decided it was time to start rebuilding the linebacker corps, which naturally is where our story takes a turn for depressing. The blueprint for the next three drafts was intended to produce a group that would anchor the defense for the next decade... but not one of these guys is still here today.

    2007 - Stewart Bradley (3)
    2006 - Chris Gocong (3), Omar Gaither (5)
    2005 - Matt McCoy (2), David Bergeron (7)

They flat out missed on McCoy, who was second-team All-MWC out of San Diego State. (Second-team!) Draft analysts were right on the money, describing the selection as a major reach. McCoy literally accomplished nothing during his rookie year, but they handed him the job at weakside the following season anyway. He lasted 10 games.

Even though McCoy was an unmitigated disaster, it often looked like they would get something out of the next two drafts. Gaither was starting in place of McCoy by the end of '06, and he took over for the departed Trotter at middle linebacker in '07 -- it wasn't really a fit, but he was okay. Gocong spent his rookie season on injured reserve, and his development came along slowly, in large part because he played defensive end during his days at Cal Poly.

The guy who put it all together was Bradley. After making only one start his rookie year, Bradley was installed as the middle linebacker for '08, with Gaither sliding back to weakside. It was largely a success. Gaither was eventually benched in favor of Akeem Jordan, but Gocong was playing tremendous football down the stretch. Bradley was responsible. With Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley up front, the 6-4, 258-lbs. Nebraska product was becoming a nightmare in the middle. It was easier for offenses to run away from him, and Gocong was one of the beneficiaries. Whoever was going to man the other side would work itself out, like it always had.

Introducing Flight Night, the fans' chance to watch an Eagles practice at the Linc. The team made the bus trip from their temporary home in Lehigh, interrupting an otherwise typical training camp, for what amounts to nonsense. What happens next just as easily could have happened on a field in Bethlehem, but a dark cloud hovers over the event to this day.

Bradley tore his ACL that night, his second. When he came back last season, nothing was the same. Gaither suffered a Lisfranc sprain that knocked him out of the picture shortly after. Gocong looked like he was playing out of position again, then was traded to Cleveland. Bradley himself didn't look like a guy destined to make multiple Pro Bowls, much less one, and when he later dislocated his elbow, the Eagles moved on. Bradley signed a big contract with Arizona, where he's started all of one game.

    2011 - Casey Matthews (4), Brian Rolle (6), Greg Lloyd (7)
    2010 - Keenan Clayton (4), Jamar Chaney (7)
    2009 - Moise Fokou (7)
    2008 - Joe Mays (6), Andy Studebaker (6)

Since those three drafts, the Eagles have added another eight linebackers through the entry process -- none higher than the fourth round. That may lend the appearance they haven't prioritized the position, but the reality is a front office can't dump second- and third-round draft picks into the same area year after year.

Not that we're advocating a "throw shit at the wall and see what sticks" mentality, either. Selling a fan base, much less themselves, on the idea Casey Matthews could start at middle linebacker from day one was offensive. However, they have been saddled with an unfortunate situation, particularly in these last two drafts. Can anybody honestly say the Eagles didn't need the defensive ends, safeties, and guard they took with five of their last six picks in the top three rounds?

PART II
Not a group prone to accepting excuses, fans asked why the Eagles didn't just sign a linebacker during this summer's free agency period when they were throwing all that money around? It's a fair question, often posed sarcastically as if the answer were a no-brainer. A fair response would be:

Who?

Prior to their shameful attempt to plug Matthews into the lineup, it was widely assumed Jamar Chaney would get the opportunity to reprise his role in the middle. Chaney drew rave reviews for his efforts in relief of Bradley late last season, and even once the coaches made it clear they liked Matthews there, you figured they could always go back to the way things were after that failed -- which it did, and they have.

And since moving back, Chaney has improved on an almost-weekly basis.
Had he been practicing there all summer, we might be seeing something
that more closely matched our expectations heading into this season.

Middle linebacker simply didn't feel like a problem they should throw a ton of money at. Paul Posluszny received six years at $42 million from Jacksonville, which most observers thought was outrageous. Stephen Tulloch, who the Eagles were rumored to be chasing at one point, signed a much more reasonable one-year deal with the Lions at $3.25 million. That couldn't have hurt, but it's not like Chaney is the root of the issue. Stewart Bradley was the next best option for their system, and Chaney outplayed him.

Somehow there was even less help available on the edges, where the Eagles are really hurting. Literally the only free agent outside linebacker who changed uniforms and has started more than half of his team's game is Thomas Howard -- and he didn't start one game the previous year on his old team, the Raiders. The rest were either franchised, stayed put, or have spent most of the season on the bench.

And in case you were wondering why the Eagles didn't try to get out in front of their depth issues from the very beginning, actually, they did. After Bradley went down on Flight Night, they eventually re-signed Trotter again mid-season. The Axe Man was finished, yet remarkably he was still better than Joe Mays. When that wasn't cutting it either, they traded for Will Witherspoon.

Witherspoon was sent from the Rams, who were in the midst of a pitiful 1-15 campaign, in exchange for rookie wide receiver Brandon Gibson and a fifth-round pick. He had played MIKE the previous three seasons, but Steve Spagnuolo moved him outside to make room for James Laurinitis. In his first game wearing midnight green, Spoon forced a fumble, and intercepted a pass he returned for a touchdown. The trade looked great at first, but the big plays were a tease. Witherspoon wasn't cut out for the middle in their system, and before long, he was making $5 million to play a good-not-great outside linebacker. He was released in a cost-cutting measure after the season.

Facing a depleted free agent market in the 2010 off-season, the Eagles tried their luck in a trade again, this time swapping for junk. Ernie Sims was the ninth overall pick in the '06 draft, a freakish athlete who hit deceptively hard for being a relatively small 6'0". They took him off the Lions for a fifth-round pick, a low-risk, high-reward proposition. It was entirely possible Sims' struggles at the pro level were in large part due to Detroit's franchise being so dysfunctional. His career got off to an impressive start, so maybe he would be revitalized playing on a better team. Unfortunately, Sims became better known for taking dumb, unnecessary penalties, and the front office showed no interest in re-signing him at the end of the year.

In hindsight, they probably would have been better off overpaying Witherspoon, or even holding on to Gocong, who at the time he was dealt seemed like little more than a throw-in on the Sheldon Brown trade to Cleveland for second- and fifth-round picks. Both at least are NFL starters.

With that in mind, the organization clearly mismanaged the situation, choosing to rely on inexperienced, late-round draft picks to fill out their linebackers when the rest of the roster was allegedly geared up to make a Super Bowl run. They seemed like semi-sensible moves at the time, with reasonable explanations behind the decision making, but every time the team tried to cover up another injury, another underachieving draft pick, or another low-reward acquisition, they were only making the situation progressively worse.

But they did try. Oh, how they tried. The problem wasn't Andy Reid's Eagles didn't value linebackers. The problem all along is they were neither lucky nor very good at putting a core group together.

* As several comments added, Keith Adams started in the Super Bowl. This was because Simoneau was injured in Week 17, and was not 100% in time for the big game. Simoneau was the "regular" starter for most of the season.

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

The end of an era has arrived for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard burst on the scene like a comet ablaze and powered his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year in just a half-season in 2005. A year later, he had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history when he clubbed a team-record 58 homers and added 149 RBIs in winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award. He was the big bat — or Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel so aptly dubbed him — in the middle of the lineup for a club that won five NL East titles, two NL pennants and a World Series over a five-year run of success that ended on that October night in 2011 when Howard himself fell to the ground in pain and clutched his left ankle as his Achilles tendon exploded on the final swing of the season.

From his seat at Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton watched Howard go down that night and he knew.

Middleton had joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 and seen his stake in the team rise to nearly 48 percent as the club was rising to the level of baseball elite. He felt elation on the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, disappointment on the night they lost the World Series in 2009 and frustration when the team suffered postseason failures in 2010 and 2011.

Howard’s crumbling to the ground on that October night in 2011 came to symbolize the end of the Phillies’ great run. A mighty man had been felled by injury. A mighty team had been brought down.

“They all gnaw at me,” Middleton said of the postseason failures that followed 2008 in a recent interview with CSN Philadelphia. “The opportunity to do something extraordinarily special is rare. And when it presents itself, you need to be able to take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

“That said, I think '11 was the hardest for me.”

The Phillies won a club-record 102 games that year, but did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs and haven’t been back since.

Middleton, still in ass-kickin’ physical condition at 61, was a wrestler in college. He’d seen injuries. He’d had injuries. As soon as he saw Howard go down, he knew it was an Achilles injury and he knew it was bad. Deep down inside, he just knew that great Phillies team would never be the same, that the run was over.

“When Ryan went down with the Achilles injury at the end of that game, I knew he was going to be out for 2012 and you didn't really know when he was going to be back and how well he would come back,” Middleton said.

Howard’s injury coincided with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

“That was just too many people to lose,” Middleton said.

Middleton has stepped out of the background and taken a more up-front role with the club over the past two years. He was a leader in making the decision to move away from past glory and commit to a full rebuild two years ago, and he remains committed to it today.

The reconstruction of the Phillies has coincided with the deconstruction of the club that won all those games and titles from 2007-2011. Hamels, Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, Werth, Halladay, Lee and others are gone. All that remains is Howard and his time in red pinstripes will come to an end after this final weekend series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

While the failure to do something “extraordinarily special” — i.e., win multiple World Series — still gnaws at Middleton, he will remember the good times that Howard provided.

There were lots of them.

“This wasn't just a guy who was good or very good, this was an elite player,” Middleton said.

Howard has not been an elite player since the Achilles injury. There were times in recent seasons when his union with the club became uncomfortable. He was mentioned in trade rumors, but the fact is there wasn’t much interest in him from other teams. He went from being a full-time player and a star to being a part-time player.

Middleton appreciates the way Howard handled things as his role diminished.

“I think he’s a wonderful human being,” Middleton said. “He's been a terrific player and an even better person. I really will miss him when he's gone.

“Ryan made it easy because he was the consummate teammate. And not only for the other 24, 25 guys on the roster, but for his coaches, for the front office, for the owners. This guy has just been fabulous about it.”

In April 2010, a year and a half before Howard would have been a free agent, the Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The idea was to lock up a key, productive player and gain some cost certainty. Critics said the Phillies acted too early and they were proven right when Howard blew out his Achilles before the extension even officially kicked in.

Middleton was not the architect of that extension. Former club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were at the helm then. Both have stood by the decision and pointed to Howard’s productivity — he averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to through 2011 — as a reason the deal made sense. Both have acknowledged that injuries can change everything in a blink of an eye and, in this case, one did.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Middleton said. “Had you asked a question and had a crystal ball and knew Ryan was going to have an Achilles injury in October of ‘11 and that would probably limit his effectiveness going forward … that's one question.”

Middleton rattled off some of Howard’s accomplishments: The top 10 finishes in the MVP voting, including the win, the fastest player to 100 and 250 home runs in baseball history …

“This guy was a truly terrific player,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there's been a strategic move on the part of teams to identify young talent and lock it up early. Ryan's contract was just that. We were trying to identify young talent and lock it up before it hit free agency. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And in large part, it didn't work out because he had that crippling injury in 2011.”

Howard was still healthy in 2009. In fact, he hit 45 homers and led the NL with 141 RBIs that year. He was the MVP of the NLCS but struggled badly in the World Series against the Yankees, going 4 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

The performance crushed Howard.

After the Phillies lost Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, Middleton stood outside the clubhouse and wondered if he should go in and comfort the disappointed players.

He finally did and a story that will forever link him and Ryan Howard was born.

Yes, the “I want my (bleeping) trophy back” story is true.

“Completely true,” Middleton said with a laugh.

“We have to go back to that night. Losing the World Series is excruciatingly painful. As great as they have to be to get to the World Series, when you lose, it's just crushing. It really is. I don't know any other word for it.

“So I went into the locker room, obviously very emotional, and there's tons of media around, and I'm trying to talk to each player quietly and privately. I'm trying to thank them for their contribution to the year. I'm trying to get them focused for the offseason and 2010 because I thought we had a great opportunity in 2010. And I look around, and I see Ryan kind of sitting in front of his locker, slumped over with his head in his hands.

“This is my opportunity to go up to Ryan and talk to him without anyone around so I did that. I knelt down beside him and we were talking about the season, the postseason, just a very emotional moment for the two of us and it became more emotional as we talked.

“And at the end, I said, ‘Ryan, I want my … trophy back.’"

The Phillies are still looking to get that trophy back.

Ryan Howard will not be on the team when they finally do.

But he was a big reason they got one in the first place and in a town that loves winners, well, that should not be forgotten as he heads out the door.

Find great deals on Philadelphia Phillies tickets with TicketIQ. Buy cheap Phillies tickets with no hidden fees for all games on their 2016 schedule. 

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Jeremy Hellickson made his final start of the season for the Phillies on Thursday night.

Now he becomes the team’s first big offseason decision.

Hellickson had long left the game with a sore right knee by the time struggling reliever Jeanmar Gomez was tagged for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in what ended up as a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay). The Phillies were swept in their final trip to Turner Field — the Braves will move into a new ballpark in April — and have lost six of their last seven games heading into the final weekend of the season and a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s a bad time to be in a rut and we’re in a rut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’ve got to go home and snap out of it.”

Besides supporting his rotation mates, Hellickson won’t make any contributions this weekend. The 29-year-old right-hander, acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finished his season 12-10 in a career-high 32 starts. He tied a career high with 189 innings. His final ERA of 3.71 was his best since he recorded a 3.10 ERA in 31 starts for Tampa Bay in 2012.

Though he left the game in the fourth inning after tweaking his knee while running the bases (see story), Hellickson achieved his season goal.

“This isn’t anything that’s going to linger,” he said, looking down at his knee. “So I came out healthy. That was my main thing, try to throw 200 innings — I fell just short of that — and stay healthy. So as far as those two goals go, it was good.”

By staying healthy and pitching well, Hellickson built himself a nice free-agent platform. But before Hellickson heads out on the open market, the Phillies must make a decision: Do they offer him $17 million to retain him in 2017 or simply let him go. As a rebuilding team, the Phils would love to get a draft pick as compensation for Hellickson’s leaving. But to get that pick, they must make Hellickson that one-year qualifying offer and he must reject it and sign elsewhere. 

It seems likely that the Phils will make the offer to Hellickson. If he takes it, he will return in 2017 and fill the same veteran stabilizer role he did this season. If he rejects, the team will get a pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft. The value of that draft pick is significant and was seen as a reason the Phillies did not trade Hellickson in July.

Qualifying offers go out in early November, but general manager Matt Klentak isn’t ready to tip his hand on what he’ll do.

“Both are valuable,” he said, weighing Hellickson's returning on a one-year deal versus picking up a draft selection between the first and second rounds. “For the same reason Jeremy Hellickson was valuable to us this year, Jeremy Hellickson or a player like that could be valuable to us again next year. The draft pick at the end of the first round has a real, measurable, tangible value.”

After Thursday night’s game, Hellickson was asked if he believed he’d made his final start with the Phillies.

“I hope not,” he said. “But I don’t really know how to answer that. I would love to be back here next year. I think everyone knows how much I’ve enjoyed my time here and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The pitcher was pressed as to whether he could envision himself accepting the qualifying offer if the Phillies made one.

“Yeah, I mean I definitely could see it,” he said. “But …"

Hellickson paused. Then a reporter broke the silence by suggesting the pitcher would rather get a multi-year deal on the open market.

“Yeah, I would love that actually a little bit more,” he said.

The Phillies could look to strike a multi-year deal with Hellickson before he hits the open market five days after the World Series, but that does not appear to be in the club’s plans. The Phils seem to be interested mostly in short-term deals for veterans as they let their kids develop.

In time, this thing will play out.

But for now, the Phillies head home looking to stop a losing streak and scuttle the Mets’ postseason hopes.

Find great deals on Philadelphia Phillies tickets with TicketIQ. Buy cheap Phillies tickets with no hidden fees for all games on their 2016 schedule.