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.

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?

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:


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.

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Embracing the playoff underdog role

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Embracing the playoff underdog role

Union vs. Toronto FC
7:30 p.m. on ESPN2

Riding a seven-game winless run entering their first playoff match since 2011, the No. 6 Union (11-14-9) will attempt to hit the reset button and unseat the third-ranked and heavily favored Toronto FC (14-9-11) on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., ESPN2) at BMO Field.

Here are five things to know:

1. Playing underdog
The struggling Union are happily accepting the role as underdogs against MLS Cup-hungry Toronto FC.

"It's a difficult task but it’s not impossible,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. "Not many people are giving us a chance. We've been a good team when we're considered the underdog and my guys have responded well in that situation. This is no different."

To fully embrace that underdog role, and in an attempt to wash away the stink of how they ended the regular season, the Union are treating Wednesday as a hard reset. For them, the playoffs will be a fresh chance to prove themselves.

“It’s a new season now,” said Union center back Ken Tribbett, who helped his club draw Toronto FC at BMO Field on Sept. 24. “In the playoffs, anything can happen. We go up to Toronto and it’ll be a good test. We have to stay sharp for 90 minutes and hopefully we can come back here with a win.”

And there is a reason to be slightly optimistic about the Union’s chance. Despite a 1-0-1 record against the Canadian side this season, the Union, who lost 3-1 in the first match, played much better on Sept. 24 at BMO Field. They clogged the midfield and ground the Sebastian Giovinco-less club into a 1-1 draw.

“It’s encouraging that we have gone there recently and played well,” Curtin said. “I think we have a group that has a belief, and one that is pissed a bit about how things have ended. They are motivated.”

2. Leaning on experience
While the 2016 Union will ultimately be known for their reliance on youth — a group that included Keegan Rosenberry, who has played every minute this season, Fabian Herbers, Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett — it’s the veterans that will lead them on Wednesday.

“This is a pressure game for everybody,” Curtin said. “We have a good balance of guys who have played in big spots, like (Chris) Pontius, Tranquillo (Barnetta), (Alejandro) Bedoya. (C.J.) Sapong has played in big games, you can go through the list.”

Yet despite Curtin’s need for his veterans to lead, his reliance on youth means the younger players need to be reliable. The manager admitted that pressure can change how people play, and he is making sure the Union youth movement remains steady on Wednesday.

“We have young guys, there’s no question about it,” Curtin said. “These guys will play in their first playoff game and a lot of the guys on our roster have never been in a playoff game. You hope they rise to the occasion and I’m confident they will.”

3. Pressure on Toronto
Making their second-ever postseason appearance, high-priced Toronto FC has its sights set on bigger things than the Union in the play-in playoff round. That’s why Curtin believes the pressure is squarely on his opposition.

“I’d say the pressure is on them, they are the home team,” the manager said. “My guys should be loose, they have nothing to lose. It’s fair to say, they are the home team and they want to make a deep playoff run. We want to make some noise.”

Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney knows his team will be excited, so he’s trying to instill a high intensity but controlled start for his club.

“We expect a little of the unexpected at the start,” he said. “The game settles down eventually, but at the start, there’s a lot of emotion into it and you want to play with the right kind of caution but the right kind of intensity to put the opposing team on their back foot.

“The guys are ready to go, ready to go after Philadelphia.”

4. Keep an eye on
Jozy Altidore: It would be easy to go with Giovinco here, but Altidore has a recent history of crushing the Union. He has two goals in his last three games against the Union and buried 10 in 23 games this season.

“Jozy is a guy who can stretch the field and is dangerous,” Curtin said. “He’s not a guy you can shut down, it’s not possible. He’ll have his moments, you just have to make those looks as predictable for (goalkeeper Andre Blake) as you can. You hope he’s a little off on the night.”

Tranquillo Barnetta: Without added inspiration, the Union offensive catalyst has been one of the club’s best players all season. On Wednesday, Curtin expects a little extra from Barnetta, who is not returning to the Union in 2017.

“I’ve talked a ton about how special he is, he’s been a great attribute for the Union and a guy we want to prolong the season for,” Curtin said. “He’s played in the big spots, the big games and there’s something extra there for him.” 

5. This and that
• On the injury front, Union center back Yaro sprained his MCL while returning from a concussion. “It’s a two-week injury,” Curtin said, “so it will be unfortunate he won’t be part of the Toronto game.”

Warren Creavalle is also fighting injury. The defensive midfielder left Sunday’s match with a rib injury but could be available for Wednesday. “It’s painful for him,” Curtin said. “He’s a tough kid and he wants to be a part of this game.”

• The Union and Toronto FC are deadlocked all time, with a 6-6-5 record against each other. 

• The Union are 2-4-3 at BMO Field.

• Both clubs enter Wednesday limping. Since August 27 (the Union’s last win), Toronto FC is 2-1-4, while the Union are 0-5-2.

NFC East Week 7 Recap: Enter Dallas Week

NFC East Week 7 Recap: Enter Dallas Week

The Giants beat the sleeping Rams, Washington replicated the Eagles in Detroit, and the Cowboys former QB showed off his soon-to-be-former house. Here’s a look at what happened during Week 7 in the NFC East:

New York Giants

What Happened: The Giants took part in the NFL’s weekly crime against America; a football game in London. In the Battle of Bad Facial Hair, Brian McAdoo’s squad snuck away with a 17-10 lead over Jeff Fisher’s Los Angeles Rams, and it was about as impressive as a new season of “The Simpsons.” (It’s an accomplishment, I won’t argue that, but let’s not make it out to be some sort of minor miracle).

The Giants fell into an early 10-0 hole, but scored 17 straight over the last three quarters in a game about as exciting as The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. The hero for New York was safety Landon Collins, who had two interceptions. One went for a touchdown that tied the game at 10 (and is, admittedly, much more fun to watch in German), while the other came with just over 12-minutes remaining, which would put Big Blue in position for the game-winning touchdown.

The Giants offense did little to build confidence in McAdoo’s system, however. Victor Cruz had some drops, Odell Beckham didn’t do enough to warrant some silly antic with the kicking net, and Eli Manning biggest impact was by acting as Donald Trump’s best surrogate. Look out, Kellyanne Conway, Eli’s got you on the hot seat!

Meanwhile, at the fear of sounding too #MAGA, the games in the U.K. really aren’t fair to the fans here in the Colonies. Every season, numerous teams (and fans) are sacrificing a home game to help “grow the game globally,” a.k.a. “Try to find new ways to make the owners money.” One of these years, it’s gonna be the Birds who are going to play a “home game” at Twickenham or Piccadilly or Mary Poppin’s Field rather than the Linc, and that’s gonna be some bull. How it is fair that one team loses home field advantage while another gets a game at a neutral field? When the NFL calls for a referendum on this Brexit, you can bet I’m voting STAY. #Topical.

On a serious note, the mother of cornerback Eli Apple, Annie Apple, took Giants owner John Mara to task for his nonchalant response to kicker Josh Brown’s domestic abuse case.  Considering I’m terrified to even sneeze too harshly around my boss, the fact that Apple would go public with her feelings at the risk of her son’s employment is in itself brave. Her experience as a victim of domestic abuse, and how she’s overcome it, is truly heroic. Definitely worth a read. 

What It Means: For the first time this season, the Giants followed the script they drew up over the offseason. The defensive front-four put pressure on the QB, which translated into turnovers. The offense spread the ball around (Cruz, OBJ, and rookie Sterling Shepard each had five catches a piece). And the Giants, despite falling into an early hole, stuck tough and walked out with a victory on the “road.” That takes #GUTS.

<Insert sarcastic applause here>

While the optimists in New York may take this as a sign their team is coming together, the more likely explanation is that the team from Los Angeles was suffering from being EIGHT HOURS BEHIND THEIR NATURAL TIME ZONE. Kickoff was at 6:30 A.M. Los Angeles Time. Instead of uniforms, the Rams should have been given pajama onesies.

And while some in New York would like to paint Collins as the NEXT GREAT GIANTS DEFENDER, let’s not act like this isn’t anything more than a testament against Rams quarterback Case Keenum.  Both picks came off tips, for the record, and floated so high that even the Eagles wide receivers wouldn’t have dropped them. Keenum had two other INTs to former Iggle Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and we all know he’s not bound for Canton.

What’s Next: Once again, an NFC East rival will get a bye week before facing the Birds. That’ll be followed up by games against the Bengals, Bears, and Browns, so it’s incredibly conceivable Eli & Co. have a bit of a winning streak ahead of them.



What Happened: Remember when the Iggles choked the game away to Detroit in Week 5? Well Matt Stafford and Co. came to return the favor. The Lions had an impressive two-minute drive that cullminated in an 18-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin with 16-seconds remaining, handing Washington a 20-17 defeat.

The story was almost Kirk Cousins, who led Washington on a game-altering nine-play touchdown drive just moments before to take the lead. Had Washington held on, Cousins the Comeback Kid would have been the focus, and not the number of erratic overthrows, or the lost fumble in the 3rd quarter, or the near-interception in the 2nd quarter, or the near interception in the 4th quarter, either. No, the story would have been Cousins, and the high-level of football he provided for an amazing one quarter on Sunday. Thankfully, the YOU LIKE THAT vine’s were left in the draft folder.

The Goat for D.C. was running back Matt Jones, who makes Ryan Matthews seem as secure as Al Gore’s lockbox. Jones had two fumbles in the first quarter alone, losing one in the Lion’s endzone on a drive that should have at least netted Washington three points. Then, for good measure, Jones fumbled in Lions territory deep into the third. That’s probably the last we’ll see of Jones for a while; trust is hard.

Meanwhile, Jamison Crowder is everything Iggles fans want Josh Huff to be, and he’ll likely be the reason DeSean Jackson’s D.C. home will be up for sale this summer.

What It Means: Jay Gruden’s team can leave Detroit with the same mindset Doug Pederson’s did; they can convince themselves they were the better team, that they shot themselves in the foot, and that on a more fundamentally-sound Sunday, they come away with the victory.

Sure, if Josh Norman wasn’t out with a concussion, maybe they don’t give up the final score. Maybe if Jones didn’t spend the afternoon doing an early-career Tiki Barber impression, this whole day would be different. Maybe if Blockbuster had started live-streaming in 2006, they’d still be in business. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

This team followed an 0-2 start with a four-game winning streak. This Washington squad is as confusing as trying to figure out how to turn the lights on in a hotel room. Is it the switches on the walls or the knobs under the shades? WHICH ONE IS IT!? 

Also, Washington LT Trent Williams hurt his left knee, though all indications are it isn’t significant. That being said, Williams is arguably the team’s offensive MVP, and an extended absence would hurt this squad bigly.

What’s Next: Washington gets a “home” game against Cincinnati in London next week, which as previously mentioned, is as fair as a carnival game. They’ll follow that up with games against the Vikings, Packers, Cowboys, and Cardinals, a month-long stretch that should shine some clarity on the type of team this is. 


Dallas Cowboys

What Happened: The Dallas Cowboys were on a bye this past weekend, which means an overload of hot takes on what the team should do when Tony Romo comes back. Also, fun stories about what the Cowboys players did on their week off. Here’s some photos of the house Romo is gonna sell when he’s cut and signed by the Bears next season. Neat!

Also, Dez Bryant looks like he’s ready to play this week, which is frightening considering the Birds total lack of depth at cornerback.  Maybe he’ll throw a temper-tantrum about something mundane and get ejected. Or maybe he’ll just throw a temper-tantrum. Probably just the latter.

Honestly, an NFL weekend without the Cowboys is like a Star Wars movie without Darth Vader (or, for us more recent nerds, a GoT without Cersei). We want the villain. We NEED the villain. Just so long as that villain is defeated in the most soul-crushing, gut-wrenching, humiliating way possible. We’re not savages, after all.

So let’s reverse the order a bit here now, and skip too….

What’s Next: EAGLES!! In case you hadn’t heard, the 5-1 Dallas Cowboys play host to the 4-2 Philadelphia Eagles in a game that will shape the course and destiny of the NFC East for approximately six days, depending on what Washington does that morning.

What It Means: Everything! If the Cowboys deliver another convincing victory -- or any sort of victory, that is -- they has righteous claim not just to Best-Team-in-the-Division, but Best-Team-in-the-Conference, and local beat bloggers will start counting the games necessary to clinch home field advantage.

On the flip side, if the Eagles come away with a road upset -- and it would be an upset, mind you -- they have righteous claim to Best-Team-in-the-Division, despite being humiliated by Washington just fourteen days prior. Plus, bloggers like myself will be able to fire up our favorite “What’s More Overrated: the Dallas Cowboys or ‘The Walking Dead’” Hot Takes. Dak Prescott vs. Rick Grimes, what suspense!!

Unfortunately, this game is on paper WAY more important for the Eagles than it is for ‘dem Boys. A loss drops the Birds two games behind the divisional lead (not to mention 0-2 vs. the NFC East), and puts Dallas in full control of a division that doesn’t quite seem as good as the combined 17-9 record suggests. 

The Eagles season won’t end this Sunday, no matter the result. But it most certainly may feel like it.