Then and Now: Andy Reid and the Decay of the Eagles

Then and Now: Andy Reid and the Decay of the Eagles

We could reasonably divide Andy Reid’s 14-year tenure in
Philadelphia into four distinct periods. First the early years, when the Eagles ascended from bottom
feeder to legitimate threat in a matter of two seasons. Then came a stretch of
conference dominance that was marked by four consecutive trips to the NFC Title
game and a Super Bowl. That in turn was followed by the post-T.O. plateau, an
era where a veteran-Birds team was still considered a perennial contender for another four or five seasons.

Finally we reached the decline, which began in earnest once
the front office started dumping those veterans that had helped bring the
franchise so much success, choosing instead to retool on the fly.

Some say the decline began after the Eagles reached the
Super Bowl. True, they missed the playoffs in two of the next three seasons.
However, they followed both of those campaigns with deep tournament runs, making
it to the Divisional Round of the playoffs with Jeff Garcia in 2006, and most
notably, their fifth NFC Championship in 2008. They were 11-5 in ’09 as well,
so an injury-riddled ’05 and a .500 finish in ’07 look like the real outliers in that bunch.

That was always the thing about Andy’s teams. He had plenty
of faults, several of which seemed to rear their ugly head at the most
inopportune moments. Yet somehow, his teams had a chance to win it all every
year.

Until suddenly they didn’t anymore, of course.

Reid oversaw the decline every step of the way, which can be
traced back to the offseason immediately following that most recent conference
championship loss. Brian Dawkins, Jon Runyan, and Tra Thomas all left via free
agency, Lito Sheppard was traded, and Jim Johnson passed later that summer.
That was only the beginning – the following year saw the purging of any
remaining big-name veterans who had become synonymous with the achievements of the
previous decade.

In some cases, Reid found viable replacements. As great as
Tra was, Jason Peters is probably an upgrade. LeSean McCoy is certainly an
adequate replacement for Brian Westbrook to say the least.

In most situations however, he was unable to locate a player’s
equal or superior. Time eroded the once-sound structure the Eagles had under
Andy, and the many-patch jobs were not only incapable of restoring it – they couldn't hold his system together. Take a good, long look at the drop-off in performance at
these seven positions, and it isn’t hard to see why Reid’s success quickly evaporated.

From Donovan McNabb
to Michael Vick

When the Birds shipped an aging McNabb to Washington, we
thought it was in favor of Kevin Kolb, who looked like he might turn into a
decent system quarterback. That lasted all of two quarters of one game. In
comes Vick, who flashed immense talent, but much like he was in Atlanta, is
incapable of sustaining success for any length of time. Say what you want to
about McNabb, but he brought stability to the most
important position on the field for 11 years, while Vick has lacked any consistency at all
whatsoever.

From Jon Runyan to
Todd Herremans

One of the trends you’ll see in several of these examples
is the Eagles actually ran through multiple people. Initially they wanted to
replace Runyan with right guard Shawn Andrews, even though he only played two
games in ’08. When Andrews never saw another down in midnight green again, former
second-round pick Winston Justice stepped up for a couple seasons. Injuries
slowed him at the end of ’10, and he didn’t translate to offensive line
coach Howard Mudd’s scheme, which led to Herremans’ move outside. Herremans was
okay last season, but struggled when he had to be the unit's cornerstone in Peters’ absence.
Runyan was a always rock out there though, a warrior who played at a high level through anything.

From Shawn Andrews to
Danny Watkins

This is more an example of Reid’s drafting ability failing him,
because as is noted above, Andrews only played twice in ‘08. The Eagles landed
Andrews in the first round of ’04, and while thanks to various injuries and
other strangeness he only appeared in 50 games for Philly, he was absolutely
dominant when he was able to get on the field. Fast forward to ’11 when the
front office grabs 26-year-old Watkins in the first round. He doesn’t break the
starting lineup right away, and one season later develops a mysterious “injury”
that keeps him out – although seldom inactive. Same end result, but big difference in
talent and production.

From Sheldon Brown
and Asante Samuel to Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

Philadelphia has had great cornerbacks for as long as Reid has
been here. He inherited Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, drafted Lito Sheppard
and Sheldon, then signed Samuel while he was at the top of his game. Both Brown
and Samuel were eventually moved in trades, but what’s the big deal? They
signed Asomugha and traded for Rodgers-Cromartie! Of course, neither has been
anywhere near the model of consistency fans had come to expect along the edges, nor even very good for that matter.

From Brian Dawkins to
Kurt Coleman

Dawk was one of the few veterans the front office let get away while there
was still something in the tank. Weapon X didn’t appreciate the open-ended
negotiation of his contract, so as soon as free agency started, he hopped on a
plane and inked a big-money deal in Denver. The Eagles tried home-grown
fifth-rounder Quintin Demps and free agent Sean Jones. They drafted Nate Allen
a season later, and eventually flip-flopped him with Coleman, an undersized,
under-skilled seventh-round pick. Not one of those players had the talent,
intensity, leadership, or instinct Dawkins brought to the table. To be fair,
few players in NFL history have – then again, not one of those players was
able to adequately replace a single one of those qualities, either.

From Jim Johnson to
Todd Bowles

Actually, that’s from Jim Johnson to Sean McDermott to Juan
Castillo to Todd Bowles. The defense has never been the same since we lost
Johnson, who if coordinators made the Hall of Fame would be a first-ballot
entry. Part of that is coaches like Johnson are literally irreplaceable – he was
an amazing innovator who had a knack for squeezing every ounce of ability out
of players. His line of successors has been completely forgettable though, and
while each has been limited in some sense by bad personnel and/or other issues out of their control, not one of them
distinguished themselves in any way. It might as well have been the same anonymous
person under that headset every season for the last four.

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-qformat:yes;
mso-style-parent:"";
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin-top:0in;
mso-para-margin-right:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:10.0pt;
mso-para-margin-left:0in;
line-height:115%;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:11.0pt;
font-family:"Calibri","sans-serif";
mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast;
mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

052616-ben-simmons.jpg

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

pederson-kelly.jpg

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

Another day, another mailbag. 

I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend. If you're reading this on the beach or at a BBQ, well done. 

Yesterday, I answered the first round of your questions about Doug Pederson, Brandon Spikes and the possibility of adding another running back. 

Today, I'll answer some more: 

At times, Jordan Matthews will still be in the slot this season. But he won't be there all the time. 

In Doug Pederson's offense, the receivers will move around quite a bit, which means we'll see Matthews lining up out wide on both sides and in the slot. He has the ability to do both. Either way, he's going to be on the field. He's clearly the Eagles best receiver and they're not going to take him off the field. 

I think there's a good chance we'll see some Josh Huff in the slot this year, which would make a ton of sense to me. Huff is at his best when he gets the ball in his hands and can make something happen. He's shifty enough to play in the middle. 

The idea that slot receivers are just small, shifty guys is outdated. It's all about matchups and Pederson won't be afraid to move his receivers around to find the best ones. 

Good question. I'll give you two names. One on offense and one on defense. 

Now, I didn't just pick the best players, I picked the best players with the biggest drop off to their backups. So on offense, it's Jason Peters and on defense it's Jordan Hicks. 

The scary thing: it wouldn't be shocking if either of these two go down in 2016. 

If Peters goes down, the Eagles will be fine at left tackle, because Lane Johnson will shift over. But that means either Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai will come in. We all know what's happened in the past when Kelly comes in, and Vaitai is just a rookie. Not a ton of great depth at tackle. 

As for Hicks, we saw what happened to the defense when he went out last season. And this year, the team has virtually no depth at linebacker. If Hicks went down, either veteran special teams player Najee Goode or rookie Joe Walker would need to fill in. Yikes. 

I understand it's kind of a cop-out to just pick the top running back on the depth chart, but that's what I'm doing. I know Ryan Mathews has a lengthy injury history, but I can't see Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner being the team's leading rusher. 

And when healthy, Mathews was the team's best running back in 2015, going for 539 yards on 106 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. If he manages to play 12 games this year, I think he'll be the team's leading rusher. 

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

joseph-slide.jpg

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

Rehab updates
Leftfielder Cody Asche and left-handed reliever Mario Hollands had their rehab assignments transferred to Triple A Lehigh Valley. 

Asche is 5 for 34 (.147) with two home runs and 12 strikeouts during his stints with Clearwater and Reading. 

Hollands has been sharp, posting a 1.04 ERA in 8⅔ innings with 12 strikeouts and one walk.