The Flyers have been golfing for weeks already, the 76ers cleaned out their lockers over the holiday, and the Phillies could miss the playoffs entirely for the first time since 2006. Now more than ever, pro sports fans from the city of Philadelphia could use a new set of heroes, but many are hesitant to look to the Eagles for sanctuary; others refuse. Will the masses find reason to embrace the football team before the end?
If the story of the 2012 Eagles picks up at roughly the same place where last year's tale ends, surely the only explanations for the dramatic shift in narrative are plot holes or continuation problems.
As last season came to a close, the franchise was portrayed as clueless. The club's four-game winning streak to finish out the schedule was rendered meaningless. Andy Reid's inability to reel in Steve Spagnuolo to replace Juan Castillo was a sign of organizational instability. The local media beefed with the head coach over press conferences, and Jeffrey Lurie emerged for just long enough to admit all of it was unacceptable, though he held nobody accountable.
Oddly enough, the tune began to change as free agency got underway in March. The front office re-signed, renegotiated, or extended nine key contributors -- six of them starters -- from an 8-8 team that had been lambasted vigorously over the previous six months, yet almost every contract was universally hailed as a major coup for the Birds. Similarly, hot on the heels of their essentially writing off sizable portions of Howie Roseman's recent drafts, would-be experts showered April's class with acclaim before this year's group of kids ever set foot on an NFL field.
A love affair with the Eagles seemingly rekindled without explanation, the news from off-season programs at the Nova Care Complex is cast in a tinge of hype. Whether that's by design or not, I can't tell. For the most part, you're told everybody looks great absent pads, and while it's always welcome when professional athletes are doing and saying the right things, being on the same page in May isn't necessarily an indicator of success in January. Still, you will be hard-pressed to find a reporter who wouldn't conservatively predict nine or ten wins right now.
Whether fans are buying in yet or not, again I can't tell, but my sense is, not in great numbers. Maybe it's simply too early to care. More likely, the divide between expectations and results that was cultivated over 12 years only intensified with the broken promise of lucky number 13, and as we approach the 2012 campaign, too many of the customary, pervasive questions were left unanswered during the offseason.
What would cause Michael Vick to reach the next level when he's never been much more than a circus act under center? Why did they ignore their need for a [blank] at position X? How can the defense be taken seriously as long as an offensive line coach is masquerading as its defensive coordinator? When will the suits upstairs wake up and realize Reid's approach to the game is flawed, and he could never lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl?
We're way past the point of persuasion with some folks, especially when it comes to the head coach, who it turns out is probably at the root of the matter. The biggest reason people are unwilling to get excited about the Birds, I'm often told condescendingly, is insanity. Leaving one man in charge for 14 years, regardless of whatever sweeping changes occur around him, can only be described as 'doing the same thing over and over again,' which apparently is the going definition of the word or something.
In addition to the fatigue fans experience from the front office and coaching staff, there is also very little difference between the 2011 squad and today's. Seventeen of 22 starters from last year's club are back, and Jason Peters would have made 18. The only change that was intended on offense will come at fullback -- if you can even count that -- and two of the three anticipated modifications on defense are at linebacker, the only area of the field to receive a true makeover.
Same players, same coaches. There's no great mystery as to why the Eagles are flying under the radar -- yet it would be a mistake to call this the same team.
Here come the missing pages of the script.
Compared to 2010, the differences are far more striking. Only SEVEN opening-day starters remain from two years ago, along with just a handful of coaches who were working in their current capacity. That is a massive undertaking for two seasons, never mind the fact that almost all of the really huge moves were slammed into one compacted offseason. When the lockout ended, new coaches were cramming new techniques into a larger-than-normal ensemble of incoming free agents, first- and second-year players, and players learning new positions altogether.
Looking back on it, stocked with Pro Bowlers as they were, the 2011 Eagles were visibly and critically flawed, and we should've recognized that (as some did) before their record dropped to 1-4, or later 4-8. For all of the big-name players they brought in, there were simply too many loose ends that never wound up being tied. That said, while the organization's aim was off the mark, the direction they charted may have pointed them toward the right path.
The crowning achievement from this offseason wasn't the rash of signings geared toward making their own players happy, nor the additions of Demetress Bell and DeMeco Ryans that should help the team avoid desperate straits at left tackle and middle linebacker, or even the defensive-minded draft that could pay dividends immediately. The most important thing management did this Winter and Spring was trim the fat away from last season until only the prime cuts were left. There is no more discontent in the ranks, the guys who ran their mouths are all gone, and so are the high-priced free agents who contributed nothing to the cause.
Sure, Reid, Castillo, and Vick are still in play, and whether any one of those ingredients is fit to produce a championship continues to be the greatest unknown for Philadelphia. Once the season is underway though, and everything else around them is firing on all cylinders, there aren't many teams more talented from top to bottom than the Eagles are now.
Whether you choose to believe that or not, make no mistake, the Birds aren't flying under the radar in the eyes of their opponents -- and probably not for too much longer with the fan base, either.