Bradley Fletcher, Kenny Phillips and Cary Williams will try to improve an Eagles secondary that struggled last season. (USA Today Images)
He didn’t bother to change the topic or sugarcoat the situation. He didn’t try to obfuscate. There wouldn’t have been any point in that. The circumstances are obvious to everyone and Bill Davis knows it.
When the Eagles’ defensive coordinator was asked about his defensive backfield the other day -- a shaky unit with countless questions and few answers -- Davis replied in strong, unvarnished terms.
“You saw from the other night, we're not there,” Davis said about how the defensive backs performed in the preseason opener against the New England Patriots. “We're not close. We're going to strive to get there, but that was a great indicator against the top offense in the NFL of where we are and what we need to do to get there.”
They’re not there. They’re not close. He’s not lying.
Three Patriots quarterbacks threw for 217 yards and a touchdown in the preseason opener, which doesn’t seem that impressive until you recall how easily Tom Brady sliced them open with surgical passes to start the painful proceedings. Brady connected on seven of his eight attempts and threw a touchdown to Shane Vereen in limited action. Per usual, he looked comfortable and picked out open receivers with ease. He couldn’t have appeared more relaxed if he was sitting at home on his couch with his feet propped up and a beer (or an appletini or whatever it is he drinks) in his hand.
“It was a great test to go up against the number one offense in my opinion, or at least the top three in the NFL, in Brady and the guys,” Davis said. “Practicing against them, the seven-on-seven periods, reminded me of seven-on-seven with Kurt Warner. There was never a ball on the ground. The great ones, that's how they work their seven-on-seven. It was a heck of a challenge for us. In the game, you saw the same thing. That's where we're going. We're striving to be able to shut down that offense.”
If that’s where they’re headed, how long might the trip take? You could load the lot of them onto a high speed train destined for Shutdown Town and they might not arrive for years -- if ever.
Last year’s secondary was an abysmal unit -- the kind of awful problem children you wanted to drop off at an out-of-state mall and then speed away from, never to return. They allowed 33 touchdowns (most in the NFL). They snagged just eight interceptions all season (only two other teams were worse). And over the final 14 weeks of the year, they surrendered 28 passing TDs and mustered four picks. According to CSNPhilly.com’s resident stat enthusiast Reuben Frank, no other team in NFL history had managed that last, dubious feat before.
So the Eagles hit the eject button on Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie and a host of others. And rightly so. They won’t be missed. But someone has to fill the void. Except, what if the void is simply replaced with another empty space -- other defensive backs who are every bit as invisible to smart, capitalizing quarterbacks and receivers?
A quick review of the personnel: Brandon Boykin looks noticeably stronger. He’s been the team’s best defensive back in training camp, but he remains listed as a nickel corner and not a starter. He’s also 5-10, 185, and bigger receivers have given him trouble in the past.
In four seasons with the Rams before landing in Philadelphia, Bradley Fletcher had five career interceptions. He had only one pick last season.
Cary Williams spent the last three-and-a-half seasons with the Baltimore Ravens and won a Super Bowl. He was rewarded with a three-year deal worth $17 million. He also got a $5 million signing bonus. But Williams missed much of OTAs and mini-camp for various reasons. He’s had a hamstring injury that has kept him off the practice field for large chunks of training camp. And he has, um, opinions.
Who else? Safeties Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman have been, respectively, disappointing and unspectacular during their time in Philly. Earl Wolff and Jordan Poyer are unknown rookie commodities who aren’t guaranteed roster spots. Safeties Patrick Chung, Kenny Phillips and David Sims are all transplants from other teams who have been pedestrian in camp. And the rest of the unit (Curtis Marsh, Trevard Lindley, Colt Anderson, et. al.) has been bad or forgettable or both in the run-up to the regular season.
It is early. Three preseason games remain. And yet, as potential problems go, the secondary might be the scary movie you don’t want to see but still can’t turn off.
“We're in a rotation in the training camp practices, so the rotation of the secondary because the battle is so intense, that every day we rotate who is with the ones, and we continue to work and tweak it as we go,” Davis said about trying to find a combination that might work. “Now as we're getting closer to the season, I'm looking at different combinations of safeties and how they interact with each other.”
Mix and match. Plug and play. Or maybe plug and pray.