Eagles general manager Howie Roseman spoke last Sunday about free agency, the draft and other issues facing the Eagles this offseason in an interview with CSNPhilly.com Eagles columnist Reuben Frank on 94 WIP. The quotes in this story are from that interview.
Once upon an offseason, the Eagles crafted a blueprint. At the end of each season, the coaches and front office would gather, identify their most glaring areas of need and scour the free-agent market in search of the one or two superstars who could propel the franchise over its Super Bowl hump.
It would be costly, for sure. But they were willing to dig deep. The bigger the name, the bigger the check.
When the offense kept going south in conference championships, they went out and traded for Terrell Owens. When the pass rush went dormant, they threw millions at Darren Howard.
When the offensive line broke down, they spent big on Stacy Andrews. When the turnovers diminished, they rolled out the red carpet for Asante Samuel.
And when the Eagles believed that they were tantalizingly close to Super Bowl caliber, they emptied the checking account on Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins and Vince Young.
All these years later, the Eagles still haven’t collected the ultimate return on those hefty investments. The Super Bowl title drought still plagues the NovaCare Complex and a fan base that grows more impatient every season.
The Eagles are headed back in the right direction after two dark seasons outside of the playoffs. They won the NFC East in coach Chip Kelly’s first season before bowing out to New Orleans in a first-round playoff loss.
Their areas of need aren’t secrets. They’re slow on defense, especially across the middle, and they don’t hit quarterbacks with regularity.
With free agency less than five weeks away, general manager Howie Roseman could resolve at least one of his team’s problems by spending big on safeties Jairus Byrd or T.J. Ward, two of the market’s top defensive prospects.
But Roseman cautioned about repeating past habits that backfired time and time again. He’s forging forward behind the team’s newer offseason model of smart, economical spending.
"I'd say if there was a player who was kind of in the right age group as a free agent, played an important position who we thought could be around for a long time, we would certainly be open to [a lucrative, long-term deal],” Roseman said.
“But you see there are fewer and fewer of those players available in free agency, so what happens is good players get great player money, pretty good players get really good player money, and then it throws around the whole structure of your roster.
“The guys that you've drafted, they look around and they say, 'Well, this guy they brought from somewhere else, and they're paying him maybe more than he's worth.' So you have to be very careful in free agency, and I think what worked last year was based on the free-agent market. You've got to really make sure you're in line with what the free agent market is and not try to force anything.”
Years ago, when the team’s power structure resembled a three-headed totem pole of Andy Reid, president Joe Banner and Roseman, the Eagles were known for securing their drafted players to long-term deals with generous signing-bonus money tempered by modest base salaries.
But when team brass spent bigger bucks on free agents, several of whom didn’t perform to their tax bracket, it felt the backlash from core players who suddenly felt underpaid and underappreciated. Holdouts were an annual media storyline at training camp.
Last offseason, Roseman’s first as the unquestioned No. 1 with Banner in Cleveland as CEO and Reid coaching Kansas City, the Eagles filled holes on defense by signing several B-level veterans, guys like Connor Barwin, Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher.
None broke the bank -- Barwin’s $36 million over six years was the most lucrative deal -- but each started for a team that jumped from four wins to 10 in Kelly’s first year. And the ones that didn’t pan out -- Isaac Sopoaga and Patrick Chung, mostly -- didn’t eat their cap space.
“Where it was last year for us is we saw incremental upgrades at a bunch of spots,” Roseman said, “and we felt like if we had a high batting average we wouldn't put ourselves in bad position in the cap going forward and still get some good players and also have that flexibility that if there is an opportunity coming up, whether it's this year or next year or going forward, we have this opportunity of this prime free agent, we'd still have the flexibility to do that.”
Not surprisingly, Roseman’s approach mirrors tactics seen in Seattle, which just won its first Super Bowl largely on homegrown talent bolstered by modest free-agent additions. The Ravens and Giants, who won the last two Super Bowls, respectively, operate behind a similar model.
Neither of those franchises are known for landing blockbuster talent in free agency, preferring instead to build through the draft and mix in mid-level free agents.
“That doesn't mean if there's a great opportunity we shouldn't try to maximize [it], but we've got to do the right things,” Roseman said. “When you look at [Seattle and Denver], they haven't really struck out many times. They've had some singles and some doubles, but I think you've got to continue to hit those.”
Roseman referred to free-agent signings as “arranged marriages.” Teams do their homework on free agents, but they can’t be certain the player will fit the system and integrate smoothly into the locker room.
In 2011, Babin registered 18 sacks and made the Pro Bowl, but he was a polarizing figure and was released midway through 2012, with the team mired in an eight-game losing streak. He and Asomugha, another expensive underperformer, became the poster children for mercenary signings who were viewed as outsiders inside the locker room and to the fan base.
One of Roseman’s top priorities since last offseason was rebuilding the team with players that embraced the city’s longstanding blue-collar identity.
"First we talk about the fans and how important the 12th man is for our football team,” Roseman said. “Obviously we've got great fans, the best fans in the National Football League, and they start to get an allegiance to those kinds of players and how we're bringing up players and the true meaning of being a Philadelphia Eagle.
“It's hard to get that when, for all intents and purposes, you're bringing in a bunch of independent contractors. Every person we bring in, whether it's a free agent or a draft pick, they're going to have to fit into our culture, and I think you see here it's about team building, it's not about collecting names.
“We've got to continue to do those things and hit on our draft picks, and I'm really excited about the process we have both for free agency and the draft. And that doesn't mean we're going to be perfect, but I think we have a good process. I think we've seen it the last two years, and I think if we can continue to build the culture and have really good players then we've got a chance to compete for a long time.”