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.

PART I
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?

PART II
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:

Who?

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.

Instant Replay: No. 22 Butler 74, No. 2 Villanova 66

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Instant Replay: No. 22 Butler 74, No. 2 Villanova 66

BOX SCORE

VILLANOVA, Pa. – No. 22 Butler scored 18 straight points down the stretch and stunned No. 2 Villanova 74-66 Wednesday night at the Pavilion.

The loss was the third this year for the defending national champs and the second to Butler. It was also Villanova’s first loss on campus in more than four years.

Villanova led by as many as eight points early in the second half and by seven at 49-42 with 9½ minutes left before Butler scored 18 straight points over a 5½-minute span to take a 60-49 lead with four minutes left.

Villanova went scoreless from 10:35 left in the game to 4:05, a span of 6½ minutes.

Villanova cut the lead from 11 to four in the final minute but Butler made its final eight foul shots to secure its first win ever on the road against the Wildcats.

The loss was the first ever on campus for Villanova’s seniors. Villanova hadn’t lost at the Pavilion since February of 2013.

Sophomore Jalen Brunson shot 9 for 13 after his 7 for 7 against Seton Hall Saturday and finished with 24 points.

The rest of the Wildcats shot a combined 16 for 44.

Josh Hart scored 18 points on 7 for 18 shooting.

Kris Jenkins shot just 1 for 8 and 1 for 5 from three for three points, and Mikal Bridges also had three points on just 1 for 3 from the field.

Butler led 8-0 after 3½ minutes before Villanova outscored the Bulldogs 44-28 over the next 22½ minutes to take their biggest lead, 44-36, with 13 minutes left.

What it means 
Butler, which beat Villanova 66-58 on Jan. 4 in Indianapolis, completed a season sweep of Villanova. Butler was 0-7 before this year against the Wildcats.

Villanova fell to 26-3 and 13-3 in the Big East. Butler improved to 22-6 and 11-5, keeping alive its hopes of winning the Big East regular-season title.

One more Villanova win or Butler loss and Creighton loss would deliver the conference title and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament to the Wildcats.

The loss ended Villanova’s record 48-game winning streak at the Pavilion. The Wildcats’ last loss on campus was by a 55-52 score to Providence on Feb. 3, 2013.

Stat of the day
Hart, a 79 percent foul shooter, was 0 for 4 from the foul line and missed two front ends of one-and-ones.  

Turning point
The Wildcats led by six when Kelan Martin and Tyler Lewis made threes 45 seconds apart to tie the game at 49 and start that 18-0 run. Villanova never got the momentum back.

By the numbers
• Martin led Butler with 16 points and Kamar Baldwin added 15 before fouling out.

• Butler shot 7 for 13 from three in the second half and 10 for 25 overall.

• Villanova was just 5 for 19 from three.

• Villanova committed 10 of its 15 turnovers in the first half 

• Villanova shot just 10 for 16 from the foul line, with seven of the 10 makes coming in the final 79 seconds 

• Butler had 21 assists on 27 baskets, Villanova had eight assists on 23 baskets 

• Villanova scored 17 points in the game’s final 4:05 

• Senior post Darryl Reynolds, Villanova’s second-leading rebounder at 5.5 per game, sat out a fourth straight game with a rib injury. He’s considered day to day.

What’s next
On Saturday afternoon, Villanova plays its final game at the Pavilion until November of 2018, facing Creighton at 3 p.m.

Villanova will play most of its home games at the Wells Fargo Center next year.

The Wildcats finish the regular season at Georgetown on March 4 and open play in the Big East Tournament five days later.

Instant Replay: Capitals 4, Flyers 1

Instant Replay: Capitals 4, Flyers 1

BOX SCORE

Fresh off their poor Western Canada road trip, the Flyers faced the top team in the NHL for a Wednesday Night Rivalry tilt at the Wells Fargo Center.
 
The last time the Washington Capitals met the Flyers in mid-January, the Caps humiliated them, 5-0, in D.C.
 
No rout this time, but the Caps still defeated the Flyers, 4-1, as more precious points slipped away in the search for a wild card. 
 
Evgeny Kuznetsov had two goals for the Caps. His second was a crusher, coming in the final 2:01 of the second period to give Washington a 3-1 lead.
 
The Flyers are 3-6-1 since coming out of the All-Star break and 9-15-4 since their 10-game win streak.
 
Coach’s challenge
Barry Trotz challenged Jakub Voracek’s goal 23 seconds into the game for goaltender interference. It was an easy goal to overturn, too, as Dale Weise clearly pushed Braden Holtby aside before Voracek scored.
 
No goal
Trailing 2-0, Flyers rookie defenseman Ivan Provorov thought he scored in the opening minute of the second period. The game stopped and the Flyers celebrated while the officials huddled. Replays showed the puck hit the crossbar.
 
Points
Nick Backstrom’s first-period goal was his fifth goal and 15th point in his last 10 games.
 
Notable goals
Kuznetsov’s power-play goal went in and out of the net so quickly, no one was really certain it was a goal. That is why Sean Couturier remained in the box a good 30 seconds after it was scored.
 
Goalie report
Michal Neuvirth was making his fifth straight in goal.

Holtby had an excellent stop on Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s backhander at the right post with 6:18 left in the first period.
 
Power play
The Flyers were 0-for-2. They mixed up their first unit and changed the personnel back to its former self, even putting Shayne Gostisbehere back on the point and Voracek back at the half-wall. Their second power play had several passes just a hair off for a clean shot.
 
Penalty kill
The Caps had the Flyers chasing their passes all over the ice on their power play. They were 1-for-2 in the game.
 
Injuries
The Caps lost defenseman Matt Niskanen in second period with a lower-body injury.
 
Fights
There were several scrums on one board play in the second period but no fights.
 
Scratches
Forwards Jordan Weal (concussion) and Travis Konecny (left ankle and knee), defensemen Nick Schultz (healthy) and Michael Del Zotto (healthy).
 
Up next
The Flyers practice on Thursday 11 a.m. at Skate Zone. They leave later that day for Pittsburgh and will practice Friday at 5 p.m. at Heinz Field for the Stadium Series outdoor game against the Penguins on Saturday.