This time, Eagles' Musgrave has talent to work with

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This time, Eagles' Musgrave has talent to work with

In August of 1998, the Colts released veteran quarterback Bill Musgrave after he was beaten out by Kelly Holcomb in a training camp battle to back up rookie Peyton Manning.

Two months later, Musgrave improbably found himself as the Eagles' de facto offensive coordinator.

Musgrave returned to the Eagles this year to replace Bill Lazor as quarterbacks coach after Lazor was named the Dolphins' offensive coordinator.

These days, Musgrave is a grizzled veteran offensive coach whose job is to work with Nick Foles and the other quarterbacks on a playoff team bursting with offensive talent.

Sixteen years ago, things were a bit different.

The Eagles didn’t have Foles; they had Rodney Peete, Ty Detmer and Bobby Hoying. They didn’t have Chip Kelly running the offense; they had Dana Bible. And they didn’t have LeSean McCoy; they had a running back named Duce Staley.

“It was a difficult situation for Bill,” said Staley, now on Kelly’s staff with Musgrave. “But like the true champ that he is, he was able to jump in there and kind of keep it rolling.”

Musgrave’s first Eagles career lasted just five months. He was hired in August of 1998 as an anonymous entry-level quality control coach soon after the Colts released him, and he was fired along with head coach Ray Rhodes and most of his staff in January.

In between, he was at the helm of one of the worst offenses ever assembled.

“I learned a lot that year,” said the soft-spoken Musgrave. “I learned a lot about the men on that team. The record wasn’t what any of us wanted, especially Coach Rhodes, but it was great to work for Ray Bob, and great to be around those players.

“They never quit, never quit fighting, and stayed competitive throughout. ... It was an experience that I learned from. I learned from all my experiences, and I’m thankful for all of them.”

In 1995 and 1996, the Eagles went to the playoffs under Rhodes, with Jon Gruden running the offense. But by 1998, Gruden was gone, Bible was the overmatched offensive coordinator, there was little talent remaining on offense, and the Eagles found themselves with one of the worst offenses in NFL history.

Those 1998 Eagles scored 12 or fewer points in 10 of 16 games and finished the season scoring just 161 points.

No NFL team in the last 20 years has scored fewer points.

Six weeks into the season, with the Eagles 1-5 and getting outscored by an average of 25-11, Rhodes shuffled his coaching staff, demoting Bible and without changing his title, making Musgrave the offensive coordinator and play caller.

Two months after his playing career ended.

Things didn’t get much better. The Eagles went 2-8 with Musgrave running the offense, averaging 9.2 points the rest of the season.

Musgrave went on to spent two years with the Panthers, then two years at Virginia, before stints with the Jaguars, Redskins, Falcons and Vikings.

Now he’s back with the Eagles, 16 years after being part of the NFL’s sixth-lowest-scoring offense since 1960.

“You rememeber the season we were going through,” Staley said. “I remember the things we were going through. He came straight out of training camp to our staff. He wasn’t that far removed from being a player.

“He was a quality control guy, had some West Coast [offense] background [with the 49ers], so he brought that to the table, and he was a teacher.

“That was a tough year, but Bill ... you know if a guy has it or not, and he’s had it since Day 1.”

That had to be an incredibly difficult year for Musgrave. He wasn’t even with the Eagles in training camp, but by Week 7 he was being asked to call the plays.

But if it left him with a bad taste in his mouth, he isn’t letting on.

“Every season in the NFL is challenging,” he said. “We were putting our best foot forward each and every week. I was really proud of that group because they kept fighting.”

That was a remarkable coaching staff for a 3-13 team. Sean Payton and John Harbaugh both went on to win Super Bowls as head coaches, Emmitt Thomas is a Hall of Famer, Mike Trgovac is a terrific defensive coach, Juan Castillo was a highly regarded offensive line coach, and so on.

“We had a terrific staff,” Musgrave said. “We all worked together. Sean Peyton was the quarterbacks coach, Juan Castillo was here, had just gotten run over by the golf cart, Emmitt Thomas being the defensive coordinator, and Danny Smith coaching the linebackers and John Harbaugh doing the special teams.

“I just think the world of Ray Bob and I learned a lot. I wouldn’t trade the expreience for anything. Not at all. I felt like we had a good coaching staff and good players. We definitely wanted to win more games, that’s for sure.”

These days, Musgrave has a quarterback who threw nearly twice as many touchdowns in 10 starts last year than that entire 1998 team scored all year. He’s with an offense that set records for most yards and points instead of fewest. And now he’s a veteran coach with a decade and a half of experience instead of a recently retired quarterback just starting out.

“It’s a tremendous organization, tremendous coaching staff, and they have talent on the football field,” Musgrave said.

“To see what they did last year -- winning seven of the last eight and have momentum going into the playoffs -- I feel like it’s a program that I can contribute to and also can learn from at the same time.

“I was excited to [come here and] learn this system, learn this culture, be a contributing factor on a team that’s really on the rise.”

Eagles-Bengals: 5 matchups to watch

Eagles-Bengals: 5 matchups to watch

The Eagles (5-6) have lost six of their last eight games and travel to Cincinnati to face a Bengals team that dropped to 3-7-1 last week. 

Judging by the records, this is a game the Eagles should win easily, but of course it's not that easy. And these two teams aren't that far apart (see story)

The Eagles are absolutely desperate. They would likely need to win their last five games to make the playoffs. 

It'll have to start with a win in Cinci this weekend. Here are five matchups to watch. 

Wendell Smallwood vs. Bengals' run D
With Ryan Mathews (knee) out again this week, expect to see plenty of rookie Smallwood on Sunday afternoon (see story). He carried the ball just nine times against the Packers, but the Eagles barely ran the ball. On Friday, Doug Pederson said Smallwood wasn't the reason why. 

There should be some decent opportunity for Smallwood this weekend against a Bengals defense that has given up 120.5 yards per game on the ground, the fifth worst average in the NFL. They've given up 100-plus yards on the ground if four of the last five weeks. 

Allen Barbre vs. Carlos Dunlap
Dunlap leads the Bengals with 6½ sacks and he'll get to face off against Barbre, who's a veteran but is now out of position. With rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai still out with his knee injury, Barbre is the new right tackle. 

Another matchup will be Geno Atkins vs. the Eagles' guards. Atkins lines up on both sides of the line, but he'll likely see plenty of Stefen Wisniewski instead of Brandon Brooks. 

Tyler Eifert vs. Malcolm Jenkins/Nigel Bradham
With the injury to A.J. Green, whom Eifert said was the Bengals' best player, Eifert has become Cincinnati's No. 1 target. 

He was targeted 11 times and had five catches for 68 yards and a touchdown last week against the Ravens. 

He'll see a mix of Jenkins and Bradham on him this Sunday. 

Cedric Ogbuehi vs. Brandon Graham
The Bengals have one really good offensive tackle on the left side of the line (Andrew Witworth) and Ogbuehi on the other. So far this season, Ogbuehi, according to ProFootballFocus, has given up eight sacks, three quarterback hits and 29 quarterback hurries. Only three offensive tackles have given up more sacks than Ogbuehi this year. 

With Witworth likely shutting down Barwin and with Fletcher Cox likely getting double-teamed inside, Graham vs. Ogbuehi might be the Eagles' best opportunity to create pressure. 

Jeremy Hill vs. Eagles run defense
The Eagles, at times this season, have had trouble with running backs who run hard. And they've at times had trouble with missing tackles. 

That could be a problem against Hill. This could be a grind-it-out type of game for both teams, which means Hill could play a huge role. Of his 644 rushing yards this year, 404 have come after contact. To put that into perspective, Ezekiel Elliott leads the league in rushing yards after contact, but 62.7 percent of Hill's yards have come after contact, compared to 57 percent of Elliott's.

Eagles' rookies adjusting to NFL life while contributing in key roles

Eagles' rookies adjusting to NFL life while contributing in key roles

Their quarterback is a rookie, of course, but so is their current lead running back, two offensive linemen who’ve started games, two of their wide receivers, their cornerback who’s played the second-most snaps and one of their more surprising defensive linemen.
 
There are rookies up and down the Eagles’ roster. But not just rookies. These are guys in key roles.
 
With Carson Wentz starting all year, Wendell Smallwood currently at tailback and Bryce Treggs starting last weekend in place of Nelson Agholor at wide out, this became only the second season in the last 30 years the Eagles have had a rookie start a game at quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
 
It also happened in 2012 with Nick Foles, Bryce Brown and Damaris Johnson.
 
Throw in Jalen Mills, second on the team in cornerback reps; Destiny Vaiao, the Eagles’ first undrafted rookie since Sam Rayburn in 2003 with two sacks in a season; offensive linemen Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Isaac Seumalo; plus special teamers like Kamu Grugier-Hill and C.J. Smith, and rookies really make up a significant portion of the roster.
 
“All of us being in the same situation, it really helps just knowing we’re all rookies and we’re all out here trying to make plays and help the team,” said Smallwood, whose 4.4 rushing average would be fourth-highest ever by an Eagles rookie if he gets 31 more carries.
 
“It kind of keeps us together. Looking at each other and seeing the other guys doing good, that gives you the confidence that you can make plays, too. They’re in the same position as me being rookies.
 
“I look at Carson and he’s got so much on his plate, man, and he’s going out there and doing it, why can’t I do it? I look at Jalen, he plays a lot. It goes unsaid but we definitely watch each other and it pushes you to do well as well.”
 
After a 3-0 start, the Eagles are 5-6 going into their game Sunday against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
 
Their playoff chances are dwindling but if nothing else this season could be serving as a launching pad for a number of rookies who seem to have bright futures here.
 
Wentz should be the Eagles’ quarterback for the next decade. Smallwood is their most promising rookie running back since LeSean McCoy in 2009. Vaitai will be a starter whenever Jason Peters decides to retire. Seumalo has a shot at becoming a starter somewhere along the interior of the O-line. Mills has been uneven but never stops battling. Treggs hasn’t done a lot but at least he can run and did reel in one 58-yard pass.
 
On a roster decimated by years of terrible drafting and Chip Kelly’s talent purge, the Eagles had to get contributions from their rookies this year to be competitive, and they have.
 
“Rookies, in unchartered territory for some of them, but really for us, in one respect, we say there are no more rookies,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said.
 
“You've been into it this far. The expectations are high on them from themselves, and of course as coaches we put high expectations on them. We just want to focus on today. Let's go out there today and have a good practice today, because we believe what we do today will show up on Sunday.”
 
There are two big challenges facing rookies. No. 1 is on the field, No. 2 is off the field.
 
On the field, rookies are dealing with a 16-game season that runs into January after playing 11 or 12 games in college and finishing the regular season in mid-November.
 
“The college football season is winding down so they kind of hit that wall just a little bit now with us,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “We have five games left and they are either getting ready for a bowl game or not going getting ready for Christmas break. So that's obviously a challenge with the young players, just keeping them plugged in mentally and physically going down the stretch.


 
“And then just the grind of how important every single rep in practice is, to get it right in practice, and that corresponds to the game. And you just can't show up and go through the motions during the week and expect it on Sunday. Not at this level. 
 
“You might get away with that in college because you're a better athlete or you're a better team than your opponent, but here, everybody is good. The challenge is for them to practice well because then it helps them when crunch time comes in the games.”
 
Mills isn’t a starter, but he has played 454 snaps, which is about two-thirds of the Eagles’ defensive reps this year. That’s 10th-most on the team, fourth-most in the secondary.
 
“It’s a grind, for sure,” he said. “My body’s used to right now getting ready to shut down or go to a bowl game, so physically you have to learn how to take care of yourself and how to recover. The older guys help me through that. 
 
“That means for me getting a minimum of nine hours sleep every night and making sure I eat healthy. Our cafeteria does a great job getting us healthy food. Just have to take care of your body and eat healthy.
 
“Mentally it’s a grind. Being mentally sharp the same way I was in Week 1, that’s tough to do. Just stay focused. Anything negative or anything that could cloud my judgment or anything that doesn’t have to do with football, I have to just eliminate that from my life right now.” 
 
Wentz, of course, is the centerpiece of the Eagles’ 2016 rookie class. 
 
Even though his numbers have dipped after a very hot start, he’s still on pace for the fourth-most passing yards in NFL history by a rookie, the seventh-best intereption ratio and the seventh-highest completion percentage.
 
Wentz said when it comes to making sure the other rookies are grounded and stay positive, he takes the lead from the veterans on the offense.
 
“I think we all have a hand in it,” he said. “When things are going poorly, in the huddle all eyes are on me, but we have some really good leaders. Jason Kelce, Brent Celek, Darren Sproles, Jason Peters, they’ve been around, they get it, they do a great job, and I try to follow the lead a little bit and take the lead a little bit. 
 
“That’s one thing we don’t lack is leadership on both sides of the ball.”
 
There’s a football adjustment for these kids but there’s also a hidden non-football aspect that fans don’t see.
 
Remember, these are kids — 21, 22, 23 years old — who all of a sudden are making an enormous amount of money, have tremendous demands on them from outside and are thrown into a foreign city without friends or family trying to make a living.
 
“The hardest thing for me was adjusting to life,” Jason Kelce said. “You’re in a whole new city, for the first time you’re off on your own, paying taxes and doing all these other things and it’s easy to kind of get overwhelmed in your thought process instead of really focusing just on the little things. 
 
“It’s a tough just getting to the point where you feel comfortable because there’s so much drastic change everywhere. There’s all this chaos around you outside football and it can be a little much. 
 
“For me with young guys, you just tell them to keep staying with it, keep improving it, keep paying attention to the details. 
 
“You can run into certain situations where guys over-think things and it can really affect how they’re playing out there and if you’re an older guy you try and take that burden off of them and just try to remind them to go out there and play hard and focus on the minute details that allow you to be successful and just go play.”