The Two-Year Plan: Andy Reid's Game of Risk

The Two-Year Plan: Andy Reid's Game of Risk

A local columnist, somebody who covers the team regularly, once confided to me his belief that Andy Reid is here for as long as he wants, sensing no dissatisfaction in the coach's performance within the organization. The admission was surprising in that it mirrored the laments of many fans who find it increasingly difficult to envision the day when a head coaching change will be made.

Reid's most recent contract extension runs through 2013, so he certainly isn't in danger of being fired and replaced by, say, Jon Gruden, or anything outlandish like that in the immediate future. However, his job security is constantly open to outside scrutiny, and if we were to speculate when his contract might be up for renewal again, one would surmise it's before he reaches the final year on the current deal.

Except there is no certainty he will receive another, or even last that long.

Not now, not after consecutive first round playoff exits. His first two extensions came in '00 and '04, when the Eagles were clearly ascending as an NFL powerhouse. The most recent lengthening came in '09, on the heels of the Eagles' fifth conference championship appearance under Reid, and in the midst of an 11-win season. Like it or not, the organization could justify the decisions then.

It's highly irregular for an NFL head coach to enter a season as a "lame duck," even moreso when you're talking about the most tenured guy in the league. Essentially it leaves Reid with the next two seasons to make an impression on the higher-ups, unless you believe the franchise views their coach as infallable.

What's different this time is the way the table is set. Apart from the sheer length of time the Eagles have given Reid to complete his primary task, and some circumstances largely out of the coach's control, he already has or soon will make a series of decisions that could easily lead to the fall of the Eagles. Most prevelant is the quarterback situation, which by itself could make or break the head coach's reign.

Most observers see Mike Vick as the obvious choice to lead this team. Kevin Kolb is still sort of an unknown quantity. Vick is one of the most dynamic players in the league, able to flick the ball 70-yards downfield with ease, or maneuver past defenders as if they were standing still. Plus, he's a marketing machine. The Eagles will rake with this guy.

But it's not that easy. Vick is all of those things, but he's also going to be 31-years-old—fine for a conventional pocket passer, but worrisome for a smallish runner. There's also the fact that Vick has yet to prove he is consistent enough to win three or four consecutive games in the post-season, which is significant at his age. Look no further than 7-9-22, or the number of interceptions, fumbles, and sacks he accumulated over his last seven games this season.

Which of course is not to say he can't win. This would be the first season with the Eagles where Vick entered as the starting quarterback. He'll have the full attention of the coaching staff and put in work with the first stringers. Vick already proved he has, and therefore can continue to improve.

There is an inherent risk no matter which direction they go, but it will ultimately fall on Reid. If the Eagles are still spinning their wheels with Vick two seasons from now, and Kolb goes on to begin a promising career elsewhere, it will be hard to reconcile with the front office.

That's just the beginning. Andy can maybe be forgiven for choosing the wrong quarterback when both are very talented. Tabbing an offensive line coach as the Eagles' new defensive coordinator, particularly somebody who hasn't coached on that side of the ball in 20 years, will be a little harder to explain when it doesn't pan out.

What's so strange about Juan Castillo's promotion is how tenuous the situation is on defense. There isn't any one fault with this unit. The entire group requires something between a tune-up and an overhaul. The abundance of young players enterting their second seasons as professionals need a coach who will figure out what they do best and be able to utilize them in that capacity.

Obviously we haven't got the faintest clue whether or not Castillo can do those things, but it invites the head man to increased criticism. Many felt Sean McDermott's firing was in part due to his lack of experience, yet he was replaced by somebody with none. Castillo suddenly is the person charged with shaping and molding young players, putting a system in place, oh and he better do it soon, because the offense is ready to win now.

As if Reid didn't have enough issues to sort out internally, this tiny disagreement between players and owners only complicates matters. If a lockout steals the off-season, the Eagles will feel the negative consequences in more ways than one. The time to spend a full spring and summer focusing on coaching up Vick? Gone. The opportunity to teach new techniques and install new schemes on defense? Wasted.

Forget about improving the personnel, too. Some speak as if free agency would be bypassed entirely after an extended lockout. Even if it's not, good luck indoctrinating signees into a new system in time for the regular season when they only came aboard in August. Don't worry about the quarterback situation, either. It's not like they will be able to trade Kolb or Vick for picks this season.

What do you think the Eagles are going to be in the next two seasons, while labor strife limits their ability to improve the roster, a total newbie calls the defense, and a quarterback whose ceiling is unknown takes snaps from center? There really are only three options.

The first is the Eagles do what they frequently seem to do: answer doubts and become contenders. You can see how, with just a few minor tweaks—a cornerback here, a right tackle there—and the development of their own young players, they could jump into back into the mix of elites.

The second is the quarterback and defensive coordinator situations completely backfire, and management is left with zero choice but to start over. Is it such a stretch to believe those moves could result in the spawning of the post-appocalyptic Birds?

The third is the Eagles continue winning between eight and 10 games per season, just enough to sneak into the playoffs most of the time, but not enough to ever do any real damage.

Most people will probably go on believing the third scenario would be enough for Andy to earn an extension, despite any assurances to the contrary. After what would amount to four straight seasons running in place, and 14 without winning the ultimate prize, it might be time to finally rethink that position. We will know within the next two years whether Reid's gambles paid off, and if they haven't, you can bet it will cost him his job.

Union sign prospect Derrick Jones to homegrown contract

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Union sign prospect Derrick Jones to homegrown contract

Midfielder Derrick Jones has made Union history.

On Wednesday, the club announced Jones, 19, has been signed to the Union first team as a Homegrown Player. Currently playing with the Union’s USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel, Jones is the first Union Academy graduate to make the move from Union Academy to Union first team.

“Derrick’s progression through our system has been quicker than anticipated and it’s evident that he is ready for the next step of his career,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said in the team’s official release. “This is a testament to Derrick’s commitment to his trade, and it should be considered a tremendous accomplishment to become the first player to come through our Academy, to Bethlehem Steel, and finally to the first team.”

Jones, who moved to Philadelphia in 2012 from Bantana, Ghana, and worked his way through the Union Academy before joining the Steel in 2016, made his Union debut in a friendly match against Crystal Palace on July 13 at Talen Energy Stadium. 

The 6-foot-3 rangy midfielder, who doesn’t have a set position, showed well playing the entire second half, presenting his on-the-ball poise at the attacking mid position.

“Derrick has now set the benchmark for every player in our youth system,” Stewart said. “That there is a pathway to the professional level, and that it is achievable if you remain committed to your goals.”

Jones is the first Union homegrown signing since 2012. Homegrown status means the player avoids being submitted into the MLS SuperDraft. The Union Academy has been around since 2013 and is located at the YSC Center in Wayne, Pennsylvania. 

“I’m delighted that Derrick is our first and that the work of our staff has come to fruition in this way,” Academy director Tommy Wilson said. “This is a proud moment for Derrick and his family. I would like to congratulate them and everyone else who has played a part in his development.”

In final stage of rehab assignment, Aaron Altherr eager to return to Phillies

In final stage of rehab assignment, Aaron Altherr eager to return to Phillies

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- The Phillies can be forgiven to some extent for their failure to get consistent production out of their corner outfielders this season. After all, they've been without one of their projected starters since spring training.

The good news is Aaron Altherr is on the verge of returning after missing almost four months with a wrist injury. The 25-year-old reached the final stop of his rehab tour through the Phillies' minor league system Tuesday, going 1 for 3 with a double in a 4-2 victory for the Triple A Ironpigs.

Needless to say, Altherr is feeling better.

"It's going good," Altherr said of his recovery. "It gets a little tight every now and then. Just gotta loosen it up. I'm good to go."

Altherr suffered a torn ligament in his left wrist attempting a diving catch in a Grapefruit League game back in March. The injury was expected to keep the righthander out four-to-six months, possibly even ending his season.

If the current rehab assignment is any indication, it turns out he's about ready to rejoin the Phillies. Through 12 minor league games, which includes stints at Reading, Clearwater and in the Gulf Coast League, Altherr is 13 for 34 (.351) with two doubles, a home run and five RBIs. He's also walked seven times to six strikeouts and stolen two bases. Yet while clearly enjoying himself, he feels as though he's ready to rejoin the big club.

"It's been fun," Altherr said. "Was just down to (Double A) Reading, good crowd there. It's gonna be another good crowd up here (in Lehigh Valley) I'm sure. I always enjoy going to these places and seeing people again, so it's definitely fun.

"Mentally and physically, I think I'm ready to go. My timing is there. I'm just ready to go and get after it and play some games up there."

As for what he could bring to MLB's 29th-ranked offense, which too often this season has seen little impact from its corner outfielders, Altherr will do what he can to provide a spark for the Phillies.

"I hope so," Altherr said. "I'm not gonna try to do too much though. I'm just gonna go up there and do what I know I can do and hopefully help out the team any way I can."

A ninth-round draft pick in 2009, Altherr got his first serious look with the Phillies last year, batting .241 with 19 extra-base hits and 22 RBIs in 39 games. It wasn't nearly enough to anoint the German-born prospect as part of the franchise's rebuilding effort, but the organization was hoping to use 2016 to evaluate his potential as an everyday player.

"I wouldn't say missed opportunity," Altherr said about the poor timing of his injury. "Things like this happen. I'll get back stronger than ever and show what I can do. It is what it is. I've worked hard every day and tried to get back as fast as I could."

He's right, of course. It's not like all is lost in that sense. Cody Asche, Peter Bourjos and Tyler Goeddel have had their moments, but none has cemented his role moving forward. Outside of likely September call-up Nick Williams posting quality numbers at Triple A, there isn't exactly a long line of players knocking down the door for one of those two spots.

"There's always going to be competition no matter where you are in life, so I definitely don't really think about it too much," Altherr said. "I just have to go out there and control what I can control and play the way I know I can play."

Altherr's opportunity is coming any day now. A 6-foot-5, 215-pound athlete who also happens to be a plus-defender could bring a lot to the mix for the Phillies right now. It may be too late to find out this year if he has a long and bright future with the club, but he could certainly provide some excitement down the stretch.

Jim Schwartz: Eagles' defense 'rather attack than read'

Jim Schwartz: Eagles' defense 'rather attack than read'

For all his talk about schemes and technical minutiae, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s coaching philosophy is pretty simple.

“In a nutshell, we want to allow less points than our offense scores," Schwartz said. "Rankings, stats — the only thing that matters in this league is wins and losses. I’ll take a 42-41 game; I might not sleep well afterwards, but I’ll take it. I’d rather have that than a 7-3 game that you lose.”

That said, Schwartz emphasized his defense’s attack-first mindset after the second day of Eagles training camp at the NovaCare Complex on Tuesday (see Day 2 observations).

“We want to be an attack defense,” he said. “We want to put pressure on the quarterback.”

While Schwartz has preferred that style throughout his coaching career, he’s always cognizant of his personnel and what sort of approach best suits them. For the Eagles, he feels that a defense in which the front four is putting pressure on the quarterback and the linebackers and defensive backs are playing aggressively is the perfect system (see story).

“I think [this defense] fits the guys really well here,” Schwartz said. “And I think if you’d ask them, they’d rather attack than read. It puts us in a little better position to rush the passer, it puts us in a little better position to set hard edges. It’s been our philosophy. And I think if you ask offensive coordinators, they’d tell you the same thing — if you can get there with four, you have a big advantage as a defense.”

Schwartz talked extensively about how he’s altered his defense depending on the strengths and weaknesses of his players. Looking at defensive ends in particular, Schwartz explained his ends don’t all line up in an identical “Wide 9” alignment. Rather, he noted that the positioning and technique for the pairings of Jevon Kearse and Kevin Carter and Kyle Vanden Bosch and Antwan Odom during his time as defensive coordinator in Tennessee (2001-08) varied considerably from that of Cliff Avril and Ziggy Ansah when he coached Detroit (2009-13), and Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes in Buffalo (2014).

“We try to match the talent that we have to the techniques that we’re asking guys to play,” Schwartz said. “And even here, some of the stuff that Brandon [Graham] is doing is a little different than what Vinny [Curry] is doing.”

As for the Eagles’ biggest offseason decision, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, Schwartz is very confident in Cox’s ability to thrive in his defense.

“[Cox] fits our scheme," he said. "I think we have some things for him that should fit him well. He’s a tough matchup; he’s a tough matchup vs. guards, he’s a tough matchup vs. some tackles, and I like some of the stuff that they did with him here last year, moved him around a little bit … it’s our job to create matchups for him.”

Even though Schwartz loves to discuss the details that make his defenses succeed, he understands it’s his job to clearly teach his schemes so that his players are able to react and, of course, attack, instead of thinking excessively on the field.

“We want to put guys in good positions, communicate well, play what fits them, all those things are important to us,” he said. “We’re not trying to set a record for being difficult.”