An Opinion on What Is Ailing The Dream Team’s Secondary
Here is a statistic that is sure to shock the apoplectic faithful rampaging about the City of Brotherly Love; the manic-depressive Birds fanatics who hail every loss as the end of the season and every win as a sure sign of the Super Bowl: while ranking a pedestrian 19 in total defense, the Eagles are ninth in passing defense. Indeed, it is the much maligned rush prevention that has seemed to be the Eagles un-doing. Yet the secondary has taken much of the heat, and deservedly so. For even though they rank rather comfortably in the top half of the league, people expect so much more when you stack the deck.
The Eagles assembled one of the most intimidating secondaries ever seen on paper; a murderer’s row comprised of Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (whose name sounds more couture model than cornerback). Among them are seven Pro Bowl selections and two Super Bowl rings, as well as … a former Arizona Cardinal. One of the leagues finest corners, matched perhaps only by Darrelle Revis, Asomugha has not seemed like himself since leaving the Bay for greener pastures. Samuel’s timid play has been troubling as well. What has gone wrong?
Gregg Easterbrook, a man far more intelligent and loquacious than I, has been quick to decry this so-called passing revolution that has been the talk of pundits this year. While quarterbacks all over the league were indeed racking up yards at an alarming rate, Easterbrook pinpointed the most likely candidate: the lack of an offseason. A secondary needs more time to gel than the rest of the defense; with the lockout shortened offseason, defensive backs were coming into this season more unprepared than usual. The Eagles are no different. Compound that issue by adding entirely new players and a new scheme to the equation, and that top half ranking is beginning to look more and more impressive. With all of the factors going against them, it is quite possible that the individual skill of the players has been the only thing keeping their air defense respectable.
A second reason for the secondary woes is one of the Eagles strengths. Thanks to the fantastically named and brilliant running Shady McCoy, Philadelphia posses the league’s best rushing offense. A well oiled, field rolling run game also eats clock; the Eagles average just under 33 minutes time of possession per game, allowing opponent’s offenses an average of 27 minutes. When teams are facing a dominant run game and have few possessions, they tend to get pass wacky. This holds especially true if they fall behind, at which point they will begin to resemble a desperate Argentine air force over the Falklands. When such teams throw more passes, they obviously complete more passes.
The most striking feature of this fearsome unit is opposing team’s willingness to throw at it. Seemingly undaunted by the names on the backs of the jerseys, teams are making the three Eagles earn their outs and show those talents on more plays than they most likely ever had before. With all spots in the secondary filled with seemingly superior players, teams have no choice but to throw to them. This sudden influx in opportunities may rattle defenders used to being the lock down whom one would not even dare to toss to. Even the world’s best goalie will eventually allow a goal if he faces enough shots; likewise, defensive backs will fail more often when more passes are thrown their way. It is statistically impossible not to do so.
The key reason for disappointment is most likely a simple one, built from expectations and observation. The fans and experts expected a crippling anti-air unit that would fluster receiving corps and pick passes out of the sky on a regular basis. What they got was a solid secondary that is far from the team’s biggest weakness. But the biggest challenge facing the Eagles embattled cornerbacks is this: fans only notice a corner when the ball comes their way. Every snap where the coverage is too good for the quarterback to even risk an attempt is lost in the shuffle. Every corner blitz that comes up short but hurries an errant pass is brushed off. But when that one-on-one play goes their way, therein lies the moment to shine. And far too many of those moments this year have gone the way of the receiver.
I know I risk retaliation by defending what has indeed been an underperforming corp of corners. Eagles fans are rabid in their devotion to the team, but they defend even more fiercely their own heartbreak. Try telling them to kindly shut the fuck up about how terrible it was to only make the play-offs year after year, or explain that perhaps it was not Donovan’s fault, and the gnashing of teeth and barring of claws is sure to ensue. They thrive off of the pain, the manufactured pathos that allows them to whine for attention like a stray dog. The rest of the sports world sees you for what you are, green garbed faithful. Spoiled fans enjoying a renaissance period in your franchise’s not quite illustrious history; the NFL equivalent of the girls on My Super Sweet 16 crying because the color of their new luxury car is not right. Now that you finally have something worth suffering over, please aim that delicious despair at the true culprits responsible, the far too self important culture that demands a Super Bowl every year from a team that has never won one. You finally have the on-field woes to match the melodramatics found on your sports pages, Philadelphians; don’t squander it.
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