Line dancing: Birds put up brave front as they learn new steps in period of great change

Posted: July 24, 2009

CERTAIN GROUPINGS become familiar enough to seem permanent. The Art Museum anchors one end of the Parkway, City Hall the other. Gaze north up the Delaware on a clear day from the middle of the Walt Whitman Bridge, you know you'll see the pale-blue span of the Ben Franklin.

That's how it has been with the Eagles' offensive line and its tackles, Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan. One hundred thirty-four regular-season games, the Birds played with those very large, talented men bracketing the guards and the center. They were a big part of the foundation of Andy Reid's success. Reid inherited Thomas, drafted 11th overall in 1998, the year before the coach arrived. Runyan was Reid's first big free-agent addition, in 2000 - a tough, durable soldier whose mean streak was legendary.

The next 3 years, the only change along the line was when Hank Fraley replaced injured center Bubba Miller, in 2001. The Eagles talked up stability and cohesiveness as keys to the line's performance.

But when the veterans report to Lehigh on Wednesday, there will be no Thomas or Runyan. In an offseason of significant change for the Birds, nothing changed more than the offensive line. Stacy Andrews was the key free-agent signing that allowed Reid to move Stacy's brother, Shawn, to Runyan's right-tackle spot. Runyan became a free agent at 35 and had microfracture knee surgery that has kept him from working out for potential employers. Thomas, a year younger, also was allowed to drift into free agency and found himself signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Eagles replaced him by trading for Buffalo Pro Bowl tackle Jason Peters.

If the configuration remains as Reid envisions it - Stacy Andrews has yet to experience contact rehabbing from ACL surgery near the end of last season - only left guard Todd Herremans and center Jamaal Jackson would occupy the same spots as a year ago. With the Eagles being touted as Super Bowl contenders, it seems relevant to mention that none of their prospective offensive-line starters played in Super Bowl XXIX, 4 1/2 years back.

Expectations are high, though.

"We're going to try to be the dominant line in the league," Peters said recently. "We've got some big guys. Big, athletic guys, not just big guys."

That much is apparent even to Runyan, who is watching from afar these days.

"Definitely, they've added some athletic, big guys that can play offensive line," he said. "Now the thing is to go out and get the reps, get the experience and put all that together. If you have guys banged up and guys in and out, it's not going to gel like it could. When I first got here, it seemed like we played 3 or 4 years with the same five guys out there all the time, and that made huge strides with how we performed as a line."

The Boston Globe recently noted that only 16 of 32 NFL teams will enter training camp with the same top five offensive linemen they fielded last season. The Patriots are one of those teams, and their left tackle, Matt Light, talked to the Globe about why he thinks that's a big plus.

"The obvious part is the familiarity," Light said. "It's not impossible, but it's a heck of a learning curve trying to get used to playing next to another guy and all the mistakes that come with that. When you've been able to keep a group together, you are able to get through camp so much easier. You're able to install things quicker."

The Football Outsiders Almanac 2009 said this about the Birds' changes up front: " . . . our research indicates that the best offensive lines are the ones that experience continuity, so while Philadelphia has added superior talent with their free agent acquisitions, it may take a season for that talent to gel into a superior line."

In spring organized team activities, the Eagles' "new" line didn't get a lot of work together. Stacy Andrews was able to participate only in a few days of drills at the very end. That will be the crucial task at Lehigh - making all these parts fit together smoothly. Obviously, nobody involved wants to contemplate the possibility of it taking an entire season.

As Reid, a former Brigham Young guard, put it recently: "Those five guys have to be dancing the same dance. That will take time. There are a couple of new pieces in that puzzle there. That's what training camp's for. By the time we get out of training camp, they'll be in sync."

This will be a big test for vaunted offensive-line coach Juan Castillo, known mainly for developing guys who weren't top draft picks into solid contributors. It would have been nice to have gotten Castillo's thoughts on building offensive-line cohesiveness, but the Eagles don't allow assistant coaches below the coordinator level to talk to reporters for that sort of story.

The way Herremans sees it, Reid and general manager Tom Heckert already took care of the hardest part of building a top-flight line; Castillo is just handling the details.

"I think getting all the pieces together was the biggest process," Herremans said. "We've got that done, now it will just be a matter of spending time together, getting to know how each other plays. We shouldn't have any problem. Everybody's getting along with each other. Everybody's athletes. Athleticism can make up for flaws in technique, but you know Juan's going to have us drilling technique until the day's end, every day."

Herremans has taken to the task of helping the other guard, Stacy Andrews, adjust to a new system, after 5 years in Cincinnati.

"I work one-on-one with him every day. Todd's the man," Andrews said.

"Sometimes Juan's got all these guys out here, he doesn't have hours to spend with every person," Herremans said. "I'll just show him through the steps, tell him where he wants to put his head, and stuff."

Both Peters and Stacy Andrews have had one specific major adjustment to make. The Bills and the Bengals asked their offensive linemen to set up for pass blocking at an angle. The Eagles set up straight-on, which changes the leverage, and the footwork. Both players said they feel the adjustment won't be that difficult.

Jackson said Castillo will make certain it goes smoothly.

"Juan is a stickler on techniques," Jackson said. "It's kind of hard to totally change the way a guy's played, but an offseason with Juan, he could change the way you walk."

In general, Herremans said, there will be more talking and explaining among the linemen this season. Thomas and Runyan tended toward gruff silence; of course, there wasn't that much that needed to be said. Historically, when new parts have been plugged into this line, like in 2006 when Herremans took the left-guard spot and Jackson became the center, it was a matter of backups becoming starters. The new guys knew the system, knew Castillo.

"I think there'll have to be [more talking]," Herremans said. "You play with somebody for so long, we didn't really need to say too much to one another [previously]. I'll have to talk to Jason, and Shawn'll have to talk to Stacy, until we can get everybody in the same rhythm. We don't have any of the wise, old owls anymore."

A good bit of that communication will come from Jackson, 29, now the longest-tenured member of the group, having arrived as an undrafted free agent in 2003 (although he didn't play in a game until 2005).

"Jamaal is the quarterback of the offensive line. He lets everybody know what's going on, what [assignment] everybody has," Peters said. "He's laid-back, not real loud. But when he's on the field, he's talkative, he lets you know what you've got."

Jackson has given some thought to the leadership issue.

"We lost a lot of wisdom and leadership, with Tra and Jon not being here, but I think we replaced that with a lot of youth and athleticism . . . I feel I'm a leader on this offensive line, and on this team," Jackson said.

What the group lacks, he said, is "a matter of chemistry."

How do they get that?

"Practice, bonding, getting to know each other," he said.

Last year's line did an excellent job protecting McNabb - it allowed just 23 sacks, 12 in the last 12 games. Given that the Birds threw the ball a franchise-record 606 times in 2008, the ratio of 27.3 pass plays per sack was the best in team history. But one of the reasons the Eagles threw so much was that they didn't run very well. Brian Westbrook, bothered by knee and ankle problems that required offseason procedures, averaged just 4.0 yards per carry, his lowest figure since 2005.

The team really struggled in short yardage, especially early in the season, when the inability to gain a yard when they had to probably cost the Birds games against Dallas and Chicago. Nobody wants to say it out loud, out of deference to the long years of toil and sacrifice Thomas and Runyan put in, but the feeling is that the younger tackles will get better leverage and be more dominant in run blocking. Of course, they ought to be helped by the addition of experienced fullback Leonard Weaver.

"Not to slight Tra and Jon, but I think that we should have the ability to run the ball a little better this year," Herremans said.

Shawn Andrews, coming back from a year that started with a struggle against depression and ended with a Game 2 back injury, vows to convince opponents who might doubt he is as mean and combative as Runyan.

"I'll drive 'em over to their coach," said Andrews, a two-time Pro Bowl guard who was a dominant right tackle in college at Arkansas.

Asked how he will be different from how Runyan was last season, Andrews didn't want to diss his predecessor.

"I can't answer that," he said. "Not the way I want to."

He had no trouble, though, defining his expectations for the newly formed group.

"When healthy," he said, "we are going to kick some butt." *

For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.

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