Les Bowen: Eagles moves for Witherspoon, Trotter seem a little desperate

Will Witherspoon (right), shown with Rams, was obtained for help at linebacker.
Will Witherspoon (right), shown with Rams, was obtained for help at linebacker.
Posted: October 22, 2009

THE FIRST regular-season Eagles game I covered, the late Steve McNair led the host Tennessee Titans to a 27-24 comeback win, Sept. 8, 2002, but that isn't the picture I see when I recall that game.

What I see is Titans running back

Eddie George catching a pass against Eagles middle linebacker Levon Kirkland, and cutting back. Watching Kirkland try to adjust was entertaining. His listed weight was 275, just as it had been years earlier when he was going to Pro Bowls with the Steelers, but Eagles teammates later speculated that "Big Daddy" went about 320 during his year with the Birds, which turned out to be his last in the NFL at age 33. Think ocean liner trying to reverse direction, or tractor-trailer flying down a mountain with its brakes on fire, desperately searching for one of those emergency ramps. Smaller players in the vicinity, from both teams, risked becoming collateral damage. I'm pretty sure Blaine Bishop's life passed before his eyes.

I thought about Kirkland when the Eagles traded for St. Louis linebacker Will Witherspoon Tuesday. Not because of any physical resemblance - Witherspoon is a svelte 6-1, 240 - but because while we've seen the Eagles have to spackle and patch at middle linebacker before, they've never seemed so desperate about it.

In 2002, just as in 2009, the Eagles went into their season trying to solve a problem in the middle. Jeremiah Trotter had left for Washington that spring in a bitter salary dispute. As has been the case a few times over the years (Brian Dawkins, anyone?), management was right that Trotter was not quite worth what Ray Lewis was making in Baltimore, and utterly wrong in its initial assumption that 1999 second-round draft pick Barry Gardner was going to be an adequate replacement (Quintin Demps, anyone?).

By the end of minicamps, the Eagles knew they had a problem, and when Andy Reid mentor Mike Holmgren released Kirkland in Seattle to free some salary-cap room, Kirkland became an Eagle. The plan was for him to split time with Gardner, Kirkland playing in running situations, Gardner when a pass seemed likely. It had the same shortcoming as the recent Trotter-Omar Gaither rotation, as McNair and George illustrated - they didn't have to run on Kirkland and throw on Gardner, they could do the opposite. And there was another problem, which was that for a pass-defending linebacker, Gardner was really pretty slow. Gaither is way quicker than Barry was. That turned out to be the more lethal concern, in the long run - Google "Barry Gardner," "NFC Championship Game," and "Joe Jurevicius" for a more complete explanation.

But the Eagles did make it to the NFC title game with Kirkland and Gardner in the middle. The next year, they made it there with Mark Simoneau. Both years, middle linebacker was a weakness, but both times the Birds compensated, more or less.

Why all the in-season scurrying around this time, bringing back Trotter after nearly 2 years out of football, now reaching for Witherspoon at the deadline? OK, Gaither sprained his foot Sunday and it has all the earmarks of a long-term injury, although no update was offered yesterday. Gaither did not respond to a request for comment. There are still Trotter and Joe Mays, the guy defensive coordinator Sean McDermott gave the job to back in early August, right after Stewart Bradley tore his ACL. Tracy White and Moise Fokou have practiced in the middle.

I think the difference this time is the overall supporting cast. When Trotter left, then-defensive coordinator Jim Johnson still had Carlos Emmons, the best strongside linebacker of this Eagles era. He also had Dawkins, Troy Vincent and Hugh Douglas, all playing at a high level. The next year, when Simoneau wasn't everything the Birds thought he would be, they still put that same group around him, augmented by hard-hitting strong safety Mike Lewis.

Bottom line, if McDermott had a Dawkins, or even an Emmons, to buttress a makeshift middle linebacking rotation, we might not have seen a trade for Witherspoon. This isn't a bad Eagles defense, but it is young in spots. With Bradley going down, Dawkins' absence as a tackler, leader, and patroller-over-the-middle has resonated way beyond what management envisioned when it calculated it could afford to let Dawk test the free-agent market.

The unsettling thing about the signing of Trotter, as neat as it was to have Trot back in the locker room, was the scent of desperation that accompanied the move. Witherspoon is less of a shot in the dark, given that he has been starting in the NFL this season, but his acquisition shows a disquietingly high level of concern by management, nonetheless.

'Skins shuffle

Washington coach Jim Zorn detailed the new playcalling protocol to reporters yesterday, as his (?) team began preparing to play the Eagles. Apparently, to be involved in the chain of command, you have to be named "Sherman."

"Actually what's going to happen is, [offensive consultant Sherman Lewis] is going to send them down to Sherman Smith. I'm going to bring Sherman Smith, our coordinator, down on the field and he will relay it in," Zorn said. "They will be talking about how that will go. Sherman is pretty experienced being on the sidelines. He has been on the sidelines his whole career. I will be walking around and I will be listening."

Walking around and listening! Sounds like fun.

Meanwhile, quarterback Jason Campbell, back at the helm after being benched at halftime of last week's loss to Kansas City, sounded a Raiderslike note. The Eagles probably should be braced for a rally-'round-our-jobs effort.

"I don't know what it is, but guys have found that new energy and a new relief and relaxation - even talking to some of the coaches. Right now, for us, there is nothing to lose," Campbell said. "You've got to relax and just play the game and coach the game the way you want to, and just go out there and have some fun. That's the only way you're going to enjoy this. You can't go out there and play the game frustrated and worry about trying to be perfect every time. That forces you to think too much and not play up to your abilities."

Birdseed

The Seattle Seahawks have signed offensive lineman Mike Gibson off the Eagles' practice squad, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Gibson spent last year on injured reserve; before that, he was a teammate of DeSean Jackson at Cal. The Eagles probably will announce a replacement today . . . Birds begin their practice week today for the Monday night game at Washington; Andy Reid gave the team Tuesday and yesterday off following the trip back from California.

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

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