A few things to chew on after preseason opener

Posted: August 12, 2011

Reading deep meaning into NFL exhibition games, particularly the opening exhibition game, is like trying to find poetry scrawled on a highway underpass.

The first-team players are given their cameo appearances and then hustled to the sideline, put out of reach like porcelain vases taken from the mantel when the kids have their friends over for a party.

By the end - all right, by the end of the first half - the comings and goings on the field have become so jumbled and chaotic that it is difficult to tell which players the coaches want to study, which they want to punish, and which they don't really care what happens to. The obvious guys are out of danger, wearing visors and cracking jokes. The rest are responsible for staying until closing time, and it can get dangerous.

Take Ronnie Brown, the free-agent running back signed to back up LeSean McCoy this season. The Eagles like Brown and think he will be an effective role player, but you wouldn't know it from the second drive of the night in Thursday's exhibition opener against the Baltimore Ravens.

Somewhere on some detailed plan devised by Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg, it said that McCoy would take the first drive and then be retired for the evening, and Brown would take the second and get the same treatment.

It probably sounded fine to Brown until the Eagles ran off 16 plays (one was nullified by a penalty, but the tackle Brown absorbed wasn't), and he was either the receiver or the runner on 11 of them. And he was getting smacked around pretty good.

Well, it is a contact game, but it's doubtful Brown expected quite that much contact on a humid August night during his one drive of the game. Things happen, though, and not all of them can be scripted when nearly half the team won't be around in a month.

After games like these, deep meanings have to be substituted for shallow observations, and Thursday's game did provide fodder for those. So, in no particular order:

If you like touchbacks, the 2011 NFL is going to be your kind of league. With kickoffs moved from the 30-yard line to the 35, there will be far fewer kick returns. The NFL tried to make returns safer by outlawing wedge blocking, but it might as well have tried to outlaw wedge salads in a steak house. For its next trick, the league apparently is outlawing returns.

The reports of Vince Young's demise appear to be overstated, at least for now. Maybe Young still hasn't gotten deep into the playbook, and maybe he has looked scattershot in training camp, but he didn't throw 689 career completions for 8,098 yards with the help of mirrors. In his 18 plays, he certainly was protected. (See Brown, Ronnie: run into ground). But he still has survival skills, can deliver the ball with real pace, and completed 3 of 5 attempts. It wasn't a disaster, and that's what some were expecting.

Conversely, the reports that Mike Kafka had developed into a genuine NFL backup were premature, too. Kafka knows the plays, and he's efficient, but his arm is still not strong enough to throw a long-ish pass without attracting a safety the way a pork chop attracts a Doberman. He completed a lot of little passes against the Ravens, and he wasn't awful, either, but the performance didn't inspire confidence that he's ready for bigger games.

When cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Nnamdi Asomugha are on the flanks and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is slotted to the inside, there really isn't much reason to ever consider putting three linebackers on the field. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Eagles in nickel or dime coverage 75 to 80 percent of the time. If the opposing offense has to gain more than 3 yards for a first down - whatever the down - put your best people on the field. Rodgers-Cromartie is big enough to play the role of a mini-linebacker, and it looked like sneaking safety Nate Allen toward the line is going to be a big part of the scheme.

The recent acquisition that hasn't gotten much attention but might pay the most benefits is defensive tackle Derek Landri, a very quick player out of Notre Dame who has been under the radar. Playing four years with Jacksonville and Carolina will do that, but considering the thin state of the Eagles' tackle position, he's going to get playing time here. He was all over the field against the Ravens.

Proving that the coaching staff has to get into midseason form as well, Reid wasted a challenge flag - and a timeout - in the first half on an almost-TD reception by Jason Avant. Just a few minutes later, the Eagles had to use another timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty. And to think the lockout could have robbed us of this for an entire year.

That's more than enough for one exhibition, the lessons of which might be erased within minutes next week in Pittsburgh. The new kicker and punter seemed fine, but the sample was small. The first-teamers were professional and sharp enough for the middle of August, and then got out of there.

Somewhere in all that mess, someone earned a job and someone lost a job. It always happens, but it also takes a while to find out which was which.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "Post Patterns," at www.philly.com/postpatterns

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