Eagles defensive leader yet to emerge

Cullen Jenkins , who won a Super Bowl with the Packers last season, is one of five new Eagles starters on defense.
Cullen Jenkins , who won a Super Bowl with the Packers last season, is one of five new Eagles starters on defense. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 18, 2011

On offense, it's obvious who's in charge: This is Michael Vick's team.

But when the Eagles defense is on the field, the leadership picture is less clear in the early days of the 2011 season. Ask members of the defense who sets the tone for their group, and each rattles off a series of names. Sometimes the lists match up, sometimes not.

In other words, no one person serves as the driving personality of this Eagles defense, at least not yet. No one player's style has become synonymous with the group as a whole. There's no Ray Lewis. No Brian Urlacher. No Brian Dawkins or Jeremiah Trotter or Troy Vincent.

"Right now it's kind of shared," linebacker Moise Fokou said. "We're so new. There's a lot of characters getting together and still figuring ourselves out."

Five of the Eagles defensive starters are new to the team. Three of the new faces - Jason Babin, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Cullen Jenkins - are among the four most experienced defensive starters.

That's not to say the Eagles are leaderless. Instead, different defensive players each fill a niche. A singular leader might emerge as the season goes on, Fokou said, but for now it's a group effort.

"It's a collective thing," safety Kurt Coleman said.

Jenkins and Babin have joined established Eagles veterans such as Asante Samuel and Juqua Parker as some of the more vocal presences.

Whether having leadership-by-committee is a good or bad thing, or just a new thing, is unclear this early in the season. Other than giving up an opening-play touchdown run, the Eagles defense has yet to face significant adversity. In the NFL, though, challenges lurk every week.

"Especially when times are tough and times are hard and you see that there's no fight left in everybody, somebody just needs to emerge out there and be the life of that defense, be that pinnacle, be that strong point," Fokou said.

In recent Eagles history, players such as Dawkins, Trotter and Vincent have combined on-field ability with commanding personalities to take control in the huddle or with the media. They were the faces of the defense.

But it has been several years since anyone has filled the role with the same mix of game-day impact and locker- room presence.

Typically, that job falls to linebackers or safeties, positions manned by players who are both fierce and cerebral, tasked with making plays and calling out assignments. But on the Eagles, those spots are now filled with young players still establishing themselves.

"It's a little bit tough when you have a rookie playing middle linebacker because it's the most obvious leadership position," said NBC's Sunday Night Football analyst, Cris Collinsworth.

Defensive linemen tend to be less focused on the rest of the defense, and that's particularly true in the Eagles scheme, which has the ends and tackles maniacally rushing upfield and letting the linebackers and safeties sort out the resulting chaos. They are also constantly rotating on and off the field.

"We're a little more crazier," Jenkins said. "There's no telling what we're talking about."

Babin, who played under defensive line coach Jim Washburn in Tennessee, is a zealous missionary for the coach's hyper-aggressive style - and hopes to impart it to the defense.

"It's a lifestyle, you have to live a certain way," Babin said. "It's taken a guy like Wash to say, 'It's OK to be like that, it's OK to think like that, to walk like that, to play like that, to hit like that.' He basically opened up the jail cell door and said 'Come on out.' "

From the moment he arrived in training camp, Babin, in his eighth season in the NFL, has been vocal and chippy, sometimes trying to pick fights, adding extra shoves at the end of plays. As assistants directed players to drills at Lehigh, he would punctuate each announcement with a boisterous "yeahhhh!" no matter how routine the coming session.

"I want people to look at our defense, and defensive line and secondary and linebackers and just be like" - he mimics a resigned sigh - " 'I don't want to do it.' "

But not everyone matches that personality. Jenkins, in his eighth season, has a freshly won Super Bowl ring, with the Packers last season, and offers a contrast to Babin's intensity.

"You can't just be serious and uptight all the time," Jenkins said. He is a fierce pass rusher, but off the field sometimes takes Twitter questions as "the night doctor," acting as a faux advice columnist. After the Rams game, he deadpanned to reporters about how he took a drink, had a seat and a conversation, and still had time to watch Parker finish running out his fumble return for a touchdown.

"I've always been kind of the guy that people look to to loosen up the mood a little bit," Jenkins said.

He has an NFL title, but the only ring he wears around his new teammates is his wedding band.

Among veterans with extended time in Philadelphia, the obvious places to start in a leadership search are with Samuel and Trent Cole. Each has earned multiple Pro Bowl berths. Samuel has the added credibility of winning two Super Bowls.

His standing was clear when the team named him a captain for the wild-card game in January. He is an unmistakable vocal presence in the locker room and on the field. A talented cover man and irrepressible trash talker who lightens the mood at training camp, Samuel gets away with antics that perhaps no other Eagle could - even throwing playful barbs at offensive coaches during drills.

But he can also often be seen working with younger players, giving advice. In a secondary with two new starters and one safety with four career starts, Samuel is an established presence.

But Samuel's freelancing style isn't one to build a defense around. One Asante is a valuable playmaker. Eleven of them would take more gambles than a defense could handle.

Cole has the relentless drive any defensive coordinator could admire, but he is most often focused on his own game, not those around him.

The most experienced player on the team is Juqua Parker, now in his 11th year, and seventh with the Eagles. Parker has never been a star, isn't even a starter at this point, and rarely talks to the media. But when the defense circles up before a game, he is often the one in the middle, teammates said. They point to his toughness.

"I like to call him Mr. Clean," Fokou said. "Bald head, strong, badass."

Against the Rams, for example, Parker made a goal line stop despite losing his helmet amid a crowd of tacklers and blockers.

"I always thought the leaders were the best players, and I don't know in this defense that you've had enough time for that person to emerge yet," said Collinsworth, who will call the Eagles-Falcons game Sunday.

But the most talented person isn't always the one with the personality to take control. That's what makes the defensive leaders who can do it all so rare.

"Is it nice to have Ray Lewis out there playing middle linebacker? You bet," Collinsworth said. "There aren't that many of those guys."

Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214, jtamari@phillynews.com or @JonathanTamari on Twitter.

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