Phil Sheridan: Knowing Eagles players is as important as knowing playbook

Nnamdi Asomugha, left, talks to Andy Reid in the fourth quarter of the Eagles' 21-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on November 13. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Nnamdi Asomugha, left, talks to Andy Reid in the fourth quarter of the Eagles' 21-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on November 13. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 26, 2012

The Eagles hope to benefit from the more obvious aspect of spring practice and classroom time. Players get a head start on learning the offensive and defensive playbooks.

The less-obvious aspect may be even more important. That became clear last year. The Eagles, like all other NFL teams, were denied the May and June camps, then were forced to open training camp with some veteran players standing around waiting for the new collective bargaining agreement to be finalized.

Obviously, the players had less time to learn from the coaches. Less obviously, but every bit as important, the coaches had less time to learn the players. That was at the root of so much of what went wrong for the Eagles at the start of last season.

The lockout provided as well as took away, though. The Eagles may not have been able to acquire Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who will be their starting cornerbacks this year, in a normal offseason.

Asomugha, the most highly coveted free agent of 2011, would have visited a couple of teams. During those visits, players meet with coaches, learn a little about how they will fit in the team's system and so on. If he had met with the Eagles at all, Asomugha may have been dissuaded from coming to play for an offensive line coach-turned-defensive coordinator. As it was, Asomugha seemed mildly surprised when he got to Lehigh and saw the lay of the land (and that doesn't mean the gently rolling hills).

As for Rodgers-Cromartie, he didn't have any say. He was traded to the Eagles for quarterback Kevin Kolb. That deal may or may not have been done regardless of the labor situation. Once the lockout ended, Rodgers-Cromartie was rushed to Lehigh, where he wasn't allowed to practice right away, and where he met fellow alpha corners Asomugha and Asante Samuel.

To say Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie never got comfortable in their first season here wouldn't begin to tell the tale. That was partly because they hadn't had the usual time to learn the Eagles defense, but it was even more so because defensive coordinator Juan Castillo didn't have a chance to learn them.

So it was no surprise when Rodgers-Cromartie bristled a bit at the suggestion that he needed to redeem himself this year for his lost 2011 season.

"I've got nothing to prove to nobody," Rodgers-Cromartie said after Thursday's practice. "All I can do is go out there and compete."

He didn't really get that chance last year. With Samuel already here and Asomugha as the big free-agent prize, Rodgers-Cromartie was asked to play in the slot. It was the wrong spot for him, something that became obvious almost immediately. It didn't help that Samuel and Asomugha, the outside guys, were stylistically incompatible, too.

It took an offseason and a radical Asantectomy to remedy the situation. Samuel was sent packing to Atlanta, basically to open a spot for Rodgers-Cromartie.

"It's never a relief to see somebody like that go, somebody who everybody loved, basically a team captain," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "It's hard for somebody like that to go."

The transition is complete. The Andy Reid era now has its fourth cornerback duo. Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor gave way to Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. Samuel and Brown spent a couple of seasons working together. Now it is Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie.

They have some high standards to live up to, and none of the corners came close to those standards last year. Asomugha looked lost and, at times, disinterested in his first season here. In Samuel, we saw the downside – soft coverage, softer tackling – without as much of the upside – interceptions – that he had delivered in previous years. And Rodgers-Cromartie looked out of place except for the couple of times he started in place of the injured Samuel.

"Being back outside," Rodgers-Cromartie said, "it feels good, like I'm at home. I've still got a little rust on me, so going through the OTAs, I can knock that off and go from there."

The late Jim Johnson excelled at learning his players' strengths and then devising devious ways to utilize those strengths. Just as important, he schemed to hide their deficiencies.

Last year, the Eagles defense looked like a Johnson defense in reverse. Sure, Jason Babin got a lot of sacks, but offenses had no trouble exploiting his weakness by running over him. The linebackers couldn't fill gaps left gaping by the wide-nine line technique. The mismatched secondary was a target-rich environment for QBs as different as Tom Brady and John Skelton.

There's no way to know whether Castillo can be as good as Johnson at scheming around his players. This year, at least, he'll have the advantage of at least knowing what those players can and can't do.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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