Eagles' Nnamdi Asomugha looks forward to second season in Philadelphia

"This year is about showing what we've become," said second-year Eagle Nnamdi Asomugha (24) .
"This year is about showing what we've become," said second-year Eagle Nnamdi Asomugha (24) . (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 28, 2012

Nnamdi Asomugha couldn't believe that Philadelphia didn't wrap its arms around Charles Barkley.

"You would think that Philly would gravitate to that - toward those types of brash athletes," said the nowhere-near-as-brash Eagles cornerback.

So what about Allen Iverson, the longtime L.A. Lakers fan asked - did the city wholly embrace him? Nope, Asomugha was told. Iverson was beloved by many 76ers fans for his effort on the court, but he also was just as polarizing.

"Wow," Asomugha said.

A list of superstars Philadelphia failed to connect with - far less than Iverson - then was rattled off (e.g. Mike Schmidt, Donovan McNabb) for the longtime Californian.

Asomugha, intrigued, leaned back in his chair with a bemused look.

He was assured, however, that Philadelphia had its favorites - superstars (Dr. J, Bobby Clarke), athletes who embodied the gritty city (Brian Dawkins, Lenny Dykstra), and the few who made their names elsewhere but came here and were the final pieces on title teams (Pete Rose, Moses Malone).

Asomugha, the prize of last year's free-agent class, chose the Eagles for many reasons. But more than anything, he wanted to go somewhere where he had the opportunity to lift a championship-starved franchise over the hump - a la Rose and Malone.

"One-hundred percent," Asomugha said last week during a lengthy interview at the NovaCare Complex. "I wanted to be a part of an organization that could win it all and I could be a contributing factor."

But the 2011 season that many thought would end in coronation went horribly wrong almost out of the gate. The Eagles had miscalculated, and myriad changes they made were shortsighted after the NFL lockout.

Asomugha came to symbolize the team's shortsightedness. The Eagles desperately wanted the all-pro cornerback, but they underestimated the difficulty he would have playing in a new system, opposite the antithetical Asante Samuel, and under a first-year defensive coordinator.

They lined him up virtually everywhere in the defensive backfield, a challenge he welcomed even if he was out of his comfort zone. Asomugha struggled. He allowed four touchdowns when targeted, more than double the number he had surrendered in his previous four seasons. He missed tackles he regularly had made in Oakland.

There were impressive moments, sure, and by the end of the season he looked more at ease. But the Eagles didn't get the shutdown corner who had vaulted to the top of his profession during eight seasons with the Raiders. Asomugha, as a result, became a target for the media and fans who had expected much more.

"And I'll take that," Asomugha said. "Much is expected, and I expect it, and still expect a lot from myself. It was definitely a challenge."

Asomugha didn't arrive at Lehigh University thinking his presence alone would guarantee a title. One, he doesn't play a position of great influence, such as a center in basketball or a leadoff hitter in baseball. And two, he had never played for a winner. The Raiders, in fact, never finished better than 8-8 when Asomugha donned the silver and black.

"I just wanted to win, and I knew that Philadelphia would be the place where we would win," Asomugha said. "I knew that Philadelphia had never won the Super Bowl. Coach Reid had been here so long and had never [won].

"It felt when it comes together and we win it all, everyone is going to be happy. There isn't going to be anyone that's like, 'Aw, yeah, I've done it before so I don't really care.' . . . I knew this would be a hungry team."

Not what he expected

A town obsessed with football and thirsting for a title, represented in ways by a cynical, critical media, caught the pensive Asomugha off guard. In Oakland, he dealt with three or four beat reporters on a daily basis. At Eagles training camp, a pack of 20 to 30 media members often would be waiting for him after practice.

"I was like, 'Oh, my goodness. Are we playing football or are we like doing Dancing With the Stars?' " he said.

Sporting a medium-length Afro and the early stages of a beard, Asmougha, 30, recently looked as if he had just walked off a Caribbean beach. Cool and debonair, he has a demeanor that could be mistaken as aloof - especially in this town.

He greeted a reporter he had seen almost every day for five months with a joke, but one meant to express the craziness of last season: "It's nice to meet you," he said. Asomugha is the rare athlete: A question is asked and he processes it before answering.

This was how he handled questions during camp after the Eagles signed him to a five-year, $60 million contract. By October, though, he became elusive. When the locker room opened to reporters, he often was nowhere to be seen. If he needed something from his stall, he'd sometimes send a teammate to fetch it.

By November, the questions became more pointed. He bristled on occasion. Still, game after game, loss after loss, he stood at his locker and tried to make sense of the carnage, sometimes with remarkable candor.

"There were times it was definitely overwhelming," Asomugha said.

Asomugha has been described as more than just a football player - philanthropist, budding politician, actor, world traveler. His foundation helps African orphans and widows, and exposes underprivileged but high-achieving teenagers to college campuses across the country. In April, Asomugha took 18 students to the Midwest to visit Northwestern, Notre Dame, and other schools.

A man of many talents

He has taken part in the last three Bill Clinton Global Initiative University conferences and considers the former president a friend and confidant. Asomugha has acted in four television shows and one movie, according to his Internet Movie Database page. He has visited China and South Africa, and spent part of this offseason in Japan.

And yet Asomugha can go unnoticed in downtown Philadelphia if he's in street clothes and his thick, black-framed glasses. He doesn't dress like most modern-day athletes. His jeans aren't baggy. His ties are skinny. After games, he looks as if he is dressed for a Hollywood premiere.

(A quick aside: Asked who his favorite actor is, Asomugha unabashedly said Sally Field.)

On the field, he is all arms and legs but is as graceful as a gazelle. He knows that football has afforded him opportunities off it. Fair or not, it is how he will be judged in this town, where last season's 8-8 record was met with disdain. He gets it.

"The reason why I liked it to an extent was there was accountability," Asomugha said. "Whereas in [Oakland], 8-8 was, 'Shoot, we reached 8-8!' "

Many were critical of Asomugha's performance. He gave himself a mixed review when asked to assess his play. Even though a lot was placed on his plate, he said he still wished he had picked it up faster.

"It wasn't like we brought what I was doing in Oakland to Philly," Asomugha said. "It was kind of reinventing a whole new player."

He was primarily a man-to-man, press-cover corner with the Raiders, often assigned to shadow an opposing team's best receiver. He had mastered that defense. Asomugha said he wanted to "evolve." Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo moved him around like a chess piece in his zone-heavy scheme.

"Even before he got here, he wanted to do that," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "That was one of the things that he and I talked about when we were recruiting him here. And he's good at it, but he had to learn it."

Learning process

Asomugha also had to learn a new style of playing cornerback. The Eagles defense was new in many ways, but it favored Samuel's off-the-line methods. Samuel was trying to help, but Asomugha believes that certain elite corners should not be copied.

"And Asante would basically be my coach and Dominique [Rodgers-Cromartie's] coach throughout the week," Asomugha said. "There were certain things that I would be like, 'Oh, OK, so we're going to play this way,' and it was the way that he would play it, which is a softer-type of reading game. And he's like, 'Yeah, yeah, I know, it's not easy.' "

Samuel also would play only on the left, while Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie, who mostly played in the slot, would switch if needed on the right. The disparate styles, along with a host of other defensive issues, led to breakdowns in the secondary.

The Eagles had tried to trade Samuel as early as training camp, and by the end of the season his days here were over. An injured ankle sidelined him for two games, allowing Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie to do their thing.

Samuel was dealt to Atlanta for a seventh-round pick before last month's draft. Asomugha confirmed that he and Rodgers-Cromartie will play more man-press. He said Castillo has been "weeding" out soft coverage looks.

During workouts this spring, Asomugha has been huddling up the cornerbacks and repeating the mantra, "Last year was about growth. This year is about showing what we've become."

"I think about how much sweeter it's going to be now," Asomugha said, "when we do it after what we went through."

Asmougha, the transplanted West Coaster, could have been speaking for Eagles fans who haven't experienced a championship for 52 years. He may not be from here, or even fit in, but if he delivers, the fans will love him for it.


Contact Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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