Eagles' 2011 acquisitions seek redemption

Posted: July 21, 2012

They were supposed to be the new pieces that put the Eagles over the top.

Instead, the "Dream Team" acquisitions who arrived day after stunning day about this time last summer became part of a mocking punch line as the Eagles fell on their faces in the regular season.

The key players picked up in the Eagles' 2011 spending spree are back, though, this time after acclimating themselves to Philadelphia, having a full season to learn their new team and coaches, and a normal offseason program. With a second chance together, they hope to show that they are building blocks for a contender, not the remnants of an ill-conceived plan.

"They're more comfortable. I think they look at themselves more like they're Philadelphia Eagles," said coach Andy Reid. "They've walked this path now. They know what to expect. They know the demands."

There is much at stake for the team and also the players the Eagles added a year ago. Jason Babin, Evan Mathis, Cullen Jenkins, and Nnamdi Asomugha are all 30 or older, and, aside from Jenkins, none of them has played in a playoff victory in their careers. They may not have many more chances.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, 26, is in the final year of his contract and will have to prove he is worth re-signing or else risk being discarded by a second team in just three seasons.

Asomugha might be at the most critical crossroads of them all. Seen as the prize of free agency in 2011, he disappointed in his first impression with the Eagles, raising questions about whether he was overrated or just needed time to adapt.

Nine years into his career he has never experienced the playoffs - or even a winning season. That was supposed to change with the Eagles, and he was supposed to be a big part of the reason.

"Never leaving a season with a record that the wins are higher than the losses is a very difficult thing to face as a professional athlete," Asomugha said. "Words don't express how difficult that is."

Asomugha is still being counted on to make a difference this season, and he said he will be better positioned to deliver. The transition to a new team in a shortened 2011 offseason and ugly start of the regular season was harder than he anticipated.

"That's a lonely feeling, going from the West Coast to the East Coast and then losing five straight and trying to find where that support is," said Asomugha, a Californian who had spent all of his college and pro career in the Golden State. "Off the field was a big adjustment."

Reid said free agents have often struggled initially in Philadelphia as they adapt to new systems and coaches.

"It's like being a freshman again," he said. "Their comfort zone is a little bit crushed right there, and they've got to start over."

The team grew closer as the players relied on one another through a difficult year, Asomugha said.

"We just look at this year as a year where we're continuing to build what we started," he said. He later added, "This was never a one-year plan."

When the lanky cover man struggled early last season, much of the blame fell on first-year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and the mismatched blend of Asomugha, a press corner, and Asante Samuel, who insisted on playing off and anticipating routes.

There is another possibility, though, one that has only been lightly broached because Asomugha is so respected and engaging: that the 31-year-old signed with the Eagles just as he began the physical decline that eventually confronts all athletes.

Asomugha said he has not thought about whether his proverbial window is closing.

"Not yet," he said. "I still feel great. I still feel like I have the years prior. I think on the field the only difference is I'm now doing things that I've never really done in my career, so it's learning again."

Asked to play a variety of positions with the Eagles, Asomugha said he wants to be as good at those as he was playing man coverage in Oakland.

As last season went on, Asomugha said, he and Castillo together sorted out which ideas worked in coverage, and which should be set aside. Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie, another press corner, are expected to fit better together.

Asomugha is desperate to experience the postseason. His NFL win totals - all in Oakland until last year - have been four, five, four, two, four, five, five, eight, and eight.

At Cal, he had just one winning season - finishing 7-5 as a senior - but the team didn't go to a bowl game because of sanctions.

Jenkins has been to the other end of the spectrum. He has been to the postseason four times in his eight-year career and arrived at Eagles training camp last July fresh off a Super Bowl win with the Packers.

He showed up soon after Vince Young's infamous "Dream Team" gaffe.

"The second I got here, I heard the phrase, 'The Dream Team,' going around. That was something like, 'No, no, no, no, no'," he said, ruefully shaking his head.

Winning in the NFL is hard enough without putting that target on yourself.

"Every team's got talent. It's going to matter which team's going to put that talent to use," he said.

The Eagles probably have more than most. With a full offseason, Jenkins said, "there should be no excuses at all."

Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie, the starting corners, have more clearly defined roles, should be able to play their preferred style, and each has the added benefit of mentoring from respected secondary coach Todd Bowles, hired this offseason. Babin already showed that he was more than a one-year wonder. Mathis fit in perfectly on the offensive line, and Jenkins was a productive and wise presence.

Rodgers-Cromartie, a Pro Bowler in 2009, traded by the Cardinals after 2010, seems like an apt metaphor for the entire Eagles team. Young and astoundingly athletic, he struggled to adjust to a new system early last year. But a few strong games near the end provided a measure of hope heading into 2012. Now he must show that he can play well for an entire season, that with the circumstances just right, he can live up to his billing.

Much hinges on him and the rest of his fellow 2011 imports. They still look great on paper. But as last season showed, it takes more than just talent to succeed.

"It doesn't matter how many great players there are," Reid said. "The objective is to win."

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

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