Perfect storm by the right definition.
Perfect storm, they believe, by the wrong one, too.
"Last year was very hectic all the way through," said center Jason Kelce, who started all 16 games as a rookie. "Obviously there were a whole lot of moving parts, not just on defense but on the offensive line. This year is a lot more comfortable. You're still trying to relearn the playbook kind of from scratch as if you don't even know it. But you're not going through it as slow as you did the first time.
“It would kind of be like we take a history class and we get tested in the end, which would be the playoffs. And the next year, if we just took the test again we'd probably do worse. Because you have to keep it fresh. The more times you take the class, the better you're going to do on the test."
The Eagles, of course, performed so badly in the classroom last year they were not allowed to even take their finals. Switched from coaching the offensive line to overseeing the defense, Juan Castillo took the brunt of criticism for that. Whether you see Castillo as teacher or student last summer at this time, the overriding truth is that the class was rushed and the tests brutal because of it, especially early on.
Last summer he was part professor, part pom-poms, as he pushed and cheered his collection of unfamiliar faces through schemes. More sedate this summer, his enthusiasm spiked when he spoke Thursday of being able to work longer and harder on fundamentals, and of the bonding that results from persevering through some of last year's unfavorable grades.
"We try to take whatever positives there were," Castillo said. "Which was really getting to know each other as players. Knowing they can trust each other, they can work with each other and that they each have the other's back."
Wednesday night, safety O.J. Atogwe – who is married to the daughter of Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary – stood up in a room full of players and, according to Castillo, began what became a string of men talking about the hardships they had overcome in life.
"We all had something to deal with that's been hard in life," Castillo said. "And I think what happened was we ended up going through a hardship last season. But everyone in that room had been through something. That they all had to overcome. There were a lot of similarities and a lot of it was, you work hard and you can overcome. Not everybody works hard. They may say they're working hard when the boss is looking, but we work all the time. And I think it's showed."
Last year wasn't just about Castillo. The offensive line was rebuilt using two rookies. There was also a new coach, Howard Mudd, and a new defensive-line coach in Jim Washburn as well. With the collective bargaining agreement up in the air all spring and early summer, Michael Vick, made a starter once the 2010 season started, was not allowed to meet with coaches in the offseason and iron out some of the rough patches.
All those coaching changes, Vick, the free-agent signings, and Vince Young's "Dream Team" proclamation made Lehigh a mandatory stop for all media covering the league at large last summer, and added both expectations and pressure to players.
Not this year.
"This year, we're just working," LeSean McCoy said. "I don't think there is as much pressure as there was a year ago. You see people paying more attention to other teams. The Peyton Mannings and the new rookies and the Tebows and so much. We're not really getting that attention we got last year. And that's a good thing. We're out here just working quietly."
With the exception of Michael Vick's ridiculous "dynasty" boast, that's what it has been. A lot of work, a lot of review, a lot of smiles.
Kind of like after a nasty storm blows through and the sun comes out.
"I feel like we can do more this year," McCoy said. "Just a sense of urgency, guys know where they're playing. Last year we weren't picking up things. Now it's not like you have to teach it all over again. You talk about it and it's, ‘OK, got it.' Plus we have another year of maturity, another year of us playing together. It's a little easier, I think." n
Contact Sam Donnellon at email@example.com