Seven things that could derail the Eagles

Posted: September 06, 2012

1 Michael Vick is out for an extended period of time.

 No question is more central to the Eagles' success this season - and thus coach Andy Reid's future in Philadelphia - than the health of Vick.

Reid pointed out that all four teams that reached the championship games last season had a quarterback who played 16 games. Vick has played 16 games just once in his career. He insists that he's not injury prone, although history suggests otherwise. He has suffered rib injuries that sidelined him parts of the last two seasons, and he failed to make it through the two preseason games he started.

"I just had a couple of fluke injuries that happened," Vick said. "But it's not something I'm worried about."

The conundrum the Eagles face is that they want Vick to play in the style that makes him special, but they want to be able to preserve him, too. Vick is 32, and he's more lithe than most quarterbacks. So no matter how tough he is, he's not built to endure a major pounding.

The problem with Vick is not that he scrambles - it's that he takes hits. What he needs to do is get rid of the ball quicker. And this is different than extending plays.

But waiting until the last possible moment to get hit is a recipe for injury as much as it is for making highlight reels. Reid said that just because Vick has suffered injuries in the past does not necessarily mean he'll get injured this season.

What Reid doesn't want is for Vick to change his game, and he acknowledges injuries might be the result. The key is limiting those injuries as much as possible.

Nick Foles flashed the potential to be a capable backup quarterback, and the Eagles might be able to get by for a few games if Vick suffers a small injury. But the Eagles would be in trouble if Vick is out for an extended period, and, by extension, Reid would be in trouble, too.

 

- Zach Berman

 2 LeSean McCoy has a letdown season after a breakout year and contract extension.

It happens. A player gets a big contract and suddenly he loses a little of the motivation that helped him earn that deal in the first place. It's only human nature.

In May, McCoy signed a five-year extension worth $45 million. After an unprecedented first three seasons for an Eagles running back, he earned the payday. But it's going to be difficult for McCoy to top last season's production (1,309 yards rushing and 20 total touchdowns), or even what he accomplished in 2010 when he gained more yards from scrimmage (1,672 to 1,624).

There is the burden that comes with getting paid like a franchise running back. But McCoy will also encounter defenses even more geared up to stop the All-Pro. It all comes with the territory.

The question then is will he be able to adjust? Will he be content with taking a series of jabs until it is time to respond with a haymaker? McCoy said recently that he isn't worried. Unlike, say, Titans running back Chris Johnson who struggled last season after his extension, McCoy has a more talented cast around him.

Defenses can't key in on stopping McCoy, because if they did, then Michael Vick or DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin will burn them.

Andy Reid said fairly early in the offseason that the Eagles were going to try to decrease McCoy's touches this season. We'll believe it when we see it, but if they Eagles want to stay on the ground they have other options, with second-year tailback Dion Lewis and promising rookies Bryce Brown and Chris Polk.

But McCoy makes the engine go. As much as Reid likes to pass, the Eagles need McCoy to keep defenses honest. If he can't find holes or create them on his own, then defenses are going to sit back and wait for Vick to throw.

McCoy won't have Jason Peters at left tackle clearing lanes for him this season. It could make life more difficult for the tailback, along with the added attention, the contract, you name it.

 

- Jeff McLane

 3 Safety play does not improve from last season.

 The Eagles may be entering the season blind in a certain spot, where outsiders seem to identify the weakness before the team does. Safety could be that spot this season. The Eagles are entrusting Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman as the starters, with underachieving 2011 second-round pick Jaiquawn Jarrett as the primary backup and recently acquired David Sims figuring into the mix, too. Special teams ace Colt Anderson is also an option. The group lacks experience and a track record of productivity.

The key will be Allen, a 2010 second-round pick who has flashed potential but struggles with occasional injuries. The Eagles are hoping they can count on Allen and that his productivity will enhance the safety corps. Coleman is serviceable but not spectacular. The Eagles signed veteran Oshiomogho Atogwe in hopes of providing stability, but Atogwe wasn't healthy enough to survive final cuts.

Following the final preseason game, Reid said he was going to need to look at the safeties. He did, and the answer the Eagles came up with was Sims. It might turn out that Sims can become a contributor, but a 25-year-old who has never played an NFL game and is available the week before the season usually is not the answer.

Considering the starters will be the same in 2012 as they were for most of the 2011, the Eagles' can merely hope that their young players improve.

"The more games that these kids get in under their belt, they will understand the angles and understand the defenses," safeties coach Michael Zordich said. "That's what's so great about it, because they're going into the second year of learning this defense and they just had OTAs for nine weeks and they were sitting in the classroom, learning it on the field, and it all helps. The longer that you've been in one system, the better off you are."

The reason the Eagles invested second-round picks in Allen and Jarrett was because the Birds thought they could be starters. Allen has the chance to be one, and Jarrett still must prove he can play after an uneven preseason. Entering the season, though, the safeties are the biggest question mark on the Eagles' defense.

 

-Zach Berman

 4 Alex Henery can't make clutch kicks.

Last season, Henery set an NFL rookie record by connecting on 88.9 percent of his field-goal attempts. He was successful on 24 of 27 tries and ranked fifth in the league. One of his misses came from 63 yards out.

But the two other misses - they were bad ones. So bad that there is still some doubt as to whether the Eagles made the right decision when they did not re-sign David Akers last year and instead drafted Henery in the fourth round as his replacement.

The two misses came in the fourth quarter of the fourth game against the 49ers less than eight minutes apart. Henery was wide right from 39 yards out on his first attempt. And then a drive later he was again wide right, this time from just 33 yards.

The Eagles lost to San Francisco, 24-23.

Henery did not miss a field goal or an extra point for the rest of the season. He connected on a 51-yard field goal at Dallas in the second-to-last game of the season. But he never encountered another field-goal attempt with as much on the line.

So there is still some mystery. Can Henery hit clutch kicks? Can he kick game-winning field goals? Some kickers can. Some can't. Some are nearly automatic from every distance. But when the game is on the line and the goals posts look about an inch apart, they crumble like pie crust.

Akers wasn't Mr. Clutch in Philadelphia. He missed a field goal, an extra point, and kicked off out of bounds in the 2008 NFC championship. He missed two field-goal attempts in the 2010 playoff game against the Packers.

But he did make his share of game-winning field goals. Henery hasn't kicked one yet, although he did drill a game-winning 51-yarder this preseason.

It's the great unknown.

 

- Jeff McLane

 5 Andy Reid loses the locker room.

It will take a lot for Reid to lose his players. Last season, even when the Eagles were mired in the middle of a disaster, the players stood by their coach. It's a difficult thing to gauge, but on some teams a few players usually start chirping when they're unhappy. That has never been the case with Reid and the Eagles.

But that was then, and this is now.

Reid was put on watch by Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. First, in January, when he labeled 2011's 8-8 record "unacceptable," and then a week ago when he said another 8-8 mark would not be accepted and would result in Reid's not returning.

With Reid on the hot seat, it will be interesting to see how the players react should the team get off to a slow start. Would they rally around their coach, or would they start packing it if Reid looked like a lame duck?

We may never know for certain if the players stop giving their maximum effort for Reid. For one, well, the team may be really good or good enough to be in playoff contention, and the question may never arise. And two, how can one quantify effort?

It may be evident. There may games when various Eagles appear to have given up. There may examples when a player or two may be caught loafing. This happens even on the best of teams. But it's rare, and if it does happen, it gets nipped in the bud rather quickly.

Reid has always been characterized as a "players' coach." He has worked on maintaining a relationship with his players even though the age difference has grown. He is stern and demanding, but he isn't afraid to lighten up around his team every so often.

During the preseason, defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins stood up to a fired-up Reid, and the spat was caught on camera. It was likely an isolated moment. But could there be more to a fearless Jenkins' firing back at Reid?

 

- Jeff McLane

 6 A difficult schedule and a tough NFC East cause trouble.

When the Eagles won four consecutive NFC East championships last decade, they benefited from a weak division. The NFC East has since restocked, and the Giants and Cowboys have two of the most talented rosters in the NFL. The Redskins also have a potential franchise quarterback with Robert Griffin III, meaning the Eagles can no longer count on feasting on their division. In fact, the Eagles have won the division just once in the last five years; the Giants and Cowboys split the other four seasons.

It's tough to anticipate a schedule's difficulty at this time of the year, because there are always surprising and disappointing teams. But the 2011 winning percentage of the Eagles' 2012 opponents was .516, which is the seventh highest of any schedule in the NFL. The two rotating divisions that the Eagles face this season are the NFC South and the AFC North. Those divisions produced five playoff teams. In a quarterback-centric league, the Eagles will face seven quarterbacks among the top 10 in passing yards last season.

The other part of the schedule that presents a challenge is the timing of certain games. Teams are sometimes better and often healthier off of bye weeks. The Eagles play four teams this season after their bye week: the Falcons, Lions, Steelers, and Redskins. That is more than any team in the NFL. The Eagles also play the Giants and Cowboys this season after those teams have Thursday games, giving the Eagles' opponents extra days to prepare. So if the Eagles want to reach the postseason in 2012 and Reid wants to keep his job, they will need to beat some of the NFL's top teams.

 

- Zach Berman

 7 Jason Kelce and Danny Watkins suffer sophomore slumps

 The risk with Kelce and Watkins came last season, when they were rookies on the offensive line trying to learn a new system and adjust to the NFL without the benefit of a full offseason. This year, the two 2011 draft picks - Watkins a first-rounder, Kelce a sixth-rounder - must prove they are ascending players. The second season is a critical year for players, because their introductory season to the NFL can prompt them to either improve or relax. All indications are that Kelce and Watkins will be better in their sophomore seasons than in their rookie campaigns, but the Eagles cannot afford a decline.

Kelce is taking on more responsibility in 2012, and he will make all the line calls at center. His performance was a pleasant surprise last season, ably beating out Jamaal Jackson and appearing competent at center. Watkins did not come on until later in the season, and there is still debate about whether he could be an elite player. He'll be 28 by the end of the season, too, so this is an important year to show the Eagles knew what they were doing when they invested a high pick in him last year.

Entering training camp, offensive line coach Howard Mudd said he wanted to see Watkins develop a comfort in the position and remove doubt in himself. Doing so would be critical for improvement from Year 1 to Year 2.

"That is part of the growing process," Mudd said. "I call that the 'Valley of Darkness.' You get somewhere, and then you start doubting yourself, and then the ball is snapped, and you don't have a clue where you are. You can be very amateurish. Then things start to click. Then all of a sudden you get there. That is what the offseason is for. I think he is well on his way. It's the 'it' thing and he is starting to get 'it.' "

 

- Zach Berman

 

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