Les Bowen: Opening perspective on the Eagles

Posted: September 07, 2012

EAGLES DEFENSIVE coordinator Juan Castillo, when asked Thursday what he has found you can tell about your team from a season opener, stepped around the question and replied that the idea is to get better every week.

So, logically, Sunday's game at Cleveland is going to be the Eagles' worst of the season, they hope, right?

Locker-room philosopher Evan Mathis said the way to look at that conundrum is, "You want to have a great opener. If you can have a great opener and get better every week, you're doing things."

But seriously, folks, what is this week likely to tell you about the 2012 Eagles? We went back over the last five season openers, in which the Birds are 3-2, to see what kind of guide they provided for those campaigns. As you might expect, the opener was rarely the season in a nutshell - except maybe for 2007. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Here's the rundown:

2007: The Eagles cut punt returner Jeremy Bloom and didn't replace him for Week 1, figuring Greg Lewis and maybe J.R. Reed could do the job, even though they hadn't done it before. Each muffed a punt, leading to Green Bay points in a 16-13 loss.

Rest of the season: The Eagles went 8-8, Donovan McNabb looking wobbly on a rebuilt ACL. It was an odd, wrong-footed year, and it all started Opening Day. The Packers, outplayed by the Eagles except for the punts, went on to the NFC Championship Game.

2008: The Eagles blew away a really bad Rams team at the Linc, 38-3, with McNabb completing 21 of 33 passes for 361 yards, three touchdowns, and a 131.0 passer rating. Three receivers topped 100 yards - rookie DeSean Jackson (six catches for 106 yards), Greg Lewis (5/104) and Hank Baskett (2/102).

Rest of the season: Eagles went 9-6-1, ended up in the NFC Championship Game after coming together late. McNabb had a terrible stretch and was briefly benched but rebounded to beat the Vikings and the defending champion Giants in the postseason. Jackson was everything he'd seemed to be in his first NFL game. Lewis and Baskett somehow didn't end up getting 100 yards every week.

2009: Eagles went to Carolina and rolled to a 38-10 victory, but McNabb broke a rib late. Sean McDermott's defense picked Jake Delhomme four times. Victor Abiamiri (!) scored a touchdown.

Rest of the season: Eagles compiled an 11-5 record but faded spectacularly at the end, losing badly to Dallas in both the regular-season finale and the playoff opener. The McNabb era ended. McDermott was fired. You could say the opener provided some foreshadowing on McNabb's season - great start, couldn't finish.

2010: Eagles lost, 27-20, to the Packers, and Kevin Kolb's concussion ultimately cost him the starting QB job. Leonard Weaver's career ended with a gruesome injury. Stewart Bradley also was concussed.

Rest of the season: Michael Vick rallied the Eagles late against the Packers and was to continue that theme, winning the starting job and making the Pro Bowl. Eagles squeaked into the playoffs but lost another close home game to the Packers.

2011: Eagles rolled, 31-13, at St. Louis. Gave up a 47-yard Stephen Jackson TD run on Juan Castillo's first snap as defensive coordinator. No further comment required there. Held Rams to 2-for-12 on third down, which did not turn out to be definitive, though the five Eagles sacks were a hint of what was to come. DeSean Jackson caught six passes for 102 yards.

Rest of the season: The stories written in the wake of the opener about Jackson successfully putting his contract woes aside proved just a tad premature. The defense struggled to stop the run in several crucial games, most notably in losing to the Niners and the Seahawks. But LeSean McCoy's eight carries for 112 yards in the second half of the opener heralded a career year.

You can bet that somewhere in a NovaCare filing cabinet, Andy Reid has a detailed breakdown of what sort of trends openers usually portend. But Reid was not in a reflective mood when asked about that this week.

"You hear everything about openers, that that game is the most overexaggerated - but you know what, it's the most important game that week for ya," said Reid, who is 6-7 in season openers. "And that's all I care about."

In fact, one of the reasons "you hear" that is because Reid has said it himself, as recently as the news conference following that 2008 washout of the Rams, when Reid declared the opener "the most overrated game in the league." This is what you say when your team wins by 35 and you want to avoid complacency.

Defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, 31, will suit up Sunday for his ninth opener, seven for the Packers and two for the Eagles. Jenkins said you can tell "how your team reacts when it counts, how everybody's fighting."

"There's going to be adversity, there's going to be tough times, to see how we respond, how we pull together as a team, all that stuff," Jenkins said. "Obviously, there's a lot of growing that you do from the first game to the end of the season, but there is a lot you can tell about your team from the first game."

Wideout Jason Avant, an Eagle since 2006, said he doesn't look much at the opener as an indicator. Avant noted that the trend among teams that win it all in pro sports these days is to build and grow during the season, sometimes very late in the season, as the Giants did last year (and the Cardinals did in baseball and the Kings did in the NHL).

"You can start off the season hot, go cold and then get hot again," Avant said. "It's all different every year. Every game is its own entity here. We try to put every game in their own category, their own box."

Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said he is more interested in what the first month or so of the season says.

"About a quarter of the way through the season, you really tend to start knowing who you are and what your strengths and weaknesses are," Mornhinweg said. "That changes every season. Even though some of your main players are back, everybody's important. It's typically after that fourth game, I tend to look at it pretty hard that way."

Contact Les Bowen at bowenl@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @LesBowen. For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' blog at eagletarian.com.

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