Change from wide-nine alignment can only benefit Eagles' Cole

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Trent Cole, followed by DeMeco Ryans, arrives at Hallowell Elementary School in Horsham.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Trent Cole, followed by DeMeco Ryans, arrives at Hallowell Elementary School in Horsham.
Posted: December 06, 2012

CRAZY OL' Jim Washburn is gone, ridden off into a Tennessee sunset astride his rumbling hog, schematics for his nutty "wide-nine" defensive-line alignment stuffed into his saddlebags.

If anyone should be happy that Andy Reid threw out the Wash, it is Trent Cole. He should supply the gas money. He should pay the tolls.

In theory, the wide-nine should have cemented Cole as a superstar. Instead, its flawed premise - and the lack of an immovable defensive tackle - diminished Cole into insignificance. On a team that counts among its players foundering safety Kurt Coleman, and benched offensive linemen Danny Watkins and Demetress Bell, Cole is having the worst season.

Period. By far.

None of them was expected to carry the team; or the offense or defense; or even their unit. After quarterback Michael Vick, Trent Cole needed to be the best player.

In the last six seasons he averaged 10 sacks. He has two.

He averaged 48 tackles. He has 26.

Before this season, Cole never went more than three games without a sack, and the Eagles won all three of those games, in 2010.

After the Eagles started 2-1, Cole went eight games without a sack, a streak that ended Sunday when he shared one with Brandon Graham. The Eagles were 1-7 during that eight-game drought.

Best player? Cole has not even been the best defender, or even the best defensive lineman.

"It's been very rough," Cole said.

He offered that admission as he sat on a stage at the auditorium/cafeteria of Hallowell Elementary in Horsham, this year's winner of the $10,000 "Play 60" grant from the Eagles and the NFL, a program that encourages health and wellness among children. Usually shy when asked to relate to the community, Cole gladly took the opportunity to serve as the lead Eagles player in this year's presentation.

He was gracious and inspirational.

It was a way to contribute something.

Around Cole, the Eagles constructed less a defense than a constellation: Cole, Jason Babin, Nnamdi Asomugha, DeMeco Ryans, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. All of them have provided jarring images as the Eagles nose-dived from 3-1 to 3-9.

None of those stars shone weaker than Cole.

Inasmuch that anonymity marks success for an offensive lineman, it is death for a defensive lineman. Offensive linemen earn their living absorbing the fury that Cole and his like dispense. When that fury is impotent, the defense fails. The team fails.

The Eagles have failed. Trace it to Cole.

Maybe it was inevitable.

His incessant energy and confounding athleticism compensated for unremarkable stature; at 6-3 and 270 pounds, he is of ordinary size for a linemen, if not smallish.

A fifth-round pick out of Cincinnati in 2005, Cole was a longshot to stay in the NFL long enough to earn a full pension. After he logged 68 sacks in seven seasons, the Eagles gave him a 4-year extension in March worth around $50 million.

It seemed like fair compensation.

Babin compiled 18 sacks last season, but without Cole on the right end, Babin was a harmless ornament. Cole still managed to record 11 sacks. He deserved a trip to the Pro Bowl more than Babin.

It would have been Cole's third. It might be a while before his reputation warrants another.

Cole has two sacks; Daniel Te'o-Neisheim, a recent Eagles draft bust, has two sacks for Tampa Bay.

Cole has 26 tackles, according to the NFL's official website. Asomugha has 40 tackles.

Atlanta's Asante Samuel has 28. That's right: Bag of Hammers has two more tackles than Cole. Hampered by injury, Samuel has zero tackles in his last three games.

Cole is fully healthy.

And fully baffled. "I can't explain it," he said. "I'll try to do what I can from here on out."

The Eagles explained away Cole's lack of sacks earlier in the season by asserting that he attracted too many blockers.

"You're talking about something I've never seen in all my years in the league. Chips. Double-teams. Seeing it almost every play. Guys cracking back on us," Cole said. "That's called respect. We saw a lot of max protection."

That might have been true in the past. These days, Cole sees double-teams about as frequently as Andre Iguodala. The Cowboys did not double-team Cole once. They never chipped him. Their running backs might not have blocked him but they did blow by him a few times. DeMarco Murray gained 22 yards on the first two plays, bursting into the hole left by Cole as Cole, executing the doctrine of the wide-nine, exploded off the ball and rushed upfield.

Those blind rushes upfield should cease. With Tommy Brasher having returned to replace Washburn, Cole can read a play before committing himself. That said, Cole, a loyal soldier, declined to denigrate the man or the system that so completely denigrated him.

"Washburn - he's a great guy. I love the man to death," Cole said. "It's bad, the way things ended up."

Certainly, Cole had a front-row seat to the alleged abrasiveness and disrespect Washburn dealt his peers and his bosses. Given the chance to kick dirt, Cole demurred:

"If you're one of the guys on d-line, you know how it is. How he is. We're used to that. We had a relationship. That's our mentality in our room."

Brasher was gruff and separatist, too. But he was professional.

Cole clearly wouldn't mind a little more of that.

"Brasher taught me a lot of things. I thought I was a pass rusher when I got into the league. He made me a pass rusher; a disciplined pass rusher," Cole said.

An effective pass rusher. An excellent defender.

Not a monumental disappointment, betrayed by a catastrophically flawed system.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

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