Name the best defensive player on the Eagles roster. Chances are you’re a bit disappointed by your answer, since the Eagles don’t have any dominant defenders. While better players make a better team, the Eagles learned through their 2011 free agency debacle that too much star power can actually work against a team.
There are two kinds of stars in the NFL. Some eat, sleep, and breathe football. They love the game, they assume vocal leadership roles, and they play with a palpable passion. Think Brian Dawkins, Ray Lewis, or Larry Fitzgerald. The other stars have superior talent. It doesn’t matter what position they play. They are just better than whoever lines up across from them. They might be faster, they might be stronger, they might be smarter.
The past two seasons, the Eagles had too many stars of the second variety. These players can be invaluable to a team because they possess rare skills. Teams need playmakers, which is why they roll the dice on players who have work ethic issues or have been arrested.
However, type 2 stars – especially when they are concentrated on one team – pose plenty of problems, mainly because they are good enough to get away with bad habits that wear off on the players who aren’t. Asante Samuel could generate turnovers, so the coaches let his poor tackling slide. Cullen Jenkins could get to the quarterback, so the coaches looked the other way when he didn’t play the run well. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie could stick to anybody in man coverage, so he wasn’t forced to be physical.
These kinds of players have special ability, but when they set the tone in the locker room, the team crumbles. When the team crumbles, the stars quit on the team, and the vicious cycle begins. The stars have already made their millions in free agency, and the only reason they joined the Eagles was to win a Super Bowl. Once that goal faded, they had nothing to play for. Younger players are always hungry because they, unlike the stars, are still waiting their turn to strike it rich in free agency. They, unlike the stars, still have to prove themselves.
In 2011 and 2012, too many Eagles defenders had already made Pro Bowls. They were exempt from doing the little things. Suddenly, nobody was left to do the thankless tasks that are so crucial to winning football games like tackling and playing special teams. Type 2 stars, who – in moderation – have helped teams win championships, overran the entire Eagles’ organization and are largely responsible for the demise of the Andy Reid era.
In 2013, the culture is finally changing. In all likelihood, the Eagles will still be a bad defensive team, but fans can’t expect the ’85 Bears to appear overnight. Nnamdi Asomugha is gone. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is gone. Jason Babin is gone. Cullen Jenkins is gone. Jim Washburn is gone. That’s addition by subtraction. Progress.
The current defense undeniably has less talent. However, by swapping Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie for Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, the Eagles got tougher and more physical. The defense is starting from scratch, but scratch translates to potential and opportunity. The Eagles could no longer afford to keep their shaky defensive foundation and apathetic core players.
For the defense to take the next step, though, they must replace some of their type 2 stars with type 1 stars instead of mid-level talents. Right now, the closest thing the Eagles have to a type 1 star is either DeMeco Ryans or Trent Cole, both of whom are in decline. They are better leaders than football players at this point in their careers, and although they are still valuable members of the team, the Eagles must do better.
Chip Kelly is taking the Eagles in a very encouraging direction. For the first time in almost a year, the players believe. They trust their coaching, they are enthusiastic about the season, and they are prepared to compete for their jobs. Gone are the self-righteous players who are more matador than football player when it’s time to tackle a running back.
This offseason, what the Eagles have sacrificed in talent, they have more than made up for in competitive spirit, attitude, and toughness. The Eagles have flushed the problem children from their system and set themselves up for the future nicely by establishing a brand new culture and approach to the game. That’s a time-tested process called rebuilding in pro sports, and the Eagles are doing it right so far. It requires patience and effort, but in the end, it rewards those who are willing to wait and willing to work. Generally, type 2 stars are willing to do neither.
That’s why there are no stars on this defense, and that’s a good thing.