For the first time in a long time, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of buzz surrounding the Philadelphia Eagles heading into the 2012 NFL season. The entirety of the offseason talk around this team has centered around Michael Vick's overblown "dynasty" comment and the heart-sick death of Andy Reid's son, Garrett.
Other than that, the Eagles haven't gotten much play outside of Philadelphia, a rarity during the Reid era. On an almost annual basis, the Eagles have been one of the most discussed teams in the league. Whether it was the rise and fall of Donovan McNabb, the Terrell Owens acquisition, the surprising MIchael Vick signing and everything in between, the Eagles have made a habit of making headlines across the NFL.
However, that has not been the case here as Reid prepares to lead the Eagles for his 14th season. ESPN has become even more of a parody of itself, spending the entire summer at Jets camp to follow the Tim Tebow story that no one cares about. Peyton Manning's first season out of the Blue and White has been a hot topic. The Saints have been all over the headlines for obvious reasons. And with Robert Griffin III now leading the Washington Redskins, the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants and the never-ending interest in the Dallas Cowboys all within the division, the Eagles have somehow become an afterthought.
As a man who has followed the Eagles with every waking moment, I understand the tempered enthusiasm and tempered expectations, because this is a team that still has many more question marks than answers heading into the regular season. Here are three of the most pressing ones.
Can Michael Vick stay healthy?
The short answer to that question is no. We already know this. In just a handful of snaps over two preseason games, Vick has already been injured twice. All that talk about him changing his game a little bit and taking fewer risks was nothing but lip service. Vick is a 32-year-old quarterback who still has otherworldly athletic ability and speed, a guy who tries to keep every play alive because he has the ability to escape and make plays. He's a nine-year NFL veteran, now about to embark on his fourth season in the Eagles' system. He's not going to change. He's going to take hits, and lots of them, especially since he still cannot manage to slide, a baffling conundrum for such an athletic guy.
Further, Vick has only played in 16 games once in his entire career, way back in 2006. His style of play and stature simply are not conducive to staying healthy. As this preseason has shown, that isn't about to change here in 2012.
Can the Eagles replace Jason Peters?
Ask most people who the best player on Philadelphia's offense has been the past couple of seasons and you're likely to get answers ranging from Vick to LeSean McCoy to DeSean Jackson. The truth of the matter is, as electrifying as all three of those players are, Jason Peters has been far and away the best player in the Eagles' huddle. For all his infuriating false starts, Peters is arguably the best tackle in football, inarguably among the best. And since he's been in Philadelphia, he's locked down the left side of the line, clearing the way for McCoy's breakout season last year and providing stability to an offensive line that was in flux.
However, Jason Peters will not be on the field for the Eagles this season due to rupturing his achilles. The void the mammoth mauler leaves behind won't be an easy one to fill. In fact, the man the Eagles signed to fill in for Peters — Karl Malone's estranged son Demetrius Bell — was so awful in the preseason opener that he's already been demoted behind King Dunlap. That's not an encouraging sign.
While it's true that Dunlap was the one lineman who looked good for Philadelphia on Monday night, he was going against New England's second and third teamers. To think he or anyone else can replace Peters is foolish. Perennial Pro Bowl left tackles don't grow on trees. And given how untested the middle of the line is as a unit, and as shaky as Jason Kelce, Danny Watkins and Evan Mathis looked Monday night, Vick's already fragile body could get even more wear and tear. Even with all the weapons in the world, including McCoy, Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek, the Eagles will only go as far as their offensive line takes them. Without Peters, who knows how this unit will hold up.
Can Juan Castillo really coach an NFL defense?
It's safe to say that the Juan Castillo experiment was a total disaster in year one. With the lockout screwing up preparation time, Reid and the Eagles for some reason decided it was a good idea to make their offensive line coach their defensive coordinator despite never having coached defense in the NFL. This made no sense then, and it makes no sense now.
As a result, the Eagles gave up a ton of leads, struggled with penalties and couldn't tackle to save their lives. Castillo asked prize free agent signing Nnamdi Asomugha to do things he's never done, and Asomugha struggled mightily. The safeties were a revolving door of below-average players. And the defensive line, while dynamic on the pass rush, couldn't mask the glaring weakness at linebacker. It had everyone wondering if Castillo had any idea what the hell he was doing.
Well, guess what? Those same questions persist. The defensive line is going to be very good against the pass, using Jim Washburn's wide nine technique and pinning their ears back. With Pro Bowlers Trent Cole and Jason Babin book-ending the line and a surplus of linemen keeping things fresh, they're going to be good up front. Beyond that is anyone's guess.
DeMeco Ryans was brought in to stabilize the laughable linebacking corps, and while he's sure to give the Eagles an upgrade over what they've had, he still needs to prove he's the player he was before his injury. Beyond that, the Eagles will be relying on young, unproven guys to surround Ryans.
Then there is the whole issue of safety. For some reason, this is an area the Eagles failed to address even though it was far and away the team's biggest weakness defensively last season. Sure, they brought in veteran Oshiomogho Atogwe, but he is no answer back there. Second-year safety Jaiquawn Jarrett is dangerously close to being the ultimate bust, as last year's second-round pick may not even make the team. That leaves Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman.
Coleman is what he is, and that's a below-average safety capable of having a good game here and there. Honestly, he's best suited as a backup and special-teamer, but here he is as the starter at strong safety. Then there is Nate Allen, the guy who was a second-round pick himself, one that showed a lot of promise as a rookie before injuring his knee in December. He hasn't looked the same since, struggling for most of 2011 before having a few decent games.
If the Eagles hope to improve defensively, they'll need Allen to be fully recovered and resemble the player from his rookie year. That's asking a lot, especially given all the confusion this team seems to have out there. Monday night, the Eagles kept taking penalty after penalty defensively, something they did a lot last year, and that comes down to coaching.
Even with the questions marks, Philadelphia has plenty of talent on that side of the ball as well. Nnamdi and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are as talented a duo as there is at corner, but will Castillo let them loose or relegate them to zone again? Will he be able to mask the inexperience at safety and linebacker? Can he come up with a scheme that isn't just let the defensive line do the work and hope they get there?
He hasn't shown that he can, which is probably why he's spent the majority of his career coaching the other side of the football.
Make no mistake, the Eagles are a talented bunch. They have potential and could even sneak up on people if things click. But the expectations are somewhat tempered because of these three big questions, and that's without even mentioning the annual clock management issues, DeSean Jackson's poor 2011 season and a division that always seems to be one of the toughest in the NFL.
Reverend Paul Revere, aka Joe Boland, is a sports blogger out of Philadelphia whose life revolves around sports 365 and a quarter days per year. Keep up with Rev at his own personal blog, The House That Glanville Built and on Twitter.