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Caplan: Eagles' issues don't come with quick fix

The SportsXchange

PHILADELPHIA -- This was supposed to be a season of redemption and hope for the Philadelphia Eagles after a disappointing 2011.

This was going to be a season in which the Philadelphia faithful finally would be rewarded for its seemingly enduring patience.

Instead, the Eagles have posted a 3-4 record, leaving many to question how this team could underachieve so badly. The reasons for the struggles aren't as simplistic as the players are not performing up to their capabilities -- it's a more complex issue.

"I think that this might be one of those years where nothing goes right for them," former Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian told The Sports Xchange this week when asked about what has gone wrong with the Eagles' offense. "And when you start with all of the injuries on the offensive line, that's the hidden component. When you look at how bad the Colts were last year, we lost three of the starting offensive linemen before we even teed it up. And we lost the top two backups early in the season.

"The quarterback in this case, (Michael) Vick, is running for his life sometimes because he doesn't have his usual guys in there. That's not (former Colts and now Eagles offensive line coach) Howard Mudd's fault. He's one of the best offensive line coaches in the history of the game. Coaches won't make excuses because they don't want the players to make excuses, but golly, that's a hard road to get through."

In 2011, after struggling through a revamped coaching staff, which featured the radical change of long-tenured offensive line coach Juan Castillo moving over to the other side of the ball to become the team's defensive coordinator, and trying to rebuild the offensive line through a lockout-shortened offseason, the Eagles still finished with four straight wins, but closed the season with an 8-8 record.

A record, which team owner Jeffrey Lurie said during his preseason state of the team address this year, wasn't acceptable.

"Again, I am not going to make blanket statements. I really wanted to try to explain to you (the media) that 8-8 was unacceptable. Yeah, I guess if two thirds of the team is not playing (then) there are always exceptions. That was a really unacceptable outcome. I just want to reiterate that," Lurie said in late August when asked whether regardless of injuries an 8-8 season is unacceptable to him.

Over the past two years, Lurie, who is known in NFL circles as one of the most generous and supportive owners, has doled out more than $140 million in guaranteed contracts (over $124.25 million fully guaranteed) through free agency and contract extensions. The team can get out of some of these deals and save cap space for future seasons by declining to pay roster bonuses or by releasing the player or players by a date when their base salaries become fully guaranteed.

And because the team is projected to be anywhere from $12 to $18 million over the salary cap next season, the Eagles can carry over their $20 million in excess cap space from this season to cover that overage. Teams are allowed to carry over cap space in the new CBA.

In Vick's case, $3 million of his $15.5 base salary becomes fully guaranteed if he's on the roster three days after the Super Bowl.

The decision to keep or cut Vick going into the 2013 season seems to become clearer each week. Over his past two seasons (20 starts), Vick has 27 passing touchdowns and 31 turnovers. And his inconsistency has led to rumors that he might be replaced by rookie quarterback Nick Foles, who won the No. 2 job coming out of the preseason. However, head coach Andy Reid told the local media before preparations for Monday night's game at the New Orleans Saints that Vick is still his quarterback going forward.

"So, I mentioned yesterday that Michael, in regards to that, was the quarterback, is the quarterback and will continue to be the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles. I can't make it any more clear than that."

In Vick's defense, the offensive line has lost two important cogs - left tackle Jason Peters (Achilles) and center Jason Kelce (knee) - to significant injuries. And Peters' replacement, Demetress Bell, has been a major disappointment. The Eagles will almost assuredly not pick of Bell's $8.5 million roster bonus, which becomes due on the third day of free agency. He has already been replaced by fifth-year tackle King Dunlap, a former seventh-round pick.

"I know last year, when they closed the season, I was glad we didn't have to play them. They were using all sorts of movement with the defensive front, moving guys around. Guys were playing with a lot of confidence. And the quarterback (Michael Vick) was playing better," an NFL personnel executive whose team will face the Eagles later this season told The Sports Xchange this week. "But I had quick run through of last week's game against Atlanta and already have watched a lot of them this season. What you see is a team that lacks confidence. I don't see any juice, anything that makes you believe they can get it done right now.

"This used to be a big-play offense; an offense you knew could beat you in a heartbeat. And the defense could get to the quarterback. They're not doing any of this, at least not right now. I know they have a new defensive coordinator. And all teams will go through problems or a period of struggles at some point during the season, or a malaise.

"You asked me if I thought they could turn it around or what the problems were. Well, that coach (Reid) has a history of pushing through problems. But you can't just wave a magic wand and make them go away. They've had perhaps too much change the last two years - that would be my best guess on what's going on there."

In addition to Vick, another high-priced player, starting cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who signed a contract which pays him $25 million fully guaranteed, isn't performing to a high level so far this season, either. While the defense, at times, has played well, it hasn't been performing at an acceptable level of late, which is why Castillo was replaced recently by defensive backs coach Todd Bowles.

"It comes down to an organizational philosophy," NFL Films' senior producer Greg Cosell said this week when asked why the defense has struggled. "They want to have a four-man rush be effective and they want to play press-man (coverage). Their four-man rush is not getting there and hasn't all season. And their corners don't play press-man very well. So the whole organizational approach is not playing out on the field. Asomugha, in three games this year, has given up a perfect quarterback rating on plays in which he has been targeted. So it means every time he has been targeted (in those games), the balls have been caught."

The four-man rush, which is based on the "Wide-9" defensive front in which the ends line up in a track stance way outside of each offensive tackle, has produced less than ideal results this season. Last year, the Eagles tied the Minnesota Vikings for first in the NFL with 50 sacks. Through seven games this season, the Eagles' defense has recorded just nine sacks.

With so much going wrong this season and so little going right, can Reid turn things around to save his job? He has nine games left to show he should remain at the helm.

He picked the players and coaches; his contract gives him that right. But his contract is up after the 2013 season. And anything short of a strong playoff run likely won't be good enough for him to save his job.

Lame duck coaches don't go over well in this day and age - especially in the Philadelphia sports market. Either he signs an extension after the season or someone else will be patrolling the sidelines.
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