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BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Every year, there is the speech.
It comes in many forms, delivered by any number of voices – be it Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid, one of his coordinators or a cornerstone veteran. Inevitably, the underlying message has been static over the years: Expect and prepare for adversity. And it makes sense. After all, these are the Philadelphia Eagles: champions of drama, both self-inflicted and organic.
So one could only chuckle on Monday when Reid began his news conference by chastising the media for doing what they do – seeking information. He bemoaned the fact that reporters had called middle linebacker Stewart Bradley(notes), who reportedly tore an ACL in a Sunday-evening practice, and sought injury information. He lamented that media outlets hadn't allowed the injury to be announced on its own terms, most likely because the Eagles spent Monday morning scouring the NFL's free-agent ranks to help fill Bradley's void.
Certainly, Reid and the Eagles were disappointed to lose a young, developing centerpiece on defense. But the organic adversity apparently wasn't enough, so the head coach began his media session with this:
"We won't talk about injuries [Monday]. Some of your colleagues here decided that they would go to the players and/or other personnel here and ask about injuries. I made a pact with you guys when I first got here that I would disclose to you the injuries – that you just stay away from the players, stay away from other personnel in the organization – and I would take care of you with that. That part was breached."
So Reid wasn't talking about injuries, something that does happen to be a major talking point for his fan base. Never mind that whatever "pact" he made apparently was forged in 1999, when the tenets of NFL newsbreaking were drastically different and social-media arteries such as Twitter had yet to make it out of Chad Ochocinco's(notes) dreams.
But Reid's little "punishment" news conference couldn't have been a more ideal snapshot of what seems to befuddle the Eagles on an annual basis. A troubling injury was compounded by Reid stirring up a historically unforgiving press corps. Maybe it was contrived on his part – a little sleight of hand to create a distraction from the team's real problems.
Make no mistake: Those problems are real and mounting. Seven months ago, this team appeared to have finally crept out from under the cloud of Terrell Owens(notes), pulling from the depths of an embarrassing 36-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens and engineering a stunning run to the NFC championship game. And while that contest and a Super Bowl appearance slipped away in the fourth quarter, it seemed to pump new life back into the franchise.
Indeed, when the offseason began, quarterback Donovan McNabb(notes) was once again the unquestioned starter. The defense had grown and regained dominant form. And the offense had finally found some playmakers beyond McNabb and running back Brian Westbrook(notes). In many ways, public confidence – an important commodity in a sports city like Philadelphia – was restored.
Even now, there is no denying this is a team with pluses. The passing game has an improved DeSean Jackson(notes) and a healthy Kevin Curtis, complemented by a pair of young and talented tight ends in Brent Celek(notes) and Cornelius Ingram(notes). With the return of a healthy Westbrook, the running game has depth and possibly even an heir apparent in LeSean McCoy(notes). And the offensive line has the potential to be one of the best the team has ever fielded under Reid.
And yet, August has arrived and the hurdles have gone up. There are the usual nagging health questions about Westbrook, and both of the offensive tackles – Jason Peters(notes) and Stacy Andrews(notes) – have gotten dinged and missed practices. The first-round draft pick, Jeremy Maclin(notes), is just now arriving, 10 days late, after a prolonged contract negotiation.
Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg clearly weren't pleased about Maclin's absence, leading Mornhinweg to say with emphasis Monday: "You miss that time and you never get it back. You fall behind. Look at DeSean [Jackson]. Last year, a big part of that success was because he got here early. Losing that time, it's tough."
But Maclin's arrival makes any offensive concerns more of a footnote. Most of the Eagles' concerns have to be focused on defense, where tragedy and misfortune have combined to leave the team without longtime coordinator Jim Johnson, and now, rising starter Bradley.
Undoubtedly, Bradley's injury compounds an already difficult transition for Johnson's successor, Sean McDermott. McDermott is in his 11th year with the Eagles, but there's no telling if he can do what Johnson did: nurture greatness in his defensive assistants, cull superb systematic performances from otherwise solid players, and call a dominating and intricate defensive game.
What we do know is that McDermott will now have to attempt to do it without starting linebacker Bradley, who is arguably one of his most important pieces – and this on top of losing free agent Brian Dawkins(notes), who regardless of his diminishing skills was an immense leader and technician, always pivotal in run support at strong safety. Losing Bradley, Dawkins and Johnson means the Eagles now lack all of last season's defensive play-callers – from Johnson, who selected the plays, to Dawkins and Bradley, who handled audibles and alignments. Basically, that threesome was the defense's central nervous system.
So maybe it comes as no surprise that it was McDermott who gave his unit the speech about adversity at the start of camp, telling players there would be ups and downs – and that dealing with them would be the key to thriving. Who better to know than the man who likely has the toughest job on the team this season?
It makes you wonder if Joe Banner, the Eagles president, regrets telling The Philadelphia Inquirer last month: "I feel this year we have the best roster in the league. That's assuming everyone is healthy and standing at the end."
Notice the caveat, "assuming everyone is healthy."
That's a well-learned disclaimer, and in some ways an unchanging window onto this team. Never assume anything about this franchise, unless it is the expected drama or adversity which is always just around the corner.