Just two years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles won their fourth consecutive NFC East Division championship, represented the NFC in the Super Bowl and came three points shy of upsetting then two time defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots. The Birds followed up their Perfect Storm of a season with a gut wrenching, disappointing 6-10 campaign in 2005, in which they resided in the division’s cellar nearly throughout. How the team rebounded this offseason will be critical to their playoff hopes in 2006.Leading up to the delayed start of NFL free agency due to collective bargaining negotiations, there were rumbles among football circles that the Eagles were expected to come out of the gate strong and sign several top free agents to sure up their needs at wide receiver, linebacker, running back, defensive tackle and offensive line. Yet, to date, that simply has not been the case. Meanwhile, division rivals Washington, New York and Dallas have catapulted past Philadelphia in the arms race this offseason.
In the weeks leading up to the start of free agency, the Eagles had all but assured themselves of a significant upgrade at the center position by acquiring the services of Saints Pro-Bowl center Lecharles Bentley. Bentley, though, had other ideas. Rather than signing a lucrative contract with Philadelphia, he gave a last minute hometown discount to the Cleveland Browns in order to join the team he grew up cheering for as a fan on the first day of free agency.
The news only got worse for the Eagles. The Cleveland Browns then signed another Eagles target in Seahawks wide receiver and Eagle killer Joe Jurevicius. The Browns proceeded to sign former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest, reuniting him with Browns head coach and former New England defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. The Browns front office obviously took the initiative to use free agency to improve their chances of competing for a playoff spot in the AFC.
Eagles’ potential targets Steve Hutchinson, Mike Anderson and among others signed elsewhere as Philadelphia sat on its hands during the early goings of free agency. Meanwhile, the rest of the Eagles NFC East division rivals improved by leaps and bounds.
The Redskins improved their receiving corps by welcoming another Eagles target, former Steeler Antwaan Randle El, along with former 49er Brandon Lloyd. Washington proceeded to sign former Ram and pro-bowl safety Adam Archuleta. Over night, the Redskins quickly became the favorite to win the NFC East, leaving the Eagles reeling in their rear view mirror.
Up north, the New York Giants secured an upgrade on defense when they signed former Dolphins all-pro cornerback Sam Madison. The Giants, a playoff team last season, are clearly resting their playoff hopes on the shoulders of quarterback Eli Manning. Like his brother, Manning has yet to show the ability to step up his game in clutch situations. However, the nucleus is in place for the Giants to fight for a playoff spot in 2006.
The biggest splash in free agency was made by the Dallas Cowboys when they signed former Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens. Owens adds an immediate spark to an offense that averaged just over 208 yards per game last season. With Owens in the fold, quarterback Drew Bledsoe now has an elite receiver to go with alongside top wide receiver Terry Glenn and tight end Jason Witten. Not to mention the tandem of Julius Jones and Marion Barber at running back. Look for Dallas to fight not only for the NFC east crown, but also the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Despite the moves being made around them early in free agency, the NovaCare Complex remained quiet. The Eagles brass of Jeff Lurie, Joe Banner, Tom Heckert and Any Reid seemed content to watch as top-tier free agents signed elsewhere around the league. Eventually Philadelphia would add linebacker Shawn Barber, defensive end Darren Howard, backup tight end Matt Schobel, backup quarterback Jeff Garcia and wide receiver Jabar Gaffney. While their acquisitions have much potential – Gaffney in particular – there are question marks surrounding each. That’s not what you would expect from the self-labeled “Gold Standard”, especially following the debacle of a 6-10 season. Unless the Eagles make a significant upgrade at defensive tackle, wide receiver and linebacker, then draft depth along the offensive line and running back, another disappointing season can be foreseen for this franchise that is quickly becoming one of the most frugal in the league.