Chalk It Up to Experience

Juan Castillo

It pains me to see that people are still arguing that Juan Castillo deserves to return as defensive coordinator in 2012. I don’t hold out hope of convincing these misguided souls, but I do want to rebuke one point that keeps coming up: the myth of a single year of experience.

I’ve already spoken at length about how the final few games were a mirage, and both Jeffrey Lurie and Andy Reid have asserted as much (“fool’s gold”). But even if you grant an improvement, and attribute it to Castillo, that doesn’t mean he’s suddenly qualified to hold the job.

Not to bog you down with two days’ worth of analogies, but let’s put this into a non-football context. Let’s say the president is trying to find a new secretary of defense. It’s not the biggest job in the land, but command over our nation’s military is one of the highest-ranking appointed posts.

To fill this void at the Department of Defense, the president taps the undersecretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. This particular fellow has no experience running the military, CIA, or any other major branch of government. He has lots of experience administrating his small department, but aside from some consulting on veteran affairs and a brief stint in the Army nearly 30 years prior, he’s woefully unprepared for the job.

The appointment, widely criticized at the time, goes pretty much as poorly as everyone expected. The strategies he employs bungle major operations, the missions he supports are disasters, and the only success the military has comes from experienced generals who are given independent authority to run their operation. Meanwhile, the secretary’s record is the biggest reason the president is now looking unlikely to be re-elected.

So, after a year of this, we’re wondering whether he should be replaced, and the question becomes: how much improvement do we expect from the secretary in year two of his job? Some folks argue that after a year at the helm, the secretary is actually better than most candidates out there. He made lots of mistakes, but surely now he’ll know what not to do.

I say this is ridiculous, for one reason among many: next year won’t be a rebooted, replayed version of last year’s events. In an ideal world, the secretary now knows how to deal with a certain subset of problems he faced in his first year. But next year not only could bring different challenges, it certainly will. The enemy doesn’t stand still, and the secretary and his team will have to come up with new strategies to face new problems.

Even a veteran of these tough military decisions won’t get the answers right every time. But at least with a decade or two of experience, he or she would be able to call upon knowledge gained on the battlefield or at the elbow of a few respected superiors. The secretary, with his one year on the job, isn’t anywhere close to having that kind of knowledge, so the improvement from year one to year two will be minimal.

Whether it’s secretary of defense or defensive coordinator, we’re not talking about an entry level job where you come in at a deficit of knowledge and quickly “level up” to the point where you can accomplish everything. This is a job that people spend decades preparing for and it’s still incredibly difficult. One bad year at the helm doesn’t vault you ahead.

Photo from Getty.

Short Term Players, Long Term Problems

Jeremiah Trotter Philadelphia Eagles

Former Eagles tight end Chad Lewis, to Derek Sarley in 2009:

It’s a fine line and it’s very hard to define.  You have to push to have strong team chemistry at the same time you push to win.  Sometimes those are competing forces.  Sometimes it requires Trotter in the locker room getting in someone’s face.  Or it requires Donovan sharing a joke to keep people laughing and cut through and dissolve some of the pressure that every one of us feels is on us to perform. 

Andy fostered that team chemistry.  But it’s dynamic.  It’s alive and moving.  Once you get it, it doesn’t mean it will stay forever.  You have to care enough to keep it or get it back.

What does it take to be an effective locker room leader? Through most of the Andy Reid years, the Eagles have had no shortage of leaders. But what are the necessary traits? I’ve narrowed it down to five requirements, complete with one players who embodies the trait and one who doesn’t.

  1. Talented — If you’re not a starter, no one is going to take you seriously. Jon Runyan vs. Winston Justice.
  2. Experienced — Veterans command proper respect. Brian Westbook vs. LeSean McCoy.
  3. Vocal — Silence doesn’t get you anywhere. Jeremiah Trotter vs. Trent Cole.
  4. Mature — Responsible, accountable players only. Quintin Mikell vs. Asante Samuel.
  5. Tenured — On at least your second contract with the team. Brian Dawkins vs. Nnamdi Asomugha.

If you look up and down the Eagles roster, you’ll find players that fit into the first four categories. There are talented veterans who are outspoken role models for the youngsters, but there’s a real shortage of players who’ve been with the organization for the long haul.

Why is this important? A good team has players that set an example for others to follow. Sometimes they get in your face, sometimes they crack jokes, but they hold everyone accountable and united.

These players aren’t around anymore, though. Look at the following graph, which shows the Eagles starters by the number of years they’ve been with the team. This isn’t NFL experience, but rather experience with this organization in particular.

Click for bigger version:

Eagles Starters Experience

The 2011 team has the most first-year starters of any team after 1999. It’s tied with 1999 for the most first and second year starters. It has more starters with three or fewer years with the organization than any other in Andy Reid’s time as coach, and is tied with 2000 for the most four years or fewer. The 2011 Eagles are also only the second team to have not a single standard-bearer who has been with the team for more than seven years.

In real terms, that means the team has exactly four starters — Brent Celek, Todd Herremans, Trent Cole, and Mike Patterson — who have been with the Eagles for longer than four years. DeSean Jackson and Asante Samuel are de facto veteran role models at four years a piece. Not a single starter has played in a Super Bowl as an Eagle.

In retrospect, it’s not a coincidence that this team is falling apart any more than it’s surprising that the 2008 team stuck together and engineered a deep playoff run. That squad had a wealth of veterans on their second contracts, players who knew how to band together and make the sum greater than the individual parts. Those were players who conveyed what it meant to be an Eagle, and the team had reinforced that notion by keeping them around.

Now almost all of those players are gone and no one has been groomed to replace them. The front office drafted “high character” guys who haven’t seen the field. They brought in veteran free agents to fill a void, but as outsiders they can’t set the locker room attitude.

But the biggest problem is that this leadership vacuum isn’t going away any time soon. The free agent pickups are getting older. Most of the draft picks from 2006-2010 washed out, and those that didn’t (e.g. DeSean Jackson) largely haven’t been extended.

What’s the core of this team? Who are the locker room role models going forward? If those questions can’t be answered, the team might be closer to “blow it up” than “one more year.”

Photo from Getty.

Experience Matters: What to Expect From Kevin Kolb

Kapadia raises the question of whether our expectations are too high for the quarterback’s first season as a starter. It’s an idea that I’ve been grappling with for some time and I’m not sure there’s a simple answer. However, I do think that one’s expectations about Kolb are related to how one relates his ability and experience to Donovan McNabb’s.

Some people think of Kolb in relation to McNabb’s last season. This, obviously, is the wrong way to go. McNabb — despite his possibly declining skills — is a QB with a decade of starting experience. He knows all the intricacies of the West Coast offense and the tricks to picking up blitzes, reading coverages. Kolb does not have that experience…

The Youth Movement: Andy's Third 5-Year Plan

Donovan McNabb Philadelphia Eagles Youth Movement

The McNabb decade is over in Philadelphia.

I’m not talking about the player (yet). Donovan is still no longer an Eagle while I write this. But the other players who have formed the team’s backbone for much of his 11 years now are gone. This turnover, capped by a month-long purge of old veterans, signals the last dying whimpers of the old Eagles.

Gone is Brian Westbrook. Gone is Sheldon Brown. Gone is Jeremiah Trotter (again). Gone is Donovan McNabb — face of the franchise for 11 years.

David Akers and Quintin Mikell (who was just a second-year player) are the only two other guys remaining who played in the Super Bowl in February 2005. Everyone else is gone. Take a look at this chart, showing current roster’s experience with the Eagles:

Philadelphia Eagles Experience Players Graph

The green parts are the guys just let go or traded in the past month (I have excluded Shawn Andrews from this analysis since he’s just such a bizarre case).

Look at that graph. There’s Akers, the kicker and outlier. Mikell now checks in as the oldest starter, with 7 years with the Eagles (and only 2 starting). Also with 7 years on the job (first two and a half split between the practice squad and IR), Jamaal Jackson ought to start questioning whether he’ll ever play in Midnight Green again after his ACL injury.

For all intents and purposes this entire team was created post-super bowl. The “old” veterans still around? Players like Mike Patterson, Todd Herremans, Trent Cole, Juqua Parker — who’ve been here a whopping 5 years.

The shift is just as profound when you look at the relative ages of the players let go versus the players acquired in the last month or so.

Average age of the 12 now former Eagles: 30.35 years

Average age of 5 newly acquired: 25.63 years

Average experience in NFL of former Eagles: 7.5 years

Average experience of new players: 3 years

Philadelphia Eagles NFL Experience Years Graph

The Eagles eliminated 12 older players this offseason, completing the transition to a “new” team for the new decade.

Andy Reid is now on his third general 5-year plan. The first 5-year plan rebuilt the Eagles, keeping star players like Trotter, Tra Thomas, Brian Dawkins, Duce Staley, and adding new ones like McNabb, Brown, Lito Sheppard, Jon Runyan, T.O. This “team” culminated with the Super Bowl year of 2004.

After the Eagles self-destructed in 2005, you saw Reid reboot — only keeping Westbrook, McNabb, Runyan, and a few others. The team of the second half of the 2000s was that holdover group, plus new players like Trent Cole, Reggie Brown, Kevin Curtis, Shawn Andrews.

Now the refresh button has been hit again. Young players who have proven they are emerging stars during the last few years, like DeSean Jackson, Trent Cole, and Stewart Bradley, are being kept, while over the last two years the previous core has been dropped — even those that starred in both of the first two 5-year squads (McNabb, Westbrook, Dawkins, Thomas, etc.). Reid hopes players like LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Kevin Kolb, Jason Peters, and the next crop of rookies can join with the young holdovers to form a new 5-year core.

Still, even with last year’s prelude, this offseason’s been particularly brutal. Look at the drop in average age on the Eagles after just a few weeks of purging, compared to the rest of the league (updated to include McNabb):

Average Age NFL Teams 5 April 2010

Surprisingly, the Eagles were actually one of the oldest teams at the end of the 2009 season. If that seems strange, consider that the Eagles cut or traded 12 players — only 2 of them (Sheldon and Donovan) were still starters in the Dallas games.

Think about that for a second. The Eagles went from the 7th-oldest team to the 6th-youngest seemingly overnight, and only lost two starters.

This is what people don’t seem to understand when they yell and scream that this is “rebuilding.” I actually believe Howie Roseman when he says, “The word rebuilding will never enter our vocabulary.” At turning points between 5-year plans, the Eagles don’t break everything down and build up again, the way the Browns or Rams have to. For the most part, the Eagles are shedding dead weight — older players who no longer contribute much to the team.

Not all the players fit into this, but the front office identified the core of the team as 5 years and younger. Once you do that, even those players who may still be starting-caliber become less valuable to the Eagles than to teams who are more committed to veterans.

In other words, would the Eagles be better next year with McNabb and Westbrook and Sheldon still around? In an absolute sense, yes. McNabb is still a greater player than Kolb. Westbrook is better than any 2nd or 3rd back the team can bring in. Sheldon is better than the hybrid of Hobbs, Macho, Hanson, and Kyle Wilson.

But the priority is not, and has never been (which is why I understand Roseman’s statement), to win immediately at the expense of the future. Especially now, with so many budding young players, the Eagles’ goal is to maximize the window of opportunity for Kolb, DeSean, Maclin, McCoy, Peters, Celek, Cole, Bradley, etc. And that means not crowding their growth with older players — it means getting as much new blood in as soon as possible (especially on the defensive side) to realize a Super Bowl contender every year over the next 5 years or so.

That goal, now, will go on without Donovan McNabb.