JUST FOR A minute, forget about Donovan McNabb vs. Kevin Kolb and whether the Eagles have enough offensive weapons.
Remember Dhani Jones? Remember watching the Eagles exit the playoffs last January largely because they couldn't get the ball back from the New Orleans Saints? Darwin Walker? Sam Rayburn? Remember 208 rushing yards allowed?
Something really was accomplished in this frustrating, less-than-it-should-have-been season. While the Eagles were frittering away scoring chances and missing the playoffs, which understandably seized the spotlight, Jim Johnson was putting together a younger, tougher defense, a group that ought to be better in 2008 than it was in 2007.
When training camp started, it sure seemed the Eagles were counting on some older guys and some guys who'd been injured and some youngsters who hadn't done much to improve a defense that ranked 15th in the league, 26th against the run, in 2006. Five months later, heading into Sunday's season finale against the Buffalo Bills, most questions have been answered affirmatively. The Eagles' defense ranks ninth in the league, fifth against the run.
Jeremiah Trotter, the starting middle linebacker when camp began, is long gone. Jevon Kearse, whose return to health was thought to be so important to the pass rush, has become an afterthought, unlikely to return. Ditto the other expensive former free-agent defensive end, Darren Howard.
In fact, this was the year the over-30 guys were de-emphasized, big time. The Eagles certainly haven't replaced 34-year-old free safety Brian Dawkins, but they have shown they can play without him if they have to. Quintin Mikell has been a revelation.
When you look at Johnson's defense now, many of the key guys are up-and-coming. Brodrick Bunkley, 24, is a solid defensive tackle. Mike Patterson, 24, and Trent Cole, 25, played at a Pro Bowl level this season, even if they didn't get that recognition. Cole still could get to Hawaii as an injury sub; his 12.5 sacks this season are the most by an Eagle since Hugh Douglas managed 12.5 in 2002.
The run-stopping has been the most dramatic change, and that starts up front, often with Patterson, the first Eagles d-tackle to record 100 tackles in a season since Andy Harmon in 1994.
"Mike has a great all-around game," Bunkley offered yesterday. "He's explosive, he's quick, and he just knows how to shed blockers, real quick and real easy."
Middle linebacker Omar Gaither is 23 and getting better. Chris Gocong, 24, started all season on the strongside and yesterday got Johnson's endorsement as the guy who'd come the longest way during the season, along with Bunkley.
"It feels OK," Bunkley allowed, when asked about going from being the butt of draft-bust jokes to unquestioned starter. "It still feels incomplete to me, not making the playoffs. . . . [the offseason] is a long wait, to get back into camp again."
The Eagles probably will look to draft a safety and/or a corner very early this coming April, given Dawkins' injuries and age, and given the problems top corner Lito Sheppard has had staying healthy. They probably could use another productive defensive end, although second-round rookie Victor Abiamiri figures to play more next season. But that would be about it.
"It's exciting," Johnson said yesterday. "We have a bunch of young guys. I like the front, and we've got the linebackers producing. Again, we have to make sure we get everybody back and healthy and go from there.""
The biggest complaint has been an iniability to produce game-changing turnovers before the past few weeks. Unless the Birds turn Sunday into some sort of unprecedented turnover bonanza, they will finish with the lowest figures since Reid and Johnson arrived in 1999. The Eagles have 11 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries, 19 forced turnovers total. In the eight previous seasons, they averaged 32.25
"We have a lot of young guys stepping in and playing well," said Sheppard, still just 26 himself. "I think the [lack of] big plays is what has kept us from taking it to the next level this year . . . the more comfortable you get, the more you can start relaxing and just playing. Right now, guys are playing hard and flying around, but it's still not comfortable yet. Once everybody gets comfortable and can be sturdy at one position for a while, things will start to change."
"We don't have as many turnovers as we'd like, but we've been getting off the field, still," Gaither said. "We've been doing it the hard way, but we have been getting off the field."
There was a time, early in the Andy Reid era, when the Eagles' defense pretty much carried the offense. This was more or less true right up until the Super Bowl season of 2004. In 2005 and '06, the defense struggled with pass-rush pressure, with stopping the run, and with age. Now, the pendulum might be swinging the right way again.
"I don't know how close we are [to being dominant], but I do like our defense right now," Johnson said.
You can fault the Eagles' ranking of 21st against the pass, but that reflects some early struggles, especially before key subs Mikell and Joselio Hanson (the nickel corner, ahead of Will James) settled into prominent roles. It also reflects Sheppard's frustrating year, which started with a knee sprain on Opening Day at Green Bay. James, the corner Johnson touted as a challenger to starter Sheldon Brown back in the spring, struggled badly in coverage, particularly after he suffered a foot injury. But Sheppard noted yesterday that he's never had a really serious injury, and Hanson's development has made the secondary decent even when the two-time Pro Bowl corner isn't 100 percent.
"A lot of guys can get in this league just by being smart," Johnson said, when asked about Hanson. "He's a smart guy, but he also has good cover ability and good quickness." *