HE TRIED THE strong, silent approach last season. All it got him was a lot of dropped balls, a lot of boos. So Asante Samuel is a yapper this spring, talking good-natured trash to the offense, taking on a more vocal role with the defense.
And although he started a bull session with reporters yesterday by saying, "I'm the same person I was last year, I'm not going to change," it is clear by both his account and others that there has at least been some offseason tweaking in that regard.
You see it here on the field. Well, really, you hear it, especially when the drills evolve into identifiable plays. Samuel is not the only defender filling the vocal void left by Brian Dawkins. Stewart Bradley, Trent Cole - the Organized Team Activities this week have been tests in voice projection as often as they have been of execution. But given the elusive silence that marked the high-priced, high-profile cornerback's first season, Samuel has stood out more than the others.
"I'm not really a vocal guy," he said. "I let my play speak for itself. What I do out here in practice is just challenge. To make it a competitive environment. You see everybody's into it. They want to beat me, beat the defense. And we want to beat them, so . . .
"That's the way you put together a good team. Everybody competing against each other and trying to beat each other."
Here are a few others: You draft well, sign productive free agents, develop a chain of leadership. With Dawkins gone and Sheldon Brown not in attendance, this week has provided an interesting peek at how the vocal void will be filled. Samuel's on-field exuberance and locker- room ebullience has been duly noted as significant - even by the head coach.
"The more familiar it became last year during the season, he started doing that," Andy Reid said this week.
"Before it was Donovan challenging everybody and now Asante has jumped in from that side and he is challenging back and I kind of like that. I like that competition and enthusiasm. It kind of keeps things alive."
Samuel was named to the Pro Bowl last season. To his credit, he didn't buy it any more than you did. Signed to a 6-year, $57 million free-agent contract in March 2008, he was expected to just about double the 11 interceptions registered by the Birds in 2007.
But the "pick magnet" - as his agent described him - finished the regular season with four interceptions. He added two in the Eagles' three playoff games.
"I could have had, not including the playoffs, about eight or nine," he said. "I dropped about five, or even six or seven. I do look at that. And so I'm going to go out and work on my ball catching a little more. React better. So the way I dropped that ball doesn't happen again."
I tried to give him an out. A lack of familiarity with Jim Johnson's elaborate defense may have contributed to some of those drops. Earlier in the conversation he had said, "I'm definitely more comfortable in the system, which is a complex system, very challenging," but he shook his head when I offered this as an explanation for the drops.
"It was just concentration," he said.
Maybe the pressure of the contract, I said. Maybe the expectations of the fans. I asked him if he felt he knew the people here better now.
He laughed. "I don't know if anybody is going to understand them," he said. "But they're great fans. Real passionate about their sports."
That passion boils over to frustration, of course, and Samuel felt a lot of it last season. I asked him if he cared about whether the town liked him a lot, expecting one of those answers about playing hard and letting the chips fall where they might.
Again, a surprise. "Of course I want the town to learn me and like me," he said. "I don't want them to hate me and boo me every time I run out of that tunnel."
He smiled again. "They know my personality," he said. "I'm a quiet guy."
Yeah, well, no more. The void left by Dawkins, the contentious contract situation of Brown, Johnson's forced sabbatical - this defense will need some new voices next season. And although Samuel kept insisting yesterday that he wouldn't "let anybody alter who I am," he dropped big hints, over and over again, that we didn't really get to know him as well as we could have last season.
"It's hard to replace a guy like that and expect another guy to come in and do what he did," Samuel said of Dawkins. "I'm not going to try and be somebody that I'm not. This is me. This is how I lead." *
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