THE TIMES not only are a-changin' in the NFL, evidence suggests they have a-changed.
It is only minicamp, but the Eagles actually seem to be changing with them, even if the adjustment has come more slowly than some fans might have preferred.
There were two notable declarations yesterday, when the Birds' coordinators spoke from the NovaCare podium for the first time this offseason.
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said: "I think we do have a commitment to the running game here," buttressing what coach Andy Reid said the day before about maintaining the offensive balance that served the team so well over the second half of the 2006 season.
Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson acknowledged that in the wake of ranking 26th against the run last season, and giving up a lethal 208 yards rushing in the playoff loss at New Orleans, the Eagles decided their defense had to get bigger. There was a time, several years ago, when the Birds thought stopping the run would be nice, but it wasn't essential. Most of the top offenses were aerial shows and the Eagles felt their attack would outscore most opponents who chose to chew up the clock by running the ball. Johnson primarily wanted speed to generate pass-rush pressure and was much less worried about size up front. Those days are over.
"Yeah, you now see more types of power running games," said Johnson, who noted that big passing plays do occur, often off play-action, but concluded that "we are seeing a lot of good running games, no question about it."
Toward that end, the Eagles' linebacking corps has changed dramatically, and there have been only slightly more subtle changes along the defensive line, including the second-round drafting of 6-4, 267-pound Victor Abiamiri, who automatically became the team's biggest defensive end, and of 6-3, 254-pound strongside linebacker Stewart Bradley in the third round.
The new strongside starter is Chris Gocong, last year's third-round rookie who missed the season with a neck injury. Gocong is 6-2, 263. Dhani Jones, the starter there the past three seasons who was released just after the draft last month, is 6-1, 240. The new weakside starter is veteran Takeo Spikes, a sculpted 6-2, 242, vs. Matt McCoy (5-11, 230), last year's starter for the first half of the season, and Omar Gaither (6-1, 235), who took over down the stretch.
The Eagles also brought in free-agent defensive tackles Montae Reagor (6-3, 285) and Ian Scott (6-2, 302) to replace Darwin Walker (6-3, 294) and Sam Rayburn (6-3, 303). Reagor and Scott aren't bigger than their predecessors, but the Eagles think they will play that way. Perhaps more significantly, last year's top pick, defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley (6-2, 306), who was buried after a slow start, is now listed as a starter. If the Birds have a guy with the strength and leverage to be a run-stopper up front, it's Bunkley, who is massively muscled.
"Just basically, having a bigger front seven makes it easier to get up in the offensive linemen's grille," Bunkley said.
Said Johnson: "I just felt at times we were small at tackle and linebacker, especially." He lauded Bunkley's offseason dedication and Gocong's progress in assimilating Johnson's complex defensive scheme.
"He's come a long way," Johnson said when asked about Bunkley. "He's a different person. He's around here every day, he's attentive, picking things up, and he's working hard . . . We had a little talk with him in the beginning of the offseason. He said he was going to be here every day. Some guys say that, but he has been here every day. I've never had to call him to see where he's at - he's here. This is his home."
The first thing fans will notice is that Bunkley has switched to Walker's old No. 97, after wearing No. 78 as a rookie (Abiamiri inherited 78). Bunkley said yesterday the main reason for the switch was that he associated his former number with "the worst year I've ever had."
"I came in with a new mind-set," Bunkley said. "Last year kind of rung the bell for me. I wanted to come here early and work on every aspect of my game, get stronger, get quicker, slim down a little bit, which I've done."
Johnson acknowledged that jobs are really won and lost in the preseason, with pads on, not while players are running around in shorts in May. But so far, Gocong and Bunkley have done as much as they could to reassure him about their progress. At least Bunkley practiced all last season; Gocong, a defensive end at Cal Poly, was only able to sit in on meetings after being placed on injured reserve in the preseason.
Gocong said he feels that even in minicamp he can show "what ground I've covered in the season I missed."
He said he sees himself as "miles ahead" of the confused, Division I-AA pass rusher who was trying to learn Johnson's coverages a year ago.
"My head was spinning," said Gocong, who added that Bradley, a strongside linebacker at Nebraska, seems to be having an easier adjustment so far.
"You're going to see [Gocong] take a lot of snaps in the preseason," Johnson said. "He just needs experience. He just needs to play. He looks good out there . . . we'll just have to see, when the bullets are live, how he reacts."
There was talk after the season about experimenting with Gocong at defensive end, but obviously, as long as he's the starting SAM, that won't happen - particularly with Gocong trying to make up for lost time at what still is a new position to him.
"I think he's going to be a playmaker," Johnson said. "I think he's going to make a few mistakes, but the guy can run, he has a burst, and I want him to go in there with confidence that the SAM is his job. He's a heck of an athlete . . . I know he's a good tackler. We'll see what kind of plays he makes. That might all change, but that's how we're starting out." *