It's no surprise the Eagles have decided to put the Asante Samuel Era behind them. It is only surprising it took this long to do so.
The process began last August when the Eagles signed free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, but it didn't end until eight months later when they unloaded Samuel on the Atlanta Falcons for the minuscule price of a third-day draft choice. (Of course, the Eagles will declare the player taken with that pick a "find," will say they had him much higher on the board, will force him into the playing rotation for two years, will grow tired of him, and then say they never really thought he was that good in the first place. See Mays, Joe; and Fokou, Moise.)
In August, the phone rang in that stinking hot media trailer next to the Lehigh practice fields, and it was Samuel calling Inquirer beat writer Jeff McLane. He wasn't calling to express his excitement about playing in a star-studded cornerback alignment along with Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. He was calling with a simple question: "Man, what the hell is going on?"
Samuel had been around long enough, knew the numbers on his contract to the penny, and knew something of the Eagles' history in this regard to also know the answer before he asked the question. He was gone. It was just a matter of when.
The rest of the NFL knew it, too, and in the jumbled rush to get the season going after the lockout ended, there weren't any takers for what the Eagles were asking for Samuel, which was significantly more than a lousy seventh-round pick. So they chose to believe their own spin about never having too many great corners in a passing league, and it really didn't go that badly.
Rodgers-Cromartie adjusted eventually to playing slot in the nickel and dime formations, although the nuances of the zone defenses they were trying in the middle of the field were not his specialty. If the linebackers and safeties had been better, it wouldn't have been such a disaster. The most troubling part of the cornerback situation was that the two new guys couldn't tackle any better than Samuel, which is not a high bar to clear.
Still, it worked well enough, although it was only a question of time before the Eagles adjusted their asking price to match the market and Samuel became history. That finally happened Wednesday, and the Eagles get $10 million in salary cap space - you do want them to sign LeSean McCoy, right? - and they get younger, something that always pleases them.
Whether they get better remains to be seen. The argument in favor of getting rid of the 31-year-old Samuel is an easy one to make, and the back-hallway whispers from the NovaCare Complex have been carrying that message recently. Samuel missed the Pro Bowl in 2011 for the first time in five seasons, and his three interceptions (after a total of 16 in 2009 and 2010) were the fewest of his career since 2005, his first season as a regular New England starter.
Then there is the contention that Samuel, who plays off his receiver, doesn't fit a scheme in which the Eagles would prefer cornerbacks to stuff their coverage targets at the snap, make the quarterback pause, and give the defensive line time to sack him. That isn't what Asante Samuel wants, and never has been. He wants the quarterback to get the pass away, and he has made a lot of money in this game because he gives receivers just enough space to make a completion seem more likely than it actually is.
From the Eagles' standpoint, the schematic argument is very rational, but only if the press cornerbacks are better at what they do than Samuel was at what he does. Otherwise, it's just mumbo-jumbo to justify a salary dump.
Samuel joins a list of exiting players that includes Victor Abiamiri, Ronnie Brown, Jamaal Jackson, Winston Justice, Trevor Laws, Juqua Parker, Owen Schmitt, Steve Smith, and Vince Young. Maybe Schmitt could be re-signed as a free agent if he doesn't find a new home, but the exodus is significant, as it should be for an 8-8 team that wasn't talented enough. And it is an exodus that really has just begun.
Among those on that list, however, only Samuel lessens the team's talent level upon his departure, and he takes some gunslinger swagger with him as he goes, a commodity in short supply in the Eagles' defensive backfield.
It was an interesting four seasons with him. Samuel is funny and confident and comfortable enough with his place in the football cosmos to shrug and tell people he isn't paid to tackle. No, he is paid, and very well, to intercept passes. That ability heads to Atlanta now, for sound financial and football reasons, but it is also true that the Eagles know how things would have gone with Samuel a lot better than they know how it will work without him.