Philadelphia Eagles take advantage of NFL free agency to build possible ‘dream team’

August 18, 2011

— There were no signs of football traditionalists here to lecture the Philadelphia Eagles that championships simply cannot be purchased in the NFL. Instead, the large and enthusiastic crowd of green-clad fans at the team’s training camp last weekend marveled at the talent assembled by the Eagles in a post-lockout shopping spree that has been the talk of the sport in recent weeks.

The Eagles, one of the sport’s steadiest and most consistently successful franchises, are making their boldest attempt yet to secure the Super Bowl triumph that eluded them even as they reached five NFC title games in a dozen seasons with Andy Reid as coach.

In a flurry of acquisitions that followed the end of the NFL lockout, the team has melded newcomers such as quarterback Vince Young, running back Ronnie Brown and cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie with talented holdovers that include quarterback Michael Vick, wide receiver DeSean Jackson and running back LeSean McCoy.

The arrival of 15 new players has sparked talk of about whether the Eagles have suddenly changed their philosophy.

“We want to be able to get to the Super Bowl,” Jackson said after one practice last weekend. “That’s what everybody is talking about here. We’re coming here to work hard. That’s what you have to do. It’s not going to be given to us and we know that.”

The front office architects of the moves, General Manager Howie Roseman and President Joe Banner, say they are adhering to a longstanding strategy, but this year presented a remarkable number of opportunities.

“There was an element of luck,” Banner said. “There was an element of persistence. The funny thing is when we signed Nnamdi, we thought we were done. . . . [But] there just kept being opportunities we felt were consistent with the goal of being aggressive in the short term but not sacrificing in the long term.”

Banner said he spent one sleepless night negotiating with a player the Eagles didn’t sign. Otherwise, their batting average was close to perfect.

“Most years you go into free agency and say, ‘I need a defensive end’ or ‘I need a linebacker,’ whatever the position may be,” Roseman said. “For us, we had targeted specific players because of the quality of the players and the character of the person involved. . . . And we were fortunate to get some of the guys.”

The Eagles’ free agent additions include Asomugha, regarded by many as the top cornerback in the league; defensive end Jason Babin, who is coming off a 121 / 2-sack season for the Tennessee Titans; defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, who is being counted upon to stuff opponents’ running games and provide an up-the-middle pass rush; Brown, a former 1,000-yard rusher for the Miami Dolphins brought in to complement McCoy; Young, the former Titans starter who will back up Vick; and former Giants wide receiver Steve Smith, who is coming off knee surgery but could bolster a receiving corps that includes Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant.

Rodgers-Cromartie was obtained in a trade that sent former backup quarterback Kevin Kolb to the Arizona Cardinals. Along with Asomugha and Asante Samuel, he gives the Eagles perhaps the league’s most accomplished set of cornerbacks.

Under owner Jeffrey Lurie, Banner and Reid, the Eagles have been known for a slow and steady approach, usually passing on headline-grabbing moves in favor of wise salary cap management, except for the occasional acquisition of a player such as wide receiver Terrell Owens.

But Roseman and Banner said the organization always has been aggressive and opportunistic. Indeed, the Eagles seemed to be relatively thrifty this offseason. Asomugha’s five-year, $60 million contract was more modest than had been predicted for him when free agency began. Babin and Jenkins also signed five-year deals, Babin for $28 million and Jenkins for $25 million.

“Obviously it’s more free agents than we’ve ever signed, probably more free agents than anybody has ever signed,” Banner said. “But that was really the nature of the market, as opposed to some fundamental change in philosophy on our part.”

The Eagles’ shopping spree was years in the making. Banner structured contracts and cleared salary cap space for what club officials knew would be a bountiful market when a new collective bargaining agreement was reached.

Circumstances worked in their favor, Banner said. In the free agency whirlwind that followed the lockout, he said, players felt they had to act quickly or risk having no job as training camps opened.

“If they had a team that they felt was a really good place to play and they had economics that they thought were at least fair, they didn’t want to take the risk that maybe something would come along better later,” he said.

The Eagles swooped in and got Asomugha after many believed he was about to choose between the Dallas Cowboys, a division rival, and the New York Jets. They signed Smith when it was widely assumed he would re-sign with New York.

There has been a bit of a target on the Eagles since Young referred to them as a “dream team.” Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan suggested that the Eagles might be over-hyped. Other skeptics say history has demonstrated that free agent spending sprees generally don’t work in the NFL.

The Washington Redskins added Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders, Mark Carrier and Jeff George in 2000 to a team coming off a division title, yet missed the playoffs with a record of 8-8.

But these are unusual times in the NFL. Most teams were put together on the run in recent weeks. The Eagles already had a solid core of gifted players, especially on offense. They’re coming off a division-winning season and they have Reid to try to make it all work.

They still must face their rugged rivals in the NFC East, and still consider themselves in pursuit of conference heavyweights such as the Green Bay Packers, the defending Super Bowl champions, and the New Orleans Saints.

But any hope they might have had of going about that chase quietly ended with their string of attention-grabbing acquisitions.

“This is probably the most talent I’ve seen in one team since I’ve been in the league,” Brown said. “. . .You look at each position around the field, this is as good as any…. There’s a lot of guys around here capable of making plays.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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