PHILADELPHIA -- In an NFC East that features the moxie and resiliency of the defending Super Bowl champion Giants, the fresh dose of energy and excitement Robert Griffin brings to Washington, and the always intriguing talent and potential of the Dallas Cowboys, it's the Philadelphia Eagles -- Team Underachievement last year -- that I think is in the best position of all as the 2012 season looms in the not too distant future.
That's right, the Eagles. The tease of a club that for more than a decade has been better at creating expectations than fulfilling them. Typically, I don't turn in my predictions column until late August, but when I do, I believe I'll have Andy Reid's Eagles atop their tightly clumped division, poised for a bounce-back season and a return to the playoffs after the nightmare of last year's "Dream Team'' nonsense.
It's not a stretch to say the Eagles have enjoyed as productive an offseason as anyone, and the irony is they might just have the pace-setting team they thought they had last year, when they uncharacteristically went on a frenzied free-agent shopping spree just after the lockout ended. The Super Bowl-or-bust storyline was catchy, but it wasn't remotely accurate. The Eagles didn't win big, but the team and its coaching staff also weren't broken up in response to the failure. Now they're back for another crack at it, with what looks to me like a far better chance for success.
Picking Philadelphia to return to relevance isn't just a hunch based on its season-ending four-game winning streak in 2011, because I happen to think Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie was right when he classified his team's late surge last year as "fool's gold,'' prettying up their record to a respectable 8-8 long after the final outcome had been decided. Instead, the hopeful signs I see are these:
• The defensive-heavy draft that delivered some much-needed, potential-early contributors such as defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks, defensive end Vinny Curry and cornerback Brandon Boykin.
• The March trade for veteran middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans,
• The contented and peaceful locker room that should result from new contract extensions for the likes of receiver DeSean Jackson, running back LeSean McCoy, defensive end Trent Cole and offensive lineman Todd Herremans.
• The benefit of a full offseason program and plenty of practice time for quarterback Michael Vick and second-year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, who both have something to prove after their tumultuous 2011. The Eagles' roster was kind of thrown together at the last minute due to the NFL's labor standoff a year ago, and eventually there was a price to pay for that on-the-fly approach.
• The reality that the Eagles didn't swing and miss entirely in last year's free-agent haul. Defensive end Jason Babin and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins had very productive first seasons, as did guard Evan Mathis. Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha must step up his game significantly, but the one-and-done experiences of free agents like backup quarterback Vince Young, running back Ronnie Brown and receiver Steve Smith really didn't cost the Eagles much.
Sure, there are still significant issues to worry about -- see Jason Peters' season-ending Achilles' tear, the safety position, and Vick's problems with turnovers and injuries in 2011 -- but there's also an awful lot to like. And the vibe around the team seems a world removed from last season's train wreck.
"I like where we're at, man,'' said Vick on Thursday, moments after the Eagles put a wrap on their offseason program with the close of a three-day mandatory minicamp. "There really hasn't been anything but positives to come out of this offseason. It feels good. It feels real good. I think we've really got a chance to do something special. We've really got a chance to do a lot, make a lot of strides this year. And everybody's really focused in on that. We feel like everything last year happened for a reason. We've just got to continue to go out and get better, and we will, but it's a great mindset around here right now.''
It's easy and probably correct to remember the Eagles will only go as far as Vick takes them, but No. 7 does seem to be in a good place with his game heading into a five-week break before training camp. This was the first time in six years that Vick, as a starting quarterback, had a full offseason program to benefit from (not since 2006 in Atlanta), and he looks and sounds confident. If Vick is in the lineup for at least 15 games and anywhere close to his 2010 form, I see the Eagles being one of the NFC's three or four serious Super Bowl contenders.
"We've really come in this offseason and worked hard,'' Vick said. "We had 100 percent participation for almost the entire offseason. We just want to win. We want to win now. We know it's going to be hard. We know nothing's going to come easy. But we're trying to prepare hard enough that we can make it easy on Sundays. We're going to go out and have fun playing football this year.''
No one had much fun in Philly last season. Young hung the ill-fated "Dream Team'' label around the club's neck in his introductory press conference, and it was pretty much all downhill from there. A 4-8 start to the season had the buzzards circling over Reid's head once again, and the deluge of turnovers and blown fourth-quarter leads seemingly never ended. Castillo's defense got pushed around and exposed in the middle of the field, Vick's play grew sloppy and Jackson's attitude went south in a fit of contract-related sulking.
But you have to admit the Eagles under Reid usually get the problems fixed. In his first 13 seasons, he's never had two consecutive playoff-less years, and he's followed up his first three non-winning seasons with records of 11-5, 10-6 and 9-6-1, notching at least one playoff victory in each of those years. It's probably going to take another playoff trip and a postseason win or two to keep Eagles fans happy this year, and everyone wearing green seems well aware of that.
"I think everybody knows what's at stake here this year,'' said Jackson, whose offseason contract extension was a step Reid wanted done and prioritized. "We want to do everything we can, and put in all the hard work, and at the end of the day leave nothing out there. As long as we do that, I think the outcome and the results will be where we want them to be.
"I think this is our year, honestly. It's taken a couple years to really get this good vibe going and understand what's at stake here. And it took us going through what we went through last year to get where we are today. But I think it's going to be a good sight to see where this offense and this team is headed once training camp gets here.''
This year at training camp, there won't be quite so many press conferences to introduce the newest Eagle, and there won't be high-profile free-agent signings standing around doing nothing on the edges of the practice field, waiting until they are fully eligible to participate under the terms of a new labor deal. Philadelphia has actually been able to go through its typical team-building process, unlike last year's hurried chemistry experiment that blew up.
"When you have a bunch of new people coming together and trying to play as a team, you need time,'' Eagles tight end Brent Celek said of 2011's spasm of free-agent signings in Philly. "And I'm not talking about just on the field. I'm talking about just time in general; off the field, on the field, in the meeting room, in the weight room. Just to get to know each other. That's huge, and it's a chemistry aspect that doesn't happen overnight. I think a lot of people don't consider that as much as they should, but a team that plays together is going to go a lot further than a team that has a lot of talent but doesn't play together.''
That togetherness matters most when adversity hits. A team with players who know and trust each other realizes it can withstand the downswings that come during a long season. The 2011 Eagles didn't have that to rely on, Celek said.
"Last year when the adversity came, we hadn't been there and done that together,'' he said. "But now we've been through it. We've been to the lowest of the lows and we started to come back from that. And we've had an entire offseason to hang out together and get to know each other more, and get to be friends. Because when you're friends, and you're out on that field, no matter what people say, you just dig a little bit deeper.''
The unusual offseason was as much a part of Castillo's rough debut season as defensive coordinator as any other factor. Every NFL team faced the same challenge last year, but only the Eagles took the bold and almost unprecedented step of breaking in their former offensive line coach as defensive coordinator. Castillo can't help but be better prepared this time around.
"Coach Reid hires teachers [as coaches], and being a teacher you know that the classroom time is very important,'' Castillo said. "This year, unlike last year, we've had a little over two months to be able to install and teach them about our concepts and what we're trying to do with the defense, and it's been unbelievable.
"The important thing is that foundation really started being laid last year. They started to get to know each other, and they went through hardships and adversity together. If you can survive that, it makes you stronger, and I think that's what happened. Most of our guys are back, and we've added a few guys, and now I think they all know it's time. It's time to win.''
Strangely enough, last year's underachievement might help from an expectation level. With the upstart Giants winning the Super Bowl, the Redskins drafting their long sought after quarterback-savior in RG3, and the Cowboys' season always being a melodrama in pads, the Eagles might fly a bit under the radar from a national perspective. That was impossible last year, and Reid's team wilted under the spotlight.
"It might be good for us to kind of be the underdog and kind of be under the radar for a change,'' Jackson said. "The spotlight was on us last year, with everybody calling us the 'Dream Team' and things like that, and sometimes there's a lot of pressure when you have a lot expected of you. Let all the other teams try to handle that this year. We'll just be the unexpected team. That way, when you win big, it's a shock.''
The spotlight, of course, will always find Vick. He wouldn't know any other way. But he's sounds ready for anything this season, which is great news if you care about the Eagles.
"We're always going to have expectations in this town, but last year we were just so heavily scrutinized, and I don't know why,'' Vick said. "Maybe it was because of a comment that was made (Young's 'Dream Team' quote) and maybe because of the big free-agency class we had. But that comes with the territory.
"And even if everybody does think we're a marked team again this year, it is what it is. We have to be able to keep that stuff on the outside. If we do that, we'll go real far. The vibe is good here. We just want to go out and make the most of the opportunity that's in front of us right now.''
Last year's Eagles certainly didn't capitalize on their opportunity. Is there anywhere in the NFL where they're happier to see the approach of a new season than Philadelphia?