By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun
ABOVE PHOTO: Eagles’ Nnamdi Asomugha in a game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, FL in 2011.
(AP Photo Tom DiPace)
After watching a defense stacked with under sized linebackers get run over and gashed by opposing offenses throughout much of last season, the Eagles trade for Houston Texans middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans this past week.
Perhaps the big question for the Birds in the couple of months before mini-camps and organized team activities is will Ryans, who is coming off an Achilles tendon injury in 2010, be the first true enforcer in the middle that Jeremiah Trotter was during the Eagles Super Bowl year in 2004?
If you believe the numbers and his reputation, the Birds may have landed the steal of the free agency season thus far. Before his injury, the two-time Pro Bowler was one of the best linebackers in the game. He has 637 career-tackles, 480 of which are solo tackles.
Up until 2010, the 6’1″, 235-pound Ryans was averaging well 100 tackles per season. But seven games into that season, he suffered that season-ending Achilles injury. Last season, he came back, but wasn’t the same player.
Ryans played in all 16 games, but he finished the season with just 64 tackles (44 solo). Some football observers said it was because Ryans was playing in the team’s 3-4 alignment. Ryans himself would rather play in the Eagles 4-3 defense.
“Yeah, I’m happy being back in a 4-3 defense,” Ryans said. “That’s the defense I’ve been playing since high school. I have been in the middle of that defense for a while in high school and in college. It’s back to what I do naturally. I’m a natural middle linebacker, and this is what suits my ability.”
Last season, when the Eagles got free agents like cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rogers-Cromartie and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, media pundits and fans felt like getting to the Super Bowl was going to be mere formality. ESPN’s Chris Berman predicted a Super Bowl between the Eagles and the Ravens.
Unfortunately, the Eagles, thanks to the defense giving up leads late in the fourth quarter, wound up finishing 8-8. Among the myriad of reasons for the defense’s fourth period meltdowns was the Eagles lack of an enforcer at the middle linebacker spot.
Eagles head Andy Reid said the Birds are hoping that Ryans can fill that role and serve as the team’s signal caller on defense.
“I thought that bringing in someone with experience was important right now for this football team,” Reid said. “Really, to have a quarterback on that side of the ball is good for [defensive coordinator] Juan [Castillo], the players around DeMeco – he’s made the players around him better, and that’s what you say when you hear the comments from his teammates. That veteran leadership, I’m excited to have that, yes.”
But for Birds fans might have some reason for optimism with the acquisition of Ryans because unlike last season’s lockout, the Eagles will have a full schedule of mini-camps, OTAs as well as training camp to develop chemistry.
In the aftermath of the Eagles 2011 season, some of the players pointed to the lockout and not having the off-season workouts as having adverse effect on team chemistry. It took the Birds late into the season to grasp defensive coordinator Juan Castillo’s defense.
“Anytime you have more time to work on something, it’s going to help,” said Asomugha said at the end of last season. “We didn’t have that time we will have now. We can be even better than we are right now.”
That’s what Reid and most Birds fans are hoping will happen as the season develops. It’s the reason why many Eagles fans as well as the media that covers the team suspect that Castillo was not fired at the end of last season.
With acquisition of Ryans and perhaps another player, preferably a good free safety to shore up the Birds defense, Castillo should have more than enough time to help this gel into a unit.
If he doesn’t, Castillo’s time will be up.