Three Thoughts: An Eagles Slant To the Playoffs

Let’s take a break from the coaching search for a moment and focus on the postseason.

Here are three disjointed Eagles-related thoughts from the NFL playoffs.

1. If I’m Fletcher Cox, I find a way to spend an afternoon with J.J. Watt this offseason and pick his brain about the art of batting balls down at the line of scrimmage. Sacks are obviously great, but with offenses constantly asking their quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quickly, top defensive linemen need to figure out other ways to affect the passing game. One of those ways is to get in the passing lanes. Watt is coming off one of the all-time great seasons by anyone at his position. Cox is coming off a solid, promising rookie campaign. They’re different players, and they play in different systems (although we don’t know what the Eagles’ system is going to be yet). But if I’m Cox, I would want to know as much about Watt’s methods for batting balls as possible.

According to Pro Football Focus, Watt got a hand on 15 passes this season. No other defensive lineman had more than eight.

Cox, meanwhile, had just one. The Eagles, as a team, had just six, second-fewest in the NFL. Again, scheme is a factor here. When your defensive ends are caught way upfield, they’re not going to be in the passing lanes.

Here’s a look at how Cox and Watt measure up (from the combine):

HeightArm LengthHandsVertical Leap
J.J. Watt6-53411.137
Fletcher Cox6-434.510.426

The huge difference is the vertical leap. And while size and athleticism have clearly been key for Watt, this is something he’s clearly worked at. From a New York Times article by Judy Battista:

Watt jumps — his vertical leap is 37 inches — when the quarterback cocks his arm, but Partridge gave him a critical key to timing it. He told him to watch the quarterback’s front — or off — hand. If that hand comes off the ball, [Texans DL coach Charlie Partridge] said, it decreases the chances of a pump fake. Most quarterbacks cannot fake with only one hand without dropping the ball — Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger is an exception — and Watt is currently irritated that the Texans’ backup quarterback T. J. Yates, a friend, has recently begun pump faking with the scout team in practice, increasing the degree of difficulty.

Cox showed enough as a rookie to think he has a Pro Bowl ceiling. We’ll see what scheme the Eagles run up front in 2013, but Cox would be well-served to add the pass-swatting skill to his repertoire.

2. There are too many what-if draft scenarios to count with the Eagles over the years. But we should probably add one more to the list: What if they had drafted Russell Wilson last season? When asked if the Eagles liked Wilson right after the draft, here’s what Andy Reid said:

“Well, I did. I liked Wilson, yeah, I sure did,” Reid said. “He’s a heck of a player too. We had our eye on those two players and I wish that kid all the best. He’s got a great personality. Not a lot of guys have his size, but he gives you the confidence he’s going to be able to do it.”

Reid actually preferred Wilson, according to an Inquirer report. But he never had a chance to take him. Seattle snagged him with the 75th overall pick (third round), 13 spots ahead of where the Eagles took Foles. Of course, if Reid really liked Wilson, the Eagles could have taken him with the 59th overall pick (second round), where they selected Vinny Curry.

As a rookie, Wilson completed 64.1 percent of his passes and tied a rookie record with 26 touchdowns (along with only 10 interceptions). He also had 489 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

Of course, there are a couple factors that come into play with this what-if scenario. For starters, please don’t take this to mean I’m bashing Foles. He played well in stretches and did not get a lot of help. It’s also fair to wonder whether Wilson would have had anywhere near the same level of success in Philadelphia, given the circumstances.

But if Wilson continues to build on his rookie season, this will be a conversation worth revisiting in the future.

3. One thing you’ll hear a lot of in the playoffs and offseason is how you can’t win in this league without a franchise quarterback. And certainly, in many respects, that is true. That’s why guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers are still alive.

While there’s no downplaying the importance of QB play, at some point, teams have to ask themselves the question: How can we be successful without one of the top-five guys in the league?

In other words, how can we best help the guy that we have? Right now, the Eagles fall into that category. They can go with Foles next year. They can draft a quarterback. Or they can add someone via free agency or trade. But chance are, they are not going to go into 2013 with an elite quarterback.

Maybe that means building an offense that relies heavily on LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown, one that focuses on avoiding turnovers and taking care of the football. Maybe that means using resources on the other side of the ball in an attempt to have one of the best defenses in the league. Maybe it means an increased emphasis on special teams.

Look at the teams that are still left. San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick has played well, but he’s got seven career starts under his belt and was a second-round pick. Houston’s Matt Schaub was a third-round pick, and he’s thrown one touchdown and four interceptions in his last five games. Wilson was a third-round pick last year. And Baltimore’s Joe Flacco has been inconsistent. Maybe all those teams will get knocked out, and the final four will feature Brady, Manning, Rodgers and Matt Ryan. It’s entirely possible.

But it’s still important for teams like the Eagles (and their new coach) to figure out a way to build competitive squads even when they don’t have a great quarterback.

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