by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Consider one benefit to Philadelphia-area sports fans of the Phillies’ disappearance from contention in the current National League East race.

Football season can begin right now.

Although it can be argued that it’s always football time in Philly, especially for the countless hordes who are devotees of venerable sports radio 610 WIP (or FM 94.1 as well since last year), where Birds fans vent on the airwaves twelve months of the year. Indeed, the sports pulse of the Delaware Valley can often be measured by the venom Eagles fans spill on Angelo Cataldi (above left), Howard Eskin, or Glen Macnow’s daily shows.

(Some Philly sports connoisseurs, however, will tell you that 97.5 The Fanatic, with its lineup of Philly favorites such as Tony Bruno, former Eagle Brian “Baldy” Baldinger, and Mike Missanelli beats WIP any day of the week. Like debating whether a cheese steak is better at Geno’s or across the street at Pat’s, it’s all part of the unique Philly experience.)

But there’s no worry this year about the Phillies, who deflected some of the late-summer talk away from the Eagles the past few years. The Sixers and Flyers can wait their turns until football season concludes, too. Whether that conclusion comes in late December, sometime in January, or, according to some deluded Birds fans (but aren’t they all somewhat deluded in Philadelphia?), into February, is a source of much conjecture among the rabid WIP and 97.5 listeners.

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Even the Eagles fans who once booed Santa Claus, however, had to pause during the past week and pay respects to HC Andy Reid, whose troubled son Garrett was found dead at the Birds’ training camp at Lehigh. One wonders if Reid, who has dealt with family distractions in the past (enough so that trusted aide Marty Mornhinweg has had to step in on occasion as the interim coach), will be able to cope with another in a series of unfortunate family developments that undoubtedly have taken a toll in recent years.

Still, life will eventually get back to normal in Philly, and the popular topic on WIP and 97.5 will once again center upon “Dang It” Andy, who begins his 14th season in charge of the Birds this fall. And speculation that after a late-season meltdown in 2010 and missing the playoffs entirely a year ago if he might be in serious trouble if the Eagles falter again this fall.

In fact, rumors are flying more fast and furious than usual regarding Reid’s status in Philly. A popular topic on blogs and chat rooms is that Andy and his wife are someday going to return to their West Coast roots (the Reids have another home in Dana Point, CA) and eventually take another job. San Diego, where HC Norv Turner sits on perennially thin ice, is thought to be a possible future destination.

The question now is if Reid will be able to make the call when to leave Philly himself. For the first time, Philadelphia owner Jeffrey Lurie (left) admitted in the winter that he had considered replacing Reid after last season’s disappointment.

And Lurie might be in the mood to make changes. He certainly was in June when announcing that longtime team president Joe Banner, a Reid confidante, will no longer be handling those duties, which also included personnel, contract negotiations, and as resident “cap expert” for the franchise. Rest assured Reid took note of Banner’s demotion.

Despite all of this, and recent letdowns at The Linc, the Eagles are getting a lot of respect from the oddsmakers and the wagering public. Perhaps too much respect. Las Vegas sports books have them priced at 13/10 and favored to win the NFC East, and they’re a consensus third choice to reach the Super Bowl from the NFC (6/1 at most outlets).

The Birds’ Super Bowl win price has raised slightly after opening at 10/1 (it’s now 12/1 at the majority of wagering houses), but that’s still a lot of respect to be giving a team that missed the playoffs last year and sprung a lot of leaks along in the process. The season win ‘total’ at 10 ½ is also one of the highest in the NFC; only the Packers are listed higher (at 12 ½ wins) among NFC teams.

Much of the optimism is being fueled by the Eagles’ fast finish a year ago, when they won and covered their last four games in dominating fashion to get to 8-8. Which was hardly what was expected in the much-ballyhooed “Dream Team” hype of last summer. Along the way a much-maligned defense, which had struggled for most of the fall under first-year coordinator Juan Castillo (right), finally seemed to figure out what it was supposed to do as Philly allowed only 46 points over those last four wins.

Still, defense was the focus in the offseason, especially during the draft when the Birds went “D” with their first three picks. NFC East insiders also say that Reid made inquiries regarding the availability of former Rams HC and Giants d.c. Steve Spagnuolo about assuming control of the Bird stop unit before committing to Castillo for another campaign.

Nonetheless, sources say Reid has a backup plan involving new DB coach Todd Bowles, who held the same post at Miami a year ago and was even the Dolphins’ interim head coach last December after Tony Sparano was jettisoned with a few games to go in the season. With so much on the line for all parties this fall, some sources believe another slow start by the defense might force Reid to move Bowles into the coordinator role and demote Castillo. Which is another indicator that Reid is not going to fool around this fall with his job apparently on the line.

Castillo, who moved from the offensive side to the “D” last season, looked out of his element for much of 2011. Some believe the delay of training camp and the lockout through last offseason forced Castillo into a late start in his new job and caused some of the adjustment headaches.

Problems were hard to camouflage during the Birds’ 4-8 start. Among them were five blown fourth-quarter leads; linebackers and safeties unable to fill wide running lanes; a leaky secondary despite a strong pass rush. Highly-touted free-agent DB additions Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie also struggled with the new Castillo schemes.

But when CB Asante Samuel (since traded) was injured late in the season, Castillo was able to work press coverage with this season's cornerback tandem of Asomugha (left) and Rodgers-Cromartie. Which convinced Castillo to play more man-to-man this fall (Asomugha, in particular, struggled with the Birds’ zone schemes a year ago after mostly operating in man-to-man coverage with the Raiders).

As mentioned, the Eagles used the draft to bolster the defensive front of their aggressive 4-3 base scheme. The D-line, which already boasted pass-rush DE demons Jason Babin (right, sacking Jets QB Mark Sanchez last December; 18 sacks in 2011) and Trent Cole (11 sacks last year), added rookies DT Fletcher Cox (Mississippi State) and DE Vinny Curry (Marshall) with two of the first three picks.

The Birds, utilizing DL coach Jim Washburn’s “wide-nine” looks, led the NFL with 50 sacks in 2011. Adding Cox and Curry would only seem to enhance the situation.

But there was troubling news heading into training camp at Lehigh, as DT Mike Patterson remains nowhere near a return to active duty after delicate offseason surgery to repair tangled blood vessels in his brain. Rookie Cox will probably have a chance to make an immediate impact play with the first string in Patterson’s absence.

Philly also brought in DeMeco Ryans via trade from Houston and added young talent at linebacker, including 2nd-round draftee Mychal Kendricks (Cal), whom Castillo thinks can be an effective blitzer, to turn that position group around.

Meanwhile, it's the third year of the Michael Vick experiment at QB, which continues this fall. And like Reid, Castillo, and various others within the organization, Vick’s job is also on the line; only one more season of his mega-contract is guaranteed.

To get over the hump, Vick will have to eradicate his turnovers, as he was the main culprit in Philly’s 38 giveaways last season, the second-worst total in the league. Along the way, Vick tossed 14 picks and lost four of ten fumbles; five of those giveaways came in the red zone. Vick was also near the bottom of league stats in third-down passing, fourth-quarter passing, and passing against the blitz.

Vick’s reckless style of play has also resulted in him missing seven games over the past two seasons due to torn rib cartilage and broken ribs, so having effective backups is a necessity. Ex-Northwestern QB Mike Kafka, who by now knows o.c. Marty Mornhinweg’s West Coast offense by heart, has flashed some upside in the past, and likely replaces the departed Vince Young as reliever, although competition for the backup role figures to be fierce in preseason as ex-Bill Trent Edwards was added in the offseason as well as touted Arizona rookie Nick Foles, who was plucked in the third round of the draft.

If nothing else, this QB depth might make the Eagles worth a look in early preseason action when all are likely to be taking snaps.

Reid was also able to keep a couple of important free-agents in the fold, re-signing Pro Bowl WR DeSean Jackson (left) and LG Evan Mathis. Jackson, along with deep-ball weapon Jeremy Maclin, provide a dangerous vertical-threat combo and combined for 121 catches and nine TDs a year ago. Brett Celek (62 catches in 2011) remains an underrated force at tight end.

Meanwhile, emerging as the new star of the offense is ex-Pitt RB LeSean McCoy (right), who rumbled for 1309 yards rushing and a league-best 17 TDs a year ago while also catching 48 passes in 2011.

There’s also better news along the OL, which looked to be a question mark heading into last season and struggled for much of the campaign, before emerging as a strength late in 2011. Keeping free-agent G Mathis in the fold was considered a crucial off-season move for the front office. The kicking game also got an unexpected bonus last season when Nebraska rookie PK Alex Henery connected on 24 of 27 FG attempts.

Against the number, Reid’s teams have not proven as reliable lately as they were earlier in his Philly tenure. The Birds have covered just 8 of their last 21 at The Linc since late in the 2009 season. And Reid, who for many years was a solid underdog play, is only 5-7 as the “short” since 2009.

On the road, however, Reid has continued to deliver good value, standing 29-18-1 vs. the line away from The Linc since late in the 2006 campaign. Reid is also 7-1 vs. the line in his eight spread decisions vs. hated NFC East foe the Giants. Although for many Philly fans, Reid can probably stay in their good graces as long as he beats a team even more-hated than the Giants--Dallas, which was smacked in both meetings by the Birds last season.

Summary...Andy Reid already had enough distractions to deal with in Philly before the tragic news regarding his son in the summer; how he responds remains to be seen. But we doubt it alters the reality of this fall at The Linc, which is that a more-thorough housecleaning (which might have begun in June with team prexy Joe Banner's demotion) could commence if the Birds disappoint as they did until the final weeks of the 2011 campaign. Reid, d.c. Juan Castillo, and QB Michael Vick are all on notice this fall.

Like a year ago, when the Eagles look good, they’ll probably look really good, but we remain unconvinced about Vick’s credntials as a Super Bowl QB, and suggest that the Birds are being over-hyped once more. Whatever happens, the real fun in Philly, as usual, will happen on WIP and 97.5 FM, where the callers will let us know how the season is progressing.


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