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Eagles camp report: Talented Eagles just need to play as a team -- and stay healthy

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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A year ago the Philadelphia Eagles opened training camp with quarterback Vince Young dubbing them the Dream Team, and we all know what happened there. Now it's Michael Vick saying the Eagles could be a "dynasty" waiting to happen, and forget for a moment that dynasties don't exist anymore in the NFL. Why would he put himself out there like that?

Well, there are a couple of reasons: 1) The Eagles are loaded with talent, and 2) their players believe they have learned from last year's mistakes. Essentially, Vick is convinced that the team the Eagles were supposed to be in 2011 is the team they are today.

Maybe, only you'd think these guys would have learned a lesson and adopt the mantra of the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants: Talk is cheap; just play the game.

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The Giants are quietly confident about their chances to repeat as division champions, but I'll be honest: They're not the best team in the NFC East; the Eagles are ... provided, of course, they avoid the minefields that kept them down a year ago.

The most significant of those is team chemistry. The Eagles didn't have it a year ago; they might now. They should. Unlike the 2011 offseason when Philadelphia emptied the vaults for free-agent veterans, the club did what it could to keep its roster intact and reward deserving players. Included there are running back LeSean McCoy, defensive end Trent Cole, wide receiver DeSean Jackson and offensive lineman Todd Herremans -- all of whom gained contract extensions. Then the club dipped into free agency and kept guard Evan Mathis when it appeared he was on the verge of signing with Baltimore.

Result? We'll see. All I know is that players are convinced that what we witnessed a year ago won't happen again, and don't take it from me; listen to Vick.

"My message to the fans," he said, "is this: I know we've been through a lot and had our share of opportunities. But this is sort of a new era. You just have to be patient and bear with us.

"[Coach Andy Reid] is building it up again. A lot of time was spent with different players and a different style of play. But now it's a little different. So we're putting this team together, it's well put together and it's where we want to be."

Team Objectives

 Keep Michael Vick healthy. This is a daunting task and maybe it's insurmountable. Nevertheless, the Eagles will try. Vick hasn't played 16 games in a season since 2006 which, it so happens, was the only time in his career he lasted the entire year. The Eagles are 15-9 when he starts, and they understand the importance of having him in the lineup. As wide receiver DeSean Jackson said, "If he stays healthy, takes fewer hits and slides when he needs to ... the sky's the limit for us." Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg have been working with Vick on running out of bounds, sliding to avoid unnecessary hits and throwing the ball away instead of taking sacks -- all drills Mornhinweg practiced with Steve Young near the end of his career in San Francisco -- and so far, so good. But some of Vick's worst hits last year were in the pocket, and there's little the coaching staff can do to correct that. Sometimes, you're just going to get hit, and I offer Thursday's game when Vick hurt his thumb as Exhibit A. Nobody tackled him. He struck his left hand on center Jason Kelce's helmet while following through on a throw.

 Cut down on turnovers. This is emphasized almost as much as keeping Vick on the field. The Eagles last year committed 38 turnovers, and if that sounds like a lot it's because it is. Only one team -- Tampa Bay -- had more (40). Vick was responsible for 18 of them, and the Eagles must limit his ... and their ... mistakes to move forward. In 2010, they had 25 turnovers and won the division title; a year later their errors jumped by 13, and they finished 8-8. Connect the dots, people. The New York Giants did, and the results speak for themselves. They went down from 42 turnovers in 2010 to 24 a year later and walked off with another Lombardi Trophy.

 Correct those fourth-quarter meltdowns. The Eagles five times lost games where they held fourth-quarter leads -- including a 23-3 advantage vs. San Francisco -- and that must stop. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo took plenty of gas for the play of his unit, but Reid stood behind him -- not only backing him publicly but retaining him when critics called for his dismissal. The hiring of secondary coach Todd Bowles should help Castillo and the defense, with Bowles someone Castillo can consult for help or suggestions. Ultimately, of course, it comes down to Castillo's players, and the acquisition of linebacker DeMeco Ryans and the subtraction of cornerback Asante Samuels should make this unit more effective than it was a year ago. If not, it's not just Castillo who's in trouble; it's the head coach.

Camp Battles

Nickel back: It's Joselio Hanson vs. Brandon Boykin, an impressive fourth-round draft choice out of Georgia. Boykin is expected to have an impact as a returner, with the rookie taking his first kickoff in Thursday's preseason opener 46 yards after fielding it eight yards deep. Hanson is the incumbent and the favorite, but Boykin has been impressive in workouts.

Projected winner: Hanson because of his experience. At this juncture, the club simply trusts him more.

Backup running back: Dion Lewis is the favorite, but he's getting pushed by newcomers Bryce Brown and Chris Polk. Lewis is listed as the backup, but he was hurt in Thursday's preseason opener. Which means there's time for Brown and Polk to close the gap. Brown is a smooth runner, while Polk has been impressive as a runner and pass blocker. In fact, earlier this week he flattened safety Phillip Thomas and cornerback Brandon Hughes in blitz-pickup.

Projected winner: Lewis. He looks better -- and much better -- in workouts than he was this time last year.

Weakside linebacker: Brian Rolle took over here early last season and looked good. But Jamar Chaney led the team in tackles -- most of them at middle linebacker -- and could push for the starting job. Rolle excelled vs. the run and plays with energy. Of course, so does Chaney, and he's so athletic he can play any of the linebacker positions. Both guys played well last season, but it's Chaney, not Rolle, who will be asked to switch positions. Coach Andy Reid has said the weakside linebacker spot might be a more natural fit for Chaney, but he refuses to handicap the competition. That's because it won't be decided until training camp is over.

Projected winner: Rolle. He played well last year, and he ran with the first team in the preseason opener. The Eagles seem comfortable with him.

Somebody to Watch

Every year it's the same problem for Philadelphia: Not enough linebackers. A year ago, the concern was inside linebacker, with the club struggling to stop the run. Now, the Eagles think they fixed the problem with the addition of DeMeco Ryans, a tackling machine when he played in the 4-3 at Houston. OK, so Ryans struggled the other night. Big deal. His record speaks for itself, and it's not only his addition on the field that will help Philadelphia; it's his voice in the locker room. He may be the locker-room leader the Eagles have been missing since the departure of Brian Dawkins. "Do I have something to prove?" he asked. "Oh, yeah. Always. That's every year, even when I was in Houston, you're always out to prove you belong and that you're elite in the league. That's the same here. I have a chip on my shoulder and want to prove to everybody that coming off an injury [an Achilles setback in 2010] that I've still got it."

Injury Roundup

 QB Michael Vick injured the thumb on his left (throwing) hand in Thursday's preseason opener, forcing him to leave the game. Vick suffered a contusion to the thumb when his hand struck center Jason Kelce's helmet as Vick was following through on a pass intended for tight end Clay Harbor. Vick said later he thought the thumb was broken, but X-rays were negative.

 DT Mike Patterson underwent AVM brain surgery in late July and not only isn't in training camp but is out indefinitely. Nobody knows when/if he returns this season, with Patterson put on the non-football injury list.

 WR Riley Cooper probably won't return to the team until the start of the regular season because of a broken collarbone he suffered the first week of camp.

 DE Trent Cole (shoulder) and DE Jason Babin (calf) are day-to-day, with Cole going through partial practices last week. Either or both could return this week.

 WR Jeremy Maclin didn't play the preseason opener because of a hamstring injury suffered in pre-game warm-ups.

 TE Brent Celek has been sidelined with a mild MCL sprain the first week of training camp. Celek promises he'll be OK, and he returned to partial workouts last week. The Eagles don't seem overly concerned.

 DT Cullen Jenkins and RB Dion Lewis each suffered hamstring injuries in the preseason win over Pittsburgh.

 S Nate Allen sat out Thursday's game because of a sore hamstring. It is not believed to be serious.

The Last Word

If the Eagles had just held on vs. San Francisco ... if they hadn't committed those five turnovers vs. Buffalo ... if they hadn't let Arizona come back and get them ... if they'd just won ONE MORE GAME it might have been them, not the New York Giants, walking off with the Lombardi Trophy.

"When I was in Houston," said Ryans, "we were looking at them like, 'Man, if the Eagles get in the playoffs it's going to be trouble.' "

I can see why. They were hot. They buried their last four opponents. And they had Michael Vick healthy and producing. In short, they were the New York Giants. One problem: They didn't win the division and missed the playoffs for only the fourth time in Reid's career as head coach.

With Reid under orders to win -- or else -- it's not just the head coach feeling the pressure; it's his players. And I have a hunch that this time they respond. Not only is the roster deep, but history is on their side: Reid never missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

"The one thing this team learned last year," said Reid, "was when it plays as a team it's pretty good. So that's our goal. If we got anything out of those last four games that was it. When we come together and we play ... together ... we can be a pretty good football team."

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