Saturday, April 13, 2013

Birds Of A Different Feather: The 2011 Eagles and 2013 Seahawks

It is entirely possible that the Seahawks front office has signed another marquee free agent in the time it took me to write this sentence. They are setting the NFL ablaze by adding big name after big name to a roster that already was among the favorites to win the Super Bowl. A few things start to happen when a team adds so much talent, so quickly:

  1. The national media starts to pay attention
  2. Casual fans start to talk about the team as if it is a dynasty in the making
  3. More knowledgeable fans remind the casual fans that Super Bowls are not won in free agency
  4. People start to point out the model franchises like Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Baltimore rarely make a splash in free agency 
  5. And, the most recent addition, someone will point out the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles as a cautionary tale

Bringing up the Eagles is fair when evaluating the 2013 Seahawks off-season. Seattle has arguably added more talent than the Eagles did, and the amount of talent Philadelphia added that year was unprecedented. If the lesson to be learned from the disastrous Eagles 2011 off-season was that adding too much talent, too fast, was a bad thing, then the Seahawks fans should be worried. Take a closer look, though, and you will find significant differences to both the style and substance of how these two franchises became the talk of their respective off-seasons. You may even come to believe the 2011 Eagles are not the cautionary tale so many would have you believe.

The Lead-Up

The Eagles and Seahawks started their respective off-season shopping sprees from different places. Philadelphia was coming off a division title they had won with the help of a near-MVP season from reborn Michael Vick. They lost in the first round of the playoffs at home to the Packers. Their team was comprised of a potent offense that could score from anywhere on the field and an opportunistic defense. It was a defense that was too often victimized through the air as they surrendered the third-highest number of passing touchdowns in the NFL.  Overall, it was the 21st ranked defense in points allowed, 15th in rushing yards surrendered and 14th in opponent passing yards. This was a lopsided team that appeared to have a championship caliber offense that was held back by a middle-of-the-road defense.

Seattle finished last season just out of the division title themselves, even though they had one more win than the 2010 Eagles had managed. This was a team that featured the 2nd-youngest starting lineup in the NFL, and a rookie quarterback that burst onto the scene. They won their first playoff game on the road, and were thirty seconds away from reaching the NFC title game. Their defense ranked first in the NFL in points allowed, and fourth in yards allowed. The offense averaged over 33 points per game over the last half of the season, and finished the year as the best offense in the NFL when considering the opponents they faced, according to FootballOutsiders.com, In fact, the team finished as the top ranked team in the NFL overall based on Football Outsiders weighted rankings. Las Vegas sports books saw the Seahawks as a top five Super Bowl favorite before making any moves in the off-season. The team, however, saw areas that were holding them back from true dominance. The pass rush was inconsistent and finished below league average. The offense was built for power, but lacked explosiveness at times.

The Players

Philadelphia attacked their perceived weaknesses. First, they traded backup quarterback Kevin Kolb to the Arizona Cardinals for a 2nd-round pick and a Pro Bowl cornerback in Dominque Rodger-Cromartie.  They shocked the league, and themselves, by landing another Pro Bowl corner in Nnamdi Asomugha. Defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins brought more pass rush along the interior line, while Jason Babin added  pass rush to the edge. They added a few less heralded signings like running back Ronnie Brown, guard Evan Mathis and backup quarterback Vince Young, who dubbed the Eagles, "The Dream Team."

The Eagles had seemingly shored up their secondary with fantastic corners to compliment already accomplished Asante Samuel, added to their already potent pass rush, and convinced a starting-caliber quarterback to accept a back-up role behind the often-injured Vick. The moves were logical and involved players of proven talent.

Seattle started their off-season with a blockbuster trade as well when they landed Percy Harvin from the Minnesota Vikings for three draft picks. Harvin was an MVP contender before getting injured last season. The Seahawks added Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to help address their pass rush challenges. It remains unclear exactly what roles both will play, except that Avril will rush the passer from the edge, and Bennett will rush the passer from the inside on passing downs. Most recently, the team signed Antoine Winfield to play their nickel corner position. Nickel corner had been a weakness on a secondary that still held opposing quarterbacks to the 3rd-worst rating in the NFL.


Age & Money

A truism in free agency has always been that it is always more expensive to buy talent on the open market than to develop it through the draft. It has also been true that signing older players in free agency can back-fire due to injury and fading physical abilities. With that in mind, let us look at the money both teams spent and the ages of the players they spent it on:




The Eagles and Seahawks both spent $25M in guaranteed money on one player. History would suggest putting that kind of money into a 29-year-old as the Eagles did with Asomugha is riskier than spending it on a 24-year-old as Seattle did with Harvin. The release of Asomugha just two years after he was signed is further evidence to the risk of contracts like that for players of that age, especially when switching teams and schemes. Interestingly, the less heralded signing of Evan Mathis ended up being the big haul for the Eagles, as Mathis has become an All-Pro guard.

Babin and Jenkins signed flashy long-term deals that look impressive on paper, but neither is on the Eagles roster two years after signing, and the team is only paying $600K in dead money for cutting those deals short. The guaranteed money shows a similar level of commitment the Eagles had with those players that the Seahawks have with Avril and Bennett. The numbers are just more sincere out of the gate.

The upside of signing players like Avril and Bennett versus Babin and Jenkins is their age provides Seattle a greater chance to find a player that could be a longer-term solution should the team and player decide the match is a good one. Both players would be younger when signing their next contract than Babin and Jenkins were when signing with the Eagles.

Not every Eagles and Seahawks signing was included. Darren Fells made the list because he was given a three-year deal and has the opportunity to be the under-the-radar addition that Mathis was for the Eagles. That is not to say he will be an All-Pro, but at age 26 with little fanfare, he could be a surprise.

Rodgers-Cromartie was not included in the Eagles list since he was not signed to a new deal when he was acquired by Philadelphia. Harvin, to some extent, is really a 2014 free agent signing as the Seahawks extended his deal that was set to end after the 2013 season. Still, the commitment was made this year.

Winfield is the outlier for Seattle at age 35. He is not part of the team's long-term plans, but the risk is almost nil considering the length and dollars in the contract.


The Intangibles

Seattle and Philadelphia look pretty similar when examining the guaranteed money spent. The real differences come in items that are not as easy to quantify. Asomugha, for example, was asked to play more zone coverage with the Eagles and less of the press man that he excelled at in Oakland. There is debate about whether the scheme changes were at fault for his significant falloff in performance or he was slowing due to age. Again, one of the costs of signing a player around the age of 30, is it is harder to isolate what performance issues are physical degradation versus something else.

Harvin, by contrast, is being brought to Seattle to do exactly what he did in Minnesota. In fact, he will have the same offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, that he broke into the league with a few years back. He will be playing opposite the same wide receiver in Sidney Rice that he played with in Minnesota. He is also 24, leaving little concern that he is nearing any point of wearing down physically.

The other high-profile players the Seahawks signed are to fill very specific roles on the defense that emphasize things they have already proven they can do well. Winfield will be a nickel corner, something he is arguably better at than any other player in the NFL. Bennett, like Harvin, is being reunited with the coordinator he worked with when breaking into the league. Dan Quinn was the line coach for the Seahawks when Bennett was signed as an undrafted free agent, and is now the Seahawks defensive coordinator. Bennett played defensive end for the Bucs, but made most of his money swinging inside on passing downs to the three-technique defensive tackle spot. The Seahawks employed Jason Jones as the interior disruptor last year, and Bennett offers Jones' interior ability while also providing better upside on the edge. 

Avril is likely to get a shot at the starting LEO position, which is where the injured Chris Clemons has played the last three seasons. It is a place for undersized speed rushers to attack the passer from the edge on every down. Avril may not do everything well, but he can get to the quarterback. There is some talk that Avril may become the team's starting SAM linebacker, which he has experience with in college, but that would qualify as the biggest reach of the moves the team made. Pete Carroll has shown a pattern of testing out fits for players in mini-camps and training camp before committing one way or another. If the team does want to see what Avril looks like at linebacker, they can do so while having the safety net of knowing he can play LEO if the linebacker role does not look good.

Even better for the Seahawks, they may not need these players to excel in order to reach their championship goals. Again, this was the #1 defense in football in terms of points allowed without any of these new defenders. They lost one key member to injury in Clemons, although his availability is still to be determined for 2013, and they lost two important members in Alan Branch and Jason Jones. There is some belief those players replacements were already on the roster.

Assume, for a second, that Clemons cannot come back this season. The team now has Avril, Bennett and last year's number one pick, Bruce Irvin, on the roster to replace him. It is a good bet at least one of them will pan out. Branch will be replaced by some combination of McDaniel, Clinton McDonald, and Jaye Howard. Jones will be replaced by Greg Scruggs, Bennett, Howard and possibly another draft pick this year. If Winfield gets hurt, or is ineffective for any reason, Walter Thurmond, Jeremy Lane, and Byron Maxwell are waiting in the wings.

The Seahawks hopes are not dependent on these additions "completing the puzzle." They have been done to create depth and increase the odds that weaker parts of the team get stronger. Should they all fall flat, and that seems highly unlikely given the players past performances and how it matches with what they will be asked to do in Seattle, the Seahawks will still compete for a championship with one of the best young quarterbacks in football, one of the best running games in football, and the best secondary in the NFL.


The Taboo

If after all this, you still think the Seahawks are following the Eagles footsteps into a certain downward spiral caused by a gluttonous off-season, consider the unthinkable--the Eagles 2011 off-season was largely effective. 

Remember how the Eagles had struggled with a mediocre defense in 2010, especially in the secondary?  They improved from a ranking of 21st in points allowed in 2010 to 10th in 2011. They improved from 12th in yards allowed to 8th. Where they really fell on defense was that almost impossible to control category of takeaways, as they went from 5th in 2010 to 17th in 2011. Still, the story of the Eagles failed 2011 season had little to do with their off-season additions. 

Vick had a miserable season behind a bad offensive line, and eventually gave way to Young due to injury. DeSean Jackson mailed it in after fighting about his contract. That offense that had ranked 3rd and 2nd in points scored and yard gained, respectively, fell to 8th and 4th in 2011. 

That had nothing to do with Asomugha's ability to play zone coverage. Babin registered 18.0 sacks. Jenkins had a very respectable 5.5 sacks. I already touched on Mathis becoming one of the best guards in the NFL. And the franchise is out from under all these contracts for a very modest $4.6M in dead money just two years later. 

The lesson to be learned from the Eagles 2011 off-season may not be about lavish spending or plentiful additions. It may be that the foundation they thought was solid enough to build on was severely cracked. Vick was a bad bet for a franchise quarterback given his injury history. Maybe Jackson should have been taken care of before spending outside the org, or traded for a big return. The free agents were largely good additions piled on top of a rotten core. 


Only The Clinically Paranoid...

People that want to compare the Seahawks off-season to the Eagles in the hopes that it will spell certain doom are really hoping the 2012 Seahawks were an illusion. They are hoping Russell Wilson was a one-year wonder. They are hoping Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Brandon Browner are not the players they have shown the last two seasons. They are hoping Marshawn Lynch, Russell Okung, Max Unger, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are due for a fall. 

Opponents hoping that more talent will lead to subtraction by addition is just that, hope. There is not a lot of evidence to suggest the Eagles should be held up as a cautionary tale to big free agent additions. It is much more a cautionary tale of who you bet your franchise on. I will take Wilson over Vick any day in that debate. 

The rest of the league should be afraid, very afraid, if Bennett and Avril total the 23.5 sacks that Babin and Jenkins did for Philadelphia. There may never have been a secondary in the NFL that will match the talent the Seahawks could throw out there if Winfield is the player he has been in the role he knows so well. The most dominant offense in the NFL, based on Football Outsiders objectively weighted formulas, added a player so explosive that he was challenging for league MVP a year ago at the age of 24. He will be reprising the same role with an offensive system built to take advantage of his skill set and with a quarterback better than any he has played with since Brett Favre. 

None of this guarantees the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl, or even have a winning season. There are endless variables from injury to schedule to the bounce of an oddly shaped ball that can turn a season. What these moves do is significantly increase the odds that the Seahawks will be the most dangerous team in the NFL at least in 2013, and possibly for years to come.

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