The offseason champions for the 2011 season are unquestionably the Philadelphia Eagles and unlike the usual March champs, the Washington Redskins, the Eagles were a good team to start with before throwing around a ton of money on players, which is why so many pundits, fans, and even players are suggesting the Eagles are the team to beat this year. The problem with this is the fact that football is unlike any other sport in that throwing around a ton of money does not automatically put a team into the championship and cohesion is an integral part of the process. For that reason as well as the fact the Packers still appear to have more talent, the Packers should still be considered the NFC favorite with the most serious threat to the Packers’ chances at repeating is a Super Bowl hangover.
The Eagles defense will be featuring a half dozen new starters with a defensive coordinator who was the offensive line coach the year before and they have to figure out a way to gel in abridged offseason. The hiring of Jim Washburn as the defensive line coach should help ease the burden, but the situation with Mike Patterson throws a wrench in the process. Patterson, after suffering a seizure on the practice field, and it was revealed that Patterson has a brain condition that could require surgery and the timetable on his return is unknown, leaving Trent Cole as the only returning starter currently practicing.
The talent the Eagles have acquired is undeniable, especially when it comes to the cornerback position and defensive line such as Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Jason Babin, and Cullen Jenkins, but football has rarely ever been a game where the mercenary approach has been effective when it comes to winning a championship, especially in the short term. The Eagles approach resembles the 1994 San Francisco 49ers where the offense was in place and incredibly effective and the front office brought in the last pieces to the puzzle such as Deion Sanders, Ken Norton Jr., etc and they were able to win the Super Bowl. The problem is the Eagles are doing this when the Packers are already effective on both sides of the ball and are able to keep the team intact.
The Green Bay Packers will again feature Dom Capers as the defensive coordinator and the Packer defense will feature nine returning starters only needing to replace Cullen Jenkins, now an Eagle, and Nick Barnett. Cullen Jenkins is a great football player and replacing him will be easier said than done, but in Barnett’s case, he will be replaced by Desmond Bishop, who has been playing and learning in the Packers system for a few years and Bishop started in place of Barnett when he was hurt last year, so the transition should be virtually seamless.
Offensively, the Eagles will be bringing back Michael Vick in his second full season as a starter and the skill positions will be largely the same with a sprinkling of talented veterans such as Ronnie Brown and Johnnie Lee Higgins. The offensive line is less of a given, coming off of a poor season last year, especially in the middle of the line. This was largely due to injuries where Todd Herremans missed about 6 weeks, Jamaal Jackson missed the entire year, and the Eagles were using their third string center at times. The Eagles also used their first pick in the draft to improve the right guard position by adding Danny Watkins. It remains to be seen if all these changes will result in effective offensive line play, but there is certainly reason to be optimistic.
The Packers basically come back with the exact same offense, except they will get tight end Jermichael Finley back in the lineup, after missing the entire season last year, and they have also added another first round offensive tackle to develop in Derek Sherrod, who could contribute as Bryan Bulaga has. The larger advantage that the Packers have is the fact that the Packers are just better across the board on the offensive side of the ball than the Eagles.
Breaking it down position by position, the Packers have a clear advantage at quarterback as Aaron Rodgers is an elite quarterback and they have advantages at tight end, and wide receiver. While some people might take DeSean Jackson over Greg Jennings, there is no question the Packers have a substantially better overall unit at that position. Brent Celek is a talented tight end in Philadelphia, but Jermichael Finley is a mismatch the second he steps onto the field. The Eagles have an advantage at running back and the offensive line might be a slight advantage towards Green Bay in terms of depth, there is no clear advantage one way or the other.
On defense, it is more difficult to handicap a few areas because the Eagles are so new. The Eagles could definitely have an advantage at defensive line, but the Packers have a substantially better set of linebackers. It is easy to say the Eagles have a better set up at corner, but it is important to point out the Packers have a lot of talent in that area and the Packers make up some of the ground they give up at corner by having a better group of safeties than Philadelphia. The Eagles will get back Nate Allen, who lost part of his season last year due to injury and was having a great rookie year.
Last but not least, the Eagles will be running out rookies at kicker and punter while the Packers will have Mason Crosby and Tim Masthay. And the Packers have another advantage when it comes to coaching. Andy Reid is a good coach and has a good staff, especially on offense, but Mike McCarthy is better and has the jewelry to prove it. Having Dom Capers as one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL goes a long way as well.
There is certainly reason to be excited about the Philadelphia Eagles as they are clearly going all in this season and in the near future to get a Super Bowl championship, but the only thing that appears able to slow down the Packers is a Super Bowl hangover. Not even injuries were able to slow them down last year, so if the Packers come back hungry to win and having so many people and players like Vince Young ready to dub the Eagles the “Dream Team” could inspire the Packers to make a bid for back to back Super Bowls. In the era of free agency, it is increasingly silly to suggest that the Super Bowl champs are the champs until they are knocked off, but the Packers appear poised to be the exception. There is good news, Eagles fans: There does not appear to be any reason the Eagles will not be in position to be a serious contender for the next few years.