As I illustrated earlier this week, the Eagles’ defense under Andy Reid was MUCH stronger from 2000-2004 than it was thereafter. As a reminder, here is the team’s Points Allowed performance from 2000-2012. The “LAVG-PPGA” shows how many FEWER points per game than the league average the Eagles allowed that year. So for the 2000 season, the Eagles allowed 5.4 points per game less than the league average. The “Def+%” shows that margin divided by the league average, which gives us the percentage difference (which accounts for the offensive inflation over the years).
So the question is, what happened after 2004? While the Jim Johnson effect can be clearly seen after his departure after the 2008 season, that doesn’t explain the team’s performance in 2005 and 2006.
Was this just bad luck? Something else?
Well to begin to answer that question, I felt like it’d be useful to take a look at how the defensive personnel evolved over time. To do that, I prepared a graphic that shows the Eagles defensive starters for all even years from 2002-2010 (5 seasons). Additionally, I listed (in parenthesis) each player’s Approximate Value for that season as defined by Pro-Football-reference.com. Note that this is a far from perfect measure, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but it gives us a good idea of who the biggest contributors were each year. Players with an AV of 6 of below are shown as Red. An AV of 7-9 is Yellow, with 10+ getting green. For quick reference, the top two circles on each line (2002 and 2004) mark the “peak” era. Click to enlarge if you can’t read it as is.
So what can we see?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t present as clear an answer as I had hoped. However, if you look closely, I think you can begin to see a potential factor; namely, the Elite players.
While I won’t go into overall football philosophy here (that’s its own post), in general, I am of the belief that you SCORE points with scheme, and PREVENT them with talent.
Now that’s an overly simplistic description, and obviously you need talent to score and a good scheme to prevent points, but at a high level, that’s how things shake out (mostly due to the offense’s inherent knowledge advantage, in that they know the play and the defense doesn’t).
How can we apply that here?
Well as you can see, the “peak” Eagles defense’ all included truly Elite player performances.
From 2000-2004, you’ve got Troy Vincent, Hugh Douglas, Brian Dawkins, Lito Sheppard, and Jeremiah Trotter (not shown since his best years came in ODD years) all turning in truly Elite performances (not necessarily every year). When those players were in their prime, they were easily among the best at their positions in the entire league.
The failure to replace these players with others of similar skill is one of the BIGGEST FAILINGS of the Andy Reid FO regime.
As you can see above, after 2004 (so the bottom three circles on each position line), the best Eagles defenders were Trent Cole, Asante Samuel, Quintin Mikell, and Brian Dawkins (though below his peak). While each of those players was very good, they really did not come close to matching the peak years of the 2000-2004 players I highlighted above.
So what now?
Well it’s clear the Eagles’ current defense needs more top-end talent. As of this moment, the only player that looks like he has the ability to become “elite” is Fletcher Cox. As I just showed, that’s not nearly enough. Unfortunately, it looks very unlikely that this year’s draft produced any more potential impact players for the defense. While I admire and support sticking 100% to BPA (my definition, not the NFL’s…see TPR), at some point, the Eagles will have to find impact contributors on defense. Ideally, next year’s BPA at each spot will be a defensive player. If not, though, the Eagles will have to move around to ensure that’s the case.