Every single football fan watched with open mouths as the Philadelphia Eagles acquired superstar after superstar this past offseason.
On the defensive side of the ball, the team signed defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, one of the top run-stuffing linemen in the National Football League. They signed defensive end Jason Babin, a Pro Bowl selection in 2010. They traded for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a Pro Bowl selection in 2009. And they signed cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, arguably the top cover cornerback in the league and a four-time Pro Bowl selection.
They had the rest of the league shaking in fear as they boldly proclaimed their Super Bowl aspirations heading into an all-or-nothing 2011 season.
In the first game, the Eagles faced the St. Louis Rams, who had finished a game back in the NFC West division race in 2010. The Rams were expected to challenge for a playoff berth again in 2011, and a victory against the Eagles in week one would definitely turn a few heads around the league.
Although the Eagles had drastically improved their defensive line and secondary, they still had a relatively weak group of linebackers. The problems started in the middle with rookie Casey Matthews, a player who was drafted in the fourth round because of one reason and one reason only: his last name was Matthews, and his brother Clay Jr, was one of the best linebackers in the NFL.
But anybody who watched Casey play, or attempt to play, the middle linebacker position in training camp and the preseason games could tell that the Eagles were in for a lot of trouble. Matthews was as effective at manning the middle of the field as Shaquille O’Neal was at shooting free throws.
The problems began on the game’s first play, when the Rams handed off to Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson. The play was a simple run, probably designed to get four or five yards. It was a play to get the Rams’ feet wet, and start off the season with a positive gain.
It turned into the single most embarrassing scenario possible.
Jackson sprinted untouched up the middle, darted to the left side of the field, and headed into the end zone to complete a 47-yard scoring play.
Untouched. As in, not one Eagles defender laid a hand on him. At all.
The Eagles’ linebackers all overpursued on the play, with the big block coming from Rams’ center Jason Brown on (who else?) Casey Matthews.
It was a play that summed up the brief Casey Matthews era. It summed up Andy Reid’s decision to name Juan Castillo as the defensive coordinator. It summed up the Eagles’ season.
The only thing it didn’t do, thankfully, was sum up the Eagles’ game. The Eagles won 31-13, knocking out several Rams players due to injuries, including quarterback Sam Bradford, running back Steven Jackson, wide receiver Danny Amendola, and cornerback Ron Bartell.
Ironically, the Eagles got the last laugh, as they won the game decisively and the Rams finished the 2011 season with a 2-14 record.
But for one play, the first play of the entire season, every Eagles fan in the world had images of “0-16” flashing through his head. I know I did.