Heading into the 2011 season, the Philadelphia Eagles thought that the play of their cornerbacks would be their biggest strength.
Besides four-time Pro Bowler Asante Samuel on the left side, they added the best shut down corner in the league, Nnamdi Asomugha, through free agency, and they traded for a former Pro Bowler, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, from the Arizona Cardinals.
Following the trade, Rodgers-Cromartie moved to the slot, where he had never played before. The Eagles justified the move by using the then-Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers as an example of how three star cornerbacks were necessary. The Packers had Tramon Williams and Sam Shields as starters, and Charles Woodson as a nickel corner (as well as a safety and linebacker at times).
But what worked for the Packers didn’t work for the Eagles. The three cornerbacks experiment was a disaster.
Rookie defensive coordinator Juan Castillo struggled with how to use Asomugha, who showed that he wasn’t able to play the physical style of football that Woodson did (despite Asomugha being a bump-and-run corner).
DRC never adjusted to the slot, and missed three games with injuries. He didn’t intercept a pass all season either.
Only Samuel played well, intercepting three passes and holding opposing quarterbacks to a 52.4 passer rating, but it was lost in the disasters of the defense.
The Eagles knew that changes needed to be made heading into the 2012 season. One of the three cornerbacks had to go.
Asomugha, 31, has the best track record and was just signed to a $60 million deal. Even though he had a down year in 2011, fans knew he wasn’t going anywhere.
That left Samuel, 31, or Rodgers-Cromartie, 26, as the odd man out. Now Samuel is the better player. There’s no doubt in my mind. He was the best cornerback in the league in 2010, he’s earned four Pro Bowl selections, and he even played well despite all of the turmoil surrounding the 2011 Eagles.
Yet Andy Reid made the decision to ship Samuel to the Atlanta Falcons, where he received just a seventh round pick, which is only slightly more than a bag of footballs.
The decision to go with Rodgers-Cromartie as a starter was a risky one, as DRC had played poorly for two straight years after starting his career with two Pro Bowl-caliber seasons.
It’s paid off though, as Rodgers-Cromartie had a phenomenal preseason and has been dominant through the season’s first two games, allowing a 9.4 passer rating.
The departure of Samuel was not just about picking a younger player with a more talented future, however. Here’s what defensive end Brandon Graham had to say about the difference between the 2012 Eagles and the 2011 Eagles.
“I just think the leadership,” said Graham. “They got everybody out that was the cancer as they say. But I feel like everyone is more focused, determined and we had that taste last year of not going and don’t want to go through that same feeling again this year.”
Cancer. Hmm. I wonder who Graham is talking about.
Is it defensive tackle Antonio Dixon, who was cut in preseason? No, I don’t think so.
Could it be cornerback Joselio Hanson, who was released during final roster cuts? Not a chance.
I don’t think there’s really any doubt who Graham is talking about. He’s correct too.
Asante was a clubhouse cancer.
He refused to change his playing style. And there’s no doubt in my mind that he didn’t take too fondly to the Eagles’ new defensive coordinator, who had absolutely no experience coaching an NFL defense. I would bet anything that Samuel was badmouthing the coaches behind closed doors at every chance he got.
When one of your best players is constantly criticizing the coaches, it wears on the rest of the team. Something tells me that it was pretty difficult for any player on the Eagles’ defense to emerge as a leader last year when Samuel was so vocally negative.
Getting Samuel off the team had to have been one of Reid’s biggest goals this offseason. I bet he would have given Samuel away if he couldn’t get a draft pick for him. Sometimes you just can’t ignore a player’s attitude even if he is a playmaker.
I wouldn’t put Samuel in the Terrell Owens category of being a bad teammate, but the Eagles’ locker room is definitely a lot better without him around this season.
This year, linebacker DeMeco Ryans has emerged as the leader in the locker room. Samuel out, Ryans in. What a difference that makes.