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Eagles' vets playing for careers, not just season

geoff mosher csnphilly com

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 06:17 PM

Mosher

Eagles' vets playing for careers, not just season

November 10, 2012, 10:06 am

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If the Eagles spend another January watching the playoffs on TV, it’s almost guaranteed that widespread personnel changes will rock the franchise in the offseason.

It will start with the head coach, whose job security has been on thin ice since the owner’s preseason claim that his franchise better not repeat last year’s 8-8 mark if Andy Reid desires to see season No. 15 in Philadelphia.

After coaching changes, personnel shakeups almost always follow. The Eagles have one of the NFL’s youngest rosters based on average age but their core is composed of several high-priced veterans who probably have fewer games remaining than they’ve already played.

This is why quarterback Michael Vick, who turned 32 this year, wondered recently if the 20-somethings that dress alongside him every day in the Eagles' locker room can relate to the urgency he and the other elder statesmen feel to get this fleeting season turned around quickly.

“That’s the question,” Vick said. “Do the other guys -- the young guys -- understand what’s at stake? Not just as far as our careers go, but for this organization and winning.”

Smart franchises don’t usually keep around an aging quarterback who goes consecutive seasons without making the playoffs and has a contract that places him among the league’s highest paid players.

It’s unlikely that Vick would be welcomed back in 2013 -- especially at $15.5 million -- when the team has the option of buying him out for the thriftier price of $3 million.

Likewise, the April drafting of defensive tackle Fletcher Cox at 12th overall and defensive end Vinny Curry in the second round coupled with the turnaround of 2010 first-round defensive end Brandon Graham means that defensive tackles Mike Patterson and Cullen Jenkins and defensive end Jason Babin -- each of whom are over 30 -- could join Vick out the door.

Jenkins and defensive lineman Darryl Tapp took pay cuts to preserve their roster spots this season, so their futures here beyond 2012 were already tenuous. The 32-year-old Babin’s steady decline from an 18-sack monster to a pedestrian pass rusher -- he has just 2.5 sacks at the midway point -- makes him unlikely to pocket the nearly $4.5 million he’s set to collect next year.

“Even though we’re not getting the sack numbers we’re accustomed to getting, we’re still out here pushing because you never know,” Tapp said. “We never know what tomorrow is going to hold for us in our planned situations or next year.”

Even players who either aren’t yet over the hill by NFL standards, like cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, or haven’t shown steep decline, like cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and linebacker DeMeco Ryans, can’t be certain that their position or style of play would blend with a new coach and new philosophy.

Let’s say the Eagles replaced Reid with a defensive-minded coach whose pedigree is in the 3-4 scheme. Ryans was already discarded by one team that decided he wasn’t as effective in the 34 front. By the same token, Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie are pure press corners whose skills wouldn’t translate to a Tampa 2 scheme.

“We (are) still early in the season,” said Rodgers-Cromartie, who is in the last year of the five-year deal he signed as a rookie drafted in the first round by the Cardinals. “When [stuff] gets bad and everyone starts to [doubt], that’s when you start to think about it because there is nothing else to think about [except], ‘Where is my future on this team?’ But we’ve still got a shot. My main focus is on winning this next game.”

That’s not to say all of the veterans have completely funneled out any thoughts of what their future holds, or if they still have one beyond this season. It would be ludicrous to think that none of them has started to question their mortality or the franchise’s next move after a four-game losing streak has knocked the Eagles under .500 by midseason for the second straight year.

“Probably individually, at some point,” said Patterson, who underwent offseason brain surgery and missed the first seven games of the season. Meanwhile, his replacement, the rookie Cox, has quickly emerged into the team’s best overall lineman, almost ensuring that Patterson won’t ever get the chance to climb back into the starting lineup.

“But on the bigger scale of things, no,” he added. “I don’t see it right now. I don’t see it in guys’ faces, it’s not in the meeting rooms. We’re definitely not showing it out on the field.”

The scary thought for guys like Patterson is that this year might present their last, and best, chance to win the Super Bowl and that those aspirations rest on the potential of a dozen or so fledglings who haven’t won a playoff game or seen the end of their third seasons.

Seven starters in Sunday’s game against the equally dysfunctional Cowboys (3-5) are either rookies or first-year players. Only one player on the roster (Jenkins) has actually won a Super Bowl.

When right tackle Todd Herremans went down with a foot injury Monday night that landed him on Injured Reserve, the Eagles lost one of their seven starters to have played in a conference championship game.

The six rookies or first-year players who will play pivotal roles against Dallas can’t possibly comprehend the desperation their aging teammates face to secure their futures.

“Not yet. They’re young,” Rodgers-Cromartie said. “That’s how I was when I came in. The veteran guys, you don’t understand [what they’re going through] because you’re still caught up in the realm of, ‘Oh [shoot], I’m in the NFL.’ You don’t understand that these veterans, it might be their last [chance].”

It’s a hard message to preach around the locker room without sounding selfish. Hey, rookie, mind giving a little more effort so I don’t lose my job?

When he was drafted out of Southern California in the first round of the 2005 draft, Patterson said then-veterans Donovan McNabb, Hollis Thomas and Tra Thomas tried to school the rookies about the burden they faced to play for their teammates’ livelihoods, not just their own.

“They used to tell us the same things -- you don’t get a second chance, you want to go out there and play your best every year, every game, you want to make it your best,” Patterson recalled. “It’s hard. You know it and the older guys are telling you, but it’s hard to really understand when you’re really young.”

Hard? That’s one way to understate it.

“It’s impossible as a young person,” Tapp said. “You’re a young person -- like first or second year -- you’re invincible. Football is always gonna come tomorrow. But when you start getting in that second contract, which is about Year 4 or 5, then you got more days behind you than you do before you.”

Nobody is taking the losses harder than Vick, who’s become the target of public ridicule for his 13 turnovers and 77.7 passer rating that ranks him just slightly ahead of Blaine Gabbert and Mark Sanchez.

Vick admitted that losing has weighed heavily on him and that he never imagined that this roster would be mired in the same position as last year’s team that nearly played itself out of postseason contention before Thanksgiving.

Of all the veterans who could hit the unemployment line after the season, Vick stands to lose the most. On top of the $15.5 million that he wouldn’t see, Vick will be hard pressed to find another Super Bowl-minded franchise willing to hand him the keys to its offense.

This coaching staff and supporting cast give him the best shot to prove he can be the championship-caliber quarterback that his critics have long believed he couldn’t be. Right now, the critics are rehearsing their “I-told-you-sos.”

“It’s been tough. Our expectations were very high,” Vick said. “Obviously we thought we’d be in a better position. I’m only speaking for myself, [but] I think other guys in the locker room feel that way.

“It’s on us to get it all turned around and we just [have to] keep pushing. The thing is we still have a fighting chance, we still control our own destiny, so we all have to be held accountable.”

E-mail Geoff Mosher at gmosher@comcastsportsnet.com