BETHLEHEM, Pa.– Now that he has taken his talents to South Philly, star cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha(notes) – the prize of the fast and furious, post-lockout NFL free-agent class of 2011 – has his first shutdown assignment: attempting to contain the viral hype preceding the Philadelphia Eagles' Super Bowl-or-bust season.
If cynics skeptical of the franchise's flurry of accomplished acquisitions were looking for an excuse to give Asomugha's new team the Miami Heat treatment, they got a gift from the sound-bite gods when new backup quarterback Vince Young(notes), the former Tennessee Titans starter looking to recharge his once-promising career, called the Eagles a "Dream Team" at his introductory news conference late last month.
Asomugha, the former Raiders All-Pro who has yet to taste the postseason after eight NFL campaigns, understands the dubious connotation provoked by such a statement in 2011, and he has no desire to be labeled as his sport's LeBron James.
However, he's not averse to channeling a little Magic and imagining the Birds soaring in rarefied Air.
"We're absolutely not 'The Dream Team,' but we are good, and this team could be pretty special," Asomugha said Saturday afternoon following a training-camp practice at Lehigh University. "If you want to talk about the real Dream Team from the '92 Olympics, you'd want that [label]. But you don't want [to be associated with] what happened recently."
In other words, don't expect Asomugha to join Michael Vick(notes) and DeSean Jackson(notes) in emerging from a smoke-filled tunnel at Lincoln Financial Field with "YES WE DID" emanating from the JumboTron.
Try as they might to avoid being prematurely anointed – and you'd best believe that coach Andy Reid is doing everything he can to get his players to stop proliferating the "Dream Team" storyline – the Eagles' collective sense of optimism seems highly justified.
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After Vick's stunning revival and MVP-caliber 2010 regular season, Philly finished 27 yards away from pulling out a first-round playoff victory over the Green Bay Packers, effectively giving the eventual Super Bowl champs their toughest test of the postseason.
After the season, in addition to replacing defensive coordinator Sean McDermott with the untested Juan Castillo, the Eagles brought in a pair of highly respected position coaches: Jim Washburn (defensive line) and Howard Mudd (offensive line), late of the Titans and Indianapolis Colts, respectively. Several players and coaches at Eagles camp insisted there already has been an appreciable difference on both sides of the ball.
"One of our views during the lockout was that while nobody else was in position to get better, we actually improved our team significantly," Eagles president Joe Banner said Monday. "With Washburn and Howard – and Juan, though he still has to prove it – we already felt like we'd actually made some meaningful moves."
First Roseman did the expected, trading quarterback Kevin Kolb(notes) – last year's presumed successor to Donovan McNabb(notes) before a first-game injury and Vick's excellence altered the plan – to the Arizona Cardinals for a 2012 second-round draft pick and former Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes). Given that the Eagles already had a Pro Bowl corner in Asante Samuel(notes), no one considered them a serious contender to sign Asomugha, which made it all the more shocking when they landed him with a five-year, $60-million deal.
Though Roseman has since shopped Samuel to potential suitors – a source said he was asking for a pair of second-round picks in return – the GM said Monday he was comfortable keeping all three high-profile corners on the roster in 2011.
After Asomugha's signing the hits kept coming via free agency at what Reid called "New York Stock Exchange speed." Among the newcomers who could make an immediate impact: Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Babin(notes), who had 12½ sacks in 2010 playing for Washburn in Tennessee; defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins(notes) (seven sacks in 11 games for the Packers last year); defensive end Anthony Hargrove(notes); tackle Ryan Harris(notes); halfback Ronnie Brown (15 100-yard rushing games in six seasons with the Dolphins); Young; backup tight end Donald Lee(notes) (Packers); and former Giants wideout Steve Smith (107 receptions in 2009).
Other than that, the Eagles didn't really do a whole lot to try to improve their team.
"The additions are really important to helping us get to where we want to go," said star wideout Jackson, who skipped the first 11 days of camp because of a contract-related holdout but returned last week while his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, and Banner attempt to work out a lucrative extension. "The past couple of years, we've been so close, but we've just had a couple of missing pieces."
Said Banner: "We're very, very pleased [with free agency]. Frankly, it came out better than we'd hoped."
If the Eagles get better offensively, the result could be downright scary. Last year, with a high-powered attack featuring Jackson, wideout Jeremy Maclin(notes) (who has yet to practice this summer due to an undisclosed illness), tight end Brent Celek(notes) and halfback LeSean McCoy, Philly led the league in plays of more than 20 yards and scoring drives of four plays or fewer, ranking second in total offense and third in points.
"Our offense is great," Vick says. "We just need to find a way to put it all together, man."
Defensively, Vick has already noticed a difference, beginning with Asomugha's ability to lock down receivers.
"He's one hell of an athlete," Vick says of the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder. "You do not know what I go through every day in practice against this defense. It's like a game every day. When we played against Baltimore [in last Thursday's preaseason opener, a 13-6 Philly victory], it actually seemed like the game slowed down a little by comparison."
Holdovers Brent Celek and Michael Vick are surrounded by even more talent this year.
Vick's smooth performance early in the Ravens game did nothing to slow down the hype machine, though some people in the organization seemed eager to do so during my visit.
Reid: "The reality is we get out here and work. I don't get caught up in labels. The [Dream Team] started with Vince kind of saying it in jest, and people ran with it. But nothing's changed."
Samuel: "Ain't no Dream Team. We've got a bunch of big-name athletes, but it's all on paper right now."
Banner: "I am not even remotely embracing that quote. Nothing good can come from that. My excitement level is high, but I put it all in terms of the unfulfilled desire. We've won division titles and played in five championship games, but the unfulfilled need here is to win a Super Bowl."
All of which ensures that if the Eagles come up short – even if, like the 2010-11 Heat, they finish second – they'll consider the outcome to have been less than dreamy.
"We can be a Dream Team," Young insisted Monday, "if we work at it."
Vick, for one, can close his eyes and envision a successful outcome. "Vince made the comment that we're a Dream Team – hey, we're trying to live up to those standards," he says. "We understand what we have here, and we feel like we should make a good push. We all believe. That's the key."
Now, like Magic, Bird, Air Jordan and company nearly two decades ago, it's time for the Eagles to go for the gold.