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By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie drew some criticism for saying a second straight record 8-8 record would not be good enough when he made his state of the team address last week.
Lurie's statement could be another distraction Eagles head coach Andy Reid doesn't need in what some believe could be his final season with the team. Of course, Lurie has every right to make statements, and is still confident his team has what it takes to be a contender.
"It's a big emptiness because I feel like we've accomplished everything else," Lurie said of Philadelphia's failure to win a Super Bowl. "It's almost all I think about...it's kind of the one remaining goal. I think we've got the means to do it. Hopefully, we can make it happen."
The Eagles will get their journey started Sunday against a Cleveland Browns team considered by many insiders to be just a sacrificial lamb for the NFC East contenders.
Lurie gave Reid another chance to redeem himself at the conclusion of a disappointing .500 campaign in which the team failed to gel early on and lost eight of the first 12 games.
Dubbed by former backup quarterback Vince Young as the "Dream Team," the Eagles were anything but in blowing fourth-quarter leads and turning the ball over more often than anticipated. Missing the playoffs just added fuel to the fire for an impatient fan base that also had high expectations for last season.
Philadelphia hasn't won a postseason game since 2008 and was eliminated in the first round of the NFC Playoffs in both 2009 and 2010.
Expectations are high again for this season, and it all weighs on the health of Michael Vick. The quarterback plays with a reckless abandon, but still has the speed to keep defenses honest and make big plays. The left-handed Vick, was intercepted a career-high 14 times in 2011, though, and lost four of his 10 fumbles, his most since 2005 while with Atlanta.
Vick also hasn't played a full season since 2006, though he denies being termed a fragile player.
"I don't think I'm injury-prone at all," he said. "I had a couple of fluke injuries that just happened, but it's not something I'm going to worry about. I'm going to continue to go out there and play."
This is the first year in which Vick has had a full offseason to prepare as the Eagles' starter, as he never had the chance to get completely ready for that role with last year's lockout. With an entire offseason and training camp under his belt, he and the Eagles are hoping to soar.
The Eagles have several weapons on offense in Vick, running back LeSean McCoy and wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson. McCoy basically carried the offense with a career year a season ago, but may take a step back with All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters likely out for the season with an Achilles injury. Peters played a huge role in the run game last year by opening gaping holes for McCoy.
Another area of concern for the Eagles last season was their defense. In a surprise, Reid anointed offensive line coach Juan Castillo as the new coordinator prior to last season. Castillo does have a defensive background, and the Eagles started to soak in his philosophies during a season-ending four-game winning streak.
The 2011 Eagles were brutal against the run, however, and had problems at linebacker, prompting the team to acquire former Houston Texans defensive captain DeMeco Ryans in a trade this spring to man the middle.
Philadelphia has won three of its last four season openers.
Cleveland, however, hasn't won on opening day since 2004 under then-head coach Butch Davis, and is generally pegged to finish last in the AFC North.
Pat Shurmur will try to end that drought when he begins his second season with the Browns and tries to improve on a 4-12 record last year. Shurmur, who has the support of general manager Mike Holmgren, took over a dreadful offense and one of the worst teams in the NFL over the past decade.
The Browns, now one of the youngest teams in the NFL, lost all six of their AFC North games in 2011 and quarterback Colt McCoy struggled in his second pro season, causing the team to draft Brandon Weeden with the 22nd overall pick in April's draft. The Oklahoma State product made believers out of the organization and earned the starting job in camp.
"He'll be our starter as we go forward here," Shurmur said. "Brandon has been getting most of the work with the [first team], so this isn't just that we're starting the development, we're ramping it up here. We've seen him have a pretty good handle on what we're doing."
Weeden, 28, stole the headlines while running back and fellow rookie Trent Richardson was recovering from knee surgery in early August. Selected with the No. 3 pick in the draft, Richardson is hoping he will be ready to go against the Eagles and give the Browns more options and talent on offense. Last year's starting running back, Peyton Hillis, appeared in just 10 games after an awesome 2010 campaign, and is now with Kansas City. The backfield now belongs to Richardson, a compact running back with a solid frame.
"If he's ready to go, he will be our starter," Shurmur said about Richardson's outlook for Sunday. "Trent looked good. He was in team [drills]. I knew he'd be out here and he did a good job. It was his first day back in practice (on Monday), so we did what we could do. Trent looked healthy running around."
A healthy Richardson should make Cleveland's chances of starting off the season on a high note that much better. He inked a hefty deal before rookies reported to camp, and the Browns traded up to get the former Alabama star after he set Crimson Tide single-season records for rushing yards (1,679), rushing touchdowns (21) and all-purpose yards (2,083) in 2011.
Cleveland's defense could be in for a long afternoon, but kept most of the games respectable in 2011. Leading tackler D'Qwell Jackson and second-year defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard look to have another productive campaign under veteran coordinator Dick Jauron.
Browns lead 31-15-1
Streak: Eagles have won last three meetings Last Meeting: Eagles 30, Browns 10 (Dec. 15, 2010 at Philadelphia) Last Meeting at Site: Eagles 34, Browns 31 (Oct. 24, 2004)
Eagles HC Andy Reid vs. Browns: 3-0 Browns HC Pat Shurmur vs. Eagles: 0-0 Reid vs. Shurmur Head-to-Head: First Meeting
Notes: The Browns' last win in the series came via a 26-7 decision in Philadelphia on Nov. 13, 1994, with the Eagles having emerged victorious in each of their last three visits to Cleveland. Shurmur spent 10 seasons as an assistant under Reid in Philadelphia from 1999-2008, including the last seven as the Eagles' quarterbacks coach. Teams also faced one another in the third week of this year's preseason, with Eagles claiming a 27-10 victory.
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Offensive Team Rankings
Philadelphia: 4th overall (399.1 ypg), 5th rushing (142.3 ypg), 9th passing (256.9 ypg), 8th scoring (24.8 ppg)
Cleveland: 29th overall (288.8 ypg), 28th rushing (95.7 ypg), 24th passing (193.1 ypg), 30th scoring (13.6 ppg)
2011 Defensive Team Rankings
Philadelphia: 8th overall (324.9 ypg), 16th rushing (112.6 ypg), 10th passing (212.3 ypg), 10th scoring (20.5 ppg)
Cleveland: 10th overall (332.4 ypg), 30th rushing (147.4 ypg), 2nd passing (184.9 ypg), 5th scoring (19.2 ppg)
2011 Turnover Margin
Philadelphia: -14 (24 takeaways, 38 giveaways) Cleveland: +1 (20 takeaways, 19 giveaways)
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Philadelphia: 51.5 percent (66 possessions, 34 TD, 20 FG) -- 14th overall Cleveland: 41.9 percent (31 possessions, 13 TD, 11 FG) -- 28th overall
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Philadelphia: 59.6 percent (47 possessions, 28 TD, 9 FG) -- 30th overall Cleveland: 40.8 percent (49 possessions, 20 TD, 20 FG) -- 3rd overall
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
As previously stated, the Eagles' season hinges on the health of Vick (3303 passing yards, 18 TD, 14 INT in 2011). He also must protect the football and read defenses better after really struggling with turnovers over first 12 weeks. Vick still passed for 3,000-plus yards for a second straight year, though his quarterback rating dropped from 100.2 in 2010 to 84.9. He may find it difficult at times throwing against the Browns, who had the second-best pass defense in the NFL a season ago. Cleveland, though, was 30th in run defense, and that must make McCoy (1309 rushing yards, 17 TD) smile. He had a monster 2011 for the Eagles and led the league with 20 total touchdowns. McCoy, who received a new deal in the offseason, also was tops in the NFL with 102 first downs, 84 of which came on rushing attempts. DeSean Jackson (58 receptions, 4 TD) led the team in receiving yards (961) last season despite missing one game due to a suspension. He was vehement about getting a new contract and admittedly took some plays off, but was rewarded with a multi- year deal in the offseason and seems poised to back it up. Maclin led the team with 63 catches a year ago and is the Eagles' most complete receiver. The offensive line is back minus Peters, whose injury forced the team to sign former Buffalo starter Demetress Bell. He lost the left tackle job to King Dunlap during training camp, however.
The Browns have a few former Eagles on their roster in cornerbacks Sheldon Brown (48 tackles, 2 INT) and Dimitri Patterson (28 tackles). The two are familiar with what Philadelphia likes to execute and can give the rest of Cleveland's defense some pointers on formations. Linebacker Chris Gocong is also a former Eagle, but is sidelined for the season with an Achilles injury. Sheard (55 tackles, 8.5 sacks) played well as a rookie at defensive end in 2011, while tackles Ahtyba Rubin (83 tackles, 5 sacks) and John Hughes (3rd Round, Cincinnati) will try and solidify the run defense. Fellow tackle Phil Taylor (59 tackles, 4 sacks) was drafted in the first round a year ago, but is currently out with a pectoral injury. D'Qwell Jackson (158 tackles, 3.5 sacks) had a busy 2011 after recording a team high in tackles and signed a new deal in the offseason. He played in all 16 games a season ago, while outside linebacker Scott Fujita (50 tackles) will be suspended for the first three games because of his role in the New Orleans Saints' bounty program while then a member of that team. Cornerback Joe Haden (65 tackles) is appealing a four- game suspension for reportedly testing positive for Adderall, one of the NFL's banned substances. If Haden does not play, Patterson or Buster Skrine (18 tackles, INT) could start in his place.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
All eyes will be on Weeden and the Browns' offensive line. One of a handful of rookie quarterbacks who will debut in Week 1, he hopes to make Shurmur's decision a wise one. Weeden has good size and the arm strength to succeed in this league, but it still remains a mystery whether he can handle the speed and intricacies of running a professional offense. During the preseason, Weeden completed 24 of his 49 pass attempts for 297 yards with one interception and two lost fumbles. The fact that he did not throw a touchdown pass can be concerning, but he did set Oklahoma State career passing records for yards (9,260) and touchdown throws (75). Left tackle Joe Thomas is one of the top lineman in the game and will protect Weeden's backside. Richardson is expected to be the next great running back in Cleveland, and will give the Eagles some trouble if he's healthy. Philadelphia's "Wide Nine" defensive alignment was often exposed in the running game last season, and will be counting on Ryans to plug some of the gaps. Brandon Jackson and Montario Hardesty (266 yards) will see action at running back while Richardson gradually gets back into playing shape. Greg Little (61 receptions, 2 TD) and Mohamed Massaquoi (31 receptions, 2 TD) are Cleveland's top receivers, with return specialist Joshua Cribbs (41 receptions, 4 TD) serving as a jack-of- all-trades.
The Eagles recorded 50 sacks a year ago and sacrificed run defense for attacking the quarterback. The "Wide Nine" arrangement instilled by defensive line coach Jim Washburn can be a double-edged sword, especially when the linebackers were CFL-worthy at best last year. Jamar Chaney (92 tackles, 3 INT) led the team in stops and is decent is pass coverage, but lost his job to rookie Mychal Kendricks, who was selected in the second round of April's draft. Kendricks is what the Eagles need, a quick playmaker who can get to the ball with excellent speed. In a division with Robert Griffin III and several other speedsters, the Eagles are hoping he can live up to expectations. Ryans (64 tackles with Texans) is now the man in the middle and returned last season from an Achilles injury that limited him to six games in 2010. It took some time for the newcomer to digest Castillo's scheme, but should have it down pat by now. Ryans, of course, was brought in to improve the run defense. Defensive tackles Cullen Jenkins (40 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Derek Landri (21 tackles, 2 sacks) are a part of a strong line rotation which includes rookie Fletcher Cox, the team's first-round selection in the past draft. Ends Jason Babin (40 tackles, 18 sacks) and Trent Cole (44 tackles, 11 sacks) will surely give Cleveland's line and Weeden heavy pressure, while cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha (40 tackles, 3 INT) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (28 tackles) have had a full offseason to get the system down. Safety could be an issue, however, with Kurt Coleman (78 tackles, 4 INT) and Nate Allen (59 tackles, 2 INT) as the last line of defense.
Reid's mind was already distracted with the passing of his son, Garrett, during training camp, and Lurie dropped a bomb in his state of the team address. The players have already rallied around the longest-tenured active coach in the NFL and understand it's vital to get this season started with a bang. Philadelphia has the firepower to do it, and an immense advantage against the Browns. The only aspect that could hurt the Eagles is, of course, an injury to an integral piece of the puzzle or a stagnant run defense. Richardson may not see as many carries as he would like as he recovers from knee surgery and fellow rookie Weeden must get protection from all sides, as the Eagles like to blitz often. Expect a slow start for both teams before the Eagles begin to pull away in the third quarter en route to a double-digit victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 31, Browns 13
09/06 11:35:29 ET