Philly defense must set tone

Jeremiah Trotter is doing everything in his power to make sure the Eagles bounce back, this season, writes Sal Paolantonio.

Originally Published: July 29, 2006
By Sal Paolantonio |

LEHIGH, Pa. -- Growing up in the Texas hill country, Jeremiah Trotter spent his childhood chopping wood with his father, who taught his son that hard physical work can cure a lot of what ails or confronts any man.

After every sack or open-field tackle, Trotter still honors his dad with a re-enactment of the primitive axe blow, a symbol of what makes the Eagles middle linebacker a ferocious, physical presence on the football field.

As the Eagles broke training camp this week, Trotter told the story of how he had to provide a more delicate brand of presence to help his team climb out of last season's funk -- and exorcize the ghosts lingering from the Terrell Owens nightmare.

Beginning with Donovan McNabb. Before training camp opened, Trotter, who many thought was too close to Owens last year, went to McNabb. He didn't apologize. He challenged him to be the old Donovan.

"I just told him, 'Listen, you the man, now go out and be the man, and have fun doing it,' " said Trotter, who made his fourth Pro Bowl last year. "I said, 'I need to see you cracking jokes.' I remember the first preseason game, I walked up to him before the game and I said, 'Listen, I need to see you out there cracking jokes, smilin', havin' fun, because when you're doing that, you're at your best.' "

Like any good therapist, Trotter adjusts his mind games depending on the client. When he takes the field with his defense, Trotter drops the nice guy act.

"I'm playing good cop and bad cop right now," he said.

"Andy set the tone in minicamp: It's his way or the highway," Trotter said.

He's providing the highway patrol. In Philly, his street cred is unassailable. Trotter is the anti-McNabb, who fights the perception -- even in his own locker room -- that he is an extension of Andy Reid.

Remember, Trotter in the spring of 2002 had a very famous face-to-face confrontation with Reid in the head coach's office. The old wood chopper let his emotions get the best of him, walked out in a huff in a contract dispute and fled to the Redskins for two years.

And last summer, Trotter -- remembering his own contract squabbles with the organization -- refused to abandon Owens. In fact, he publicly expressed the private views of his teammates: making Owens happy contractually was better than having the whole situation blow up the team.

But that doesn't explain what happened to the Eagles' defense. Owens doesn't play defense. And the defense was not hampered by injuries. "And we still played horrible," Trotter said.

Last season, for the first time in the Andy Reid era, the Eagles' defense -- which had few injuries -- seriously underperformed, finishing 27th in the league in points allowed. In 2004, when they went to the Super Bowl, the Eagles finished second in that category.

"I was embarrassed," said Trotter. "We all were. And if you weren't, I don't want you out here."

Trotter has spent the summer trying to get that point across. From day one at training camp, he has been extremely vocal -- bringing a tone of intensity and impatience.

During a practice on the first day of full contact, rookie linebacker Omar Gaither was standing next to several offensive rookies on the sideline. Trotter screamed at Gaither:

"Get over here with us!" Gaither sheepishly did what he was told.

The Cleveland Browns were at Lincoln Financial Field for the second preseason game and during back-to-back plays, two defensive stars were shaken up -- first cornerback Lito Sheppard, then defensive end Jevon Kearse. In both cases, Trotter offered no condolences, just the unmistakable look of a man unwilling to accept a moment of weakness.

Asked about those moments, Trotter didn't deny what happened.

"I understand that getting injured is about 80 percent mental," said Trotter, who had two enormous ice bags taped to his surgically repaired knees. "And sometimes you got to suck it up. Guys are going to have to play hurt -- every day. We've done a great job of practicing banged up. And that's what it's going to take to get through the season.

"We've set out to be No. 1 defense in the league," he added. "And in order to be that No. 1 defense, you have to have guys out there everyday in practice like you're the No. 1 team."

One of Trotter's teammates said privately that because Trotter played such a strong role last year trying to make peace between McNabb and Owens -- Reid recognized Trotter's role by often listening to him and letting him in on the details of the rift between the organization and the petulant wide receiver -- it was only Trotter who could rightfully attempt to set things right this year. Only Trotter could set the pace. And in the Reid era, the defense has allowed McNabb to flourish -- not the other way around.

"I'm just trying to set a tempo," said Trotter. "Playing defense is a mentality. Getting to the ball. I want guys to practice like we're the No. 1 defense. You've got to get on guys. Don't let them get away with nothing. Don't have any letdowns.

"I said it in the first preseason game in Canton, in the locker room before the game -- I said, 'this is not a preseason game for us. This is regular season. Our season starts now.' "

With the core of the franchise -- Trotter, McNabb and safety Brian Dawkins -- all 30 years of age or older this season, the window is closing on this group to win a championship. And in the wake of what happened last year -- the injuries and the injurious behavior of Owens -- there was "a sense of urgency this year on this team," Trotter said.

"We don't make excuses," he said, "we don't talk about all the off-the-field problems we had, all the injuries we had. Defensively, we didn't have that many injuries. There was no excuse for how we played. I take that personally. Everybody was embarrassed. Dawk was embarrassed. I was embarrassed."

Of course, this being the NFL, talk doesn't go far. Teams have to have the horses. And, in the offseason, the Eagles' brain trust -- team president Joe Banner, general manager Tom Heckert and Reid -- tried to repair two catastrophic mistakes made by management last season: allowing defensive tackle Corey Simon to marinate at home in a contract dispute and then releasing him; and deciding that defensive end Derrick Burgess was not worth a heavy financial investment.

Simon left for Indianapolis and made a significant contribution to the Colts' defense. Burgess merely led the leagues in sacks out in Oakland. Management let both players go for nothing, and the team went from second in the league in sacks in 2004 to 26th. In this league -- where it's all about quarterback play, and getting to the quarterback -- that'll ruin a season. In 2004, the Eagles gave up 16 touchdown passes -- third in the league. In 2005, they surrendered 24 -- 26th in the league.

To replace the defensive-line defections, the Eagles drafted highly touted defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley of Florida State in the first round, and signed free agent defensive end Darren Howard from the Saints.

In the preseason, in the nickel defense, Howard has shown promise moving to defensive tackle and allowing Trent Cole -- fifth-round pick from 2004 who collected five sacks in limited duty last year -- to play right defensive end. This combination will undoubtedly help Kearse, who was a disappointment last year, flourish again at left defensive end.

In short, defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has his bag full of tricks again -- to run the kind of up-tempo, fire zone blitz scheme that was the hallmark of a team that made four straight trips to the NFC Championship game.

Trotter can hardly contain himself.

"Oh, man, we got some bodies, some rotation in front of me," he said. "I'm ready to have an MVP season."

MVP, he was asked, of what?

"The league, the National Football League," he said. "Last year people said it was my best year ever. Well, guess what? We didn't win a lot of games. This year, we're going to win a lot of games and I'm going to make a major impact."

He already is.

Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN.

Sal Paolantonio

SportsCenter correspondent / NFL reporter
Sal Paolantonio joined ESPN as a SportsCenter correspondent in August 1995, primarily reporting on the NFL. Beginning in 2004, he also served as host of NFL Match-Up, a weekly "Xs and Os" football show produced by NFL Films.