The news hit the sports wire on the evening of March 4 and was duly reported by Philadelphia radio and TV stations, though not with the vim and vigor of the Flyers' or Phillies' highlights from that day. The Eagles traded a sixth-round pick in 2003 and a fourth-rounder in 2004 to the Atlanta Falcons for linebacker Mark Simoneau. � Eagles safety Brian Dawkins was sitting in his Jacksonville home when he got word. "Simon who?" he said aloud. � With all the headline deals in the off-season—the Denver Broncos signed Jake Plummer, the Falcons traded for Peerless Price, the New England Patriots signed Rosevelt Colvin and Rodney Harrison, the Washington Redskins paid a king's ransom for Laveranues Coles, the St. Louis Rams traded for Kyle Turley—the best the Eagles could do was Mark Simoneau? A 26-year-old backup middle linebacker and special teams player? Hadn't Philadelphia, the NFL's winningest franchise over the last three regular seasons (34-14), lost defensive starters Hugh Douglas, Levon Kirkland and Shawn Barber, plus kick-returner-deluxe Brian Mitchell, to free agency?
"I understand what it's like up here," Simoneau said recently, as he bit into a cheese steak at Pat's in South Philly. So anonymous is Simoneau that, even in a city that adores its "Iggles," he dined at this popular hangout for 40 minutes without being recognized. "I understand the pressure on me."
Or so he thinks. After consecutive losses in the NFC Championship Game, including last season's 27-10 shocker to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Eagles fans' expectations are higher than they've been since the franchise played in its only Super Bowl, in January 1981. "Last season our fans were off the chart, wanting to win a Super Bowl so bad," says cornerback Troy Vincent. "They were so disappointed after the Tampa loss, but they've come back double off the chart. Is that possible?"
Could be. At the end of a long practice last month, a fan among the crowd of about 4,000 at training camp on the Lehigh University campus began to chant, "Soo-per BOWL! Soo-per BOWL!" Soon most of the other Eagles faithful joined in, and the chant echoed off the forested hills. "Every day we hear this," says Dawkins. "Every day."
Into this pressure cooker steps Simoneau, who is expected to not only become a full-time starter for the first time in his pro career, but also to call defensive signals for the first time. The Falcons were willing to trade him because they are linebacker-rich. They recently resigned Pro Bowl inside linebacker Keith Brooking to a seven-year, $41 million contract, and they judged other young linebackers, notably Chris Draft, to be better than Simoneau at playing the outside. In three seasons with Atlanta, Simoneau started nine games but made his mark on special teams, blocking a punt that resulted in a touchdown in a wildcard round upset of the Green Bay Packers last January. He says the move to Philadelphia was ideal because he can start full time and use his speed in the team's aggressive schemes.
Nevertheless, in plugging the 6-foot, 243-pound Simoneau into the middle linebacker spot, the Eagles are making a big change—and taking a big chance. Perennially one of the league's top defensive teams, Philadelphia had 262-pound Jeremiah Trotter, a Pro Bowl player, at middle linebacker from 1999 through 2001; last season the position belonged to Kirkland, who, according to a club source, weighed 330 pounds by the end of the year. Now the Eagles will employ one of the lightest middle men in the league. At the time of the trade Simoneau weighed 233 pounds, but he trained in the off-season to build strength in his shoulders and lower body, upping his bench press from 400 pounds to 440. During the season he expects to weigh around 238 pounds. "I'll be a bigger hitter and more physical than I've ever been," he says.
But why the drastic change for a unit that ranked fourth in the league in total defense last year? Lack of quickness. Speedy running backs beat Trotter and Kirkland to the outside, and the two big men couldn't stay with some tight ends in pass coverage. What's more, the inability of Trotter and Kirkland to blitz handcuffed defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. The capper came last Dec. 28, when the New York Giants' Tiki Barber scampered around the edges for 203 rushing yards. "We had to get faster," Johnson says. (Simoneau has run the 40 in 4.5 seconds, though he's in the 4.6 range now.) The team has fared so well with hold-the-point defensive tackles—Philly will rotate four 290-pound-plus monsters at those interior positions—that Johnson was willing to sacrifice a run-stuffer for a sideline-to-sideline playmaker. That's the big risk: Is Simoneau large enough and strong enough to stop the run up the middle?
Put yourself in Johnson's shoes: In their final three games last season—the loss to the Giants, the win against the Falcons and the loss to the Bucs—the Eagles allowed 374 yards of total offense per game, with opposing quarterbacks completing 63.6% of their throws and getting sacked only four times. Change wasn't an option, Johnson believed, it was a necessity. Besides, it's not as if a relatively small middle linebacker can't succeed in today's NFL. The starters in the Pro Bowl last February, Zach Thomas of the Miami Dolphins and Brian Urlacher of the Chicago Bears, weigh 235 and 244, respectively.
After watching Simoneau roam the field in camp, Johnson was confident the team had made the right move. "I'm seeing what I wanted to see," he says. "I'm seeing great explosion, playmaking ability and a Zach Thomas-type of toughness. You'll see him hold his own against the run, and you'll see him make the athletic plays we weren't getting from our middle linebacker."
Yet Simoneau wouldn't be an Eagle if coach Andy Reid and club president Joe Banner had given Trotter the $6 million a year he demanded as a free agent after the '01 season. Trotter signed a seven-year, $35.5 million deal with the Washington Redskins and started 12 games before tearing his right ACL. Maintaining flexibility under the salary cap is a big part of Philly's philosophy. Likewise, when Douglas, a 32-year-old defensive end and the team's best pass rusher since Reggie White in the early '90s, wanted $5 million a year as a free agent after last season, the Eagles let him walk and used their first-round draft pick on Miami defensive end Jerome McDougle. Banner gets rave reviews around the league for holding the line on spending while consistently fielding a Super Bowl contender; at week's end, the Eagles were $10.2 million under the $75 million cap.