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 Peer-less 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
"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 re-signed 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
wild-card 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.
In recent years no other team has done a better job of filling
holes in the secondary and along the defensive line through the
draft and with relatively inexpensive free agents. However, some
veterans, frustrated by repeatedly falling short in the playoffs,
are getting tired of hearing how the team is in such great cap
shape. They want to know why management isn't spending some of
that available money to make the team even better. In particular,
why was Douglas, far and away the team's best pass rusher with 51
1/2 sacks in five years, allowed to sign with the Jacksonville
Jaguars? (They gave him a five-year, $27 million deal.)
"I understand it, but I don't agree with it," Vincent says of the
team's philosophy. "If I were in the owner's seat, I'd want Joe
Banner doing the cap. I'd love him. But as a player, I hate him.
Do you know what Hugh Douglas meant to this team? His leadership,
his personality, his love of the game were vital. The guys who'll
replace him, how do you know they can do it? In the NFL the
window of opportunity [for winning a Super Bowl] is so short, and
it's closing for us."
"Hugh was a good player for us, but a descending player," Banner
says. "How good a guy is in the locker room is a factor, but is
it a 10 percent factor? A 30 percent factor? It depends. Andy has
a lot to say about that."
Says Reid, who as the team's executive vice president of football
operations has final say on personnel moves, "Look, there's a
side of Hugh that you'll miss, but athletes pick things up when
guys leave. You move on. We've been fortunate we've been able to
handle all the changes we've had to make."
So Simoneau won't be the only newcomer to the defense under the
gun. In addition to McDougle, add backup N.D. Kalu, who is also
vying to replace Douglas, and free-agent pickup Nate Wayne, who
moves into Barber's outside linebacker spot, to the list.
Ultimately, however, opponents will go after Simoneau the
hardest, hoping to exploit the little guy. "I'm sure people are
going to look at this defense, see what's different about it and
test me," he says. "But being physical has never been a problem
for me, and it won't be now."
A middle linebacker at Kansas State, Simoneau was a third-round
draft pick by Atlanta in 2000. Over the next two years the
Falcons tried him in the middle and on the outside. Last year,
when Wade Phillips took over as defensive coordinator, Simoneau
lined up inside only to suffer an abdominal strain in camp. He
didn't feel comfortable all season and played sparingly as
Brooking's backup. "No bitterness," Simoneau says of his time in
Atlanta. "I learned a lot. It prepared me for this chance."
Atlanta tried to persuade the Buffalo Bills to take Simoneau in a
trade for wideout Peerless Price last March, but Buffalo took a
first-round draft choice instead. Then the Eagles came calling,
completing the deal with Atlanta and signing Simoneau to a
five-year contract on the same day. "The night he got traded,"
says Monica, his wife of two months, "he was so excited he
couldn't sleep. He just paced the room."
"It's pretty rare to go from not playing much to starting for a
defense that's among the top five in the league," Simoneau says.
"But in the end I can't worry about that stuff. I can't be in awe
of it. It's still just playing football."
In Philly, there's more to it than that.
For more from Peter King, check out Monday Morning Quarterback at
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS ON THE SPOT A Falcons backup last year, Simoneau will rely on his quickness in his first turn as a full-time starter.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS STRONG POINT Simoneau has hit the weight room to prepare for the bigger, physical linemen who will test him.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER CLOSING IN Simoneau broke through the line and pressured Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in a preseason game last Friday.
"I understand what it's like up here," Simoneau says of the
expectations of Eagles fans. "I understand THE PRESSURE ON ME."