Samuel, Eagles going in opposite directions

December 19, 2012

When the Philadelphia Eagles traded Donovan McNabb within their division, they got it right.

When the same organization traded cornerback Asante Samuel within the NFC to a team with which they compete for a playoff spot, one can’t help but think they got it wrong.

Especially considering the meager compensation the Eagles received – reported as a seventh-round draft pick – and looking at the direction in which both teams have gone since then, it’s hard not to wonder how both teams might have been different.

The Falcons are 12-2 and sit atop the conference. The Eagles are 4-10 and, by virtue of their 2-8 mark in the NFC, officially and improbably have sunk to its bottom.

The Eagles have many problems – injuries to the offensive line and quarterback Michael Vick – that don’t involve Samuel, a four-time Pro-Bowler, just as the Falcons have many virtues in addition to him.

Nonetheless, it’s unavoidable that the Falcons’ most glaring weakness during Mike Smith’s tenure has been their pass defense. In Smith’s previous four seasons, Atlanta never finished better than 20th in the NFL.

While this season that ranking has improved only moderately to 17th, the big change has come in the team’s turnover margin, most of which is the result of interceptions by the defensive backs. The Falcons have 18 interceptions, ranking fourth in the NFL, and their turnover ratio is plus-9, good for eighth in the NFL.

New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan deserves plenty of credit for those turnovers, as the Falcons’ ability to disguise coverages has confused some of the best quarterbacks in the league — the Falcons intercepted brothers Peyton and Eli Manning, with three Super Bowl victories between them, a total of five times in two victories.

But Samuel deserves credit not only for his three interceptions — a relatively small total, but not bad considering how rarely opposing quarterbacks throw in his direction — but for a multitude of other reasons.

First, judge how the Falcons fared in the only game in which he did not play any snaps: They turned in their worst performance of the season in a 30-20 loss to Carolina, and Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith totaled 109 yards.

In addition, Samuel has proven himself an invaluable insurance policy. In Week 1, the Falcons lost cornerback Brent Grimes — a Pro-Bowler in 2010 — for the season to injury.

If the Falcons had to go the entire season with Robert McClain, Christopher Owens or Dominique Franks playing one of the starting corner spots and one of the others at the nickel corner, there’s a good chance the Falcons would not be 12-2 and, possibly, would not be in position for a first-round bye.

“It was a move that we felt like was going to help us,” Smith said. “Obviously, we felt having three corners that were capable of being No. 1 was kind of our thought process with all of the (three-wide-receiver formations) we see, but it was a very good move in terms of  the way the season has played out. Asante has been a great addition to our defense — not only our defense but to our team.”

As Smith hinted, Samuel has brought something of a cultural change with his brashness and confidence, particularly on defense, that previously lacked in that department.

To be fair, his antics during practice — his sharp tongue does not spare his teammates, offensive coaches or general manager — and after games are not something every coach or organization can stomach. But the Falcons, feeling the need for a playmaker on defense and with enough of an accommodating culture, were willing to go along.

Put simply: the Falcons are willing to take the good with the bad and have reaped the rewards. Samuel’s interception on the second play from scrimmage in Sunday’s 34-0 win over the Giants was typical of his big-play ability and set the tone to help the Falcons steamroll the defending Super Bowl champions.

What’s the bad?

From the Eagles’ point of view, it was possible that Samuel, at 30, was slowing down, which seems laughable now. He also has a tendency to freelance, an aspect Eli Manning noted last week in a conference call with Atlanta players, saying Samuel “kind of has his own style a little bit, his own technique.”

But that freelancing also has saved the Falcons. In a 23-20 win over Oakland, safety William Moore called the wrong defense on one play, but the savvy Samuel recognized the mistake and intercepted a pass that he returned 79 yards for a touchdown.

Eagles coach Andy Reid denied all of this when he spoke with the Atlanta media preceding the Falcons’ 30-17 win over the Eagles on Oct. 28, saying the trade was made in Samuel’s interests to be closer to his ailing mother in Florida. Samuel later said this was only a factor in selecting a destination once the Eagles told him they wanted to move him.

More than anything, Reid, and his straight-laced personality, might have had his fill with Samuel’s antics and decided to rid himself of a personality who can be abrasive.

Not that it’s a direct correlation, but the Eagles’ defense ranks 26th in scoring at 26.8 per game. The team fired its defensive coordinator midway through the season and generally has been in a state of disarray.

For his part, Samuel seems to have taken the Eagles’ decision personally. When the team fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo in the middle of the season, Samuel taunted Reid via Twitter. Then after defeating the Eagles, he poured salt in the wound, saying — among other things — that the difference between the Eagles and Falcons was “the coaching.”

“We got really good coaching, we run the ball,” he said. “Time of possession is real good.”

Even after defeating the Giants, Samuel was not asked about the Eagles, but he referenced them anyway.

“I was shipped from Philadelphia to make plays for this team,” he said. “I’m accustomed to playing the Giants two times a year and that experience helped me make plays today.”

Every player needs to find ways to motivate himself. Clearly, Samuel has found his — to the Falcons’ benefit and, it seems, the Eagles’ detriment.