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After a slow start, has Eagles' 'dream' season commenced?

  • By Jeff Darlington NFL.com
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PHILADELPHIA -- Tucked to the side of a dark tunnel beneath the seats of Lincoln Financial Field, Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha knew it would be easier to talk here than down the hall, where a group of fans were waiting to greet him.

It's a good problem to have in a city like this; in a place where the cheers of the night could have morphed quickly into vitriol had this result spun the other way.

"We're getting closer," said Asomugha, quiet and cautious despite a very persuasive 34-7 win over the Cowboys on Sunday. "We're getting more comfortable as a team and as a defense."

To entirely digest this understated sentiment, though, it is just as important to understand where these Eagles began as it is to grasp where they currently are. Yes, they still have a losing record (3-4). Yes, they are still largely unproven. Asomugha is still right: If nothing else can be concluded from an evening when the Cowboys were as awful as the Eagles were sharp, it is that Philadelphia is getting closer. But closer to what?

Closer to becoming the "Dream Team"? Closer to living up to the hype that was created partly by their own doing and partly by everyone who ran with it? Closer to the expectation Asomugha admittedly had for himself when he arrived?

"I don't want to say it's been harder than I expected, but it has taken time," said Asomugha, who signed a six-year, $60 million contract in July. "I think the lack of an offseason really impacted this team. But we're finding the chemistry, and we're understanding our roles."

Nobody is a better example of the trials and development of this team than Asomugha. Without his signing, the words "Dream Team" never get spoken in this locker room -- even if they weren't his words. Without his presence, the expectations aren't heightened to this extent -- even if it isn't all his doing.

As the hype of this team looked like a fallacy during the season's first four weeks, Asomugha undoubtedly struggled as much as anyone. So maybe it makes sense, in some symbolic way, that his own improvements have coincided with the team's.

On a night when the offense looked nearly flawless in the first half, it cannot go unrecognized that a previously struggling defense held Tony Romo to just 36 passing yards in the first half with no completions to Miles Austin or Dez Bryant.

"We have new players and coaches that are getting used to new things every week, and we're adding new things to continue to build," said coach Andy Reid, when asked specifically about Asomugha's game. "It's important that we do that."

When I asked Asomugha on Sunday what he expected when he first arrived from Oakland as a highly coveted free agent, his response was quick and to the point: "To be great."

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But in order to get to that level, this isn't just about Asomugha. It's about the team around him. About the way the coaches utilized him. Just because he signed a monster contract, it doesn't guarantee success without a proper fit.

During the last two wins, though, you're starting to see a staff adjusting to Asomugha's skill set. He is no longer being utilized as originally planned in the Eagles' zone-concept defense. He's back to single covering his opponent from a variety of places.

During this blowout, the cornerback made a nice diving interception late in the first quarter on a pass that was bobbled by Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett. Later in the game, he made a solid play in the end zone on a throw intended for Bryant.

"I just thought they didn't use him the right way with the short period they had to get ready," said former Eagles cornerback Eric Allen, who was inducted into the Eagles' Honor Roll at halftime Sunday. "You're talking about a skills position guy. No matter how good we are, we need reps to get our game in tune. They didn't play to his strengths early in the season."

The Eagles, as a team, are not "great" yet. But they were great Sunday. And as long as they stay healthy, it is the overall adjustments and developments -- which ultimately will come with more time and patience than anyone is willing to give this team -- that will get them there.

Down the hallway from where Asomugha stood after the game, Allen later made a good point about the Eagles' current state: Because of the "Dream Team" moniker, because of all the heightened expectations surrounding this entire group, Philadelphia has actually managed to avoid an overabundance of individual pressure being placed on players.

"A lot of the pressure is team pressure," Allen said. "I don't really think it's gotten specific yet. I haven't heard a lot of specific guys being called out. It's still a team thing. And they've kind of turned the corner, so I don't think it'll ever get there."

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The pressure, as much as it would have been aimed at quarterback Michael Vick, would have also fallen squarely on Asomugha -- especially given the struggles of the secondary up until their recent wins.

Now, though, Asomugha and the Eagles might still be able to salvage this season by turning it into something more than an overhyped disappointment.

Even if they might be late to the party, they at least showed up bearing gifts in the form of a sharply played blowout of their division rivals. As a result, they might even get the rare dose of patience from a fan base that was on the verge of pouncing.

"You get criticized when you lose and praised when you win, so we take it with a grain of salt," Asomugha said. "But I think it's important we got this win because it helps our confidence. When you're not winning games, it can bruise you."

At least for this week, the Eagles and their cornerback went a long way toward healing.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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