13 years of linebacker chaos for the Birds

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Ten games into the 1999 season, Eagles head coach Andy Reid benched weak-side linebacker James Darling and replaced him with rookie Barry Gardner.

The flood gates were open, never to close. He hasnt stopped benching linebackers since.

Darling gave way to Gardner. Mike Caldwell gave way to Gardner. Nate Wayne gave way to Mark Simoneau, who gave way to Jeremiah Trotter. Matt McCoy gave way to Shawn Barber, who gave way to Omar Gaither, who gave way to Stewart Bradley.

Nothing rivals 2009, when Gaither gave way to Trotter, who gave way to Will Witherspoon, who gave way to Chris Gocong, who gave way to Joe Mays, who gave way to Trotter, who gave way to Akeem Jordan, who gave way to Trotter, who gave way to Jordan. Who gave way to Witherspoon.

Unless it was earlier this year, when -- in one fell swoop -- Moise Fokou gave way to Casey Matthews, who gave way to Jamar Chaney, who gave way to Fokou.

Ive done it a few times before, Reid said sheepishly when asked about that triple Week 3 shuffle.

In the past eight weeks, Reid has made five linebacker switches. The Eagles have already used three different weak-side linebackers, two middle linebackers and three strong-side linebackers.

In nine games.

Typical year.

Consider the plight of Chaney, a seventh-round pick last year.

He became a starter at middle linebacker late last year, spent the preseason and first two regular-season games at strong-side, then moved back to the middle in Week 3.

Its always tough when you keep switching, Chaney said. Its like the defensive line. They get comfortable playing with the same guys and they learn how to play together and they know what each other is capable of. If you have that stability, you know what the guy next to you is thinking and what each other is going to do, and you can feed off it.

But the linebackers have never gotten that opportunity. At least not in a decade.

And the last few years, the linebacker chaos has gotten worse than ever. Since opening day 2009, the Eagles have used 17 different starting linebacker combinations in 43 games. So each group has played an average of 2 12 games together before being torn apart.

The current group -- Chaney in the middle, with Brian Rolle at weak-side and Akeem Jordan at strong-side -- is the 47th different starting group Reid has used since he got here in 1999.

The last time the Eagles went through an entire season without a change at linebacker was 2001, when Caldwell -- now the Eagles linebackers coach -- started alongside Trotter and Carlos Emmons.

In all, Reid and defensive coordinators Jim Johnson, Sean McDermott and Juan Castillo have used 18 weak-side backers, 14 middle linebackers and nine on the strong-side.

The knock on the Eagles is that they dont care about the linebacker position. Not true.

Since 1999, theyve drafted three linebackers in the first two rounds. But league-wide, 96 linebackers have been taken in the first two rounds since 1999, which comes out to exactly three per team. So theyre average.

And theyve given big contracts to linebackers. Dhani Jones got 13.5 million over five years. Nate Wayne got 13 million over four years.

And theyve gone out and traded for linebackers like Witherspoon and Ernie Sims.

So its not like they havent tried. They just havent found the right guys.

The last linebacker the Eagles acquired who went to a Pro Bowl was 1998 Ray Rhodes draft pick Jeremiah Trotter. The last outside linebacker they acquired who went to a Pro Bowl was William Thomas, drafted 20 years ago by Rich Kotite.

Reid has drafted 16 linebackers since 1999. Nine have started at least one game, six of those nine were benched at least once, and only one -- the oft-benched Gaither -- was still an Eagle four years after getting drafted.

Quintin Caver. Barry Gardner. Matt McCoy. These arent linebackers, theyre punchlines.

When the 3-6 Eagles face the 6-3 Giants at the Meadowlands Sunday night, Chaney will make his 12th NFL start. But hes already been a part of five different linebacker formations.

How can the Eagles linebackers ever become a solid group if they never have a chance to play together?

During the year, you want to try to keep the same three guys out there, the same two guys out there (in nickel), Chaney said. You dont want to keep switching around. Thats how most teams are. You might have to switch between seasons, because you have free agency or trades and all that stuff, but you want to keep the same guys together, unless somebody gets hurt and you have to change.

When the Eagles opened this season, rookie Matthews was in the middle, with Chaney on the strong side and Fokou at weak. After two games, Chaney moved back into the middle, with Matthews on the weak side and Fokou at strong. One week after that, Rolle became a starter at WIL. And the last week, Jordan re-entered the lineup at SAM.

As if thats not enough change, second-year pro Keenan Clayton this week will debut in the nickel, in place of Rolle.

No stability. No consistency. No cohesiveness.

Were all used to it, said Jordan, the dean of current Eagles linebackers with 21 career starts. The thing is, you can put any three of us out there and well get the job done or try our best to get the job done.

But if the coaches would just pick three guys and let them play together for more than a few games, maybe at some point they would become a strong linebacking crew?

Maybe?

Were a young linebacking corps, Chaney said. Most linebackers dont start out being the best linebackers in the league. They dont start out going to the Pro Bowl their first or second year. You have young players who are going to keep getting better and get to the point where we are one of the best linebacking corps in the league.

If you look at it on film, there arent too many linebackers where you just say, OK, theyre better than us. True linebackers? Not like DeMarcus Ware, whos really a defensive end. There arent too many linebackers that weekly match up with receivers, take on blocks the way we take on blocks, play the way were asked to play.

Can this group succeed where the 46 before it have failed?

Chaney this year has joined Bradley and Gaither as the third linebacker Reid has drafted to record a sack and an interception in the same season. Rolle forced a fumble and returned it for a TD. Jordan has been very good on special teams and maybe he can duplicate that on defense.

One area this group isnt lacking is confidence. They know what the fans think, they know whats been written, and theyre determined to prove to everyone theyre not the weak link on this team.

Weve kind of already honed in on it that whatever happens, its always the linebackers fault, (were) going to be the first ones that the finger is pointed at, whether its the pass or the run, whatever it is, we know the first finger is going to be pointed at us, Clayton said.

So weve jelled together and made each other mentally tough to just block that out. Let it go in one ear and out the other.

Chaney, who has emerged as a real leader on the defense, said once the defense as a group plays better, the linebackers will be seen in a more positive light.

Its just a matter of time.

And keeping three guys together for more than a few days.

The main focus is always on the linebackers because were asked to do a whole lot, Chaney said. Thats not a problem, its just that everybody as a whole has to jell together.

From the outside, everybody wants to point fingers at us, and and I think that bonds us together even more. We know if anything goes wrong, its going to be on us.

But when we jell together, you wont hear anything about the linebackers. When were doing good, you wont hear anything about the linebackers.

E-mail Reuben Frank at rfrank@comcastsportsnet.com.

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