This is the moment Michael Vick has been waiting for, to enter an NFL season as a starting quarterback again.
Vick hasn't began a season under center since his final year with the Atlanta Falcons back in 2006, and was out of football for two years before the Philadelphia Eagles gave him a shot at redemption prior to the 2009 campaign. So far everything has worked out for Vick in his second chance, though the current expectations for both himself and the Eagles have been raised a notch.
The Eagles will hit the road for their first two games of the 2011 season, starting with Sunday's showdown with Sam Bradford and the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome before a visit to Vick's old home at the Georgia Dome to take on the Falcons in Week 2.
Vick doesn't seem fazed by Philadelphia's high expectations, as he recognized that there's pressure for every team in the league heading into the anticipated Week 1 schedule.
"There is always pressure," Vick stated. "There's pressure on every team in the league. We just have to make sure we thrive off that pressure and produce on the field.
"Our expectations are to win a championship and I'd be lying if I told you anything else. I don't have any personal goals, only team goals. As far as the team, I want us to excel, I want the best for this organization, and I think every man in this locker room would reiterate that."
There are some new faces in that locker room, and several familiar ones as well. Philadelphia made the biggest splash in free agency by signing All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and traded quarterback Kevin Kolb to Arizona for a second-round draft choice along with cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The Kolb deal gives the Eagles three talented defensive backs, with Pro Bowler Asante Samuel rounding out the corps for first-year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, who was Philly's longtime offensive line coach before jumping sides for this season.
Vick, meanwhile, comes in with his fair share of detractors after the organization rewarded the once-incarcerated star with a six-year, $100 million contract extension last month. Franchised by the Eagles before the NFL labor dispute, Vick will try to regain the magic that landed him Comeback Player of the Year honors a season ago and has the same impressive cast of offensive weapons this time around in wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin and running back LeSean McCoy. The Eagles also added running back Ronnie Brown in their offseason deluge, while the offensive line will have a different look with a few young faces.
St. Louis will be aiming to make sure that result won't happen again when Bradford enters his second season in the NFL. The young signal-caller led the Rams to a 7-9 record a year ago and was the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year, setting first-year records with 590 attempts and 354 completions.
Bradford threw for 3,512 yards and became the second quarterback in league history with at least 3,500 passing yards as a rookie, behind only Colts All- Pro Peyton Manning. His 18 touchdown passes tied for the fifth-most by a first- year quarterback.
The 2010 No. 1 overall draft pick is anxious to get the year underway after St. Louis' unbeaten preseason, and even looked ahead to this showdown with the Eagles.
"Yeah, I have definitely taken a peek," Bradford said. "It'll be nice. The preseason is great because you get some work in live situations, but I'd be lying if I said my mind was totally into the last couple of games and wasn't focused on Philly."
Plenty of high hopes are floating around the Gateway City this year, with the Rams expected to have a strong chance at making a run at their first NFC West title since the 2003 season. They ended a string of three straight last-place finishes in the division in 2010, only to lose out to Seattle for division supremacy.
When discussing the Rams, one must also mention running back Steven Jackson. The accomplished veteran is one of the more talented backs in the league with his powerful legs and determination to put the football into the end zone, and has collected more than 1,000 yards rushing in six consecutive seasons while also standing out as a model of durability.
Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo, a former Philadelphia assistant, isn't naive to the offensive game plan when it comes to his running back and his rare talents.
"I am just glad we've got the one that we have and he can do the things he does," Spagnuolo said. "I think we have to be careful that we don't wear anyone out, so we'll try to be smart with that. People get into multiplicity, third down and all that. We'll do it a little bit, but we think we've got a guy that can always be a threat, so we try to keep him in the game."
The Rams added a few weapons on offense over the summer in wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker and running back Cadillac Williams. Leading receiver Danny Amendola, a former Eagle, topped St. Louis with 85 catches for 689 yards last season and tied for the team lead in touchdown catches with three.
The overall regular-season series between the Eagles and Rams is tied at 17-17-1, with Philadelphia having come out on top in each of the last two matchups. The Eagles dealt St. Louis a defeat in the aforementioned 2008 season opener and edged the Rams by a 17-16 score at the Edward Jones Dome in 2005. St. Louis' last victory over Philadelphia occurred in Week 16 of the 2004 season, a 20-7 verdict in which the playoff-bound Eagles had rested several starters.
These teams have faced one another three times in the postseason, with the Rams winning two of those contests. The then-Los Angeles Rams bested the Eagles, 21-7, on the road in a 1989 NFC First Round Playoff and registered a 29-24 triumph over Philly in the 2001 NFC Championship. The Eagles topped the Rams by a 14-0 count in Los Angeles to claim the 1949 NFL Championship.
Spagnuolo served eight seasons as a defensive assistant under Reid from 1999-2006. The two will be opposing one another for the first time as head coaches in this game. Reid is 4-3 all-time against the Rams in his head coaching career, which includes the aforementioned loss in the 2001 NFC Championship.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Vick (3018 passing yards, 21 TD, 6 INT) emerged on the scene in a Week 1 loss to Green Bay after Kolb was drilled into the turf by Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. Vick did miss three games because of a rib injury, but bounced back to prove he is still one of the more electrifying players in the game. He became the second player in NFL history (Steve Young, 1992) to have at least 3,000 passing yards (3,018), 500 rushing yards (676) and a 100 quarterback rating in a season. DeSean Jackson (47 receptions, 1056 yards, 6 TD) and Maclin (70 receptions, 10 TD) deserve credit for Vick's success as well, something the quarterback is never slow to acknowledge. The same holds true for McCoy (1080 rushing yards, 7 TD), Philadelphia's biggest dual threat since Brian Westbrook left town. The third-year back led the Eagles with 78 catches that totaled 592 yards last year. Jackson posted just 47 catches, but the majority went for big plays. The Eagles' offensive line is now being coached by former Colts assistant Howard Mudd and has some new faces up front. Veteran guard Kyle DeVan was claimed off waivers from Indianapolis this past week and rookie guard Danny Watkins was drafted in the first round of April's draft, though he's not expected to start. Rookie Jason Kelce gets the nod at center, however, and Todd Herremans was moved from left guard to right tackle to protect the lefty Vick's backside. Herremans and All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters don't have much waiting behind them, so it's important for Philadelphia they can stay healthy.
St. Louis is counting on rookie defensive end Robert Quinn to make an immediate impact, and the first-round choice will learn gradually under veterans James Hall and Chris Long. That duo combined for 20 sacks a year ago, with Hall leading the way with a team-best 11. The two defensive ends will have to stay at home on several schemes as well to prevent the elusive Vick from rolling around the ends on set or broken plays. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (114 tackles, 3 sacks) has the biggest job on the defense, responsible for calling the plays against a speedy Eagles offense. He led the Rams in tackles for a second consecutive season. Defensive tackle Justin Bannan (from Broncos) is a new face along the front line and is penciled in to start alongside Fred Robbins (28 tackles), who ended third on the team with six sacks in 2010. Bannan and Robbins could have a good day pushing the pocket back against some of Philadelphia's inexperienced lineman. Corners Bradley Fletcher (75 tackles, 4 INT) and Ron Bartell (61 tackles) will need to loosen up early to keep pace with Philly's speed at wide receiver, while new safety Quintin Mikell will have something to prove after playing the past eight years with the Eagles. He'll replace O.J. Atogwe, who signed with Washington before the NFL lockout.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Bradford (3512 passing yards, 18 TD, 15 INT) took every snap in his rookie campaign and will try to avoid the dubious distinction of a sophomore slump in 2011. He was a part of a Rams team that went from 1-15 to 7-9 after just one year and has plenty of promise for the future. There's no doubt things are looking up for the Rams, who added running Williams as a change-of-pace option for Steven Jackson (1,241 rushing yards, 6 TD). St. Louis' primary back runs with determination and will try to plow through an Eagles' front line still searching for an identity and cohesiveness. Jackson is averaging 118.2 yards from scrimmage per game since 2006. The offensive line has guards Jacob Bell and Harvey Dahl and tackles Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold opening holes for Jackson and protecting Bradford. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will also have Bradford on the move with some plays because of his accuracy and athleticism. Dahl was signed in the offseason after previously playing for defending NFC South champ Atlanta. Another newcomer the Rams are hoping can make a difference will be rookie tight end Lance Kendricks, a second-round pick who put together an impressive preseason. Sims-Walker was a big addition to the offense this offseason, while the steady Amendola is poised for another surprise campaign.
Castillo's job shouldn't be as grueling as many thought, as there will be plenty of talented athletes listening to his every word. Asomugha doesn't see many balls thrown his way due to his elite cover skills, and the ex-Raider had several suitors for his services before ultimately picking Philadelphia because of a chance to win a Super Bowl. Rodgers-Cromartie had three interceptions last year for Arizona and has collected 13 in his three seasons as a pro, including a career-best six in 2009. Samuel (26 tackles) led the NFC with seven picks a year ago, though he was a bit perturbed about possibly losing time on the field following the additions at cornerback. That still isn't likely not happen, since Samuel's one of the best in the league at creating turnovers. The Eagles' defensive line added some bulk with Jenkins (from Packers) and Babin (from Titans), while defensive tackle Mike Patterson (37 tackles, 2 sacks) won't have usual linemate Brodrick Bunkley next to him after he was traded to Denver. New defensive line coach Jim Washburn came over from Tennessee and brings an in- your-face mentality to a front line that struggled to create pressure up front at times last year, which led to the offseason firing of former coordinator Sean McDermott, who now holds the same post with Carolina. Linebacker is another question of concern for the this team, with untested rookie Casey Matthews expected to start in the middle.
KEYS TO THE GAME
How much of an effect will DeSean Jackson and Maclin feel after both went through their own drama in the offseason? Jackson is still waiting for a contract extension and can't afford to suffer a major injury to ensure he'll be rewarded financially in the future. Maclin overcame a mysterious illness that weakened him through most of the offseason to make it back to the team by the start of Sunday's opener.
The Rams can wreak some major havoc by picking on Philadelphia's young offensive line with Long and Hall and by blitzing Vick from all angles. Teams such as Minnesota, the New York Giants and Green Bay succeeded last year in stopping Vick in that particular manner.
Castillo was appointed defensive coordinator when the position became vacant after the firing of McDermott. He's brought his fiery antics from the offensive line over to the other side, even head-butted a player strapped with a helmet on in training camp, but is still an unknown commodity at his new position.
The Eagles thrive on getting out to fast starts, usually doing so with an early deep ball to either DeSean Jackson or Maclin, and the so-called "Dream Team" certainly has the talent to defend that moniker that was coined by backup quarterback Vince Young over the summer. The Rams would love to shock the world by extinguishing the Eagles' hype machine, and Steven Jackson is a dangerous weapon that can give any team headaches on a weekly basis. Bradford is out to prove his rookie season was no fluke and will keep his team involved until the end against Philly's defense, but the Eagles may have too much offense for St. Louis to win a potential shootout.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 27, Rams 21