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 cant help but think they got it wrong.
Especially considering the meager compensation that the Eagles received reported as a seventh-round draft pick and looking at the direction in which both teams have gone since then, its 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 dont involve Samuel, a four-time Pro-Bowler, just as the Falcons have many virtues in addition to him.
Nonetheless, its unavoidable that the Falcons most glaring weakness during Mike Smiths tenure has been their pass defense. In Smiths previous four seasons, they never finished above 20th in the NFL.
While this season that ranking has improved only moderately to 17th, the big change has come in the teams turnover margin, most of which is the result of interceptions by the defensive backs. The Falcons have 18 interceptions, ranking them 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 in deference to his reputation -- 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, as Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith totaled 109 yards.
In addition, Samuel has proved himself an invaluable insurance policy. In Week 1, cornerback Brent Grimes, a Pro-Bowler in 2010, was lost for the season to injury. If the Falcons had 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, theres 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 it in its current dose. To be fair, his antics during practice his sharp tongue spares neither his teammates, nor coaches on the offensive side of the ball nor the general manager and after games are not something that 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. Samuels interception on the second play from scrimmage in Sundays 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.
Whats the bad?
As near as one can tell from the Eagles point of view, it was possibly the idea that Samuel, at 30, was slowing down, which seems laughable now. It also seems that it might have been his freelancing, 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 one 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 this when he spoke with Atlanta media preceding the Falcons 30-17 win over the Eagles on Oct. 28, saying that the trade was made in Samuels 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 Samuels antics and decided to rid himself of a personality who can be abrasive.
Again, not that its 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 Eagles fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo in midseason, 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. Im 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.