Will The Mighty Casey Strike Out?
With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two.”
from Casey At The Bat by Ernest Thayer
In 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles signed a versatile fullback free agent, formerly of the Houston Texans. In signing James Casey, the Philadelphia Eagles had hoped to find a versatile big body who could play on the line of scrimmage, in the backfield, and in the slot to confuse defenses and give new head coach Chip Kelly mismatches to exploit. What the Eagles ended up with is a big body who can put a smack on opposing team linebackers. In assembling the offense, James Casey was the insurance policy – the player who was versatile enough to contribute to the team in either the passing or running game. But with the signing of Zach Ertz, no insurance was needed. The passing game came up big – with career years out of wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper, solid performances out of tight ends Brent Celek and Ertz, and an NFL best running from running back LeSean McCoy. In fact, the offense was so good, it was second in yards per game and fourth in points per game in the NFL.
So it’s not a problem, or is it? On the stats page, it appears to be a huge problem. On a team that values versatility, and demonstrated incredible offensive production, the Eagles could only target Casey for six passes in all of 2013. Of those six passes, he did catch three for a nice gain of 10.3 yards per catch . If that was all Casey contributed to the Eagles, his future with the team would be very bleak indeed. But versatility IS valued, and Casey’s ten tackles were a result of his “special” special team’s play. And in the blocking game, his ability to neutralize defenders gives him reason enough to remain on the team for years to come.
But to the credit of Chip Kelly, football is not rocket science. It’s a matter of assessing the team’s strengths and talents and game planning to make optimal use of that talent. With a team of talented tight ends of both Celek and Ertz, and with receivers of Jackson and Cooper, and with a running back like McCoy, it simply became a numbers game. One ball – and the player most likely to get yardage saw it come his way. Since the ball didn’t come Casey’s way, is that a vote of no confidence?
Highly unlikely. In year one, the team was tasked with learning a new offense and, as many were able to point out, a much faster pace. Fast pace requires precision, precision requires familiarity, familiarity requires repetition and practice. In year one, the Eagles offense was limited in how much they could practice, become familiar with, and put onto the field in crisp precision and quickly. Since the team moved the ball well, it was sufficient.
2014 is a new year. DeSean Jackson is no longer taking a defender deep into center field. While the Eagles will certainly keep some vertical plays, the 2014 offense will likely comprise of big bodied receivers who can win the battles for the ball in traffic. And at 6′ 3″ and 240 pounds, James Casey will certainly be able to do just that. The Birds will likely implement a new range of offensive plays this year to address the skills of this group. Perhaps that will include a series of three tight end sets; perhaps the team will put in a fullback or H back series; or perhaps the team will craft a new means of spreading the offense to the numerous skill players on the team? When signed to the 2013 contract, it was clear that James Casey is more to this team’s future than a well placed block at the point of contact.
Perhaps things have changed. It may be that Casey is simply so good at what he does that he won’t be offered an expanding role with his hands on the ball. It could be that James Casey is good at so many things, but much like the slugger from mudville, a couple opportunities have gotten past him and he’s bearing down on a last opportunity. There are many heartwarming stories on this team, but Casey’s life has certainly been one of perseverance, of resilience, and of overcoming challenges. I find it hard to believe that his attitude, his devotion to do whatever it takes will be lost in the shuffle on this team. If the team is truly a work hard play hard philosophy, then James Casey is at the head of the class.
And what about that other Casey from Mudville? Well allow me to set the record straight:
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
This is Philadelphia, and we will surely fight,
In preseason all are laughing, and Eagles fans will soon give shout;
These are our Eagles, it’s not Mudville — this James Casey won’t struck out.