At 1-4 and coming off another disheartening loss, things look bleak for the Eagles. The media and fans are calling for Andy Reid's head, the players look confused and disinterested on the field, and there's the uncomfortable feeling that this disaster won't end anytime soon. The season isn't over yet, but a premature end is rapidly approaching.
Sloppy and stupid. It's not an attractive quality in another human being, and the same holds true for a football team. Especially when it's the one you root for. That's the kind of football the Eagles played on Sunday, and those are just two of the highly unflattering words that have been used to describe them so far this season. Others include soft, embarrassing, overrated, undisciplined, arrogant, lazy, disinterested, incompetent, nutless, gutless... you get the idea. Alright, enough of that. Believe it or not, there were actually some things to be encouraged about in this game, but overall the situation in Philadelphia is a shit show. This isn't a football team, it's a collection of talented individuals. Time to assess the damage.
1. Jason Avant. Those of you who blame Avant for losing this game need to shut up. The guy never turns the ball over. When was the last time the announcers said he lost a fumble? 2009? The interception was a fluky play, and it's a ball he probably catches every other time. You know no one takes it harder than Avant himself, and I bet he comes back determined to be a better, even more reliable player. How about the haters mention that he had nine catches for 139 yards and was a consistent target for Michael Vick for the second week in a row. Jason Avant is a poor man's Terrell Owens (and looks like him on the field), but with better hands. We should be focusing on the fact that this was a true breakout game for him, and he presents the big, physical wide receiver this offense needs to threaten the middle of the field. Avant has the best hands on the team and is strong enough to break tackles. He consistently gets yards after the catch and is the number one option on third down. You know something... maybe the Eagles should flirt with installing some plays that put Avant on the outside and one of DeSean and Maclin in the slot. Maybe they can take advantage of certain matchups. Whatever the case, Avant should be on the field more often and continue to see the football.
2. Second half defense. This was one of the things Andy was sure to reflect on positively in his post game press conference and again during its encore Monday morning. The defensive line started pinching and closing the holes created by the "wide nine" alignment. The secondary was playing more man coverage and challenging receivers. The entire defense in the second half was attacking, instead of laying back. Linebackers were shooting the gaps, blitzes were getting pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick and disrupting the Bills' offense. It looked a little bit like, gasp, Jim Johnson's defense! Oh, and defenders were actually tackling instead of humiliating themselves, their families, and the sport. Now, can the unit play like that for 60 minutes?
3. Nate Allen. Sunday's game looked like the first indication that Nate Allen is almost back to full strength from his patellar tendon injury. He appeared up to speed and wasn't a step slow or late reacting like in the preseason. In fact, he was the Eagles' most noticeable player on defense, totaling 13 tackles (10 of which were solo) and making plays at, behind, or near the line of scrimmage. Twice Allen was able to sniff out screen passes to Fred Jackson -- in the second quarter he combined with Brian Rolle to stop Jackson for a short gain and in the fourth dropped him for a three-yard loss. On another play early in the third quarter, he penetrated and stopped C.J. Spiller in the backfield on a shovel pass. Allen also tackled Steve Johnson short of a first down and forced a punt with a little over five minutes left in the game. The Bills didn't bother testing the Eagles with the deep pass, but we'll see how Allen fairs in coverage in the coming weeks. All I know is what I saw from him was encouraging.
1. Tackling. Completely and utterly abominable. Seriously, every person on that defense should be ashamed of himself. It's the most fundamental part of playing defense, so why does the embattled Juan Castillo's unit look like it has never learned or practiced tackling? Don't tell me it's because the team didn't have enough OTAs or minicamps or whatever. I don't want to hear those kind of bullshit excuses. Other teams were also deprived of such luxuries, and they're doing just fine. You watched the game, and you know what you saw. It made you embarrassed to be an Eagles fan, right? It should have.
The best part is when you look at the box score, you see that Jarrad Page made 11 tackles, which is pretty amazing considering he was horrendous and missed what seemed like at least five more (in addition to the two times he screwed up as a blizter by overpursuing in the backfield, hesitating at the point of attack, getting out of position, and letting Fred Jackson run right by him). When two safeties (Nate Allen being the other) are your leading tacklers, that's normally a sign that offenses are getting to the second and third levels rather easily -- and consistently -- or just burning you for long completions. For the Eagles, it's the former. The Bills didn't attempt any throws down the field, content just to thoroughly abuse the buttery soft middle of the Birds' defense with a barrage of slants and screens. The linebackers and safeties are comically overmatched. The middle of a defense is the HEART of a defense, yet the Eagles' brain trust didn't feel it was important enough to address in free agency. Instead, the coaches and management were satisfied with the unproven players they drafted three months before or the retreads already on the roster. The second round safety, Jaiquawn Jarrett, can't get on the field. We all know how the ill-conceived Casey Matthews experiment has turned out. Brian Rolle is a player, I'll give them that. Still, the methodology for constructing this team was faulty, and at some point the media and fans are going to turn on Howie Roseman, too. You can be sure of that.
2. Turnovers. That's now an unsightly 15 in just five games; last season the Eagles' gave the ball away a total of 25 times. You can't turn the ball over five times and win a game in the NFL. It's even worse when you can't force any either. Only one of Vick's four interceptions -- the throw right into Nick Barnett's chest that was returned for a touchdown -- was the result of a terrible decision. The first was on a deflection (and it was a poor play design anyway), the second because Arthur Moats crushed Vick as he was releasing the ball, and the last because Jason Avant -- who had the ball ripped away from him earlier -- couldn't corral a tough pass. At -10, the Eagles are dead last in the league in turnover differential. Too many players on offense are loose and irresponsible with the football. Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, and Jeremy Maclin all do it when they run. Vick and Jackson, especially -- the ball palmed in one hand, extended away from the body, yearning to be slapped out by a defender. Why isn't the ball being held against their chest and protected? What the fuck is going on? Is it an arrogance thing? Being flashy and trying to look cool? Or are these guys just naturally careless? I have a bad feeling it might even be a combination of all three.
The offense has accumulated a robust 1,002 (!) total yards in the last two games yet managed to score just 24 points each time because it gives the ball away with aplomb. That's how you average 501 yards of offense and go 0-2 -- turnovers. Well, that and not being able to score touchdowns in the red zone.
3. Run defense. Yawn. No surprise here. Fred Jackson did whatever he wanted on the ground for most of the game because the Bills felt -- no, knew -- they could dominate the Eagles up front. Players even said as much after the game as they mocked -- whether intentionally or not -- their opponent. It was almost too easy for them, and they made sure everyone was aware of that. The Eagles are not a difficult team to play against. At all.
4. Discipline, intelligence, and awareness. A lack of all three was on display in one incomprehensibly awful play. Juqua Parker is the most senior member on the entire Eagles team, yet he made a mistake that would have been inexcusable for a high school player. I mean, the guy's an idiot. THE OFFENSE ISN'T RUNNING A PLAY; THEIR ONLY INTENT IS TO DRAW YOU OFFSIDES. How does he not understand that? I can't even wrap my mind around what happened on that 4th and 1 play because it overloads my brain with rage and gives me a headache. Cutting Parker right there on the field would have been perfectly acceptable, albeit heartlessly ruthless. Speaking of awareness, how about that play call and execution with eight seconds left in the first half? EAGLES FOOTBALL, EMBRACE THE INCOMPETENCE.
Again, a team is a reflection of its head coach. On the play before the half, there was one second remaining when the ball sailed out of the back of the endzone. Yes, it was a dumb play call and even worse execution by Michael Vick (why are you holding onto the ball and triple clutching?), but there still should have been a chance to attempt a field goal. Instead of going ballistic and throwing his challenge flag or doing SOMETHING to get the referees' attention, Andy just held up one finger with a save-me-from-my-own-stupidity look on his face. It was such a bitch move. Andy, if you're that convinced there's a second left on the clock, fight for it, show some fucking passion, and set an example to follow. Points aren't easy to come by in the NFL, and your team is struggling mightily. That kind of meek capitulation can't inspire much confidence in players. Then Andy emerged from the locker room with a trick up his sleeve. An old trick. His first trick. The surprise onside kick. Oh man, he was desperate. Sure enough, it didn't work; seemed like the Bills were expecting it, actually. The only thing that saved Reid and his Eagles from probable disaster... the referee hadn't blown his whistle yet to officially start play. Unbelievable. They can't even screw up properly. And when not making mental errors, the Eagles get pushed around and play like bitches (E-A-G-L-E-S PUSSIES!!). It's unacceptable and has to change, but there's that ominous feeling festering in your gut that tells you it's not going to happen.
5. Effort. I'll point to two plays in particular that were truly appalling to witness, and both center around the team's poorest, most disinterested tacklers.
First: Asante Samuel. I forget when it happened, but I do remember Asante eschewing an attempt to tackle the ball carrier in favor of avoiding a would-be-blocker by jumping over him and willfully taking himself out of the play.
Second: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. You know the play I'm about to reference. It was a completion to Naaman Roosevelt for a 16-yard gain in the third quarter. Not only did Rodgers-Cromartie neglect to bother covering Roosevelt, but he also made no effort to tackle him after the catch. At least he was lightly jogging in half-assed pursuit this time, as opposed to last week when he was caught walking during a play. If the coaches want to make an example of the kind of "effort" they won't tolerate, benching Rodgers-Cromartie is a good start.
I liked how the team fought back in the fourth quarter, but where was that earlier in the game?
6. Offensive and defensive philosophies.
Offense: LeSean McCoy had 80 yards on 11 carries, and 15 total touches for 107 yards. That's an average of over seven yards per touch. What could he do with at least 10 more touches? GIVE HIM THE FOOTBALL. Why isn't this offense being run through Shady? It's bewildering and infuriating.
Edit: The dumbest part is how Andy/Marty still call play action later in the game, as if anybody is actually going to respect the threat of the run. Why would a defender respect that when it doesn't exist? It's pretty humorous to watch absolutely no one on the defense get fooled.
Defense: This team doesn't have the personnel to play the "wide nine," and it gets more obvious with each passing week. Nnamdi Asomugha has been largely misused (although he was in more man-to-man against the Bills), and too many defenders look like they have no idea what they're doing. I feel bad for Juan Castillo and the abuse he's taking. It's certainly not all his fault; he can't go out there and make tackles himself. And when Castillo does put players in position to make plays, they're failing miserably (see: Page, Jarrad).
In five short weeks, the Eagles have quickly become the laughingstock of the league. I'll just say this: It couldn't happen to a more deserving organization and fan base (which, yes, includes me). Maybe if the former wasn't so satisfied with itself and the latter so loathsomely boorish, karma wouldn't be bitch-slapping both in the face.
And, guess what, if the Redskins play their game, the Eagles will be 1-5 going into the bye with their season effectively over. The Skins are a ground-and-pound team on offense, and an aggressive, opportunistic bunch on defense. That's bad news for an Eagles team that can't stop the run, tackle, or adequately protect its quarterback. Opponents, especially members of the offensive and defensive lines, must be licking their chops right now. Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are going to have a field day. I put the chances of Michael Vick suffering an injury in this game at 75%. The Skins should physically dominate the Eagles at the line of scrimmage -- on both sides of the ball -- and run all over them* with the battering ram that is Ryan Torain. Can you imagine these impotent and fundamentally deficient Eagles defenders trying to tackle him? It's going to be downright ugly. The Skins are healthy, well-rested, and confident, while the Eagles are injured, downtrodden, and reeling. If Washington is anything even close to a respectable team, it wins this game -- convincingly.
*Actually, here's a suggestion for the Skins since the Eagles will be expecting them to start the game with the run: Do a play action pass on the very first offensive snap and go long. You know, like this. There's not a single doubt in my mind that it will work.
PS - Remember Naaman Roosevelt. The undrafted second-year wide receiver -- FROM?! Buffalo (he and James Starks were teammates) -- will be taking over as the Bills' number three receiver for the next four to six weeks as Donald Jones recovers from a high ankle sprain. He caught five passes for 41 yards after replacing the injured Jones against the Eagles. I liked Roosevelt a lot in college -- no, seriously (I'm Birds_I_View, and I am a loser) -- and am happy to see he's getting a chance in the pros. He was a very productive player who always rose to the occasion (had some of his best performances against top competition) and was typically a lock for at least seven or eight receptions per game. I have a feeling the native Buffalonian is about to emerge as a reliable target for Ryan Fitzpatrick, especially in third down situations. Roosevelt won't burn defenders with his speed or regularly make spectacular plays, but he will get open in the middle of the field and catch everything thrown his way. A fundamentally sound, smooth route runner with a natural feel for the position who will now get an opportunity to make a name for himself.