Oh, so this is what the "Dream Team" is supposed to look like. Very rarely do regular season wins feel so good because there's nothing quite like watching the Eagles annihilate the Cowboys on national television -- and it has happened a delectably frequent number of times during the Andy Reid era. But more than anything, it's nice to watch this Eagles team play up to its potential for 60 minutes. The balanced attack -- seven of the first 15 plays were handoffs to LeSean McCoy! -- set the tone early and the offense put up points at will, which in turn allowed the defense to play its preferred "wide nine" technique and relentlessly attack Tony Romo. Although the defense really didn't have to do much during its mere 18 minutes on the field, at least the unit stifled the Cowboys offense early and never gave them a chance to gain any momentum. While this game wasn't even a contest, it did offer a tantalizing glimpse at what the Eagles can be when firing on all cylinders. And, as Andy would say, it's a beautiful thing.
1. Consistency. For the first time this season, the Eagles put together a full 60-minute effort. A complete game. Finally.
2. Offensive philosophy/ball control. Yes, yes, YES! POWER FOOTBALL, THAT'S WHAT THE EAGLES DO! Okay, maybe not, but that's what it did against the Cowboys. I can't even tell you how warm and fuzzy it makes me feel inside to know that the Eagles' offensive gameplan against the league's first ranked rush defense was to run the ball right down its throat. Rob Ryan, rotund gum-flapper extraordinaire,* was definitely not expecting that (why would he?), and it showed as the Cowboys defense got its ass whooped up and down the field all game. I was practically giddy with awe and excitement as I sat on my couch and watched things unfold. You're not going to lose many games when you routinely churn out time-consuming drives and possess the ball for 40+ minutes.
*Edit: Hey, big guy, how was that for "all hype"? Sweet job backing up your words and not completely humiliating yourself.
3. LeSean McCoy. Man, he's unbelievable. Speed, quickness, grace, agility, lateral explosion, and underrated power that gets overlooked because of what he does in space -- McCoy's got it all.* He set career highs in carries, 30, and yards, 185, and shredded the typically suffocating Cowboys run defense. Observers who aren't Eagles fans are even starting to invoke the Barry Sanders comparisons. Please please please please please PLEASE keep giving Shady the football. I swear to God, the Eagles had to be the only team in the league that willfully neglected to run the offense through its best player; now it's happening, and the results speak for themselves. All I can say is, it's about fucking time. The correlation between running the football and winning games is not just coincidental.
*Edit: When it's all said and done, he'll be the greatest running back in franchise history. Not a bad way to transition from Brian Westbrook. Damn, we're spoiled.
Note: That's now 28 carries and 30 carries in back-to-back games for Shady. Only five times prior had a running back gotten at least 28 carries in a game during the Andy Reid era.
4. Offensive line. It looks like the right combination has been found: Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Danny Watkins, and Todd Herremans. Easily the best game of the season for Howard Mudd's unit, and you could tell those guys relished the opportunity to run block and pound the Cowboys' front seven into submission. The line as a whole got consistent push at the point of attack, driving defenders backwards and opening up enormous holes for McCoy to run through basically every time he got the ball. You know things are going your way when DeMarcus Ware posts an 11-tackle, four-sack, one-forced fumble stat line and really wasn't a factor.
Peters returned from injury and looked fantastic (see: kick-out block on Maclin's touchdown), while Herremans continues his march toward a deserved Pro Bowl selection. Mathis, who's quietly becoming one of the best free agent signings any team made during the truncated offseason, is the quintessential fit for Mudd's style and has been nothing short of phenomenal as the starting left guard (Herremans' old spot). He and Peters form a formidale duo on the left side of the line, and that's where the Eagles will continue to concentrate a majority of running plays. The guys over at Football Outsiders have loved Mathis for years, and I can see why. Plus, he is one of those athletes whose personality and wit -- not to mention willingness to interact with fans -- shines on Twitter. Mathis is quickly becoming a fan favorite in Philadelphia. Last, but certainly not least, big ups to the rookie tandem of Kelce and Watkins, who keep improving each week (being surrounded by some veteran stability surely helps).
5. Michael Vick. Flawless effort, and, hey, he looked much more comfortable dropping back without having to immediately elude oncoming pass rushers. This isn't rocket science: Being able to run the ball consistently and effectively is going to slow down opposing defenses, which in turn will make Vick even more dangerous and go a long way in keeping him healthy. He also had a great night reading the defense and making calls at the line. The first touchdown of the game, a screen pass to Jeremy Maclin, was the result of Vick identifying the blitzer (Sean Lee) and adjusting the play. It seems as though he's really starting to embrace his pre-snap responsibilities, which is essential to his continued development as a passer. Vick was calm and composed in the pocket as he picked apart the Dallas defense underneath all game. The safeties were playing extremely deep -- gee, you think they were concerned about the bomb to DeSean Jackson? -- so he just took what he was given, played within himself, and didn't force any throws.
However, it was a rather innocuous -- as it turned out -- play that was most impressive to me. With the Eagles leading 14-0 and at the Cowboys' 29 early in the second quarter, Vick and Jason Kelce miscommunicated, and Kelce thought Vick would be taking the snap under center. Turns out Vick was in the shotgun. Kelce snapped the ball up... and right into his butt. As the ball fell to the ground in what seemed like slow motion, Vick summoned his cat-like quickness and alertly pounced on the pigskin before Bradie James could recover it. Two plays later, Vick feathered a beautiful touch pass to Brent Celek in the back of the endzone to make it 21-0. A month ago, a defender likely recovers that botched snap fumble and the opposing offense subsequently drives down the field for a touchdown to cut the lead to 14-7.
6. Brent Celek. As Michael Vick told the announcers before the Redskins game, part of becoming a complete quarterback means getting his tight end involved in the passing game. Celek -- he of the 76 catches, 971 yards, and eight touchdowns in 2008 -- had gotten lost in the shuffle with all the explosive weapons on this Eagles offense. However, against a Cowboys defense that schemed against getting beat deep, Celek proved to be an invaluable target for Vick in the middle of the field. The Cowboys have had trouble defending opposing tight ends all season, and Sunday night was no different. Here's to hoping this is only the beginning of Celek's reemergence in the offense.
7. Secondary. The Miles Austin/Dez Bryant/Jason Witten trio was held to ten catches (on 20 targets) for 83 yards. Beautiful. That's precisely why the Eagles have three Pro Bowl corners, and I'm sure Sunday night was exactly how the front office envisioned things playing out when they set about their mission to load up on capable defensive backs.
8. Red zone offense. Six times the Eagles got inside the Cowboys 20-yard line, scoring touchdowns on four of those possessions and adding field goals twice. I almost put this in "The Bad" section because the offense stalled twice inside the five-yard line and had to settle for field goals, but that would have just made me a gigantic asshole. Scoring a touchdown isn't going to happen every time the offense gets in the red zone, so I'll gladly take four of six. It's progress.
Not much, but I'll nitpick anyway.
1. Protecting the football. I'm still seeing way too many instances of players being loose with the ball and holding it away from their body while running. LeSean McCoy was the most noticeable culprit on Sunday night -- it looked like he was a rookie again, when every carry made me close my eyes because I was so sure the ball was going to get knocked out of his hands. This shit needs to stop, or it's going to cost the Eagles a game or two down the stretch (see: Maclin's fumble against the 49ers, even though that's very far from the only thing that lost the game).
2. Leaving the starters in when the game is well in hand. This happened against the Rams in Week 1, too, and the Eagles were lucky to escape without suffering any significant injuries. There is no reason Vick and Shady should have been on the field late in the fourth quarter, let alone touching the football. Andy, don't be stupid and careless. Have your starters on the sideline, give those touches to the backups, and call it a day.
3. Run Defense. This game got way out of hand early and the Cowboys were never able to establish the run... but DeMarco Murray was still able to average 9.3 yards per carry on his eight rushing attempts. The Eagles defense didn't really play to stop the run because of the big lead, but that's still something you'd rather not see happen. Either way, I'm not convinced this unit's leaky run defense is fixed.
It's important not to overreact and lose sight of what's transpired thus far. Remember, this team is still 3-4 and facing an uphill battle; averting a disappointing season is not a forgone conclusion. Let's also not forget that as dominant as the Eagles looked Sunday, they've proven they can look equally horrific. Hopefully there's not a letdown against Chicago -- which, by the way, ranks 30th against the run -- on Monday night... and hopefully Andy doesn't abandon the ground game now that the season has been (temporarily) saved. Two games of commitment to the run is a delightful treat, but, as I've written before, I refuse to be fooled this time around. And while I like what's going on right now, which is to say my team is no longer playing a soft brand of football, we'll see how long it lasts.
Given my cynical nature, I fear Andy will relapse. I think that we'll see this commitment to the run continue against the Bears and win the game to move to 4-4. At that point, Andy* will say "thanks, but no thanks" to what spearheaded the three-game winning streak -- running the ball -- and go back to his pass-happy ways,* just in time for the Eagles to get upset by the embattled, worse-than-I-thought Kevin Kolb and his woeful Arizona Cardinals (classic trap game?) the week before traveling to the Meadowlands to play the Giants for first place in the division. Sorry, I just couldn't resist conjuring a negative hypothetical scenario in what has otherwise been a sublime 48 hours... it's kinda my shtick. Even so, nothing can dampen my spirits the week following a thorough drubbing of Iran's team. DALLAS, WE HATE YOU!
*Edit: Unless you think he's learned something.