Before I begin, this was my first time watching a professional sporting event -- or anything -- from the press box. I drove with my roommate six-and-a-half hours from DC to Cleveland, where we stayed for exactly 24 hours. I'd like to thank my Dear/Fearless Leader (and editor) at SB Nation Philly and Bleeding Green Nation, Jason Brewer, for hooking up the media credentials and making such an experience possible. Hopefully there will be many more.
Anyway, that was a tough, humiliating loss for the Eagles to start the season against the lowly Browns. Wait, they won? Oh, in that case, WOOOOOOOO SUPER BOWL HERE WE COME!!!!! Could this have been any more of a classic performance by Andy Reid's Eagles? Seriously, never has a win felt so empty. That was shameful and pathetic. The first play from scrimmage -- Vick under pressure, flips a screen pass to LeSean McCoy, who fell over and caught the ball on his back for a six-yard loss -- should've been a warning sign for what was to follow. As I tweeted in the third quarter: No team in the NFL actively tries to lose games quite like the Philadelphia Eagles. It's a phenomenon. Last season, the Browns had the second ranked pass defense and 30th ranked run defense in the NFL. The Eagles' game plan? PASS PASS PASS THEN PASS SOME MORE. The Eagles have the best running back in football and their quarterback is struggling? Fuck it, PASS PASS PASS THEN PASS SOME MORE. At one point in the fourth quarter, the Eagles had 50 called pass plays to 19 called run plays. That's as absurd as it is inexcusable and reinforces the notion that nothing has changed on offense. What that really means is nothing is going to change overall either. I hope, for the sake of your own sanity, that you're mentally perparing yourself for an entire season of this disgraceful nonsense.
I've made my opinion on Michael Vick very clear: Asking for him to drop back more than 30 times a game is a recipe for failure. I really cannot stress that enough, and I couldn't help but feel a twinge of vindication as I watched him vomit all over the field for the better part of three-plus hours. Until the Eagles adjust their offense, expect the frustration to continue. Vick had 56 pass attempts on 62 (62!!!) called pass plays. Meanwhile, LeSean McCoy had a paltry 12 carries through the first three quarters, along with a few long runs that were called back on penalties (I use this word loosely). Not until the second drive of the fourth quarter, after Vick had gift-wrapped the Browns a pick-six and a 16-10 lead, did Marty/Andy decide that running might be a worthwhile idea and gave Shady the ball eight times (he added six receptions for 26 total touches). The Eagles, regardless of what the final score says, failed miserably. If the Browns had even a competent quarterback instead of the overmatched Brandon Weeden, they win this game by at least two touchdowns. Both these teams tried to outsuck each other. The Eagles are just lucky that the Browns are the Browns and 99.9% likely headed for a top-three pick in the 2013 draft. This was worse than the first game of last season against the Rams, which, though a win, revealed many ugly warts that would plague the Eagles. I get the sneaking suspicion we'll look back two months from now and say the same thing about 2012's opener against the Browns. I want to be wrong about that.
1. LeSean McCoy (sans first carry). Feed Shady the football, and do it before the fourth quarter when play calls are being dictated by desperation. Yes, I'm begging. Oh, but passing wins in this league, right? No, EFFICIENT passing wins in this league. There's a difference between the two. You want to know which teams win with passing? The ones with accurate quarterbacks who make smart, responsible decisions with the football. Michael Vick has shown he's not capable of being that kind of quarterback on a consistent basis. The game plan should be constructed accordingly, and it should be done around the team's best offensive player, LeSean McCoy. But what do I know, I'm just some blowhard fan/blogger with an opinion and a platform to express it.
Also, if you're going to keep four running backs on the roster, USE THEM. Get Bryce Brown more than two carries. Give Chris Polk some playing time. Sprinkle in Dion Lewis, too, once he returns from injury.
2. The defense. Yes, the Browns offense is somewhere between atrocious and horrendous, but the Eagles defense still only allowed 185 yards of total offense when you discount Brandon Weeden's meaningless 25-yard scramble to end the first half. Then consider that the Eagles turned the ball over five times, giving Cleveland the following field position:
McCoy's fumble - Cleveland recovers at their own 49; Resulting drive of six plays for 26 yards, ending in a field goal
Vick's first interception - Cleveland gets the ball at their own 40; Resulting drive of three plays for 9 yards, ending in a punt
Vick's second interception - Cleveland gets the ball at the Eagles' 43; Resulting drive of seven plays for 29 yards, ending in a field goal
Vick's third interception - Cleveland gets the ball at the Eagles' 22; Resulting drive of six plays for 18 yards, ending in a field goal
Vick's fourth interception - Cleveland's D'Qwell Jackson returns it 27 yards for a touchdown
Superhuman effort from the defense to limit the damage of those turnovers and bail out the offense. Also, the tackling, by everyone, was simply superb. The one that sticks out to me most was Nate Allen's key open field stop on Alex Smith, who had about 20-30 yards of open field in front of him. Considering that the Browns have one of the best offensive lines in football, the defensive line actually played pretty well, especially against the run. Just a real encouraging effort from a much-maligned unit. We'll see if it carries over.
3. Kurt Coleman. Coleman's scrappy style is quite endearing. He came to play on Sunday and was all over the place. This is one TOUGH dude, too. He took that helmet-decapitating hit from Trent Richardson, still made the tackle to force a 3rd and 1 (that the Eagles stopped), and didn't even come off the field. Instant respect. Instant admiration. In addition to Coleman's five tackles and two passes defended, he added two interceptions, one at the goal line on a tipped ball and the other to seal the victory. In the locker room after the game, he answered questions with a giant smile and cuts on the bridge of his nose and philtrum, courtesy of the Richardson truck stick. Kurt Coleman, I salute you.
4. DeMeco Ryans. Now that was the DeMeco Ryans I remember seeing in Houston. Great stuff yesterday from the Eagles' major offseason acquisition. He served as a field general, stuck with his gap assignments, and blew up multiple run plays, including a few 3rd and 1 situations. I guess we can put to rest the concerns that were raised about Ryans during the preseason. At least for now.
5. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Got burned by Mohamed Massaquoi on what should have been a touchdown during the Browns' first drive of the game. Luckily, Weeden sailed the throw -- a common occurence -- out of the end zone. After that mishap, however, DRC played like a superstar. He was stride-for-stride with his man all the way down the field and made two huge interceptions. Everyone and their mother saw how he looked in training camp and the preseason and predicted a monster season for the free agent-to-be. If Sunday's game is any indication, DRC is well on his way to earning himself some serious coin. While we're on the cornerbacks, you know who else is legit? Brandon Boykin.
6. Chas Henry. He looked like Mat McBriar out there! Henry set an Eagles record with a 55-yard gross punt average (with a long of 62!). Unfortunately, as the next section will cover, his net average was significantly less. But that's not Henry's fault. He did a great job of flipping field position when the Eagles were pinned deep in their own zone.
Edit: I owe Jason Babin an apology here. He played a hell of a game, especially against the run (wait, WHAT?!), and deserved to be mentioned in my "Good" section. Not bad for a guy who missed the entire preseason.
1. The offensive line in pass protection. It seemed like Vick got hit on literally every dropback. I'm not exaggerating, either. It's no wonder he was getting flustered and skittish in the pocket as the game went along. That kind of pounding will take a toll on any quarterback, and you have to imagine it influenced Vick's deplorable second half. If this keeps up, he won't make it out of the Ravens game next week. Granted, the line played much better in the second half and beared no responsibility for Vick's three interceptions, but it seemed like the damage to his mindset was already done. Also, each offensive lineman aside from Todd Herremans was called for holding.
2. Punt coverage units. Despite Henry's booming punts, he rarely outkicked his coverage. The problem was that the first wave of defenders routinely missed tackles. Nobody except Akeem Jordan appeared disciplined enough to come in under control and square up to make a tackle on Josh Cribbs. Everyone else took bad angles or left his feet and went flying right past him. Cribbs was pretty much a lock for a 20-yard return on each punt that didn't involve The Dream getting there first. It's the difference between making the opposing offense start at its own 10-yard line versus its own 30. That's not an insignificant change in field position. The coverage unit has to be better.
3. The refs. While the Eagles certainly didn't help themselves, the refs left a lot to be desired. The players were not thrilled. This is what happens when the NFL sends one of the worst (of the worst) crews to officiate your game.
4. Pat Shurmur. I can see why Browns fans loathe this Andy Reid disciple. Shurmur's most egregious error cost his team a pick-six in the third quarter. It was the Eagles' first play of their first possession of the second half, starting at their own 11-yard line. Vick dropped back and dumped the ball off to his right to Clay Harbor, who momentarily caught the pass but was hit immediately by Browns linebacker Kaluka Maiava. The ball became dislodged and fell towards the ground. Upon first glance, it seemed like the ball bounced off the turf before popping back up and into the hands of, I believe, Dimitri Patterson. Patterson, undeterred, sprinted into the end zone, even as the refs blew the whistle and signaled an incomplete pass. Not a single person, except for Patterson, thought otherwise. But as soon as the stadium scoreboard showed the replay, I said aloud, "Uh, that's an interception." The ball never hit the ground. Instead, it deflected off Harbor and then off Maiava's leg, right to Patterson. The crowd realized it too and started vocally urging their head coach to throw the challenge flag (amendments were recently passed to make these kinds of plays, where the outcome is obvious despite the whistle blowing, challengeable, right? Someone let me know if I'm wrong).* Luckily, Shurmur either didn't see (comprehend?) the replay or employs a booth assistant who should be fired. He was caught in a moment of indecision, and Vick quickly snapped the ball to end the suspense. Of course, the play Shurmur did end up challenging later on was not challengeable.
I also have no idea why Shurmur didn't call for a two-point conversion try after D'Qwell Jackson's pick-six. Oh well, not like the Browns could've used that extra point anyway.
*Edit: As commenter Andrew Stakiwicz pointed out, one of the replays on TV definitively showed that the ball hit the ground. Said replay wasn't put up on the stadium Jumbotron. And even if Patterson had made a clean interception, the Browns would have only gotten the ball at the spot since the play was blown dead. Thanks, Andrew, my bad on that.
1. Sloppiness. How do you outgain your opponent 456 to 210 and manage only to squeak out a 17-16 comeback victory by the skin of your teeth? By turning the ball over five times (could've been as much as seven or eight). By committing double-digit penalties. By doing nearly everything possible to hand an inferior team the game on a silver platter. By being the Eagles.
I didn't think it was possible, but these Eagles look to be dumber than last season -- a truly remarkable accomplishment. I feel like a broken record, but it really is a case of same shit, different season. In more ways than one. Not only did Marty/Andy abandon the run for long stretches even though Shady was gashing the Browns defense, but the players on the field couldn't stop committing penalties that negated big gains. It was a carbon copy of the preseason and instilled precisely zero confidence moving forward. Who needs an opponent when you're so adept at beating yourself? Regardless of the incompetence that oozed from the pores of each referee who bumbled around the field, the Eagles themselves looked every bit as discombobulated and clueless. This might be a talented football team, but it is also a very, VERY stupid and undisciplined one. Final count on the penalties was 12 for 110 yards, and there were a bunch more that the Browns declined. Look no further for the reason why the Eagles typically get smoked by the better teams on their schedule -- it's because those teams don't beat themselves.
2. Michael Vick. Wow. Just wow. Maybe there was some Dawg Pound karma in effect? It was a ghastly showing by Vick, and he deserved to get benched. I'm shocked I wasn't deluged with texts from my Atlanta friends (yes, they're sports fans!). To be honest, I'm disappointed in them. Back to Vick...
- His first interception came on a pass intended for Brent Celek over the middle. Vick was scrambling to his left and at the last second lofted the ball in the tight end's direction. The decision was worse than the throw, but not by much. Craig Robertson, whoever he is, stepped in front of Celek for the pick. As Jimmy Kempski, my neighbor in the press box, dryly noted, "You just can't throw at Craig Robertson." I laughed pretty hard at that. Jimmy and I, we had a blast.
- Vick's second interception was when he really started to unravel. Clay Harbor was WIDE open over the middle, but Vick held the ball about a second too long (what else is new) and by the time he uncorked the throw, three Browns' defenders were right there. One stepped in front of Harbor and should've had the interception, but the ball deflected off his hands and popped in the air. L.J. Fort, whoever he is, was there to finish the job.
- The third interception was on both Vick and Jeremy Maclin, though I place more of the blame on the quarterback for poor ball placement. Vick's throw was too far out in front, and Maclin, who fully extended his arms, had the ball deflect off his hands. Joe Haden was right there for the pick and returned it 50 yards to the Eagles 22. Naturally, the Browns could only muster a field goal.
- The fourth interception, everyone in the press box saw it coming as Vick stared down Maclin in the middle of the field. D'Qwell Jackson read Vick's eyes and stepped right in front -- 26 yards later he somersaulted into the end zone and the Browns were ahead 15-10 (pending the extra point). The Eagles, who had been dicking around all game, suddenly found themselves in deep shit.
- Vick actually should've thrown five interceptions (and I'm sure there was a sixth in there somewhere that I'm forgetting), with the fifth one effectively ending the game. Just in case you couldn't tell how close it was, here's the photo evidence, courtesy of Kempski over at Blogging the Beast. That L.J. Fort guy again, whoever he is, came thisclose to turning yesterday's nightmare into a reality, but the ball slipped through his fingertips. I guess that's why he went undrafted in April.
Now, to Vick's credit, he did achieve an exceptionally rare feat for the Andy Reid era in driving the offense down the field for a game-winning touchdown with under two minutes left. I did the research for an article last season (see the link), and by my count, Sunday's 16-play, 82-yard (91 including penalty yardage) touchdown drive marked just the FOURTH time in Reid's 227 games -- including playoffs -- as Eagles head coach that the team was able pull out a comeback win when down by more than three points and needing a touchdown DRIVE to win. Still, don't forget about Vick's fumble at the 10-yard line that he was fortunate to barely recover, and don't neglect the fact that the throw preceding the touchdown to Harbor was a bad decision and should have been intercepted. But it wasn't, and I suppose beggars can't be choosers. Lady luck, at those moments, was on the Eagles' side.
When I sat down at my seat in the press box prior to kickoff and asked Kempski for his thoughts, we agreed the Eagles should win rather easily, though we both acknowledged their penchant for first-game brain farts. Then I said, "Yeah, if they lose this game, I'm giving up on the season." I wasn't kidding (Edit: And this is how I felt while watching that travesty unfold before my eyes). All yesterday did was reinforce my concerns about this team as a whole, but at least the defense gave me a glimmer a hope.
Maybe next week will be different. For now, the Eagles are 1-0, and as Jason Kelce said to me after the game, good teams find a way to overcome adversity and win when their backs are against the wall. And, hey, winning ugly is still winning. We'll find out soon enough if this is finally an Eagles team with the wherewithal to come through in the clutch, or if yesterday's final drive was nothing more than a fluke that mollified an otherwise unsightly performance. One thing's for sure: The Eagles won't beat any other team on their schedule if they play the way they did Sunday afternoon.
Edit: I didn't attend Andy Reid's post-game press conference, but had I done so and been ballsy enough to ask a question, it would have been, "Do you have to do a better job of preparing your team?"