Friday, September 25, 2009

Eagles Should Focus on Offensive Basics to Reach Ultimate Goal

New Orleans Saints v Philadelphia Eagles

It seems pretty clear that the Eagles have made a major commitment towards becoming perhaps the most gimmicky offense in the NFL. They signed Michael Vick, and even with him still sidelined by suspension, they ran 9 Wildcat formations last Sunday against the Saints. Only Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg know what might be in store for us this week with Vick being activated to play.

While coaches have obviously spent considerable time drawing up trick plays in the dirt, a compelling argument can be made that they should be focusing on sharpening up on the basics of an already somewhat unconventional offense. The Eagles are one of a handful of teams that passes more than 60% of the time. This has proven effective for them as they have been a top scoring team, but it does require precision and doesn't need to be complicated further by an array of trick plays.

The Eagles have always added some "wrinkles" to their offense. Mornhinweg indicated in an interview yesterday that Reid's philosophy has been to infuse approximately four to six "special" plays each game into the regular offense. This year, he appears to be doubling down on that philosophy.

So, what's the rub here? A handful of "special plays" have been part of the Eagles typically high scoring offense for years. Besides being entertaining and sometimes explosive, these plays maintain an element of surprise that defenders need to account for as they interpret what is unfolding in front of them, on those gadget plays as well as others. Part of the value of these plays comes from forcing the opponents to watch for it at anytime.

Conversely, the Wildcat formations scream "trick play!" It does not present a variation or twist off of a more normal formation, so the defense does not have to be watching for it when the Eagles line up in their conventional formations.

Another byproduct of the Wildcat formation is that it appears to put players in positions for which they are not physically or experientially equipped, which introduces a much higher probability of someone getting hurt. Last week, DeSean Jackson aggravated a groin injury on a Wildcat formation. It stands to reason that placing smallish receivers in vulnerable positions will eventually result in wear and tear, as well as injury. It also stands to reason that a quarterback is going to be taken out as they are asked to play another position not so well protected by NFL rules.

It is even a little scary seeing Brian Westbrook alone in the backfield taking a direct snap. Everyone would agree that he is instrumental to the team's fortunes in 2009, so wouldn't it make more sense to protect his ailing body as much as possible? Perhaps the team is willing to take the risk of using Vick in more vulnerable formations because they have two other quarterbacks behind Donovan McNabb?

Another argument against the Wildcat relates to the increasing frequency that it is being used around the league. That is taken to another level, when one team increases its own frequency of use. Surely, the uniqueness and element of surprise diminishes, and ultimately the effectiveness. This being true, it begs to ask the question why would you invest in something that know will have declining value?

This leads me to a related question. Wouldn't it be better to invest your time, energy, mental resources and practice repetitions working on parts of the game that will be instrumental and necessary to reach your goal? All games are important in a short NFL season, but the ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl.

Perhaps the best argument against gratuitous use of the Wildcat can be summed up in two words- Buddy Ryan. He was a defensive genius as well as an entertaining and somewhat successful coach. But his teams never fulfilled the promise provided by his dynamic defense or talent on the team.

The main reason for this was that Ryan attempted to compliment the dominating defense with an offense that was "hit or miss." It was not built on precision or excellence in execution, but rather the chance that playmaker Randall Cunningham would somehow break a run or throw a touchdown on a fire drill type of play.

By the time the playoffs rolled around, the Eagles had nothing in their offense to count on. Invariably, the opponents would develop a game plan to a account for Cunningham, reduce the probability of those happen chance plays and ultimately send the Eagles to another disappointing playoff loss. And, importantly, the Eagles offensive squad had no confidence or conviction when they took the field that they had a proven scheme and formula for success.

The 2009 Eagles would be wise to consider how they might be creating a similar scenario with their infatuation with the Wildcat formation and gimmick plays. When the season is on the line each week in the big games at the end of the year, even if the trick plays got them a couple cheap scores or higher than average yardage earlier in the year, what will they draw upon to win games when both sides have equal intensity and laser-like focus? History suggests that gadget plays don't get it done in those times. What has been successful, though, is a mindset of the players that exudes confidence that if they execute on what they do best, they will win.

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