At the 2009 season's mid-point, the Eagles find themselves sitting at 5-3 and one game out of first in the tough NFC East by virtue of their loss to the Cowboys Sunday night. For the casual observer, this seems like a good record that gives the team reason for hope over the balance of the year. A pragmatist, though, sees that the team probably underperformed, should likely have 1 or 2 more wins and has a more difficult schedule in the second half of the season.
To be fair, the Eagles had to weather the storm of some key injuries, but this is an aspect that most every team has to overcome in the NFL, where the overall size, speed and strength of players creates a figurative train wreck each week. The loss of Donovan McNabb to a broken rib may have cost the team a chance to be competitive against the Saints, but the biggest blows have been on the offensive line, at middle linebacker and the absence of Brian Westbrook. With Shawn Andrews never seeing the field, his brother Stacy playing in a limited back-up role, Todd Herremans just now seeing action and Jason Peters being banged up, the line play has been commendable, but erratic. The loss of Stewart Bradley in pre-season created a weakness until recently. And, losing a weapon the caliber of Westbook is always impactful.
Thus far, the Eagles have been a bi-polar bunch, with the high's very high and the low's very low. The highlight of the first half was the 40-17 demolition of the Giants a couple weeks ago. The low point was the dismal loss in Oakland against a Raiders team that has been inept and is in disarray. Sunday's loss to a 6-2 Cowboys team does not fall into the same category, but it surely was disappointing coming off the Giants game and because it appeared that a win was only a little bit of execution away.
The Eagles roster definitely has talent and the potential to do much better over the course of the season. The team has flashed its capabilities with big plays in all phases of the game. The offense has evolved into an explosive, quick strike unit, but in between big plays demonstrates very little consistency or ability to grind out drives. The defensive personality over the past decade has almost always been aggressive, and now has a knack for interceptions. And, the Eagles possess explosive returners on special teams, but have a difficult time avoiding penalties to make it worthwhile.
In order for the team to improve and make a successful post season run, here are some thoughts on what needs to happen:
Leadership must emerge.
Many of the Eagles better players are young or have never played a substantial leadership role. With the departure of key veterans such as Brian Dawkins, Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas, the team seems to be a little lacking in terms of leadership. There appears to be a particular void on the defense as Dawkins was such a strong presence and the team sadly lost one of the most influential coordinators in the league with the passing of Jim Johnson.
Some of the schizophrenic play of the team most likely can be attributed to the gap in leadership. McNabb needs to recognize that he must assert himself as the unquestioned leader on offense, demonstrating a high level of intensity and control while demanding more from his players. On defense, someone needs to emerge as the motivational leader who keeps the pressure on to perform at a high level. Could recently acquired Will Witherspoon be that person?
Attain stability on the offensive line.
It will be difficult for the Eagles to have any real success this season as long as their offensive line is in a constant state of flux. To a certain degree, changing this will require some good fortune, but it will also require Herremans and Andrews to round into shape in order to perform to their potential. Until this happens, breakdowns in protection and the inability to create running lanes will continue to stall the Eagles offense, which is a segue to the next two needs.
Develop ability to execute on methodical drives.
The Eagles need to cultivate their base offense, and develop the ability to grind out methodical drives to complement their big play capabilities. So far this season it has mostly been all or nothing, which typically leads to unfulfilled promise when the playoffs roll around.
Clearly DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin give the team a new found explosiveness, but the Eagles also have the tools to move the chains. Brent Celek is emerging as an excellent tight end, who gets open, makes tough catches and is hard to bring down. Jason Avant continues to impress with his ability to catch the ball in traffic and serve as a complementary possession receiver. Even if Brian Westbrook is out of the line-up, both LeSean McCoy and Leonard Weaver have demonstrated that they can run and catch very effectively.
Make Vick the emergency QB.
The team needs to bite the bullet and admit that the Michael Vick experiment is a bust. They need to make a clean break by taking him out of the offense altogether and slide him into the emergency back-up role. Vick not only does not add anything to the offense, he clearly detracts from it. Wasting a valuable timeout to shuffle him in and out for yet another nothing play on Sunday night added insult to injury. Although it surely is not the sole reason, it is not sheer coincidence that the offense still has not been able to find any level of continuity this season. Heck, you can even see the frustration and lack of confidence on the face of players every time Vick shuffles onto the field to run some exotic dive or sandlot formation.
Hire a "Time Management" coach
A long-time nemesis of the team has been its inability to manage the clock and make "in game" snap decisions. Squandering all three second half timeouts the other night, although one can be attributed to poor vision or pure stubbornness of the officials, was further compounded by an almost nonsensical late game decision to kick a field goal. The Eagles needed a touchdown to avoid defeat, with or without the field goal, so they essentially doubled their chances of losing simply by attempting a field goal. By not trying to get a first down, the entire game now rode on them being able to get a quick 3 and out, plus they would have to drive much further to score.
Is it out of the realm of possibility to have an assistant who's job it is to study probabilities, and most importantly, who possesses stellar skills in logical reasoning? This coach could help prepare thinking in order to make the right decisions in the moment, and be standing ready for quick consult. It sounds crazy, but is at least worth consideration as time management surely has not been a forte.
In the NFC, the Saints and Vikings are both playing with a level of consistency and skill at a higher level than the Eagles. In the AFC, the Colts, Patriots and Steelers all appear to be a cut above. But, as the Eagles stand at the mid-point looking back at their first half body of work and peer ahead to what might lie ahead, there is a great deal of reason for optimism. As the many previous flashes of brilliance have signaled, the potential is there; however, it is going to require adjustments and an evolution. The next five games, four of which are against winning teams on the road, will likely reveal whether the Eagles are a true contender.