Saturday, December 26, 2009

Maybe the Glass is Half Full for the Eagles

Giants vs. Eagles

Philadelphia fans had high hopes for the 2009-2010 Eagles team. There was good reason for optimism considering the team's run to the NFC Championship game where they narrowly lost to a red hot Arizona Cardinals team. They struggled throughout the first two thirds of last season and then pulled together to play well in phases of the game over the balance of the season. Then, in the off season, they seemingly continued their on the field run, off the field with free agent signings and a draft that was lauded by fans and football pundits.

On paper, the Eagles appeared to have bolstered their weaknesses and made a promising team, even better. For once in the Jeffrey Lurie/Andy Reid era, the Eagles took action that aligned with public sentiment, particularly by adding more playmakers to an offense that had historically lacked explosiveness. Logic suggested that a team that came within a couple completed passes of the 2009 Super Bowl, with some young players maturing into difference making performers, and further strengthened  with a brilliant  cadre of moves, would be at least the NFC Super Bowl favorite.

This was solid reasoning, and if everything had fallen into place as they hoped, the Eagles had a legitimate shot at a great season. Unfortunately, life, and particularly NFL life, can quickly veer off course. For the Eagles, that started to happen from the outset of training camp and continued into the regular season. In particular, injuries took a steep toll on both sides of the ball.

Stewart Bradley and Akeem Jordan, two of their young linebackers, were rapidly evolving into the strong playmakers the defense needed to compliment their secondary and defensive line. As they matured and gained confidence a year ago, the defense gained momentum. Regrettably, Bradley tore his ACL early in camp and was lost for the season. Jordan was a strong presence early in the season, but then, he too hyperextended his knee and missed several weeks. Additionally, CB Ellis Hobbs was lost for the season with a neck injury and emerging nickel back, Joselio Hanson, was suddenly suspended for taking a weight loss pill.

On the offense, the line was hit hard with injuries throughout the preseason and into the regular season. What appeared to be a strength with the signings of tackles  Jason Peters and Stacy Andrews, along with the return of former pro bowler Shawn Andrews, turned into a patch work unit. Shawn was placed on IR before the season due to lingering back problems and Stacy has not been able to recover from off season knee surgery. Peters has been hurt off and on, while Todd Herremans missed a large chunk of time with a knee injury.

Along the way to the Eagles rolling to an opening game blowout in Charlotte, a Panthers defensive lineman piled onto Donovan McNabb in the end zone and took some luster off the win when it was determined that his ribs were broken. McNabb would have to sit out a couple games. And, starting running back Brian Westbrook and starting wide receiver Kevin Curtis have been largely unavailable or limited due to injuries.

This is the NFL and things happen. But, the pre-season prognostications were based on the team assembled on paper, not the patch work team that Andy Reid has had to piece together for much of the season. Clearly, these events have negatively impacted the Eagles and played a significant role in the team getting off to a 5-4 start. Although the team has had a penchant for starting out slowly and finishing strong, many fans figured that another promising season would end in disappointment.

Since a depleted Eagles team lost to the surging San Diego Chargers to start the second half of the season, they have weathered the storm and gained momentum each week. Donovan McNabb issued his much debated "must win" proclamation for the next week's game in Chicago in an attempt to instill a sense of urgency amongst his young teammates. Commingled with that statement was his own recognition of a void left by departing veterans and transformation into a more overt leader on the team. This has been a big part of the current 5-game winning streak that began in that "must win" contest in Chicago.

When the run began, the team was starting to come together on the offensive line, but the defense was largely in disarray. Key players were missing, meaning that inexperienced teammates needed to be put onto the field while others shifted into other unaccustomed roles. McNabb realized and accepted added responsibility on the offensive side of the ball to out score opponents while the defense struggled. Veterans like Sheldon Brown and Asante Samuel played through injuries, and although at times limited, found ways to make plays.

In striking contrast to a year ago when a confluence of events allowed the Eagles to slip into the playoffs in the season's final week, this year Andy Reid's team has already clinched a spot, but two important games remain. A win in Dallas to end the regular season would give them the NFC Eastern Division title. A Cowboys loss and Eagles win this week would accomplish the same thing, but expecting the Redskins to knock them off after their melt down against the Giants on Monday night would seem to defy the odds.

Tomorrow's meeting with the Broncos, though, has added importance due to the recent decline of the Minnesota Vikings. Another loss opens the door for the Eagles to seize the second seed in the NFC playoffs, which of course, comes replete with a bye and home field advantage in the second round. A few weeks ago, this possibility would seem almost unreachable, but seems reasonable considering the Brett Favre, Brad Childress bickering and the team's overall diminished performance.

So, the promising team that seemed headed for another year of disappointment finds itself surging at the right time and in an enviable position. The offense has averaged 31 points in the current streak, and more importantly, is demonstrating both the type of explosiveness and consistency that will strike fear in any post season opponent.  Adding a healthy Brian Westbrook to an offense led by McNabb, DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek and others could be a juggernaut. Although their struggles in the Meadowlands two weeks ago raised many concerns, the defensive unit's performances around that have been much more encouraging. A return to similar form from a year ago as the defense gets healthier, would surely make the Eagles a formidable playoff team and bring them full circle to a legitimate Super Bowl contender. After an unforeseen and bumpy path, the glass may just be half full.

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