Here begins lots of posting today--on the Philadelphia Eagles, the 2008 presidential race, and last but not least the minor question of humanity's relationship to the divine. Gotta love vacation.
First, the best news: the Birds delivered a magnificent Xmas treat to millions of football-crazed Philadelphians and displaced natives yesterday with a 23-7 dismantling of the hated Dallas Cowboys. Unlike most memorable Eagles wins this year, Monday's contest was almost entirely stress-free: the team came out of the gate fast, and the gameplan--superb for a second straight week, on both sides of the ball--was designed to win the fourth quarter. Once the Eagles got the ball back in the third quarter leading 16-7--after a huge drop by Terrell Owens, Christmas Ass, that could have put the Cowboys on the doorstep of a game-tightening touchdown--there wasn't much doubt: the Eagles' offensive line, among the biggest in the NFL and suffused with the nasty attitude of mainstay tackles Jon Runyan and William (Tre) Thomas, just ground the fast but small Cowboys defensive front seven into dust. With the lead, and fresh legs from the clock-consuming drives the offense kept putting together, the Birds' defenders were able to force Dallas to play their game: passing three-quarters of the time, having to keep extra men in to block against the ferocious but disciplined blitzes Jim Johnson kept calling. By the end, the Cowboys looked completely beaten, and their fans streamed out of Jerkwad Stadium by the middle of the fourth quarter.
Just wish I could have said to the luxury box crowd: "You might have screwed up our country pretty good, but at least we kicked your punk ass at football."
A few other points on the most satisfying Eagles win since the January 2005 NFC Championship game:
- Ever since Ray Rhodes came in as coach for the 1995 season, it's been trendy among Eagles fans to knock the West Coast offense. Maybe this is because it's a finesse attack that doesn't comport with cold-weather East Coast notions of how you win football games in December; maybe it stems from the fact that its downsides--difficulty running out the clock with a late lead, getting overly cutesy with formations, the reported post-doc complexity of the playbook--often have been more immediately noticable than its benefits. But it's clearly a system that, in the hands of a master operator who really needs its structure to thrive, can be a thing of beauty. The Eagles now have such an operator in Jeff Garcia. He's not the physical player that injured Donovan McNabb is, and this isn't to badmouth McNabb--who, after all, was headed back to the Pro Bowl before he got hurt, and remains probably the best quarterback in franchise history. But McNabb (or at least the pre-ACL tear McNabb) could fake defenders out of their cleats, throw the ball 60 yards across his body on a dead run, and generally turn disaster into glory by virtue of his physical gifts and improvisational mastery. Garcia, a less innately talented guy, has to get everything he can out of the system. Combined with better game-planning that leverages the size and athleticism of the O-line and the new willingness to ride the talents of all-world back Brian Westbrook, Garcia gets more out of this system.
- As badly coached as the Eagles looked while losing five out of six games, they look that good now. Not only the play-calling, which has been superlative, but the fundamentals. Their penalties are down, aside from some of the questionable calls in the Giants game last week; they are no longer dropping a half-dozen passes a game (I think two in the last two weeks, both by Thomas Tapeh); they've become sure-handed tacklers; special-teams coverage units are staying in their lanes and minimizing returns. When they hit 5-6, I thought that after seven and a half years, the team had tuned out Andy Reid and his staff; I couldn't have been more wrong.
- The play following personnel changes on defense hasn't been as evident as the offensive turnaround after Garcia took the reins, but it's been just as important. Rookie OLB Omar Gaither, who was really an afterthought in a ballyhooed draft class that included Broderick Bunkley, Winston Justice and Jeremy Bloom, has been a playmaking force since winning a starting job. Second-year safety Sean Considine isn't as athletic as his mates in the defensive backfield, but he's a solid tackler who plays well in the scheme. And Bunkley, the star-crossed rookie who's had trouble getting on the field, has been a big key to stuffing the run the last two weeks; the normal problem with rookies in December--fatigue after playing more games than the college schedule calls for--hasn't affected him, because he hardly played before this month.
The Eagles did not handle success well earlier this year: after the last Dallas game, they lost three straight and in each of them, they didn't seem to be all there until well into the second half. Another lapse now, and all the current good feeling will be gone in two weeks' time after a first-round playoff loss. But the way they've played in their last two games, completing a march of destruction through the home stadiums of their bitterest NFC East rivals, this team can take anybody. A month ago, January football seemed an impossibility; now it's legitimately worth getting excited about.