Sunday, December 30, 2007

Stilled Wings
The Eagles season ended today with a more or less ugly and uninspiring 17-9 win over Buffalo at Lincoln Financial Field, where heavy rains in the second half actually might have improved the playing conditions. I actually kept a running commentary during the game and thought about posting it here, but given both the meaningless nature of the game and the weird feeling I had that the guiding spirits of Andrew Sullivan and Bill Simmons were battling for control of my pen, I won't be doing that.

Suffice it to say that it was a variant of the game they played, literally, about 13 times this year: stretches where they clearly outplayed the opposition, punctuated by more big plays going against them than for them, leading to tight margins in the second half. They won a bunch of these--on the road at the Jets, Minnesota, and Dallas among others--and lost a bunch of others in ball-stomping fashion, at Green Bay on muffed punts, at home versus Chicago on a length-of-field drive in the final two minutes, at home against Seattle and the Giants on late turnovers. They generally got the better of opponents in these games, but rarely dominated and had a lot of trouble "finishing."

Still, there's a lot of reason for optimism going forward. Seven of the eight losses were to 2007 playoff teams, six were by eight points or fewer, and the Eagles out-gained their opponents in 11 of the 16 games. They finished in the NFL's top 10 in both offense and defense. Where they fell short was on game-changing plays, specifically turnovers and red-zone touchdown efficiency. The first problem is to some degree a function of luck and ill-timed injuries (if Dawkins and Sheppard had stayed healthy, they likely would have boosted the interception total); the second was partly a function of Donovan McNabb's early-season impairments, though they also need some better play-calling in close.

Yeah, they're 8-8. But it's much, much easier to imagine how they could have gone 11-5 than 5-11. One can argue that 11-5 itself isn't good enough if titles are the goal--it wouldn't have been this year, though it might have been last season or next--but that's another discussion.

I see two serious off-season needs: one starting WR who has enough big-play capacity that teams always need to worry about him (even at the sub-star level of Donte Stallworth, who filled that role for McNabb early in the 2006 season), and another pass-rush specialist along the lines of what they thought Kearse could be. A better kicker and someone who can field kicks would be good too. But they're basically solid on the lines, they have one star offensive playmaker, an above-average quarterback, and a bunch of worthwhile complementary parts; and a good and improving run defense and solid secondary.

Maybe a less encouraging sign is that they suffered a few excruciating defeats on unforced errors last year too, notably at Tampa and New Orleans. That might be on the coaching; Andy Reid had a valid excuse this year, but they do have to be a much tighter ship in-game next season.

This was an intensely frustrating season, but in a way I feel better about the Eagles' 2008 chances coming off this season than I did last year after the playoff loss to the Saints.

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