Re-Learning to Love the Eagles
With an ugly but well-earned 27-24 win at home Sunday against Washington, the Eagles finish November with a 7-4 record that looks a lot better than the team generally has. The same problems of the last half-decade have surfaced again throughout the first eleven games of the 2009 season: shaky play-calling, awful clock management, trouble converting third-and-short situations and scoring in the red zone, over-reliance upon the blitz to pressure opposing quarterbacks. And they've added some new wrinkles this year: way too many penalties, struggles to protect the quarterback, and a more than occasional inability to stop opponents on third-and-long. Watching them play often feels like having dental work done.
And yet that 7-4 record is their best at this point in the season since 2004, when they started 10-1 and went to the Super Bowl. Last year at this juncture they were 5-5-1 and all but left for dead in the playoff race; they won four of their last five and two more in the playoffs before falling in the NFC Championship Game. In 2007, when they finished 8-8, Game 11 was a 31-28 loss to the Patriots team that ended the regular season 16-0--the first of three straight close losses to playoff teams in a season when seven of the Eagles' eight defeats were by eight points or less. In 2006, they were 5-6 thru eleven games, then came back to win their last five plus one in the playoffs behind unlikely hero quarterback Jeff Garcia. The year before that, they also reached this point at 5-6, but were fading fast in the midst of a 2-8 slide to end a miserable season.
So 7-4 isn't bad, especially when you consider they've done most or all of it without expected key contributors like Brian Westbrook, Shawn Andrews and Stewart Bradley--two former Pro Bowlers plus a guy who was expected to assume the leadership of the defense after the team let legendary safety Brian Dawkins leave as a free agent last winter--and with a slew of injuries to the offensive line, linebackers and secondary. Perhaps even more encouraging is that the emerging stars on offense--running back LeSean McCoy, wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, and tight end Brent Celek--are respectively 21, 23, 21, and 24. Donovan McNabb, the veteran quarterback who along with Westbrook is probably my all-time favorite Eagles player, has done an underrated great job guiding them toward NFL maturity.
Those kids, particularly McCoy and Maclin, keyed fourth-quarter comeback victories last week in Chicago and again in the game Sunday. The Eagles hadn't won a game in that manner, ripping it away from the other team at the end, since early last season; they'd done it once the year before, also against Washington, but that win had somewhat gotten lost in the cascade of taint-kick losses in 2007. Most of the team's wins since the start of that season had come when the game plan drawn up during the week had more or less worked all day long; but great football teams have to win both with elegant conception and gritted-teeth resilience after things go wrong.
Though no NFC teams look unbeatable to me (the Saints, who put their perfect record on the line Monday night against New England, are the closest), I don't give the Eagles a great chance of making the Super Bowl in February, much less winning it. Good quarterbacks kill them: without taking anything away from the Eagles for beating Chicago and Washington, better passers for either team would have won those games. They can't run the ball consistently, and coach Andy Reid remains all too prone to trip on his own mental shoelaces. (And there's evidently a good chance that Jackson and Celek, McNabb's two favorite targets, will miss at least next week's game with injuries sustained today.) My guess is that they'll finish 10-6 and might or might not win one playoff game before getting dispatched by the Saints or, ugh, Vikings. But considering both the youth of the roster and the toughness and growth they've shown, it feels like they might be back on the way up, building toward another legitimate shot at a title, rather than running in place as it's so often seemed since 2005.