by Michael Lombardi
January 15, 02010
QUOTE: “Everything and everybody is sooner or later identified, defined and put in perspective. The truth as always is simultaneously better and worse than what the popular myth-making has it.” -- William Saroyan
I decided to wait before I wrote about the Eagles because I wanted to let the emotion of their playoff loss to the Cowboys simmer down. As many of you know, I grew up near Philadelphia and consider myself a Philadelphia sports fan, so I understand the emotion and pain, I understand the passion, and I understand that someone has to be blamed for the loss. By waiting to write this column, I was really being self-serving because I didn’t want my email inbox to explode with all the messages from Eagles fans calling me an idiot (FYI, I’ve had my email rigged so that if the word “idiot” appears, it becomes spam).
Now, as often is the case, the person being blamed is not the real problem, just the easiest target. Quarterback Donovan McNabb has been in Philadelphia since 1999, so he’s fully aware of the fans’ passion, and he’s fully aware that he’s the target of their wrath.
The marriage between head coach Andy Reid and McNabb has been successful in terms of winning regular-season games. However, the absence of a Super Bowl victory attached to both men’s resumes places them in the line of fire with the fans. Eleven years together without a title will test any fan’s patience, but in Philadelphia, where the fan base wants more immediate results, the patience has worn extremely thin. So it’s natural to blame McNabb for their recent failure. Yet from my view, the fans are not really lashing out at McNabb; they’re just very tired of waiting for a title. Their patience has been tested. As the Eagles’ brass talks of continuity, their fan base sees this as more of the same. The popular refrain I hear from fans is, “Why, after 11 years, should we believe next year will be different?”
To make it different, the Eagles have to correctly identify the reasons they weren’t able to beat the Cowboys. The fans will blame McNabb because that’s the easiest thing to do, but the core issue, especially against the Cowboys, is that their defensive line can’t match up to the Cowboys. Unless Trent Cole can make a play coming off the edge, the Eagles lose every matchup in the front seven. Mike Patterson, the Eagles defensive tackle, is a nice player, a good player, but he’s not a pass rusher, and his lack of size is a problem when facing Leonard Davis, the Cowboys’ massive right guard. No other player can consistently dominate for the Birds, while the Cowboys have several players who dominate against the Eagles offensive line. The reason for the loss to the ‘Boys lies in both lines, not McNabb. The Cowboys can dominate the line of scrimmage, and their ability to pressure McNabb takes the Eagles offense out of the game. The Eagles are NOT a West Coast offense, they are a down-the-field passing team, and this requires pass protection. It requires time for the quarterback, something McNabb was not given in the games against the ‘Boys.
All year, I had been writing that the Eagles needed to play with a lead, which they did most of the time, finishing third in the NFL in point differential at the half. In the last six games of the regular season, the Birds gave up 24 or more points four times, which is not championship-level defense. Yet even with the lead, there were times when their defense was exposed by not having another rusher, not having a playmaking safety, not having a dominating tackle, not having a consistent middle linebacker and not being able to adjust to the scheme of the offense. Sean McDermott, the Birds’ new defensive coordinator who filled in for the late Jim Johnson, had a good first year, but watching the three Cowboy games closely, the Eagles were one step behind and the ‘Boys never had problems with their blitz schemes. McDermott was learning his craft, and it would be foolish to think he could be as good as Johnson in just one year. This will take time, and few better players.
Back to the McNabb blame game in Philadelphia. It seems the fans want the Eagles to trade him now for a pick and move on to the Kevin Kolb era. Not easy to do, as McNabb’s value would be very high right now, but the lack of years on his contract creates a problem. Many ask if he should be extended, and my answer is that McNabb should not want an extension because the way he’s played, in spite of his age, it might not be acceptable to many Eagles fans -- but it would be welcomed by any team in need of a quarterback. Believe it or not, Eagles fans, McNabb is firmly in the driver seat. He can control trades and he can control how much money he commands, all because of his play and because he has only one year left on his deal. No team will want to trade for their future quarterback without an extension, so McNabb would have to sign off on any trade. Today in the NFL, much like the NBA, teams trade for players and contracts. But unlike the NBA, an expiring contract in the NFL does not favor the club -- if the player is still playing well.
So does this mean fans should believe the Eagle when it comes to continuity? My answer would be yes -- as long as Reid takes a hard look at his defense and realizes he needs to add more firepower on that side of the ball. Losing to the Cowboys was painful for Eagles fans, but it allows the organization to know what it will take to get to the next level. It gives them a clearer, more precise path to close the gap. And closing the gap does not involve blaming McNabb, it involves fixing their lines.
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Which cellar dweller will be able to take the next step in 2010? Check out this article from Bleacher Report to find out.