Brian Dawkins didn't want to look back at a season of missed opportunities, because the wound from a 10-3 loss to Washington was too fresh, too real. The immediate perspective from players is to consider the present and then move on to the future. The rest of us, though, are hurting so much that it's hard not to point to all of the blown chances of this 8-6-1 Eagles season. The Eagles have been in must-win mode for the last month because they missed too many opportunities early in the season to build a playoff cushion now.
Losing to Washington was agonizing. I know the pointed finger from the fans and the media is largely in the direction of head coach Andy Reid. I've been on the Discussion Boards here for some time, answering question after question about the run/pass ratio. It was out of whack on the stat sheet, no doubt about it. Donovan McNabb threw the ball 46 times, was sacked twice and scrambled two times, meaning the Eagles called 50 pass plays. They called 14 running plays, gaining 54 yards.
I'm not here to defend the ratio. It was lopsided, and it didn't work, but the reason the Eagles scored only three points is because the entire offense didn't work. In the first half, for example, the Eagles ran the ball 9 times (for 35) yards and passed it 11 times, and had all of 66 total net yards and zero points to show for it. The ratio is only part of the equation here. Granted, two of those runs came as the Eagles basically wound down the final seconds off the clock, but I'll also point out that without those runs and the 11 yards they gained, the Eagles managed a meager 55 net yards offensively in the opening two quarters.
The mark of the three-game winning streak was an offense that started quickly, established the line of scrimmage and then found balance in the run/pass game. The Eagles started in mud against Washington.
Truth is, the Eagles failed everywhere offensively on Sunday. They were burdened with lousy field position -- to repeat the post-game column, the Eagles had 10 of their 12 drives start at the 20-yard line or worse, and had four of those drives start at the 9-yard line or worse -- and they didn't sustain enough drives (the Eagles, after converting 33 of 50 third downs in a three-game winning streak, were just 3 of 14 on Sunday) and they dropped passes and missed blocks and couldn't connect the dots enough to get the Redskins on their heels.
Washington, known to play primarily man-to-man coverage, mixed their looks in this game. They showed a lot of two-deep zone over the top, apparently content with giving the Eagles a yard or three here and there. The Eagles had a couple of chances to make plays down the field, and both times Donovan McNabb threw catchable balls to DeSean Jackson that he just couldn't bring in. One was a twisting, over-the-shoulder try down the left sideline on a first-and-10 play with 6:09 to go from the Philadelphia 20-yard line. The other was a crusher -- a picture-perfect throw to Jackson on a "go" route from the Washington 40-yard line that Jackson failed to hold in the right corner of the end zone.
Theme of the year.
How much different would this game have been had the Eagles scored a touchdown when they had a first and 10 at the Washington 12-yard line after a McNabb-to-Brian Westbrook catch and run gained 47 yards after the Eagles had fallen behind 10-0 in the third quarter? Instead of punching the ball into the end zone and seizing some momentum, the Eagles settled for a field goal and Washington still had the mighty mo.
The defense, while brilliant for much of the game, had its chances, too. At 0-0 in the second quarter, the Redskins moved from their 14-yard line to the Eagles 14 and looked into the end zone for six points. Jason Campbell's pass for Santana Moss was deflected and nearly intercepted by Quintin Mikell, who tipped the pass into the air. Chris Gocong's diving attempt to intercept the pass, after Mikell's missed moment in the end zone, came up empty and Washington scored a field goal to lead, 3-0.
In the third quarter, the Eagles gained a first down -- a major achievement in this game -- and then handed off to Jackson for a 7-yard gain on first down from their 30-yard line. But Reggie Brown was whistled for holding and the Eagles didn't escape the first-and-13 hole on that drive. A 3-yard McNabb scramble followed by a 7-yard Westbrook run put the Eagles in third-and-3, a manageable situation they had converted so many times in their winning streak.
This time, on this day, McNabb held the ball a split second too long as left defensive end Jason Taylor got past Jon Runyan and Taylor, who had only 1 1/2 sacks coming into the game, registered his second sack and forced a McNabb fumble that London Fletcher recovered and returned 12 yards to the Philadelphia 18-yard line.
"We need to hold them to a field goal there," said Dawkins, "and we didn't."
It's hard to find fault with the defense here. Washington gained only 249 total net yards and the Redskins ran for 122 yards on 32 carries. Campbell hurt the Eagles with a couple of scrambles -- he ran for 28 yards on two runs -- and he had good, smart ball security. The Eagles needed a takeaway here, and, like that opportunity in the end zone, didn't make it happen. Early in the fourth quarter, for example, Asante Samuel had a chance to intercept Campbell on a sideline pass to Devin Thomas, but the ball glanced off of Samuel's fingertips. Instead of having the football near midfield, the Eagles watched as Redskins punter Ryan Plackemeier -- an MVP on this day -- dropped a punt at the 3-yard line.
McNabb put together an excellent drive at the end of the game, moving the offense from the 9-yard line to Washington's 18-yard line with 12 seconds remaining. But without timeouts, the Eagles had limited options. They tried to sneak one into the end zone, and a completion to a leaping Reggie Brown was there, right there, at the goal line. Washington's Fred Smoot and LeRon Landry made the defensive play, upending Brown at the 1/2-yard line -- maybe closer -- and the seconds ticked away.
Painful. Very painful. The Eagles controlled their playoff destiny when the game started, thanks to San Diego's win over Tampa Bay, but by the end of the day the Eagles again needed help with one game remaining. Tampa Bay has to lose to Oakland in Tampa next Sunday and the Eagles have to beat Dallas at Lincoln Financial Field. Chicago has to lose to either Green Bay on Monday night or at Houston next week. Minnesota has to lose to the Giants.
Did it have to come down to this?
Losses in Chicago, when the Eagles couldn't convert on four chances inside the Bears 5-yard line, and in Dallas, when the team blew a lead in the fourth quarter and fumbled away a chance to ice the game, and when the Eagles lost a 14-0 lead to Washington at home, and had that awful tie in Cincinnati ...
"You can't look back," said Dawkins.
Maybe he can't, at least not yet. The Eagles need to win on Sunday against Dallas and hope for help again. We can look back and think wistfully of a season that could have been, should have been, isn't. You can probably pick out three or four plays from every NFL game that make the difference. The Eagles used to make those plays and win those games and not have to sweat the myriad formulas to reach the playoffs.
Not now. This team is a good team, but one that ultimately has not won enough in the NFC East to be where it wants to be right now.
There is one game to go and the Eagles are going to do their best to wipe away the harsh disappointment of the loss to the Redskins. They are going to look ahead. For the rest of us, the days in front will serve as a painful time to re-hash the shouldas, couldas and wouldas of a season that is.