Finish strong. It is the motto of every person who has every participated in any sporting event. Start fast and finish strong. As the Eagles move forward and take an optimistic and aggressive approach the rest of the way to make something special of this 2008 season, they need to win the battle at the end of each half, something they haven't done.
I know the focus is more on the macro issues on this team -- Brian Westbrook's health. The running game. Explosiveness in the passing game. Big plays on defense. Play calling. Hidden yardage on special teams.
Every bit as important is the micro battle of winning each half. The Eagles aren't closing out games, and they aren't closing out halves.
- Week 1 vs. St. Louis. The Eagles closed the first half with a bang. They had the ball deep in their territory with 1 minute, 41 seconds to go in the second quarter. After two plunges into the line of scrimmage, Andy Reid called a play-action pass to the left side of the field and Donovan McNabb completed a throw to Hank Baskett. He made the catch and raced down the field to complete a 90-yard touchdown play. It was beautiful. It was perfect. It was encouraging as the defense held, closed out the first half and basically eliminated any fight the Rams had.
- Week 2 at Dallas. Tough game at the end of both halves. Things got off on the right foot when McNabb drove the Eagles offense down the field and whittled the game clock down from 5:42 to 45 seconds and took a 30-21 lead on a David Akers field goal. But the defense didn't hold the momentum. Dallas moved 45 yards in three plays and 42 seconds and kicked a field goal to seize back the mighty mo heading into the locker room. At the end of the game, of course, the Eagles trailed 41-37 and took possession of the football with 2:36 remaining. After converting a third-and-1 play -- a Brian Westbrook run for 3 yards -- the offense stalled and a fourth-and-17 hook-and-ladder play failed to pick up the first down near midfield. An opportunity to secure a huge early-season game was lost.
- Week 3 vs. Pittsburgh. The Eagles did not handle the first half well. After the Eagles took control of the football at their 23-yard line with 1:51 remaining in the first half with a 10-3 lead, McNabb threw an interception to Bryan McFadden and the Steelers took over on the Eagles 49-yard line. They moved to the 36-yard line in 1:24 and narrowed the gap to 10-6 on Jeff Reed's 53-yard field goal. Late in the game, the Eagles offense had a chance to completely put the game out of reach when the defense forced a Ben Roethlisberger fumble and turnover and the Eagles recovered at the Steelers 18-yard line. Three plays gained five yards and Akers came on to kick a field goal to give the Eagles a 15-6 lead. It was a nice lead to have, but the game was not totally out of reach there. The Eagles would have been better served to string together some first downs and put the ball in the end zone to end any hope the Steelers had.
- Week 4 at Chicago. The Bears took control of the football with 5:24 to go in the first half at their 40-yard line and proceeded to drive 60 yards in nine plays to score on a Kyle Orten touchdown pass to Devin Hester to lead 21-14. The Eagles got the ball back at their 23-yard line with 1:16 to go in the half and had a three-and-out series. Of course, late in the game was even less productive for the Eagles. McNabb drove the offense 75 yards in 11 plays, but the offense stalled at the 1-yard line and Chicago took control with 3:32 remaining in the game, leading by four points. A Matt Forte 7-yard run converted a third-and-4 situation and the Eagles tasted a bitter defeat.
- Week 5 vs. Washington. Holding a 14-6 lead, the Eagles took possession at their 40-yard line with 1:56 remaining after Redskins kicker Shaun Suisham kicked off out of bounds. But the Eagles failed to capitalize. An illegal snap penalty moved the ball back five yards and the Eagles fell short on a third-and-15 pass to Brian Westbrook and Washington gained possession at its 18-yard line with 55 seconds to go in the half. Quarterback Jason Campbell directed a 50-yard drive in nine plays to set up Suisham with a 50-yard field goal attempt that he nailed, and Washington gained momentum heading into halftime, trailing just 14-9. Washington's fourth quarter was more decisive after the Eagles scored three points on an Akers field goal to come to within 23-17; the Redskins ate the final 7:18 with 13 plays, two third-down conversions and one fourth-down conversion.
All of which brings the Eagles to 2-3 and a road game in San Francisco. I can tell you there is extreme urgency in the locker room, in the NovaCare Complex. The Eagles understand where they are, what got them here and what they need to do to get out. But saying it is one thing. Understanding it is one thing.
Doing it is what matters.
And closing halves, and games, is so incredibly important to this team's success.
What is the answer? Ask the players and coaches and you get the usual answers: "Execute better." "Call better plays." "Take care of the little things."
Those are real answers and they are real solutions. Certainly, the Eagles have to do better in the final five minutes of each half. They are losing leads they worked so hard to get. They are wasting opportunities to put teams away.
Defensively, you wonder if Jim Johnson will be more aggressive with his blitz scheme late in the first half of games. Nothing bothers him more than giving up points late in quarters. Offensively, the Eagles have to make some plays. I don't even know what to say. Run the ball? Sure, if it works. Spread the field and throw it? Anything that moves the chains. Anything. Literally. The Eagles are leaving points on the field, not because they are mis-managing the clock or botching timeouts, but they are squandering field position and a chance to put points on the board.
Hey, let's be honest here: The Eagles aren't good enough to do that. This is a team that needs every point and every shred of momentum and positive feeling and it is just not happening late in the second quarter and at the end of the games.
The Eagles work on this stuff every day. They understand the numbers and the situations and the lack of success they are having then. It's something to watch, then. How will the Eagles start on the road? They didn't start well in Chicago, for sure. They fell behind in Dallas, but made a strong push to take a lead. Yeah, they need to get off the right way in San Fran.
But it's how they finish that is costing them games. Sunday is another test to the finish line -- both in the first half and at the end of the game. A season depends upon how much kick the Eagles have around the final turn of each half.