SAN DIEGO --There were many breakdowns, penalties and, of course, a lack of execution in the red zone. But as the Eagles return to Philadelphia and shake off the 31-23 loss to San Diego on Sunday, they will see more reason for hope than the doom and gloom they feel now. This has happened before, and I'm saying it will happen again: The Eagles will use this loss as a vault to a very strong final seven games of the season.
Oh, I know that is taking the green-glasses approach. There are those who will look at the loss and demand dramatic change, who will see the defeat as an indication that the Eagles are suffering from the same, old malaise (red-zone itis) that has plagued them for a few years now. Not me. I saw a team on Sunday at sun-drenched Qualcomm Stadium that fought to the very end, that had a lot of young players step up and learn through their mistakes and that needed another minute or so on the game clock and a stop or two earlier from the defense to pull out a most improbable victory.
At the end of the day, the Eagles are 5-4, still a game behind the Cowboys in the NFC East and right in the thick of things in the conference. The playoff race is going down to the wire, folks. And if the Eagles play as they did in an inspired fourth quarter, and if the young players on this team continue to mature, they are going to be right there where they want to be in the end.
"These young guys played their hearts out," said head coach Andy Reid. "We can't give away opportunities like we had, and we have to get them corrected. But we kept fighting and if we play like that every week, we're going to be OK."
Let's talk about a lot of things that happened in this game, some good and some bad.
- The offensive line did a tremendous job in pass protection, and not a very good job in short-yardage running situations. With Jason Peters out, Todd Herremans had a good effort -- save one holding call -- at left tackle. Nick Cole played left guard and Stacy Andrews started at right guard. Donovan McNabb threw 55 times and was sacked twice. It was an excellent performance from the guys up front, and their play allowed McNabb to get into a great, great rhythm in the fourth quarter. The offense started too slowly -- just one first down in the first quarter -- but they moved the ball pretty easily in the passing game.
- The running game is a problem. The Eagles ran 13 times for 29 yards. They were terrible in short-yardage situations -- how do you not score on a first and 1 at the 1-yard line? -- and there was clearly no push up front. That was extremely disappointing. What can the Eagles do? We've been talking about this all season.
- Brian Westbrook's concussion has to be a huge concern, and it does make you wonder if he will come back at all this season. Andy Reid said after the game that the Eagles will exercise caution and intelligence with Westbrook, and they would love to have him back. But how long can they wait? They need to run the football better. LeSean McCoy is now the featured running back, and he deserves some opportunities.
- The special teams are so up and down it is maddening. The coverage groups again played very well, limiting Darren Sproles to a 24.5-yard average on kickoff returns and a 4.3-yard average on punt returns. But the return game is so spotty. Jeremy Maclin should not return kickoffs. Maybe Macho Harris can do it if Quintin Demps (ankle) is out for another week. Demps does not run into and through the hole hard enough to be successful at this level. The punt return game is stymied by punters giving DeSean Jackson no chance at all to make a return, and the penalties in the return game are far too prevalent.
- One of the hidden game-changers came early, when Sav Rocca had a 30-yard punt with the Eagles backed up in thei own end. The lousy kick gave San Diego the ball at the Eagles 40-yard line, and they scored a touchdown six plays later. San Diego punter Mike Scifres changed field position -- he averaged 50 yards per punt, with a net average of 46.8 yards. Rocca averaged 40 yards and 36.8 yards on his net punts.
- A play early that I did not like: After McNabb completed a 19-yard pass to Reggie Brown to convert a third and 4, the Eagles had a first down at the 50-yard line. So they immediately called a gadget play -- an end around to Jackson who then flipped to Maclin, under pressure, for what appeared to be a double reverse. Maclin lost 6 yards on the play, and the momentum of the drive was killed. It was early, the Eagles trailed just 7-0 and it was only their second possession, but I just did not like the play. At all.
- Big offsides penalty on Ramzee Robinson to allow the Chargers to convert a third-and-2 play late in the third quarter. The Eagles had Sproles stuffed for no gain, but Robinson's penalty kept the drive alive. One play later, Philip Rivers threw a touchdown pass and the Chargers led, 28-9. The Eagles were penalized 9 times and the Chargers had 3 penalties. It was an awful game for the referees.
- Pretty good play by some of the young defensive players, Robinson incluced. He was a demon on special teams. Dimitri Patterson did a good job out there, too. Sheldon Brown has a hamstring injury that is a real concern heading into Chicago.
- Moise Fokou is going to be an outstanding linebacker. He makes way too many mistakes with penalties, and he will have to get over that. The kid plays hard football and he is fast and aggressive. He led the team with 10 tackles and two stops on special teams.
- Joe Mays has really stepped up on special teams. He is blowing people up in kick coverage.
- Jason Avant, who had one of the greatest catches I have ever seen when he grabbed a McNabb pass late in the third quarter to gain 21 yards. Avant had a career day in the loss. He should continue to be a target in the coming weeks. Don't forget about Avant.
- Trent Cole started the game at left defensive end and then flipped back to the right side. Sean McDermott pulled out all the stops trying to compensate for some injuries.
- Poor job by the defense in the run game. They misses too many tackles and the Chargers, a team that was last in the league running the football entering the game, gained 119 yards on 28 carries.
- The Eagles led the league in first-quarter scoring entering the Dallas game and since then have gone scoreless in the first quarter in losses to Dallas and San Diego.
- McNabb had an outstanding game. He worked the pocket well, he delivered the ball accurately and he had patience in the pocket. Good job there.
- Still don't understand the way the Eagles are not using Michael Vick. He was in for one snap and threw behind a wide-open Jackson on a crossing route.
- Where is the Wildcat? I'm done calling it the Wild Eagle ... All of these short-yardage woes weren't a problem when the Eagles were running the spread with direct snaps to McCoy, to Jackson.
- I wish I could pinponit the problems in the red zone. I wish offensive coordinator Marty mornhinweg would retire the idea of rolling McNabb right. It doesn't work. The Eagles used to be able to run the tight ends to the flags, but that doesn't work any longer, either. The offense doesn't have any go-to plays in the red zone. Where is the shovel pass? When is the last time the Eagles ran the shovel pass?
- The holding call on Tracy White to nullify a fine Jackson punt return was a bogus, awful call. One of many. I'm making excuses, and I'm harping about the refs, but they have been terrible the last two games.
- Chicago is a must-win game. The Eagles are 0-7 in Sunday night games, but they need to break that skid. Now. Urgent.
- All of that talk about the "big receivers" of San Diego against the "smaller" cornerbacks of the Eagles meant, well, nothing. Vincent Jackson had one catch for 10 yards and Malcolm Floyd had 3 catches. Tight end Antonio Gates was the big concern. The Eagles threw every kind of coverage at him and, in the end, Gates really hurt the defense.