Sunday's loss to the Giants still has Eagles fans seriously bummed out. Actually that is putting it too mildly. The frustration comes from the team losing another close game and another big game. The Eagles fight and claw their way into position to make a move and then fall apart at key moments in crucial games.
We saw this last year. The team started slow. They worked their way to 5-5 before a key stretch of games against New England, Seattle and the Giants. The Eagles played well enough to win all three games, but found a way to lose all of them. They fell to 5-8 and were out of the playoff hunt.
This year's team lost close games against Dallas, Chicago, Washington and the Giants. The team is 5-4 now, but could be 7-2 or 8-1 if they just made a couple of key plays. Instead they sit close to .500 and have the feel of team that can't decide if it wants to be excellent or just good.
The talent is in place. I still very much believe the Eagles have the players to get the job done. The team is highly ranked on offense and defense and hasn't been blown out by anyone this year. You have to go all the way back to November 4 of last year to find the last time the Eagles were beaten by more than six points.
The coaching staff has had a very good run of success in Philadelphia and each of the key coaches has been successful with other pro teams prior to working for the Eagles. You can argue about certain calls, game plans, or player decisions, but the staff gets more right than wrong and knows how to win.
The team has a good quarterback. It has playmakers on both sides of the ball. There are veteran leaders. The Eagles don't have low character guys or troublemakers.
Everything is in place and yet the losses in big games and close games continue. What gives? I wish I had a good answer. I'd call Andy Reid and tell him. Something just isn't clicking. The problem is that there isn't a specific pattern.
The offense had red zone problems against Chicago and Washington, but not Dallas or New York. The team had halftime leads against Dallas and Washington, but not Chicago or New York. Missed field goals were very costly against Chicago and Washington, but not in the other games.
The two biggest things I can see are that the defense struggled in all four games, allowing an average 31 points per contest. Brian Westbrook didn't put up huge numbers in any of the games. Westbrook missed the Bears game due to injury. He also got hurt early on against the Redskins. His best showing in the four losses came at Dallas. He scored three touchdowns, but only had 103 total yards.
If anything can be taken from those two trends it is that the coaches need to get the ball more to Westbrook and something has to change on defense. Those two ideas affect each other. The offense is more ball control when Westbrook is involved. That means longer drives. It keeps the opposing offense on the sidelines and makes them spectators. That's a good thing. When the defense struggles it puts pressure on the offense to be more aggressive. You don't want to fall too far behind in a game. That can mean fewer touches for Westbrook as the offense tries to throw the ball more, especially downfield.
The best advice I could give to the coaches is to get the ball to Westbrook more often, especially in the form of running plays. Mix in Correll Buckhalter as well. Control the flow of the game. Dictate tempo rather than always attacking. That's just my two cents. But what do I know? I can't get Tom Heckert to answer my letters. I can't get Jim Johnson to take my calls. Andy Reid won't accept me as a friend on Facebook.
THE EAGLES MUST CARRY OHIO
Where do we go from here? To Cincinnati, that's where. Fans and the media can worry about the big picture and whether the Eagles will make the playoffs. They can speculate about the offseason and what should happen. Coaches and players can only deal with what is directly in front of them. This week that is the Bengals.
The Eagles are 5-4 and still very much in the middle of the playoff hunt. The picture isn't rosy, but that can change if the team gets back to its winning ways. Remember, they did have a three-game winning streak going into the Giants game. I fully expect the Eagles to get back to winning games.
The Bengals are a good place to start – I think. They are only 1-8, but they have played two games against NFC East teams. Cincinnati lost to the Giants in overtime and really pushed Dallas, back when the Cowboys were a strong team. There is one huge difference. Carson Palmer started both of those games. He's not going to play this Sunday.
The Bengals will start Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. He actually has some experience against the Eagles. In 2005, Fitzpatrick was a rookie with the Rams and started against the Eagles in a meaningless December showdown. I'm sure you remember that game. Mike McMahon threw for a whopping 97 yards and Ryan Moats ran for a touchdown. The Eagles won 17-16. Fitzpatrick was 10-of-24 for 69 yards. I'm surprised the NFL Network hasn't re-aired that as one of their classic games. That must be on their to-do list.
Fitzpatrick has yet to throw for 200 yards in a game this year. He has some talent, but isn't anywhere near the level of a Carson Palmer. Fitzpatrick does have good mobility. While he lacks a great arm or passing skills, he has good targets to throw the ball to and that helps a quarterback who lacks top talent. Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh is third in the NFL this year with 61 catches. Chad Ocho Cinco has 37 catches and leads the team with four touchdown grabs. Neither guy averages more than 10 yards per reception. That tells you the Bengals offense is really struggling.
The running game is now built around former Bear Cedric Benson. In three starts, Benson has carried the ball 51 times for 205 yards, an average of about four yards a rush. Benson is a talented player, but never has been able to play up to his potential with any consistency.
The Eagles defense has to come out attacking in this game. Their pride has to be hurt after Sunday night's game. I hope the guys take out their anger on the Bengals. I want to see the defense play with emotion and aggression. Take chances. Get back some swagger. Use the disappointment of the loss to fuel a great effort on Sunday.
The Bengals defense isn't having a good season. They only have nine sacks all-year long. They struggle to stop the run. Dhani Jones is their leading tackler. This is a group the Eagles should be able to move the ball and score on.
I fully expect the Eagles to win. They are the better team. The game is more important to them. We need to see a strong performance. Avoiding a slow start would be a great sign. Get a lead and put pressure on Fitzpatrick to beat you. Don't let the Bengals get into any sort of comfort zone. Don't give them any confidence.
A win in Cincinnati won't fully right the ship or solve any problems, but it would show that the team is headed in the right direction. The Eagles can still make 2008 a good season if they take each game as it comes and build toward something. This week's assignment – beat the Bengals.