Back in 2003, the Eagles rode a trio of running backs all the way to the NFC Championship game. The trio was affectionately dubbed the three-headed monster. This year the Eagles have one stud running back, but they do have a group effort going on at wide receiver.
DeSean Jackson and Kevin Curtis are the starters. Hank Baskett and Jason Avant are the key guys off the bench. This unit doesn't have a Pro Bowl standout, but they are functioning extremely well as a group.
I like our receivers. This is my favorite group we've had in the Andy Reid era. The 2004 receiving corps was great because of Terrell Owens, but beyond him things went down in a hurry. This current group is balanced.
I trust any one of the receivers to make the catch on a crucial third-down play. Curtis and Avant have excellent hands. Baskett always seems to rise to the occasion. He appears to be at his best on third down. Jackson has very good hands. He's dropped a few balls this year, but that has been a focus issue, not hands. You can teach a guy to look the ball in and really focus. You can't teach him to have soft hands.
Jackson has the speed, quickness and elusiveness to create a big play any time he gets the ball. He can catch the short pass and go or get behind the defense to haul in a long throw. He has special ability. If developed properly, Jackson could become a Pro Bowl-type of player.
Curtis is still a dangerous player in his own right. He doesn't have top-notch downfield speed anymore. He can still get behind defensive backs sometimes. Curtis is at his best catching short and intermediate throws and then using his quickness and moves to elude defenders and get extra yards.
Avant is the slot receiver. He runs the best routes of anyone on the team. He's not going to outrun many defenders so Avant knows he has to use skill to get open. He is quick and has good body control. Avant runs routes at full speed and makes his cuts precisely. I love watching him run routes. A guy like Jackson is smooth in the way he gets open. Avant uses violent cuts. He can get a defender so off-balance that the guy falls down trying to react to the move.
Avant has a great feel for working the middle of the field. He knows when going against zone coverage to find an opening and stay there. He knows when facing man coverage to stay on the move. Avant understands how to position himself so McNabb has a target. He also does a good job of going up or down for the ball, depending on the situation. I'm sure McNabb loves throwing to a receiver like Avant. You can trust him to get open and catch the ball if at all possible.
Baskett might be the most interesting of the receivers. He's the biggest at 6-4 and 220 pounds. He has pretty good speed for a guy that size, but he's not in the same class as Jackson or Curtis. Baskett can make circus catches, so you know he's got good ability. He has to limit his drops and make sure to make the important catches.
In his first couple of seasons, Baskett frustrated me. He played OK, but there was nothing he did that caught your eye. Go back to Avant. He's not some physically-gifted athlete, but he has mastered the craft of being a slot receiver. Eagles fans would rather he turned into a major playmaker, but Avant found his niche and really worked at it.
This year I've seen a different Baskett. He is playing like a big receiver. I've seen him go up for the ball and catch it up high several times this year. I've seen him outmuscle defensive backs a few times. When you are 6-4, you have to play like it. I don't know if he made any catch his first two years that a 5-11 receiver couldn't have made.
Baskett used to catch quick outside throws and then would try to elude defensive backs. He'd be tackled for a gain of two yards. If he just falls forward he'd get two yards. This year, he's using his size and strength when he's got the ball much better than in the past. I am really impressed with the progress he's made. He's become a solid part of the rotation.
One thing that helped was the coaching staff finally using his size as well. Baskett has caught a pair of touchdown passes on fade routes. That play should have been a part of the offense last year. Better late than never I guess.
All of the guys do a pretty good job of run blocking. Curtis and Jackson lack the size and strength to do too much, but they give good effort. Just go get between a defender and the runner and you've done something to help the play. Avant and Baskett are outstanding run blockers. Not only do they block defensive backs and linebackers, but even defensive ends on some plays. If the team is going to commit to running more the rest of the way, good blocking by the wideouts will help. Running backs rarely bust big plays without the help of receivers taking out a defensive back or two.
While everyone would love to have a pair of dominant receivers like Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, it has been proven that a team can have offensive success and win a lot of games with a good group of receivers. The Patriots of 2003 and 2004 had very similar groups. Both teams had balanced production from the receiver corps. No single receiver had 60 catches or 10 touchdowns. They won back-to-back Super Bowls. The 2005 Seahawks had one receiver catch 67 passes and another receiver catch 10 touchdowns. They didn't have any receiver come close to putting up Pro Bowl numbers. Their balanced attack was good enough to get them to the Super Bowl.
The one area our receivers do need to improve in is the red zone. The main foursome has a total of eight touchdowns. That would be good for a player, but not the top four guys. The lack of scoring is partly due to the fact that the Eagles feed the ball to Brian Westbrook a lot in the red zone, but the production still needs to improve. That should be a focus in the offseason.
The wide receiver situation has been crazy during the Reid era. I think they have finally assembled a good group of players that is both talented and works well together. The good news is that Jackson, Baskett and Avant are all young and can still get better. The Eagles could make a move in the offseason to add someone in free agency or through the draft. You always want to upgrade when possible. It just feels good to think that the team doesn't *need *to go looking for receivers.
COMING TOGETHER AT THE RIGHT TIME
The Eagles have won back-to-back games. They dominated both Arizona and the Giants. Think about that. The Eagles faced division champions in consecutive weeks and had total control in both games. Very impressive stuff.
While the team is playing its best football of the year right now, there is no margin for error. They can't have an off day and then rebound next week. That puts a lot of pressure on the team. The Eagles have handled that very well. Heck, maybe that is what finally got them focused. Pressure affects us all differently. Some of the best papers I wrote in college came when I broke out the typewriter at 6 AM for something due at 10 AM.
Whatever mojo the Eagles have working for them needs to continue. Keep running the football and good things will happen. Keep feeding Westbrook handoffs and throws and good things will happen.
The path to 7-5-1 has been frustrating, but at least the team is playing its best football of the year at the right time of the year. The whole point to making the playoffs is to be able to do something once you get there. I can tell you that no one is happy to be facing the Eagles with the way they are playing right now.