The Eagles have dug themselves into a hole early in the season. That's the bad news. The good news is that the Eagles have the players to climb out of that hole and they have enough time left to do it. The 2-3 record is an unpleasant reality, but the team can't focus on that. They have to focus on what is in front of them. Right now, that is a trip to San Francisco to play the 49ers.
This is a game the Eagles can win, a game they need to win. Andy Reid has to impress upon his players that the mistakes of the last few games are unacceptable. Dropped passes, blown assignments, missed tackles, missed blocks, alignment issues - this kind of stuff cannot be happening to a veteran team with a veteran coaching staff.
Fans want to know who to blame. Someone has to be accountable, right? The head coach is ultimately responsible for how the team plays, when they win and lose. He's the guy who put everything together. Andy Reid acknowledges that. Football is complicated, though.
Author Mark Bowden made a great analogy in his brilliant book Bringing the Heat. Coaches are like chess players, moving pieces around the board. The problem with football is that the chess pieces, i.e. the football players, don't always do what they are supposed to. That's a great way to understand what goes wrong in football. The king doesn't take the pawn. The queen slips on her way to taking out the bishop. In chess, the pieces can't make mistakes. In football, players make all kinds of mistakes.
Right now the coaches aren't making the right moves often enough. The players aren't executing when the right moves are made. That is the most frustrating part for me. This isn't a one-person problem. It is a group effort.
The solution is a group effort as well. The coaches have to make better in-game adjustments. The offense has to sustain multiple drives. They need to score touchdowns when the team gets in the red zone. The defense has to stop drives. Third downs killed the team on both offense and defense. The NFL has become a third down league. You have to convert on offense to keep the chains moving and you have to get stops on defense to get off the field and let the offense have the ball.
Winning in San Francisco has to be the start of things. Reid has to push the right buttons with this team to get them to come out and play well. He's done that in the past. The 2003 team started 0-2 and then went to Buffalo and won. The 2002 team lost Donovan McNabb to a broken ankle. They responded by going on the road and playing a great game, oddly enough at San Francisco. That was the game where Koy Detmer looked so good, then got hurt. A.J. Feeley came in and the team won 38-17. The Eagles have to come up with an effort like that. Reid has to figure out what he's done in the past and get these guys to play that same way.
People are talking about what the team has to do to make the playoffs. They want to look at the schedule and guess wins and losses. They look at the other NFC East teams and try to figure out what their record will be. You have to forget that stuff. The focus has to be on the Eagles playing good football. A win on Sunday is huge, but the Eagles also need to play well. One win isn't going to change the season. The team has to start to click. That's how you get on a winning streak and climb out of a slow start.
I still believe in the talent on this team. The pieces are in place. Last year the team couldn't score touchdowns, couldn't generate turnovers and special teams was a liability. That team needed a lot to go right in order to win. This team is scoring better. This team is forcing turnovers at a much better rate. Special teams has provided impact plays in several games this year. McNabb is relatively healthy. The receivers are playing better. The defense looks great at times. There are problems to be sure, but there is also a lot to like about this team.
Sunday's loss was horrible. There is no sugarcoating that. It was a terrible game. The point is that it didn't end the season. It didn't take away the talent that is on this roster. That loss was a painful punch to the ribs, but it wasn't a knockout blow. The Eagles still have enough time to get on a roll. They have to play good football and win some games.
Brian Westbrook getting healthy would be a huge help, but no one wants to hear about injuries. McNabb has other weapons. He's got to get the ball to L.J. Smith, Reggie Brown and definitely DeSean Jackson. Correll Buckhalter has to get more carries when he starts. Just because Westbrook could be out doesn't mean we can afford to give up on the run. Reid will never feature a power running attack, but he and Marty Mornhinweg have to get the running backs more involved. They have to let the offensive linemen get into a rhythm with some running plays. You can't just throw the ball to the 2-yard line then expect the linemen to switch into run blocking mode.
The defense has to make critical stops. In the last two losses, the defense failed to come up with a key late-game stop on third or fourth down. There is no guarantee that the offense would have scored and the outcome would have been different, but the defense has to give the offense that chance. They have to get the ball back. The team has to get more out of the all-star secondary that has been assembled. You pay those guys big bucks to shut down the opposing passing game. Third down coverage needs to be better.
The Eagles need to show us something on Sunday. The mistakes have to disappear. Big plays and clutch performances are needed. The turnaround has to begin. There are only 11 games left. The time is now.
ABOUT THE NINERS
This is another matchup of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson and offensive coordinator Mike Martz. They've had some interesting battles in the past. It should be interesting to see how each guy tries to attack the other.
Quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan is not the typical Martz signal-caller. He isn't an accomplished passer, but he is a very athletic guy. I can guarantee you he'll run his way out of at least two sacks on Sunday.
Running back Frank Gore is still a very good player. The 49ers use him creatively. They'll line him up out wide and throw to him. They'll line him up in the shotgun and snap the ball directly to him. Gore is the key to their offense.
Inside linebacker Patrick Willis is a great player. He is a great tackler and has excellent closing speed. Reggie Bush caught five passes when the Saints played the 49ers. Those catches netted him seven total yards. Willis hit him immediately after he caught the ball on several plays.
There are a couple of old Eagles playing in San Francisco. Safety Michael Lewis has been there for two years and is a solid player for them. Linebacker Takeo Spikes plays alongside Willis. He has a couple of interceptions this year. We only saw drops last year.