By now, the coaches have worked through 2008 and are looking ahead. They have a lot of work to do -- the evaluation of personnel and wants and needs for 2009, but they also have to self-scout and determine what worked well last year and what needs to be better moving forward.
Rarely, if ever, is there a total overhaul of a scheme. And in the case of the Eagles, there should not be a total overhaul on offense, on defense or on special teams. Tweaks, yes. Overhauls, no.
Standing still in the NFL is going backwards. So the Eagles are in the business of learning from their mistakes, correcting them, and then doing what they do well and hopefully doing it two games better than they did in the 2008 season.
So during these slow news days, I'm on the computer looking at numbers, thinking back to specific situations and games. The Eagles lost six games in the regular season, and all but the Ravens game went down to the wire and even that game was close in the fourth quarter. The loss in Arizona in the NFC Championship Game was, obviously, a close game.
This is not the time to rip apart the team and start from the ground up, not with the roster the way it is, with two first-round draft picks coming, a total of 10 picks in all in April, and a great salary-cap situation to work with.
There is no question the Eagles need to be better in certain situations than they were in 2008, and most of that improvement is pointed toward the offensive side of the ball. Defensively, the Eagles ranked high in virtually every statistical category except for red-zone efficiency, where they were 15th in the league, allowing a touchdown percentage of 52.8. That was uncharacteristically high for a Jim Johnson defense, and you can bet that he will work long into the off-season to find a solution.
Otherwise, the Eagles were excellent on defense throughout the year. They were ninth in takeaways, they limited quarterbacks to a 72.9 rating on blitzes and the tight end problems were clearly improved (opposing tight ends caught 39 passes for 503 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first six games of the season, and caught only 35 passes for 317 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final 10 games of the regular season).
Could the Eagles have benefited from a sack or a takeaway here or there? Absolutely. Of course. In the NFC Championship Game, they needed to tackle better, yes. And they needed to come up with more stops early and one more stop late. No doubt about it. That game will eat at Johnson and the defense throughout the next six months until training camp begins.
All in all, though, the defense was very, very good in 2008.
The offense wasn't quite as good, and there are some specific areas that must be improved. Some interesting numbers to consider ...
- The offense was second-best in the league in goal-to-go situations, scoring touchdowns on 26 of 38 opportunities. Interesting, the Eagles turned the ball over three times there (not including the Chicago turnover on downs) and we remember all three: The fade pass to Hank Baskett against Cleveland, DeSean Jackson's interception throw against the Browns, and Kevin Kolb's interception in the back of the end zone against Baltimore. The Giants ranked first in the NFL, scoring touchdowns on 28 of 38 chances in goal-to-goal situations.
- In the two-minute offense, the Eagles ranked in the middle of the pack with 23 points on 24 possessions.
- The Eagles were 22nd in the league in red-zone efficiency, with 31 touchdowns in 63 drives.
- On third- and fourth-and-1 plays, the Eagles were 16 of 32 on their conversions, ranking last in the league. But it was something that got much better as the season went along, for some reason. They made 6 of their last 8 third- and fourth-and-1 conversions and were 5 of 6 on such conversions in the playoffs.
- On third-and-1 plays alone, the Eagles were 14 of 28, tying for last place. A no-win formula? The Steelers were the other team tied for last in that statistic.
- Oddly, the Eagles converted 19 of 23 third-and-2 situations during the regular season, and were 1 of 4 in those instances in the playoffs.
So what does it all mean for the offense? They had some success, and they scored a lot of points, and the point differential and all of the measurables say that the Eagles were a very good team. We know that though, right? The key is finding a way to win those close games the Eagles lost early in the year, giving the team a path to play in big, big games (NFC Championship Games, for example) and then going out and playing outstanding football in those moments.
Will the Eagles look to improve their offensive personnel? Yes, of course. They hope to improve all of their personnel across the board. They need to score more touchdowns instead of settling for David Akers field goals. Certainly, they need to get the football into their wide receivers' hands more in the end zone, and they need to be more productive from the start of the season until the end of the season with their tight ends. They need answers in the red zone, be it better players, a better design, and, certainly, improved execution of the plays called.
Same on defense. Johnson has to keep offenses out of the end zone, something the Eagles have done so well over the years. That game in Arizona would have looked a lot different had the Cardinals been forced to kick a couple of field goals.
Anyway, this off-season is about tweaking, not ripping down to build back up. At least, that's how I see it. Some of the changes the Eagles make in the months ahead will be obvious, such as new players and coaches. Some will be more subtle, things that we may not ever recognize or acknowledge.
What the Eagles do in the coming days and weeks will show up on the field in September and beyond. That's when we will know if these slow news days are being used the right way by the coaching staff.
** NEWS AND NOTES AND THIS AND THAT
- It's official: Mark Whipple has been hired as the offensive coordinator at the University of Miami, so Andy Reid has to go in another direction to fill the quarterbacks coach job opening created when Pat Shurmur left to become the offensive coordinator at St. Louis. It was widely assumed -- and assumed is the key word here -- that Whipple was next in line should Shurmur get a promotion to another team in the league. Everyone kind of saw Shurmur moving on very soon. Whipple was here for a season, and we all wish him the best of luck. Who becomes the quarterbacks coach? I won't throw names around here, but you know that Reid is prepared for this and that he will have an answer very soon here.
- Here is Team President Joe Banner, when asked if the "window is open" with this football team to win a Super Bowl. "I'm actually, in my mind, thinking that we're entering another phase where we shouldn't really be answering that question. We have a very large number of young players that are already playing well and appear to be on the upswing. Almost our entire defense consists of players that are likely to be here for a very long time. I think that everybody felt that was a championship-caliber performance that they put on and obviously on offense there are a few more places that need to be filled in but there's also a large group of young players there that are likely to only get better as the years go forward here. So I think we are entering another period during which, I'm not going to tell you we are going to be in the championship game for four straight years, that's kind of a unique thing. But I feel like we will have very strong teams here for a long period of time."
- Very quiet here at the NovaCare Complex. The coaching staff leaves for the Pro Bowl over the weekend, so it is likely to be quiet through the first week of February. Oh, how the time drags ...
- A reality show with Terrell Owens? I lived through that. Believe me, it isn't that exciting. But I'm glad he is doing it. Clearly, the Cowboys didn't learn a whole lot from their "Hard Knocks" experience last year on HBO.
- Who is going to be available in free agency? Boy, I think the pickings are going to be pretty slim. The names look good now, but wait a few weeks and then we'll talk.