So if you want to take the anything-can-happen approach, the Eagles are just a half-game out of second place in the NFC East. The playoffs are very much within reach. That is your glass-is-half-full view. The other vantage point is that the Eagles have flaws that five quarters in Cincinnati did nothing to smooth the warts that are so visible.
Sunday comes quickly. Baltimore is waiting with that big, bad defense and a good offense featuring a power running game and a young, emerging quarterback in Joe Flacco. The coaches have watched the film of the tie in Cincinnati and are already on to the Ravens. They believe in this team, as every coaching staff believes in its team.
Clearly, though, everybody realizes that this is crisis time,or at least on the verge of such a moment. The Eagles are 5-4-1 with a heavyweight schedule approaching -- at Baltimore, home with Arizona, at the Giants -- and given the state of the NFC playoff picture, another loss -- definitely two -- knocks this team out of any playoff dreams it has.
I have trouble looking at anything like the playoffs after such a poor performance against the Bengals. The defense played its heart out and that group deserves a lot of kudos for attacking the line of scrimmage, for being aggressive and for dominating an offense that it should have dominated. The offense is what needs immediate therapy, starting with the quarterback position.
Donovan McNabb threw 58 passes on Sunday, three of them interceptions, one of them a touchdown. He also was hit and fumbled and that turnover led to three Bengals points which, in the end, were huge.
I agree that 58 passes is too many. The offensive balance is fantastically out of whack. The coaching staff, clearly, does not believe in the running game with this group. So they are putting the responsibility of dragging the offense into the end zone on McNabb and his right arm.
The Eagles scored plenty of points on their way to a 5-4 record. They overcame some pretty lousy starts by keeping at it with the passing game, by giving McNabb time to warm up and get into a groove. At the same time, there was a gnawing feeling that the Eagles left way too many points on the field, and that the troubles they had in short-yardage and goal-to-go situations would eventually catch up with them.
And to a degree, they did. A loss in Chicago was more-than-partially attributed to a pair of goal-to-goal situations that yielded only three points. More troubles manifested in the loss to Washington. Then the Eagles couldn't sustain a drive to keep the game alive against the Giants and the alarm bells went off.
But what happened in Cincinnati was really perplexing and worrisome. The Bengals are a bad football team with a defense that had been gashed all season. The pre-game hope was that the Eagles could get a lead and extend it and then work on their running game in the second half and build a bit of confidence heading into this extremely difficult stretch of games.
There was certainly an awareness of getting McNabb into a rhythm early. The first play of the game was a simple swing pass to the left side to Brian Westbrook, but the pass sailed and Westbrook couldn't bring it in. On second and 10, McNabb fired a pass to the right side for Reggie Brown, but the Bengals swarmed to Brown for a 1-yard loss. On third and 11, McNabb tried to get the ball to an open Kevin Curtis 15 yards down the field, but the pass was high and hard and incomplete and so much for starting quickly.
The offense was awful on Sunday in a game that the Eagles had to win. In the most technical sense it was not a "must-win" game, but, well, how many times can you go to that well? In a handful of days, the Eagles will be playing in another "have-to win" game that isn't necessarily a "must-win game" but who cares about semantics?
What we care about is this offense, this team, this entire football picture.
I really don't know what to say on this Monday. I slept poorly. I saw a season slipping away, one that only a couple of months ago I felt was going to be something special. How does it happen that a team that blew the doors off the Rams in Week 1, then played a fantastic, near-miss game in Dallas in Week 2 before redeeming itself a bit in Week 3 with a physical, emotional win over Pittsburgh is now on the edge? There are factors that some will use as excuses, but they don't play here. There are no excuses. Even with Shawn Andrews out, and with Brian Westbrook battling a variety of injuries and playing at less than 100 percent, the Eagles have been more than healthy by NFL standards.
The responsibility falls on the shoulders of the head coach, Andy Reid, who stands up and takes the responsibility every week. He is the head coach. It is his job to win games.
So what can the head coach do to win in these final six games? He has to make the quarterback play better. How he does that, I don't know. But I know that the Eagles are going to continue to put a lot on McNabb's shoulders, and he has no choice but to deliver. There aren't any magical personnel moves to be made anywhere on this roster. The Eagles have enough weapons to score a lot of points and the guy who steers the wheel is McNabb, in his 10th season and clearly battling some kind of demons in the pocket.
A quarterback who spoke after that win over the Rams of having confidence in his receivers and of throwing to spots and letting his receivers "make plays" is not doing that much these days.
"They did a great job creating a little bit of separation where I could just put the ball out and let them compete," McNabb said following the win over St. Louis. "In order for the guys to be successful and guys to make plays for you, you have to call plays for them."
McNabb is holding on to the ball, waiting for the receivers to create separation and then gunning it to them. The receivers are not consistent enough catching the football, but I believe of lot of that has to do with their lack of certainty as to when the ball is coming out, and where it is coming to, and how fast McNabb is throwing it and all the little insecurities that lead to drops.
Whatever that trust is that is missing between McNabb and his receivers is holding back the passing game. What else do you pinpoint? A lack of a running game? It's hurting the offense, no doubt. There is nothing to fall back on in that phase of the offense, and the play calling is such that running the football barely makes the game plan. Talent at wide receiver? Look, I'm as disappointed as anybody that Brown is such a non-factor here -- that is something that must be addressed by the coaches -- but I still maintain that Curtis, DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant and Hank Baskett are more than enough to get it done. Tight end? Yeah, there isn't a consistent level of production there, but there are plenty of teams getting more done with less talent.
I'm not dumping on Donovan. Please don't misunderstand. I love the guy. I respect tremendously what he has done for the organization. I think he is a rare player to have been here for 10 seasons.
But the Eagles need him more than ever to be a good quarterback. A great quarterback, even. A leader. Someone whom the rest of the players can gather around and follow to victory. I guess in a lot of ways I'm wondering if McNabb is ready to making A Stand. He has to be The Guy To Do It, right? Is there anyone else? Brian Westbrook is a great player, hobbled by injuries but still a great player, but the leadership has to come from a quarterback when the offense is throwing the ball 35-40 times a game. The quarterback has to be the one to throw the team on his shoulders and will a team to victory.
The impact the quarterback has on a team goes far beyond his statistics. You see it everywhere in the league. How much of a winning confidence has Brett Favre had on the Jets? Tony Romo comes back to the Cowboys and they go out and win a big game in Washington. Eli Manning doesn't resemble the quarterback he was in the past, and the Giants are the best team in football. Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco show they are capable young quarterbacks around whom the Falcons and Ravens, respectively, can rally and both of those teams are in playoff contention.
The Eagles need to do the same with McNabb and McNabb has to do the same for the Eagles. It isn't all on him, but it is. He is the quarterback. He is the most important player on the field and in the locker room and in the organization.
This is as close to a crisis as the Eagles have faced in the 10 years Reid and McNabb have been here. So much rides on how the Eagles handle these next six weeks. An entire direction of a football operation can be altered dramatically. That is how I see it through my sleep-deprived, angry, frustrated, disappointed and yet still hopeful eyes.
It's on Donovan. It's on the quarterback. Reid's responsibility is, yes, far beyond anybody here and he acknowledges that every week. But a quarterback can change things on every play on the field. Donovan needs to make A Stand. Right now. So much depends upon the next week, two weeks, however long.