ARLINGTON, Texas --Rarely does a season end in such disappointing and lifeless fashion. For the second consecutive week, the Eagles were throughly outplayed by Dallas. This time, the domination may have even been more complete, and the 34-14 loss on Saturday night ended the season and ushed in months of questions about this football team.
We can discuss how this team rebounds from such devastating back-to-back losses to Dallas in the days and weeks to come. Who stays, who goes and what the Eagles are going to do to chase the leader in the NFC East -- and Dallas clearly is the team to beat in the division -- is a series of topics for the near future.
What happened on Saturday night was just a huge disappointment. In almost an exact replay of the loss six days prior, the Eagles did almost nothing right. The defense was handled. The offense, save for a 76-yard touchdown pass from Michael Vick to Jeremy Maclin, got nothing going. The special teams didn't have much of a chance to do anything and the Eagles were on the wrong end of a lopsided field-position battle.
"Today the Cowboys were a better football team as they were last week. There are no excuses for it," said head coach Andy Reid. "They outcoached us and outplayed us."
That was the general gist of Reid's post-game press conference. The Cowboys are the better team right now, and the Eagles have a long period ahead of them.
A team that for so long had prided itself on the abilty to bounce back could not rebound from adversity, a bad play or, in the case of Saturday night, an overturned call by the referees.
Momentum changes everything. The Eagles seized some after Dallas took a 7-0 lead when Michael Vick came in on a second down and, using play action, froze the Dallas defense. He rolled left and threw to Jeremy Maclin, who shook free from Michael Jenkins and raced up the left sideline for 76 yards and a touchdown. It was a tie game. Anything was possible in the second quarter.
Great kickoff coverage pinned Dallas back at its 15-yard line. And then Tony Romo was pressured and threw a pass high over the middle where Sean Jones made a diving play and came up running with the football. It looked for an instant like the Eagles had the football deep in Dallas territory. Instead, instant replay overturned the interception and Dallas kept possession.
The Cowboys converted two third downs on an 85-yard drive and scored a touchdown to take a 14-7 lead. From that point on, it was all Dallas until the Eagles scored in the fourth quarter to bring the Eagles to within 34-14.
"There was a little bit of a momentum swing there that you have to be able to overcome and make sure that you get it right," said Reid.
By the time the Eagles scored their second touchdown, of course, it was a rout. Dallas had too much at the line of scrimmage and overwhelmed the Eagles on both sides of the football. Quarterback Donovan McNabb had very little success when he wasn't running for his life. The Eagles gave up too much on defense, allowing Dallas 21 first downs, 259 total yards and 6 of 9 third-down conversions in the first half, at the end of which Dallas led, 27-7.
As it was the week before, the Eagles did not execute in every phase. Let's start with the offense.
Clearly, the Eagles have work to do up front. The blueprint offensive line drawn up in the off-season didn't pan out at all and the knee injury suffered by center Jamaal Jackson against Denver hurt matters worse. The Eagles just didn't have it against a swarming Dallas defense that rushed McNabb effectively and shut down the rushing game. In the first half, during which the Eagles had only 18 offensive snaps, McNabb was 4 of 10 passing for 39 yards, and 7 rushing attempts gained 25 yards.
It sure seemed like Dallas had the pulse of what the Eagles wanted to do on every snap, too. The Cowboys got off the ball quickly and took receivers Maclin and DeSean Jackson (zero catches in first half, one pass thrown his way) out of the mix. Tight end Brent Celek, a prime target all season, had one pass thrown in his direction during the first half and was nearly knocked out on a hit to the head by safety Ken Hamlin. It was the best gain by the offense to that point, and it was negated by an intentional grounding penalty called on McNabb two plays later.
Shocking. Disappointing. The Eagles rode the momentum of a six-game winning streak to reach the playoffs, but fell flat the last two weeks. Clearly, they were not in the Cowboys' league in either game. Dallas beat the Eagles three times during the season, distancing themselves on both sides of the football.
The Eagles played their two worst games of the season in Dallas.
"You have to play a good game to beat Dallas and we didn't do that," said running back Brian Westbrook, who was used in a limited fashion. He had just one touch, a 27-yard gain on a catch and run on a screen play in the late going. "It was a tough loss to a very good team."
Westbrook didn't speculate about the future. Neither did Reid, other than to say that he expected McNabb to be the Eagles' quarterback in 2010. McNabb said he was "open" to conversations about a contract extension, but all of that will come in time.
The defense needs work, of course. Blitzes didn't stop the flow, and against a quarterback like Romo who gets the football out of his hands so quickly, the cornerbacks were out on an island having a tough time. It happened against Dallas. It happened against the Giants and against the Redskins. The NFC East found something in the Eagles defense and then went after it.
It is one of many things the Eagles have to address. They stumbled in the last two weeks like never before in the Reid era. It would be naive to think the Eagles won't have major changes coming. Just what they are, stay tuned.
Losing in such crushing fashion to a powerful Cowboys team -- we hate them, but they deserve their due in this case -- is a wakeup call. A lot of good things happened for the Eagles in a season during which they won 11 games. They had an explosive offense. They had a takeaway defense. They turned a 5-4 year into an 11-5 campaign, only to see it come crashing down.
"Any time you can whip a team back to back like that," said safety Quintin Mikell, "you've got to give them their props."
With that, the Eagles left Cowboys Stadium, a long off-season and a critical one in the Reid era waiting.