Through an uneven 2-4 start, the 2011 Eagles showed signs of greatness, of sloppiness, of laziness, of inattentiveness and an uneasy propensity for beating themselves. Most of these are the elements you see from teams looking for an identity. The time is now to find out whether or not the 2011 Eagles are a collection of overpaid, self-serving free agents or a 53-man roster that can be molded into a winning team. Heading into Week 8 against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football and coming off a bye week, it is a coin toss.
Dispense with all of the lockout talk and lack of offseason activities and conditioning. These are professionals. If they couldn’t get it done themselves then they don’t deserve to be here drawing a paycheck. It has been a tumultuous six games and the bye week has afforded players and coaches an opportunity to heal injuries, revise game plans and revitalize a plan of attack which has not been evident to the casual observer. The good news is that this sporadic team is as much a mystery to the fans as it is to the opposition.
We’ve seen enough of the Eagles to identify strengths and weaknesses and to circle question marks and while fans think they know more than the coaches, anyone watching the “All-22” film can see the glaring errors in formation, execution and anticipation. This team is as talented as any out there and is but they don’t award trophies based on talent or payroll. This team needs to treat every game like an elimination game or else the season will be lost. From this perspective of intensity and focus, the Eagles are capable of winning or losing any game, anywhere on any given Sunday. Can they go on a 10-game rally and reach the postseason? Well, in a word, “YES” but they have thus far lacked the desire and motivation required.
Here is a checklist of what the Eagles need to do to make it right in 2011 …
LEADERS MUST EMERGE
When you change a roster as dramatically as the Eagles have in the last couple of years, it can be difficult for leaders to establish themselves. Newcomers don’t want to overstep their limits in a strange locker room. Young players may assert themselves over time but in deference to veterans. Seasoned veterans must demonstrate their worth to the team before they step out as go-to leaders. Above all, those who perform on the field (be they rookies, special teamers or $100 million franchise players) will be respected in the locker room.
Michael Vick is, without question, the leader of the team. Like him or hate him (and very few remain neutral) Vick is the one in the forefront in terms of salary, prestige, experience and of course having his hands on the ball. Everyone seems comfortable with the idea of Vick in that role. He sets a great example and needs to continue doing so with additional support – especially from veterans on defense.
That particular veteran defensive leader remains to be seen. It could be Cullen Jenkins, who won the Super Bowl last season in Green Bay and who has the kind of natural leadership that younger players gravitate toward. Jason Babin, Trent Cole and Nnamdi Asomugha could also be leaders but in reality, conforming themselves around any single leader is the most important galvanizing effect. Whether Babin or Cole or Jenkins, they must express to his team the urgency of the situation right now. No excuses. No time to waste. The Eagles are 2-4 despite their huge payroll and they have very little margin for error to get into the playoff driver’s seat.
Other leaders could include Asante Samuel? In some ways he is the most vociferous player on this team – and behind the scenes he is more personable than in public, but Samuel leads in a different sort of way. He is a free spirit who keeps it loose in practice and who, in games, steps up with a big interception and big play. Samuel isn’t going to go blow up a ball carrier and he isn’t going to do the rah-rah thing. LeSean McCoy is emerging more and more as that kind of smart, self-sacrificing, put the team on my back type of player. McCoy understands his role on the team, his place in the contract hierarchy and the fact that no single player can turn this around. It would behoove McCoy if receivers Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant and Brent Celek would be members of a more vocal young-players group. Avant called a players-only meeting a couple of weeks ago and it appeared to make a difference.
In time, Nate Allen, Brandon Graham, Jamar Chaney, Danny Watkins and Casey Matthews should take up the mantle of team leadership. Allen works hard, keeps his head high and is a player on the rise – so long as he chooses to keep his head in the game. Graham has been injured but returns to the team this week. Same with safety Kurt Coleman who has shown flashes of brilliance along with all these young players – but needs to play at a high level over time before they are viewed in that manner. This is the time when leadership, or a lack thereof, is apparent with a football team. We’ll learn very quickly how much camaraderie and leadership and urgency come from the Eagles’ locker room. The team has three straight home games that are in the conference and that are of utmost importance to this team. Let’s see how the Eagles approach each week.
STRONG AND FLEXIBLE DEFENSIVE GAME PLANS
Straight ahead are games against high-powered offenses (Dallas and Chicago) and Juan Castillo needs to be up to the task. Everyone wants to make Castillo the scapegoat but he does have the ability to make or break the season. Offensively the Eagles have the talent and the tools to get the job done but defensively they have not kept it together for more than two consecutive quarters. Castillo needs to simplify his approach, while at the same time making sure his defense is unpredictable and pressure based. Offensive coordinators have had six games to get a handle on Castillo’s tendencies so he must be aware of that urgent need to evolve and react.
Against Washington the Eagles successfully pressured the line of scrimmage, challenged on every snap and created turnovers. This was also evident against St. Louis in the first half of the opener but absent against San Francisco. Castillo now has a good idea of what his players can do, and what they probably should not be doing. He must challenge them to keep improving.
One example would be how Defensive Coordinator Juan Castillo should make best use of CB Nnamdi Asomugha? Early in the season Asomugha lined up at safety, in the slot, at linebacker and on the right corner – to limited success. Against Washington, Asomugha shut down everything from the right CB spot in man coverage. If it doesn’t work, try something else. When you find what works, do it until it doesn’t work anymore!
This week Miles Austin, Jason Witten and Dez Bryant will all be facing Asomugha but where is he best used? Furthermore, have the Eagles found their answers at linebacker? Is the combination of Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman the long-term solution at Safety? How much Wide 9 will the Eagles use, or will they tighten the edges from time to time? Castillo has a lot on his plate but he must use his head. He has improved exponentially in a very short amount of time. He’s a smart man and a fine football coach. Down the stretch, how does he overcome a lack of experience at his job and use his football knowledge to make this defense kick butt and take names?
SOLVE THE INCONSISTENCY IN THE RED ZONE
The offense in the red zone has been ridiculously inconsistent and it has been a prime focus for the offensive coaching staff. The tough part is that it isn’t just one area that needs fixing, because the mistakes made come from every avenue of the game — playcalling, execution, penalties, turnovers, scheme, size differential and clock management. Other than that things couldn’t be better!!!
Improving in short-yardage situations, being more physical inside the 10-yard line and eliminating penalties would sure help. Finding a bread-and-butter play or three to go to with the end zone in sight would work wonders for the Red Zone efficiency – and the team’s confidence. Vick ran for 9 TD a year ago and he has zero after 6 games. That is a startling difference despite incorporating Ronnie Brown and a revamped offensive line.
The Eagles need to rank in the top 10 in the NFL from here on out in red-zone efficiency or score from outside the Red Zone to really maximize what the offense can do. Too many wasted chances have already done their damage in wins and losses. Every one of their four losses have been winnable games, lost to poor execution, poor play calling and preventable mistakes.
KICKING GAME MUST GO TO NEXT LEVEL
Very soon the cold weather is going to have an impact on games, particularly on special teams. That means more pressure moments for kicker Alex Henery and punter Chas Henry. The Eagles have not exposed Henery to many long kicks, but that could change soon. He had only the only bad game, against the 49ers, and it was costly. That’s how precious the difference is between wins and losses in the NFL. Henery is a more accurate kicker than he has shown thus far but the NFL is a far cry from the college ranks. Welcome to the Big Time, Rookie!!
Chas Henry has been pretty consistent for a rookie punter. He needs to get off change-the-field-position punts, but the offense has moved the ball well enough to keep him from kicking out of his end zone. With tough defenses looming on the horizon, Henry is going to be called on sooner rather than later to bail out the defense with a booming punt.
Speaking of Special Teams, the return game could really use a big play now and then. The Eagles need a home-run hitter on kickoff returns and their best bet remains to be DeSean Jackson. At some point they will have to commit to Jackson’s role or incorporate Dion Lewis. Recalling the Miracle in the New Meadowlands is all well and good but that could also deter teams from kicking his way. Perhaps slipping Jackson in occasionally could balance the scales.
START FAST, FINISH STRONG
The Eagles have done neither this season. Not a single point in the first drive. Not a fourth quarter in which they outplayed their opponent (and several examples of blowing significant leads). That has to change right now or the season is already lost. In the NFL wins are precious and beating oneself is a fate worse than death.The Eagles have always, always, always started well with Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg scripting their first 15 plays. Not this year, for some unknown reason.
Perhaps the secret is to incorporate more of the no-huddle offense and eliminate the Wildcat? When the Eagles are unpredictable offensively on their first drive they are effective. Likewise when they wear out defenses in the fourth quarter by using more tempo and taking advantage of their great team speed. For some reason they have tried to incorporate more gadget plays like draws and sweeps and play action screens, which have shown limited success. Better served would be showing that they can use a power running game on short yardage and then burning defenses with the home run play. It’s hard to argue with the offense’s production, but the points really haven’t been there as they should be. At times this offense is breathtakingly good. At other times, it just breaks down and looks abysmal – often when they get too cute trying to outsmart themselves rather than punching their opponent in the teeth.
Dallas. The Philadelphia defense will endure a huge undertaking trying to limit Dallas’ newfound rushing attack and potentially lethal-if-inconsistent passing assault. Putting together 60 minutes of great football on Sunday night against Dallas will go a long way toward establishing some confidence in what the Eagles are, and what they can be moving forward for the remainder of the season. Ideally look for the Eagles to focus on stopping the Dallas ground game and waiting for Tony Romo to shoot himself in the proverbial foot. The Eagles have superior pass defense and an unheralded pass rush which could neutralize Romo but Dallas knows that the Eagles are susceptible to the run and will exploit that weakness until the cows come home. May the better team win – especially if that team is wearing green!
PREDICTION: EAGLES 28 COWBOYS 21 Philadelphia Eagles under Andy Reid are 12-0 coming off the bye week and while that stat tells you that Reid and Co. are better with two weeks to plan for an opponent, it has no real bearing upon this particular game or matchup. Eagles vs. Cowboys means grudge match, bragging rights, divisional showdown and better buckle your chin strap really tight. Someone is getting punched in the mouth!
DE Brandon Graham practiced on Monday and came away feeling good about where he is in terms of his skills. Until he shows the coaching staff that he is in football shape, he won’t come off the Physically Unable to Perform list. That could be this week against Dallas. When Graham is ready, he will be active and the Eagles will have to move someone off the 53-man roster to make room for Graham.
Play defensive coordinator. If you want Nnamdi Asomugha to cover a receiver one on one this week, which Dallas receiver do you pick? Miles Austin? Dez Bryant? Jason Witten? Tough call. All three are outstanding. Hopefully Asante Samuel & Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can help.
Earlier in the week the health status of LT Jason Peters or DE Trent Cole had been unclear. Now after both participated on a limited basis in Wednesday practice, their chances of playing against Dallas are around 95%. The players will be back into their regular work routine and while both are still hurting they will see a lot of action in this divisional grudge match.
About the Author
Written by Christopher Rowe
Contributing writer Comcast Sports, NY Times contributing stringer 1996-2000, Contributing writer Yahoo Sports (2001 World Series). Contributing writer Newsday Long Island (1992-1994, Jets Training Camp) and Newak Star Ledger. Freelance Copywriter, Editor/Founder Atlantic Times Weekly (1993-2003) fantasy football magazine, produced screenwriter and general humorist. Hofstra University grad, Marist College honorary alum, Salesian; Purveyor of the Value and Valor of Philadelphia Eagles 1960 NFL Championship; Adrent believer that Eagles could have won Super Bowl XV...and Super Bowl XXXIX...plus modern decade of Eagles 5 NFC Championships... Believer in the Broad Street Bullies and the 1983 Sixers... Witness to Philadelphia Phillies World Series championships 1980 & 2008, Suffered Phillies first pro sports team to reach 10,000 losses,witnessed "1980 Cardiac Kids," 1983 "Wheeze Kids," 1993 "Macho Row" and many, many, many not-so-memorable seasons in-between... until the Philadelphia Baseball Renaissance of 21st Century, Five NL East division titles 2007-2011, 3 NLCS appearances 2008-2010, 2 consecutive World Series berths 2008 & 2009. 2008 World Champions of baseball [miss ya Harry and Richie]; "collector" of MLB ballparks (42 stadiums including 15 which are gone); Fantasy Football & Baseball player since 1992. Always a sports fan... Tenui Nec Dimittam Contact me firstname.lastname@example.org