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Sunday, November 07, 2004

Now Don't Push the Panic Button, Either

Earlier this season, I blogged on why Philadelphia Eagles' fans shouldn't be popping the corks because of their team's great start. Well, tonight, I'll briefly blog that they shouldn't be despairing, even in the face of a 27-3 drubbing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Why? Because had I been a blogger last year, I would have blogged for patience immediately after the Eagles had an 0-2 start and there were cries to bench Donovan McNabb for A.J. Feeley (and look how great Feeley has played in Miami) and to replace Andy Reid. Why? Because the beloved Birds lost to the defending Super Bowl champion (Tampa Bay) and the would-be Super Bowl champ, the Patriots, in their first two games. It wasn't as if they had lost to the Lions and the Cardinals. Those were two formidable opponents, at least at the time they played them.

I blog for patience now because football is a brutally tough game, the season is long, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, rookie QB and all, are on a roll. And they'll be on a roll until some linebacker doesn't get picked up in a blitz and sends Ben Roethlisberger into dreamland for a few minutes and has him conjugating Latin verbs and muttering something about the Russian futures market. After that, the roll might turn into a slide, because the NFL is just one tough business.

The Eagles ran into a very hot team, one that even endured the absence of their outstanding running back, Duce Staley, the former Bird who flew the nest after the Eagles didn't want to give him the playing time he thought he merited. Score: Duce 1, Andy Reid 0, which is an upset because Reid a pair of sagacious moves in the off-season by letting veteran CBs Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor walk and putting his faith in third-year men Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard, both of whom just inked contract extensions. But that's a digression: the Steelers' success not only is because of their super-confident QB from the Mid-American Conference, but also because of their great free-agent acquisition.

The Eagles, in case anyone forgot, are 7-1 too. And this team wasn't bound to win them all.

That said, if the Eagles do have a cause for concern, it's that they addressed only 2 of 4 needs in the off-season. Part of it is owing to the fact that with the salary cap it's virtually impossible to field a complete team, one that has no weaknesses. Part of the fact is that injuries have hurt the Eagles, and part of the fact is that the Eagles have a blind spot as to one position. Let's address all three.

In the off-season, the Eagles DL got healthy, and the Eagles not only signed Jevon Kearse, a pre-eminent pass rusher when healthy, they also got Hugh Douglas back from Jacksonville (where he had outstayed a very short welcome) and got Derek Burgess, Paul Grasmanis and Hollis Thomas back from injuries. A problem last year became a source of strength this year, at least against the pass. They also shored up the WR spot, one where they had thought they had covered it adequately in the past with James Thrash, Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell, when they signed T.O. Enough said there. T.O. is having a fine season.

Injuries hurt all teams, and the Eagles have lost FB Jon Ritchie, DE N.D. Kalu, G Shawn Andrews and RB Correll Buckhalter for the season. The injuries have especially hit the RB position hard, because without Buckhalter and Staley, under-sized Brian Westbrook is the only starting-quality RB the Eagles have. Did they make a mistake? Perhaps, as hindsight may tell them that they should have brought in another quality RB behind Westbrook after Buckhalter got hurt. 34 year-old Dorsey Levens just doesn't scare anyone any more. I'll acknowledge that this comment might be nitpicking, because had Buckhalter stayed healthy, the Eagles would be in reasonable shape at the RB position. Not great, but reasonable.

And then there is the blindspot. Or perhaps, it's the blindspot and a half. The one blindspot is LB, where the Eagles' LB corps just doesn't seem to be able to stop the run. It's hard to say why, and there are plenty of apologists on the radio, WIP afternoon man and self-designated King of Bling Howard Eskin among them, who argue endlessly that LB just isn't that important a position in the Birds' scheme of things. That may be so, but the Eagles haven't had a really good LB since Shawn Barber flew the nest for K.C. three years ago, and the lack of high-quality LBs has to contribute to the Birds' being bad against the run.

As does the lack of big, run-stuffing tackles. I don't call this a huge blindspot, because I've liked the body of work of starting DTs Darwin Walker and Corey Simon in the past, but I don't think either tops 285, and in this day and age you need some 6'1", 340-pound bowling ball in the middle to counter the run. These guys just might be too light. Second-year DT Sam Rayburn just got a contract extension, and while he's as strong as an ox he might not be the answer. Nine-year vet Hollis Thomas once was a good run stuffer, but he's had his share of injuries, and he's only a back-up. I don't know what the cause is, but the Eagles' front 7 is getting pushed around by run blockers.

This team will probably finish 12-4 or 13-3 and get a top-two seed and home field advantage. Heck, it could get home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs. But the same way an understaffed passing game was transparent for all Birds' watchers the past two years, a bad run defense has been readily apparent last year and now this year. And while everyone sings the praises of Eagles' defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, one thing seems to ring true -- that in the playoffs, the opposition figures out your weaknesses and hits them hard. Last year, they shut down the Eagles' passing game (okay, so it hurt a lot that Westbrook was injured and didn't play against Carolina in the NFC championship game), and this year they'll try to exhaust the Eagles' defense by running the ball until they're stopped. Whoever they are, of course.

But, in spite of that, the Eagles are 7-1, and they remain the team to beat in the NFC, and they remain the favorite to face the Pittsburgh-New England winner in the Super Bowl. Where, if they get there, they'll be the underdog.

They remain the favorite in the NFC because they have an unflappable coach, a good offense and enough playmakers on defense to be very dangerous. So, Eagles' fans, don't despair, you're not about to go upon an eight-game losing streak.

Far from it.

Just as you shouldn't have been manic about your beloved team's challening the '72 Dolphins for an undefeated season, you shouldn't be depressed now. Yes, your guys lost a game, and, yes, it wasn't pretty. But one game doesn't a season make.

So grab your beers, don't burn your #5 jerseys, and do a loud Eagles' cheer before you go to sleep.

Because your guys still will be playing football next week, and most likely, they'll win.


Blogger yoni cohen :: said...

Hey SportsProf:

Could you do me a favor and change the title of the blogroll link from your site to mine to "College Basketball" -- I've found I get more traffic sent my way with the full name versus with "Collegeball" or "College B-Ball." Thanks kindly. Much appreciated.

Also, btw, when I first read the story about the Columbia AD, I thought to blog about the hill she had to climb. But then I decided against it, figuring you would likely write about the story -- and do a better job than I would have done. I was right. Good work.

yoni cohen,
college basketball blog

4:52 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Consider it done.

Thanks, Yoni.

5:40 PM  
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