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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On the Philadelphia Eagles

Yes, I'm an Eagles fan, and I've tried over the years to avoid the mania and depression that seemingly comes with any winning streak and losing streak. For example, several years ago the hometown Birds lost their first two games at home -- to defending Super Bowl champ Tampa Bay and to the would-be Super Bowl champ New England Patriots -- only to have a great year and make it to the NFC Championship Game (only to lose at home to Carolina in a game that they were favored in). After those two losses, the fans wanted Andy Reid's head on a plate and wanted to start career back-up A.J. Feeley.

Fast forward to this season. The Birds were coming off a 6-10 season, and the bad fortune was attributed to a) Donovan McNabb's injuries, b) the bad team chemistry resulting from (i) Terrell Owens' personality disorder and (ii) McNabb's teammates' failure to stand up for their QB and take T.O. to the woodshed, where he should have a permanent seat and c) injuries to a host of other Eagles. Most of the faithful did lament the slide that resulted right after the team's Super Bowl appearance, and those faithful were split as to whether the team was any good or not. Many remained hopeful, especially after hearing good words spoken about the Birds in the world of the pundits and prognosticators before this season.

They got giddy after the first five games. True, there was the disappointing loss to the Giants, who the Eagles had all but finished off, but Donovan McNabb had the best first five games in a season of any QB in NFL history. The team was moving the ball well on offense, and the defensive line was getting great pressure on the other team's QB. Fast forward to right after Game 11, with McNabb already out because of a season-ending knee injury, the Birds' offense looking lackluster and being unable to run the ball, and the defense being woefully inept at trying to stop the run. During the skein in which they lost several games in a row, the fans were wondering aloud whether a) the rest of the league had caught up with Jim Johnson's defenses and b) Andy Reid was through in Philadelphia, unable to be a good-enough GM to win a Super Bowl or an innovative enough game coach to get the team over the hump. Speculation ran rampant regarding Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden, both of whom have won Super Bowls. The times were glum.

Fast forward to about 8:00 Christmas night, right around the time the Eagles vanquished the Cowboys in Dallas in a game where they put a licking on the hometown eleven and sent a message that the tough got going during a period in their schedule that was viewed as absolutely brutal at the season's outset. The convention wisdom out of the gate was that the Birds needed to win say five of their first seven to make the playoffs because they surely were going to have trouble down the home stretch. So what did they do? They won three consecutive division games on the road, something that hadn't been done in quite some time (when you take into account that they played those games consecutively).

Instead of being finished, the team rallied behind back-up QB Jeff Garcia. On offense, Andy Reid finally turned his "road grader"-sized offensive linemen loose, and those guys have proven that they can get a great surge and move the football on the ground. So much for the theories that they didn't have a good enough offensive line or a big enough running back to move the ball during crunch time. What they've proven is that they have both -- a huge and nimble OL and a special running back in Brian Westbrook, who isn't big but who plays huge. Andy Reid loosened up the reins on the playcalling, and it seems that in letting offensive coordinator Marty Mohrninweg make more calls, he's benefitting from an expert in the West Coast offense who had many good years in SF (okay, he flunked as a head coach in Detroit, but who has succeeded there?). On defense, Jim Johnson tinkered a bit with his coverages, the Eagles have blitzed more, rookie LB Omar Gaither has played well, and the defensive backfield has played with a lot more spunk, with back-up safety Quentin Mikell stepping up big over the past two weeks.

In short, while many teams are supposed to be fading, the Eagles have surged. Where will this all lead?

It's hard to say in the NFL, isn't it. Let's look at both ends of the continuum.

On the manic, "we can't do anything wrong" side, if the team beats Atlanta it will go into the playoffs riding a five-game winning streak. It will have a hot QB in Jeff Garcia, an unleashed offensive line and a rejuvenated defense that has figured out how to stop the run and whose DBs are playing their best football. They have a very able kicker in David Akers, and their coaching staff seemingly has worked on its mid-season kinks. At this end of the continuum, there is more than abundant optimism that the team can beat everyone in their path in the NFC and make it to the Super Bowl. Are the fans who are taking this view confident of a Super Bowl victory? No, not even these zealots will go that far -- the AFC has some very good teams. But the same way that the Steelers rose to the occasion with a rookie QB last year and won the whole thing, pro football fans on the eastern part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are wondering aloud, "why not us?" The NFL, unlike other leagues, has some room for miracle years. This scenario has Jeff Garcia as the 2006 version of Earl Morrall (with Garcia, though, primed to play in all playoff games because the injured starter won't return until next season).

On the depressive, "ah, come on, they're not that good" side of things, the argument is that the team isn't nearly as good as the five-game winning streak. Garcia has been hot, they'll conceded, but there's a reason that at 36 after failures in Cleveland and Detroit he ended up in the scrap heap in the off-season with only two teams interested in him. They'll contend that the other teams were more geared to stop Donovan McNabb, but now that there are many games' worth of film on Garcia, opponents will be able to figure him out. These folks aren't impressed with the recent surge in the Eagles' running game, arguments that the second-largest offensive line in the NFL is here to play big to stay. They'll still cast doubts about the receiving corps, the linebacking corps, the run defense and the lack of a big running back. The recent surge hasn't convinced them that the Eagles are all that good, and they'll argue that it's not that the Eagles are that good, it's that the rest of the NFC is that bad. These folks will expect a first-round playoff loss, even if the Eagles are hosting the game, and they'll be very afraid of the New York Giants, a talented team that can do damage if they put it all together.

So let's hit the ball right down the middle of the fairway, to mix in a golf metaphor during football season. Yes, the team is on a roll, and yes, West Coast offense veteran Jeff Garcia is reunited with the offensive coordinator who helped coach him to three Pro Bowls. The team is confident, the Brians (Westbrook and Dawkins) are having Pro Bowl years, and winning as many games in a row as they have is an impressive feat -- it begets confidence and the winning of more games, including playoff games. It may be, though, that Atlanta has something very much to play for on Sunday, and it could be that the Eagles get so giddy on their recent press clippings that the Falcons clip their wings and beat them on Sunday. If that were to happen, then you could be looking at "one and done", so fickle is the NFC. Several weeks ago people were arguing that Dallas was better than Chicago, even though the latter had a better record. Today, they're wondering about Dallas, Rex Grossman has played better in recent weeks and the Saints are getting good ink. On any given Sunday, the fates can change. . . dramatically.

The view here is that the Eagles are the team that people thought they were going into the season, albeit with a much different chemistry. The coaching staff has learned a lesson because of Donovan McNabb's injury that should make the team much better when he returns, that balance is the key to a good offense, that the offensive line can run block and do it well, and that defenses will be kept off balance if they aren't always figuring that Donovan is going to pass the ball. Garcia is playing great, and at 36 QBs aren't ancient the way almost every other position player save an occasional offensive lineman and punter or kicker is. The defense remains iffy. Rod Hood, who had a key sack late in the Dallas game, has not played well as the nickel back this year after an amazing season last year, and the strong safety position has been questionable with Michael Lewis and Sean Considine, although veteran back-up Quentin Mikell has played very well in recent weeks. The defensive line has been a question mark after their initial great first four weeks, and how well they and the linebacking corps play will dictate how far the Eagles go in the playoffs. The offense will score, but the question is whether the defense can keep the other team off the field.

My predictions are that the Eagles will beat Atlanta, host a playoff game, win that one and then go on the road and beat the Saints down there. They almost beat the Saints earlier in the year, and they'll figure out how to get it done this time. After that, well, it could be Chicago in Chicago. The Bears defense is that good, but it will all depend on which Eagles' team shows up.

Homer? Perhaps today. The Atlanta game is no sure thing and the Eagles could suffer from a letdown. That wouldn't surprise me, the tides in the NFL being what they are. Beating the Giants in the first round? Hardly a gimme game, that's for sure. The Giants will be motivated, but now Michael Strahan is out for the year, they're still banged up, and Eli Manning has a confidence problem. It's hard to see the Giants rebounding to make a playoff run, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Redskins beat them in D.C. this weekend to knock them out of the playoffs. So if it's not the Giants it could be Green Bay or someone else, and those 8-8 teams just aren't as good as the Eagles. As for the Saints, they are very good and very scary on offense, but it took a last-second field goal to beat the Eagles in the 'Dome earlier this season. The argument for the Eagles is that they are playing much better now than they were then, while the Saints comparatively haven't improved as much. That, in my book, gives the Eagles a victory on a David Akers' field goal. That could be a great game.

That's as far as I'll go now. The Eagles are playing well, and after prophecies of doomsday because of Donovan McNabb's injury and the absence of a running game and run defense, they seemingly have figured out a bunch of things. Whether that newfound wisdom leads to a deep playoff run remains to be seen.

But it's certainly a whole lot more fun to watch than the alternative.

The Eagles could be their neighbors 90 miles to the north, and the fans could have had a miserable Christmas, football-wise, at least.

Instead, they're on a tear, and tears are fun to watch.

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