Having had the weekend to digest the Birds' loss to the Saints, I offer the following observations:
1. The Eagles chances for 2007 and beyond are good. They went into the season with some serious doubts, given the implosion of 2005 owing to T.O.'s intransigence and the numerous injuries they suffered, including one to Donovan McNabb. After McNabb's injury this season, the team was left for roadkill, only to have a magical finish that taught each team member something about himself and about leadership. A few questionmarks became exclamation points (such as center Jamal Jackson, wide receiver Hank Baskett and the durability of Brian Westbrook). Yes, the Eagles have holes to fill, but they should go into the 2007 season as the favorite in the NFC East (assuming that they have a healthy Donovan McNabb).
2. McNabb is the team's starting QB, and there is no QB controversy. He can do more things better than Garcia, and should shine even more if the Eagles stick to their newly found playcalling and balance the pass and the run as well as they did in the last part of this past season. At the beginning of the season, when they lost the game at the Linc to the Giants, the pundits said the Birds had no running game. By the season's end, the o-line was being touted as one of the best in football. A tale of two seasons? Perhaps.
3. Not sure what I would have thought about the team had they blown up after McNabb's injury. Before the big finish, there were doubts, in no particular order, about a) Westbrook's durability, b) the need for a big back, c) the effectiveness of two over-thirty offensive tackles (William Thomas and Jon Runyan), d) the quality of play of Jamal Jackson (after all, the Birds tried to sign LeCharles Bentley in the off-season), d) the need for another receiver, e) the quality of the linebacking play, f) the need for a strong safety, g) the ability of the team to stop the run, h) whether Jeremiah Trotter overruns plays too much, i) whether Brian Dawkins lost a step or two, etc. Several of those questions were answered, and those that were not are not as big as the ones that were (with the possible exception of the ability to stop the run, and the Eagles still will have to improve in that area -- look for them to go for a run-oriented SS and better linebacking in the off-season, as well as pushing first-year DT Broderick Bunkley to get into better shape). Had those questions lingered, we could have expected a serious roster turnover this off-season (as the team would have finished something like 6-10 for the second year in a row).
4. As for the game against the Saints, I note the following:
a. On offense, Brian Westbrook had a few drops (one of which probably cost the team a TD) that you just cannot make in a championship-caliber game.
b. Reggie Bush showed me something after he got "all jacked up" by Sheldon Brown early in the game and returned to play a great game.
c. The Eagles' special teams did not play well. They need to upgrade the quality of their returners, and their kickoff coverage was poor (the Saints had too many positions near their 35 yard-line).
d. Neither Brian Dawkins nor Jeremiah Trotter had a particularly good game.
e. Reserve guard Scott Young played poorly filling in for the injured Shawn Andrews. His holding penalty killed the momentum of a big drive late in the game, and his procedure penalty late didn't help matters either.
f. The playcalling -- by whoever made the calls -- late in the game after Bush's fumble -- was bad. The execution also wasn't there, and after failing on a pass on first and ten it seemed too ambitious to call a run on second and ten. The coaches really didn't give the team the best chance to win the game.
All in all, this was a very satisfying season. The leaders stepped up after McNabb went down, the team showed a lot of character in stepping up and making plays, and one of the top offenses in the league -- despite not having the "big" back or the Pro Bowl receiver, returns, this time, with a five-time Pro Bowl QB at the helm. The coaches learned, too, to trust each other more and to trust the players to make the big blocks and the big plays. The defensive coordinator also learned that people have started to figure him out, so look for the Eagles to show some new stuff on defense next season. Compare the Birds to their competitors in the NFC, and you have to like their chances. Dallas, a talented team, has an iffy QB who opponents have figured out a little more now that he's played half a season, a divided team because of a locker room menace, problems at DB, and a coach who looks spent. New York also has a lot of talent, but they have a QB with a confidence problem, they'll miss Tiki Barber, and the coach and players aren't in sync, no matter what any Tisch or Mara will tell you. And then there are the Redskins, who seem to be missing a few pieces despite all the money they have spent.
The better team won the game at the Superdome on Saturday night, but the stars appear to be shining brightly for the Eagles only two months after the team -- along with its fans -- thought that they were exiled to a gulag somewhere northeast of Irkutsk.
Fly Eagles, fly!