The feeling of losing the Super Bowl in a close game to the New England Patriots isn't great, but it's way better than that of being stomped on at home last year by the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship Game. We lost to a great team that I really have no problems with, except for the wing-flapping celebrations by Givens, Vrabel and Harrison, which I thought were disrespectful. Beyond which, Givens' celebration with the foot on the ball was stolen from Hines Ward of the Steelers, and neither Ward nor Givens got the flap right, the way TO does it. I digress. The point is, I don't really mind the Patriots, e.g. the way my blogger friend Toast does, but when I saw the bird flap I wanted to rip someone's throat out.
The Eagles lost for several reasons: Andy Reid was outcoached by Bill Belichek; Donovan McNabb got outplayed by Tom Brady; and New England's defense was and is better than Philadelphia's defense.
Coaching: The most glaring example of poor coaching was the Eagles' failure to get into a no-huddle offense or at any rate a true hurry-up offense when we were down by 10 points with less than five minutes to play. The players and coaches can say whatever they want, but the game would have been almost infinitely more winnable if we'd gotten the ball back at the four-yard line with more than 55 seconds remaining. It seemed to me that the Eagles hadn't even practiced a no-huddle offense; that's how bad it looked. [Reid also mismanaged the clock at the end of the first half, employing the classic gambit: "Let's dilly-dally until maybe something positive happens, at which point we'll start calling time-outs ... D'oh! We ran out of time." If Reid had been more decisive, if he had gotten the team up to the line quicker after the first run (a Westbrook sweep to the left for a loss of three yards), if he had in general cinched up his cajones, we might have gotten a field goal out of that possession.]
Charlies Weis found a way in the third quarter to get Deion Branch (who, okay, I admit it: he's pretty good) isolated on rookie cornerback Matt Ware, our fourth corner after Roderick Hood. After that happened once, the coaches should have made an adjustment. Instead, they allowed it to persist for the rest of the drive, which resulted in a classic Vrabeling. We got Vrabeled right in the ass.
Coaching/Defense: As the Patriots started to get their offense rolling in their last two drives of the second quarter and as it was running on all cynlinders throughout the entire third quarter, the Eagles were having real problems with their blitzes, which were a) obvious b) late and c) wholly ineffective. The Patriots saw them coming all the way, but more importantly, some of our blitzing players inexplicably delayed their pass rush and wound up caught in no-man's land near the line of scrimmage, neither pressuring the quarterback nor providing coverage. The prime example came on the Patriots' first possession of the second half, when we forced them into a third and long, on which play FS Brian Dawkins showed blitz, hesitated, then threw himself into the offensive line, where two blockers easily handled him, such that when Brady let go of the ball Dawkins was literally not within 10 yards of him and the ball sailed over where Dawkins would have been, had he dropped into coverage, and into Deion Branch's hands for a 20-yard completion and a first down.
By contrast, the Patriots' defense was consistently able to get pressure on the quarterback, but without tipping its hand prior to the snap, i.e. without the horses-snorting-and-pawing-at-the-ground behavior in which our defense engages on our all-out blitzes.
Quarterback: While Donovan McNabb was able to make positive plays, it was his negative plays that killed the Eagles. His accuracy in the first and fourth quarters was flat-out bad and hurt the team. Take, for example, a little play, during the fourth quarter, when McNabb swung the ball to FB Josh Parry out of the backfield. Had he thrown the ball accurately, Parry might have been able to get five yards before stepping neatly out of bounds. Instead, McNabb's poor throw slowed him down, forcing him to have to fight for two or three yards and preventing him from getting out of bounds, draining a precious 30 seconds from the clock.
McNabb threw three interceptions, but forget the third, which came with 17 seconds to play. As soon as that ball left his hands, the game was over, even if L.J. Smith had caught it instead of tipping it. After a spike, we would have been left with second and ten from our 25-yard-line with no timeouts and seven seconds remaining.
The play that aborted that drive was the first one, with 55 seconds left, when McNabb was flushed out of the pocket to his left and into the end zone, from where he threw a short bullet to RB Brian Westbrook, who was standing in the middle of the field at the line of scrimmage, where he was immediately tackled. By the time we got our next play off there were 30 seconds left in the game. That was an awful, awful decision for McNabb to have made, especially with no timeouts. All it could accomplish was waste time. There wasn't even a hope of gaining yardage. McNabb should have simply thrown the ball out of bounds. Suffice to say, Tom Brady would never have made that mistake. (I disdain the Brady-Montana comparisons. I don't think Brady has proven he's even close to as great as Joe Montana. But among his many positive qualities, he's very, very smart. McNabb has more work to do even to approach Brady's ability to manage an offense.)
Another thing McNabb did not do was run the ball. I mean, at all. There was the run one in the first half where Rodney Harrison knifed in and took out his legs for a one-yard loss, and that may have been it. McNabb failed to make the Patriots respect his ability to run the ball, though with their zone defense the Patriots are more adept at stopping a running QB than other teams.
ANYWAY, it's back to the drawing board, and though you never know when the football gods are going to strike you down, I can say that, barring injury or unforeseen circumstances, the Eagles should be an improved team next year, in an NFC that will remain week. (The team to look out for is the resurgent Carolina Panthers.)
We'll get a running back to complement Westbrook and provide a little more toughness between the tackles, whether that's the unlucky Correll Buckhalter, a draft pick or a free agent (Dorsey Levens will most likely not be back). We'll get massive OG Shawn Andrews back from injury. We have a number of quality picks on the first day of the draft, which should allow us to select a defensive lineman who will improve our ability to stuff the run up the middle. Our young secondary will be more experienced. After seeing that sweet triple-move Greg Lewis used to get open for the Eagles' third touchdown, I almost feel he is the one who should be starting at wide receiver next year opposite TO*. Regardless, either Todd Pinkston (who had a good first half and then went to the locker room with a cramp and then rather mysteriously did not return at all) or Freddie Mitchell** is going to be gone, which in my mind figures to be addition by subtraction. And finally, McNabb and Andy Reid will be more experienced in their respective roles (and McNabb's timing with TO will be ever more sick than it was in '04). Perhaps the meticulous Reid will scribble down in one of his sundry notebooks: REMEMBER TO PRACTICE THE TWO-MINUTE OFFENSE. And finally finally, Bill Belichek will be without his two coordinators, and you have to figure the loss of Charlie Weis is going to make that offense just slightly less dangerous. The fact of the matter is, Charlie Weis is an awesome offensive coach. So if the Eagles make it back to the Super Bowl next year, perhaps we won't face Belichek but someone whom Reid is able to outcoach, e.g. Bill Cowher.
Football season is over. Now I can proceed with my life.
*Who was amazing. But you could tell he wasn't 100 percent; it would have made a big difference if he'd been able to run deep routes at full speed.
**Whose only real contribution to the game was to get the Patriots' Rodney Harrison so fired up that he went out and played the best game of his life, with 7 tackles, two interceptions, a sack and an assist on a forced fumble. Thanks, Fred.