I don't usually blog about the Eagles, because most people aren't interested in that, but you'll have to indulge me in some cathartic Philly sports blogging here.
Last night's game was an embarrassment, capped off by the sight of George W. Bush and Jerry Jones celebrating in the owner's box. We were outscored 58-14 in two games. We couldn't stop them on defense, and our offense was mired, thanks in part to the Cowboys' defense, in one of its all-too-frequent slumps.
Let's start with the coaching. The Eagles were totally outschemed on both sides of the ball. Cowboys' offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has simply figured out this incarnation of the Eagles' defense, which is incapable of getting pressure on the QB without blitzing. Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott once again had no answer for the pass-fake draws, bubble screens and other plays designed to confuse the defense or quickly get the ball outside. It was a total mismatch, compounded by the fact that the Cowboys are physically superior along the line of scrimmage. Also, it appeared that Garrett purposely put WR Roy Williams on Asante Samuel's side of the field, creating a size mismatch, while running the speedy Miles Austin against the relatively plodding Sheldon Brown
Part of the problem has to do with a point Cris Collinsworth made last night: The Cowboys are completely healthy. No significant injuries. Whereas the Eagles lost their starting middle linebacker, Stewart Bradley, whom Peter King named an All-Pro last year, before the season; their center, Jamal Jackson, in the second-to-last game of the regular season; and reserve linebacker Omar Gaither in the middle of the season. But we'll deal with personnel in a little bit.
The Cowboys defense also has the Eagles offense completely figured out. The Eagles are simply unable to give McNabb enough protection or get receivers open against the Dallas secondary. Andy Reid's offensive scheme is often predictable, but against the Cowboys the last two games it was embarrassed and exposed. The Eagles, as many have noted, are too reliant on the big play. They're incapable of mixing the run and pass to move the ball deliberately down the field. They're not very good running the ball, and when your receivers are having a hard time getting open, it's difficult to sustain drives when your QB isn't consistently accurate.
Moving on to personnel. The Eagles don't have to do much offensively this offseason. The problem isn't talent so much as strategy.
The offensive line is okay talentwise. The Eagles just need to improve their depth to guard against injuries. Jason Peters didn't play like a Pro-Bowler this year, and he got schooled by Demarcus Ware last night, but he wasn't completely healthy this season either, and he was adjusting to a new scheme. I imagine he'll play better next year. The biggest question mark is Stacy Andrews. Turns out it wasn't a good idea to pay an undecorated right tackle coming off ACL and MCL tears $39 million in a bid to mollify his ultratalented but enigmatic and psychologically unstable brother. Hopefully, he'll be better next year, but if not, Nick Cole is good enough to start at right guard.
The receivers are fine. Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson and Jason Avant will be better next year, as the young guys gain experience. Brent Celek is a stud and played at a Pro Bowl level this year. There's one wild card here though. I think it's conceivable that DeSean Jackson, who just finished the second year of a four-year rookie contract that pays him less than $1 million a year and recently hired Drew Rosenhaus as his agent, will agitate for a new contract and potentially hold out. There's no question that he's due for a mega-deal that will set him up for life, but the Eagles will want to see him play one more year at a Pro Bowl lever before paying him what he'll want, which is to be compensated as a top-5 receiver. He could get an extension now, but it wouldn't be at the level he's looking for. Eagles fans can only hope that his head will remain screwed on straight now that he's had some success.
There's a big question looming at running back. The Eagles got worse in the running game when Brian Westbrook returned from his concussion late in the season. LeSean McCoy and Leonard Weaver were playing well, and throwing Westbrook back into the mix meant less playing time for McCoy and prevented any of the team's three runners from getting into a rhythm. So now the Eagles front office has to decide whether to bring Westbrook back. What does he have left? Is he better than McCoy? Is he worth the money he makes? I love Westbrook, but it's just not clear whether how good he is at this point and whether he has any chance of staying healthy.
At quarterback, I would be fine with trading Donovan McNabb and starting the Kevin Kolb era, but I don't think that's going to happen. Can Andy Reid, the flawed strategist, and McNabb, the most inaccurate "good" QB in the modern era, win a Super Bowl together? Probably not. But this is what Eagles fans are stuck with. As Bill Simmons might say, I will now cut off one of my big toes with hedge clippers.
This is where the Eagles need the most improvement. They need upgrades at every level of the defense: on the line, at linebacker and in the secondary.
The defensive line is too small to be stout against the run and not explosive enough to get pressure on the passer. Trent Cole is terrific, but he can be neutralized with double-teams and chips from the running back. The Eagles must upgrade Juqua Parker's left defensive end spot. Parker is better suited to a reserve role. The Eagles need someone with speed and size who can complement Cole and merit respect from the offense. A guy like Carlos Dunlap of Florida.
I used to think the starting defensive tackles, Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson, were good enough, but I can't recall either of them making a big-time play this year, and I saw every game. We need to draft or trade for someone who can be disruptive and collapse the pocket.
Jerry Jones has made numerous personnel blunders in recent years -- one of the reasons the Cowboys went 10-plus years without winning a playoff game, from Adam "Pacman" Jones and Terrell Owens to trading down in 2004 and taking Julius Jones rather than drafting Steven Jackson in the first round -- but he's done a masterful job building that front seven on defense, anchored by tackle Jay Ratliff, who is an absolute monster, and pass-rushing linebackers Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. Those are the kinds of players the Eagles need on the defensive line. There's no substitute for that kind of talent. You don't build championship defenses with players like Juqua Parker and Victor Abiamiri (though he's not a total bust yet).
At linebacker, the Eagles will be in decent shape if Bradley is able to come back fully healthy. The good news is his injury occurred so early that he shouldn't have much trouble being ready for training camp. The Eagles have decent talent at the other spots, with Akeem Jordan, Will Witherspoon, Chris Gocong and Moises Fokou, but they could stand to draft a linebacker in the first few rounds. Maybe Gocong needs to be switched from strongside linebacker back to defensive end, where he could be used purely as a situational pass rusher. It doesn't seem like the linebacker experiment has worked out so well for him.
In the secondary, Macho Harris has a chance to be a good free safety, but the Eagles cannot count on that. Sean Jones was okay, but clearly the team needs to be aggressive in upgrading that spot. Asante Samuel played terribly yesterday, but part of the problem there is the lack of pressure on the quarterback, which exposes his unorthodox, gambling style of play. Sheldon Brown is good, but he has trouble matching up with explosive receivers -- like, say, Miles Austin. The Eagles should add a cornerback as Brown's eventual replacement, someone with better speed.
The Eagles ran into a team that is unusually healthy and, aside from the San Diego Chargers, playing better than any team in the NFL. I will spend the rest of the postseason rooting for the Cowboys to suffer a painful, humiliating defeat.
But it's clear that, aside from their usual issues on offense, which may be solvable only through an Andy Reid brain transplant, the Eagles have to dramatically improve their defense. The only way for a McNabb-Reid team to win a Super Bowl is for the Eagles to be talented enough across the entire roster to make up for Reid's strategic quirks and blindspots and McNabb's deficiencies in accuracy and decision-making. The best way to do that is to focus the 2010 offseason, from the draft to free agency, on a talent infusion on defense.