With the game tied at 17 in the fourth quarter and the Eagles facing a fourth down from their own 29, Mat McBriar jogged on to the field and set up to punt.
The Eagles had 13 minutes and 52 seconds to decide what the conversation would be in this city Monday morning. Would people be talking about a 4-5 team that was just one game back of the Giants in the loss column? Or a 3-6 team that had lost five in a row and would be searching for a new coach in the coming weeks?
Bobby April’s special-teams unit provided the answer.
McBriar’s punt went 49 yards to the Dallas 22, where Dwayne Harris fielded it. He made a move to his left and was gone, down the far sideline for a 78-yard touchdown. No missed tackles. That would have required someone to be close enough to get a hand on him.
Cowboys 24, Eagles 17.
“I’ve just got to get the guys prepared,” said special-teams coach Bobby April, looking deflated in the locker room after the game. “I feel bad that I let the team down. I let the head coach down. It’s my responsibility to make those plays. Didn’t do it. They beat us, they whooped us. They whooped us in a couple one-on-one deals, and obviously [Cowboys special-teams coach] Joe DeCamillis whooped me.”
Colt Anderson, the Eagles’ best special-teams player, gave credit to Dallas as well.
“They had a nice wall set up,” Anderson said. “We didn’t have anybody out there, and the returner made a couple guys miss. He set it up nicely. It was out the gate. They had a good scheme. Give credit to them.”
Since the beginning of the 2011 season, the Eagles have lost seven games decided by one possession. While Michael Vick, Marty Mornhinweg, Juan Castillo and others have taken plenty of blame, special teams probably hasn’t received its fair share. April’s group has rarely affected the game in a positive way – either in the return game or with the coverage units. This was not a one-week thing. Entering the game, Eagles special-teams were ranked 25th by Football Outsiders.
“We just can’t give up plays like that, and we’ve got to get some plays like that ourselves,” Anderson said.
Aside from coverage, there seemed to be some disagreement about whether McBriar’s punt went where it was supposed to go.
“Yeah, I hit a pretty good ball,” McBriar said. “It was sort of towards where we were trying to get it to. They’re trying to make a play just as we are. Sometimes, it works out that way.”
April didn’t seem to agree completely.
“It was probably a little too deep,” April said. “I’d have to look at the hang/distance ratio. It was a returnable ball. You’d like those things to be high and short, in general. Then the punter can take them out of it. But I’m not blaming Mat. He hit the ball. That could have given us good field position.”
Entering Sunday, opposing offenses had started drives at their own 30.48-yard-line against the Eagles. Only three teams in the NFL were worse. Part of that has to do with turnovers by the offense. And part of it has to do with coverage units that have been shaky all year.
Aside from the punt return, the Eagles had a missed extra point, and Andy Reid was forced to use a timeout when it appeared that the field-goal unit was a player short (King Dunlap).
There have been mistakes and negative plays all year, but Sunday’s return was the biggest. And now, the conversation shifts to what this team, and this coaching staff, will look like in 2013.