Don’t Buy the Eagles’ Spin

Great defense and a strong running game win championships in the NFL. The Birds have neither

Talk to enough Eagles fans over the next couple weeks, and you will undoubtedly hear them lamenting what might have been. What if David Akers had made those two field goals? What if Michael Vick had made the savvy play, instead of going “down swinging?”

What if…

The Eagles lost to Green Bay by five in the wild card round of the playoffs, leading some to believe — mistakenly — that the Birds were just a few short steps away from NFC primacy, especially now that the Packers are in the Super Bowl, ready to take on Pittsburgh in a matchup that must have the folks in the NFL offices giddy with anticipation. Imagine, two of the league’s more tradition-bound teams battling for the Big Trophy. Cue the footage of Lombardi and Mean Joe and get ready for a ratings bonanza. [SIGNUP]

The Eagles, meanwhile, will do nothing to stop fans from believing their heroes weren’t so far from the top after all. Instead of pointing to the team’s myriad deficiencies, they’ll use terms like “re-tooling,” which is different, evidently, from the rebuilding tag Andy Reid dismissed at the beginning of the season. They’ll also pile on the highlights, once again trying to convince fans that thrilling come-from-behind regular season wins are worth every bit as much as playoff triumphs.

While the Birds spin, it is instructive for fans to look at the two teams atop the league and observe how truly different they are from the locals. In fact, all four of the squads that played Sunday have different outlooks from the Eagles, and that’s scary, considering it’s unlikely Reid will change his approach any time soon. Pittsburgh and Green Bay were one-two in scoring defense during the regular season. Chicago and the Jets were third and sixth, respectively, in that category. The Steelers (second) and the Packers (fifth) were also quite impressive in fewest yards surrendered.

There are two big reasons for the Super Bowl participants’ defensive success this year. The first is talent. Both teams place an emphasis on that side of the ball and draft accordingly. The result is a deep collection of playmakers who can withstand injury and play well when needed most. Second, each is led by a top-shelf coordinator. Green Bay’s Dom Capers is the father of the zone blitz, and the Steelers’ Dick LeBeau has been excellent for decades. When you emphasize defense, you play well there. What’s amazing is that neither team has sacrificed offensive production because it wants to stop people. Both Super teams were in the top half of the league in scoring and total yards. When you’re playing great D, you don’t have to score 35 a game.

The sad truth about the Eagles is that no matter how many times Reid learns that good defense beats good (or even great) offense in January and February, he refuses to change his philosophy. He won’t draft big-time linebackers. He won’t grab defensive tackles who can plug the Grand Canyon. And he won’t find pass rushers capable of turning opposing QB’s legs to jelly. He’s an offensive genius, after all, and he’ll “do a better job,” cough-cough, than the other team’s defensive guy.

Well, that didn’t happen this year. The Eagles scored 16 against the Packers, 11 points below their regular-season average. Points are harder to score in the playoffs, because of the great defenses on the other sideline. And after seeing how this year’s post-season has played out, it’s obvious the NFL is swinging — even if it’s in a small way — toward big D.

And what goes arm-and-arm with good defense? The ground game, of course. The Eagles will point proudly to their status as the league’s fifth-best running team. That’s pretty impressive, until one realizes that a large chunk of the team’s rushing production came from Vick (100 carries, 676 yards), and that doesn’t count when it comes to the post-season, where running QBs are almost always contained. (After averaging 6.8 yards per tote during the regular season, Vick managed a pedestrian 4.0 yard — 8 carries, 32 yards — against the Packers.) In their championship game wins, the Steelers (166 yards) and the Packers (120) were devoted to the ground attack. More importantly, Pittsburgh backs carried the ball a clock-bleeding 43 times, while Green Bay ran it on 32 occasions; each total was greater than the number of the teams’ passes. Hard to imagine Big Red ever doing something like that. In tight games, he usually abandons the run by the second quarter.

As the Eagles get ready for the 2011 season, if there is a 2011 season, they should consider the Packers’ and Steelers’ success instructive. Instead of whining about what might have been, they need to think about what must be done to join that elite group. The answer isn’t more passes and more Vick scrambles. It’s a tougher, nastier defense, with a commitment to supporting it with a ground attack that starts with a strong line. Do that, and we may be looking at some February football in ’11. Keep the same old approach, and get ready for more what ifs.


* It was great to see the Flyers beat Chicago Sunday, but let’s be real. Revenge isn’t gained during regular-season games; it comes during the playoffs, with the ultimate in-your-face delivered by hoisting the Cup.

* If there ever was a perfect set-up for disaster, it was Villanova’s trip to Syracuse Saturday. The Orange had played poorly in their last game, welcomed back standout Kris Joseph and had 33,000-plus crazies in the house. The Wildcats’ win was a biggie, and came as much from strong front line play as it did from three-pointers.

* Looks like the Phillies have found their long relief man: Kyle Kendrick. No matter how much the team says Special K will compete for the fifth starter’s role, that job belongs to Joe Blanton, as long as he’s on the club. Kendrick has 2.5 million reasons why that’s not an awful thing, but he had better be ready for a lot of bullpen work.