Eagles Future Is Still Unsure

Plus: Rumors about the end of Joe Paterno's Penn State legacy

Since we were all warned that one game does not a season make after the Eagles dumped St. Louis in their opener last week, we can say with supreme confidence that two games aren’t completely revelatory, either. The Eagles’ loss to Atlanta was compelling proof that this is an imperfect team. Since no NFL franchise can be considered without flaw in these days of salary caps and nomadic players, that is not a particularly bold statement.

But, for Eagles fans who were practically giddy this summer at the arrivals of six former Pro Bowlers, it may come as something of a shock. Their team has faults—lots of them.

Sunday night in Atlanta, they were all on display, from the overmatched linebackers to the greenhorn safeties to the inconsistent offensive line. (Was that Evan Mathis on his backside again?) The Eagles scored 31 points, piled up 447 yards of total offense and still lost the game. Yes, Michael Vick left the contest with a concussion in the third quarter, but that wasn’t the sole reason for the defeat, since he turned the ball over three times before bouncing off of right tackle Todd Herremans and leaving the game.

If one conclusion can be reached after two games—and remember that 14 remain—it’s that this Eagles team is a high-risk, high-reward outfit. It loves big plays and quick drives on offense and surrenders the same with its defense. It wants to pressure the opposing quarterback for 60 minutes and leaves its QB exposed to enemy pass rushers for the same amount of time. It looks for soft spots in defenses and exploits them and gives opponents considerable options to do the same. If you don’t like 35-31 games, you had better turn your attention to the start of Flyers’ training camp, because the Birds are headed for a wild season.

Sunday’s defeat amplified all of the concerns fans and analysts had about this team. It showed how dependent the Eagles are on Vick, and how fragile he is. It demonstrated that despite fortifying the defensive line and cornerback positions, the Birds are still deficient defensively, a fact rammed home by Atlanta running back Michael Turner’s big plays and the difficulty their linebackers and safeties had in pass coverage and run stuffing. And it proved the offensive front, while solid at times, still exposes Vick to considerable pressure and mayhem.

Finally, there was Vick himself, the ultimate risk-reward weapon. He continues to refuse, almost defiantly, to make the easy plays in the face of blitzes, choosing instead to rely on his ability to avoid pass rushers with his feet. Often, it works. But one of his lost fumbles came while he was sprinting around the field, “trying to make a play,” rather than protecting the football. Again, risk-reward. Sometimes, Vick can turn disaster into diamonds. On other occasions, trouble that could be avoided becomes even worse. That’s no way to go through an entire season.

It’s funny, but for years, Andy Reid was criticized for his unwillingness to turn his team loose. He favored an offensive scheme heavy on reliability and a quarterback who abhorred turnovers. Now, he has transformed into a coach for seems to enjoy taking chances. The “West Coast” offensive scheme to which he clung for so many years has almost been replaced by a Mad Bomber philosophy that shoots for the big play. And instead of playing defense to control the opposition and maintain tempo, he’s almost daring rivals to attack the middle of his outfit. If they score quickly, so what? It just delivers the ball back to his offense more quickly. Consider Reid the equivalent of a basketball coach whose team presses and runs, the better to create a game that allows his superior skill players to shine.

The problem with that philosophy is that it rarely produces championships. Just as playoff basketball turns into a halfcourt test of wills, so too does post-season football place a premium on tough defense and the ability to eradicate turnovers. I’m not talking about 1970s, up-the-middle-and-everybody-gets-a-bloody-nose football, but when the temperatures fall, big plays tend to diminish.

For some, the first week of the season has been evidence of a growing sea change in the NFL. Ridiculously high statistics prove that defenses have surrendered, and that the passing game has won the day. Tom Brady will throw for 7,500 yards this year, and the Buffalo Bills will score 500 points.

But mark my words: By December, there will be balance again. The loser in the lockout was defense. Teams didn’t have time to work on their complicated coverages and blitz packages, and the new collective bargaining agreement limits the amount of full-contact practice in which teams can engage. That’s all bad news for defenses. But just wait. The pinball machine will tilt, and some sanity will return. It will be interesting to see if the Eagles’ defensive unit settles down, too.

Meanwhile, Vick will be tested this week to see if he’s able to play next Sunday against the Giants. Suddenly, that 5-1 or 6-0 break from the gates is in jeopardy, and the Eagles appear no different from a lot of 1-1 NFL teams that have big question marks.

Not that two games mean anything.


  • After giving up eight earned runs in the first five months of the season, Antonio Bastardo has allowed five in September. He seems tired, and perhaps rivals are figuring him out a bit. The Phils think a short bullpen can win in October. They’re taking a big chance with that line of reasoning. Further, if Bastardo continues to struggle, they’re without a reliable lefty in relief.
  • Tickets for Sunday’s NBA pickup game at the Palestra sold out in a blink, and anybody in attendance should be entertained. Enjoy the show, folks, because there won’t be any pro hoops in this town for a while, thanks to the warring sides in the labor dispute.
  • Temple is right to view Saturday’s near miss against Penn State as a defeat and nothing more. Moral victories are for people who aren’t expected to accomplish big things. But Nittany Lion fans should be concerned, especially with rumors beginning to surface about a full coaching clean-out after the season.