Hey, Andy Reid, Defense Matters!

If this weekend's playoff games taught us anything, it's that the Eagles need to care about more than outscoring everybody.

A funny thing happened on the way to the expected shootout in Super Bowl XLVI: The defenses took over.

Funny thing, this NFL. Every time we think there’s a new trend developing, the old themes recur. This year, the better teams in the league simply outscored their opponents. New England, Green Bay and New Orleans had unstoppable offenses, all three averaging more than 500 yards and 30 points per game. It didn’t matter much whether their rivals piled up the stats. In the end, the Pats, Pack and Saints would outgun them.

This weekend, there was a reckoning–at least for Green Bay and New Orleans. The two teams learned that come January, defense still matters. The Niners and their 26th-ranked offense hung up 36 points on the generous Saints, while the Giants continued a late-season defensive revival by stifling the high-flying Packers in a 37-20 victory. Meanwhile, Baltimore continued its tradition of nasty D in a 20-13 win over Houston, and even New England, which had been 31st in yards allowed this year, stuffed Denver and St. Timothy of Tebow, 45-10.

Let’s hope Eagles coach Andy Reid and the rest of Team Gold Standard were paying attention this weekend, so that they can spend the off-season making a serious attempt to upgrade their defense, the better to avoid another embarrassment like 2011. Before the season, Reid decided that the way to win in the NFL was to pass and pressure the pass. The shoot-‘em-up approach to football was in vogue, and he wanted in. Thus, we were treated to the vagaries of the wide nine and instructed to pay no attention to linebacker and safety play, since rushing the QB and blanketing outside receivers were the keys to NFL heaven. And it didn’t matter who was coordinating the defense, because if the O put up 35 a game, everything would be fine.

Four-plus months later, Eagles fans have learned that Reid’s philosophy was a bit warped. Even though the Birds’ strong finish–accomplished after the pressure of real contention was largely gone–helped them move up in the statistical rankings, there can be no denying the team’s myriad defensive shortcomings in games that mattered. Blown leads, rotten red-zone work (although the Eagles did “climb” to 29th in TD percentage) and an inability to stop the run conspired to make the Eagles vulnerable, especially as the offense was coughing it up 38 times–the second-most turnovers in the league.

For the second straight season, the NFL’s Final Four has heavy representation by the teams that play the best defense in the league. The Niners and Ravens rank second and third, respectively, in points allowed. The Giants weren’t great in the regular season, but they have been otherworldly in the playoffs, limiting Atlanta to a measly two points last week and stifling the Packers Sunday. Meanwhile, the Patriots defied Tebow’s divine mission with a strangulating performance Saturday night, holding Denver to 252 yards of total offense in the blowout win.

What does all this mean to the Eagles? Let’s hope a lot. With Reid’s contract clock now at two years and ticking, and owner Jeffrey Lurie portraying himself as the Angriest Bird around, there had better be a commitment to putting a real defense on the field next season. Even if the Eagles can’t land Steve Spagnuolo, they must put resources and thought into reviving that side of the ball. And it can be done in one season. Houston went from an epically bad unit to allowing the second-fewest yards and fourth-fewest points in the league during 2011. San Francisco wasn’t awful in 2010 (16th in scoring, 13th in total yards), but the Niners were outstanding this season, finishing second in points allowed and fourth in yards. If the Eagles really want to do it, they can.

But do they? Reid’s decision to elevate Juan Castillo to the defensive coordinator’s position showed how little he cared about that side of the ball. Say what you want about the Eagles’ play in the final four games, but championship teams do not take flyers on rookie DCs who have never coached defense in the NFL. It showed just how much Reid thought his philosophy of outscoring everybody was the way to go. At least the Packers and Saints got to the playoffs with their run-and-gun approaches. The Eagles couldn’t even get that far. Guess that’s what happens when your offense isn’t good enough. But that’s a topic for another column. Maybe two.

For now, it’s about the defense. In 2010, the Packers surrendered the second-fewest points in the NFL. In ’11, they had the worst pass defense in NFL history. And, yes, that was New York’s Eli Manning’s strafing the Pack for 330 yards, his highest post-season total. It’s possible to win in the regular season when you don’t stop anybody, but it doesn’t often work out so well in the post-season. Not that the Eagles would know about that.

We’ll find out soon whether Andy Reid has learned anything.


  • You know you have problems in goal, when the opposing team’s fans are chanting the name of your netminder derisively. Ilya Bryzgalov wasn’t awful in Nashville, but he isn’t justifying his big contract lately, either. Even though Sergei Bobrovsky is playing better, the Flyers need to stick Bryzgalov in the net for an extended period to see if he can regain his confidence. If not, he’s done for the year, and Bob gets the job.
  • The Sixers are playing impressive basketball and are cleaning up on the NBA’s soft underbelly. But don’t heap praise on the team yet. It’s early, and the Pacers are 9-3 also. Coach Doug Collins’ team must capitalize on the advantageous schedule that has them playing 13 of their next 15 at home, because things turn rough in mid-February.
  • Here’s a memo for Temple, Saint Joseph’s and La Salle’s hoops teams: inconsistency kills. The Owls, Hawks and Explorers all have talented teams, but they are struggling to gather momentum in Atlantic 10 play. With the conference so deep this year, they can’t afford to play win-one, lose-one basketball.