On The Edge Blog

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Will Eagles' offense look different next year?

It has been more than a week since the Eagles’ season ended with back-to-back losses at the hands of the hated Dallas Cowboys, and while it was tough to even watch football last weekend, it did make me feel good to see the Cowboys get crushed.

After Dallas lost to Minnesota, I realized that the Eagles are not as far away from being an elite team as I had thought after losing by a combined 58-14 to the Cowboys. I think Dallas, and its 3-4 defense, along with its rare combination of having Pro Bowlers at tight end and wide receiver, gave the Eagles fits, but there is no way the Birds are 50 points worse than the Vikings.

But, just because the Eagles aren’t as bad as I thought, it doesn’t mean they don’t need to make some roster adjustments in the next three months.

This week, I will look at the moves needed to make the Eagles’ offense, which put up a franchise-record 429 points in 2009, a unit that cannot be stopped by simply blitzing and then bracketing the wide receivers after playing press coverage.

Here are my predictions and thoughts on the Eagles’ offense by position:

Quarterback: This is obviously the most contentious part of the roster, but it is pretty simple actually. Both Donovan McNabb, who will be in the Pro Bowl because either Brett Favre or Drew Brees will be playing in Super Bowl, and Kevin Kolb each have one year remaining on their contracts. Because of the franchise tag, the Eagles should not be in a rush to extend either player, and simply let McNabb prove he deserves an extension, or hand the keys over to Kolb if McNabb gets injured or shows that the offense isn’t working with him at the helm.

Regardless of what people say about McNabb, the Eagles did score the most points in franchise history, so he couldn’t have been that bad!

Regarding Michael Vick, the roster bonus he is set to receive in March should not force the Birds to trade him before they get what they are hoping for, and I would expect to see either the Raiders or Rams give the Eagles a second round pick for taking the one-year public relations hit attached to signing Vick during the preseason.

Running Back: Despite a case of fumblitis in the first round of the playoffs, Leonard Weaver was the best offseason pickup for the Birds, and deservedly made the Pro Bowl this year. More importantly, his 85 touches showed the Eagles that a big back can really move the chains. With Brian Westbrook looking into retirement (and probably wouldn’t be back anyway at a cost of more than $7 million), the Eagles will have an opening in the backfield.

While very explosive, LeSean McCoy is not a running back who can handle 20 carries per game, but then again, only three running backs in the NFL topped 20 carries per game (320 carries) this season, and only 12 running backs even topped 240 carries (15 per game).

That means the Eagles, who finally saw the benefits of having a powerful running back, will use Westbrook’s roster spot to sign or draft their first 230-pounder since Duce Staley for the tailback position.

We all saw how effective Weaver was this season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, which was better than McCoy or Westbrook, but all of those yards occurred without a fullback in front of him because he was the fullback. Now imagine what would happen if the Eagles drafted a certain Heisman candidate from Stanford, and then put him behind Weaver. The Eagles would finally have a true running game.

I don’t actually know where the Eagles are going to get this power back because of the uncertainty regarding an uncapped season in 2010, which would cause numerous players to become restricted free agents, instead of unrestricted, but I would bet they get one to run behind Weaver.

Wide Receiver: I like the Eagles’ group of receivers, and so does the front office. The only change that I could see being made is replacing the oft-injured Kevin Curtis with a bigger target.

I can’t remember the last time the Eagles had four pass catchers – DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant – who could top 100 yards in any game. That group combined for 10 100-yard games in 2009 and will only get better, as Avant is the old man of the group at just 26 years old.

Offensive Line: The offensive line was simply offensive this season. Last year, McNabb was sacked 23 times in 16 games, while this year, the “revamped” line allowed 38 sacks and was clearly a feast-or-famine unit.

It seemed like the line either played like garbage (see: Oakland, Dallas) or gave McNabb all the time in the world to throw a touchdown pass (see: New York, Atlanta, Tampa Bay).

In the offseason, the Eagles threw big-money deals at Stacy Andrews and Jason Peters, but neither player worked out. Both Andrews brothers saw about as much time as I did on the offensive line this year, and while Peters helped the ground game, he whiffed on defensive ends far too often to justify his mind-boggling Pro Bowl selection this season.

I don’t think the Eagles are going to cut either Andrews brother or Peters, but it was simply irresponsible to think that Stacy could be effective just nine months after tearing two ligaments in his knee. However, with another year of rehab and practice, Stacy could once again become the physical run blocker the Eagles hoped they were getting last February.

Now to the other Andrews. I can’t imagine the Eagles would cut Shawn after holding onto him all season, but they won’t count on him being one of the 10 linemen they plan to keep heading into the 2010 season. If he is healthy and wants to play, he could be an All-Pro tackle or guard on the right side, but anything they get out of him should be considered a bonus at this point.

It is obvious that improvements need to be made to the Eagles offensive line, but I would not expect the front office to make any moves except to bring in a few big bodies for depth purposes. My guess is that the front office hopes the rash of injuries that plagued the line will not occur in 2010, allowing the talented unit to develop some real chemistry.

Predictions for Sunday’s conference championship games: New Orleans erases years of “Aints” memories with a 37-24 win over the Vikings, while Peyton Manning continues to make his case for being called the greatest quarterback in NFL history as the Colts end the Jets’ Cinderella run with a 24-13 victory.

Like the “On the Edge” column? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show. This week we will break down the NFL’s conference title games, and further our discussion on what the Eagles need to do this spring to improve their roster.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Loss shows Westbrook is gone, McDermott should be


That was the sound of the Eagles’ season crashing to halt at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys.

It was also the sound of Brian Westbrook’s time in Philadelphia coming to an abrupt end.

However, it apparently is not the sound of Donovan McNabb’s time in Philadelphia coming to an end.

While Andy Reid said that McNabb would be back as the starting quarterback of the Eagles, Westbrook received just one touch against the Cowboys on Saturday night, despite Leonard Weaver putting the ball on the ground twice in the second quarter. That should be a clear sign that Westbrook is not going to be back next year.

While Westbrook wasn’t able to make a difference in his final game for the Birds, Sean McDermott made the case that this should be his first and last playoff game as a defensive coordinator.

For the second week in a row, McDermott’s defense disappeared when they were needed most.

Last week, the Eagles rushed four linemen, yet played a completely passive pass defense. This week was a little different, as they blitzed far more often, yet at no point did McDermott realize that the Cowboys might make a few adjustments to slow down the amped-up pass rush.

How many times did the Cowboys run a simple screen pass or a draw play to pick up big yardage as the Eagles blitzed six or seven rushers? More importantly, why didn’t the Eagles think to do that as the Cowboys’ defenders surrounded McNabb on nearly every key play of the game?

I can’t believe I am writing this, but Wade Phillips out-coached Andy Reid, Sean McDermott and Marty Mornhinweg two weeks in a row. The Eagles did not have an answer for the Cowboys’ pass rush, ground game, or aerial attack, so the more complete team will be playing in the second round of the playoffs this weekend.

In the next few weeks, I will outline what steps I believe the Eagles need to take this offseason to improve this young roster, and make it the type of team that could beat any team in the NFL, not just the ones that were .500 or worse this year.

By the way, I am not sure if anyone noticed, but in a crazy coincidence, hockey season began in Philadelphia on the very same day that the Eagles’ season ended. The Flyers even won their “season opener,” 4-1, with the shockingly solid Michael Leighton between the pipes.

Quick thoughts and observations:

* Why can’t the Eagles run the ball? I doubt that the Birds will ever be a team that focuses on the run, but they have to at least make it easier for the passing game. After watching the first round of the playoffs, it is pretty clear that a team needs to be able to run the football to succeed, as the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens and Cowboys all had rushers top 130 yards. Arizona was the only team to win last weekend without a running back reaching triple digits on the ground, but Beanie Wells came close, rushing for 93 yards on 14 carries.

However, in the last two weeks against the Cowboys, the Eagles’ running backs have combined for less than 70 yards total! That is simply unacceptable regardless of how talented DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are at wide receiver.

* What happened to Sheldon Brown this season? We all know that he picked off five passes, which is a new career high, but he played like a Pop Warner kid the last few weeks of the season. Not only did he get repeatedly burned for touchdown passes since the game against Denver three weeks ago, the Cowboys must have seen something in their film sessions that showed them a weakness in his ability, because Miles Austin and Patrick Crayton had absolutely no problem making him look old and slow in the last two games.

In addition to being one of the main reasons the Eagles’ season ended, Brown practically handed Andy Reid and Joe Banner videotape evidence that he doesn’t deserve a new big-money deal this offseason, which he has craved for nearly a year. In the same three-week span, he also showed the NFL that switching to safety – the same career path that Troy Vincent took – was not an option, as Miles Austin blew right by Brown when he lined up at safety to help Asante Samuel contain Tony Romo’s new favorite wide receiver.

* How awesome was Arizona’s 51-45 overtime victory over Green Bay? That game could go down as the most exciting playoff game in history. Aaron Rodgers and Kurt Warner combined for 801 passing yards and 10 total touchdowns, but it took a defensive touchdown to decide the game, and catapult it passed the Eagles’ 58-37 victory over the Lions in 1995 for the most combined points in playoff history.

Predictions: Saints, Vikings, Ravens and Chargers advance.

Like the “On the Edge” column? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show. This week we will discuss why the Eagles couldn’t solve the Cowboys this season, and take an early look at where the Eagles need to improve this spring.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cowboys dominate Eagles as Westbrook hinders offense

So much for being the hottest team in the NFL.

With an uninspired 24-0 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the Eagles squandered their chances at getting a week off and a guaranteed home playoff game. Instead, the Birds will head back to Dallas to face the NFL’s current hottest team in the first round of the playoffs.

So why did the Eagles go from a team riding a six-game winning streak to a team that couldn’t score a single point in a game that had serious playoff implications?

I am probably going to have a lot of people disagreeing with me, but the problem is Brian Westbrook.

I completely respect the fact that coming into this season, Westbrook was basically the only weapon the Eagles had on offense since Terrell Owens talked his way out of town, however, he is now preventing the Eagles from playing like the team that set the franchise record for points in a season.

In the seven games that Westbrook missed with a concussion, Leonard Weaver and LeSean McCoy combined to average just more than 20 carries per game, however against the Cowboys, each player received one carry.

Not using Weaver and McCoy would be fine if Westbrook had been playing well, but he ran the ball just five times for 17 yards, which means that the Eagles got almost no production from their backfield.

It would be easy to look at those numbers and say that Andy Reid reverted back to his stubborn, pass-happy ways, but I believe the problem is more complex than that.

Any year before 2009 (now 2010), Westbrook was a dangerous weapon, but despite being declared healthy, he is not as elusive out of the backfield as he was in previous seasons. Combine that with the idea that maybe Reid doesn’t trust Westbrook to run the ball without getting re-injured, and suddenly, a once explosive running back is actually the third best player at his position on the Birds’ roster.

The reason that the Eagles’ offense thrived when Westbrook was on the sidelines was that teams had to worry about the run and the pass, regardless of which running back was behind Donovan McNabb. This means the defense could never line up to defend just the pass or just the run, allowing the wide receivers more room to get open, while giving both Weaver and McCoy more lanes to run through.

With Westbrook in the game, the Eagles pass far more often to minimize his exposure to punishing hits, allowing defenses to drop extra men into coverage, which then limits DeSean Jackson’s ability to roam free.

If Westbrook isn’t as elusive as McCoy, and certainly can’t break tackles like Weaver, then why leave him in the game and make the offense one-dimensional?

I know that it is almost blasphemous to say that Westbrook makes the Eagles’ offense worse, but when was the last time you got excited to see the ball in 36’s hands?

Quick thoughts and observations:

* I don’t understand why Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott decided to rush just four defensive linemen for most of the first half, but if that was the game plan, why did the Eagles’ cornerbacks play so far off of the Cowboys’ receivers?

If McDermott didn’t want to send extra players after Tony Romo, then he could have at least played bump-and-run on the outside to give the linemen a few more seconds to get to the quarterback. I think that is a lousy game plan to begin with, but it was made worse by playing a completely passive pass defense.

It is quite obvious that Romo, or any quarterback in the NFL, can pick apart a defense if he is given plenty of time, but don’t give the wide receivers seven yards before encountering a defensive player.

* Why was Jeremy Maclin returning kickoffs for the Eagles? He has had an excellent rookie season, hauling in 55 passes for 762 yards, but at less than 18 yards per return, the Eagles simply must use someone else back there.

Only twice during the shutout loss did the Eagles start with better field position than their own 20 yard line, which wasn’t entirely Maclin’s fault, but I think he has been far too timid on pass routes and on his returns to be even considered as a viable option.

If Quintin Demps is hurt, and Macho Harris is too careless with the ball, then give Eldra Buckley a shot back there, because field position is a vital piece of the puzzle during the playoffs.

* Anyone else think that Michael Vick is going to get 15 to 20 snaps this weekend? Reid spent the entire offseason working on “Wildcat” plays, yet we have only seen about three or four different plays with Vick on the field. I could be way off, but if there were any time to unleash (sorry for the terrible pun) Vick’s speed and natural ability, it would be against a team that just shut down every normal play in the playbook six days earlier.

Predictions: Eagles fix what went wrong in week 17 while Wade Phillips stands dumbfounded wondering why last week’s game plan doesn’t work for the second time in less than a week. Eagles win 23-17.

Green Bay, Cincinnati and Baltimore also advance to the second round of the playoffs.

Like the “On the Edge” column? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show. This week we will focus on what the Eagles need to do to win their playoff battle with the Dallas Cowboys.
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Name: Matthew Fleishman, Yardley News Editor
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