COMMENTARY | On December 3rd, 2012, the Dallas Cowboys (6-6) beat the Philadelphia Eagles (3-9) 38-33 at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday Night Football, and it rained for the third straight day in Los Angeles.
I know, I'm as surprised as you are: it never rains in L.A.
Blown pass coverages, a fourth quarter collapse, a costly fumble--it was business as usual for Philly's flightless birds of 2012 as the Eagles continued their longest losing streak since dropping eleven straight in 1970. Granted, few (if any) expected Philadelphia to play as well as they did-most odds makers favored Dallas by 11, the largest spread against the Eagles all season. And even though it took Tony Romo & Co. 54:25 of game time before a TD pass to Dez Bryant gave Dallas their first lead of the game, the Eagle's eighth straight loss was ultimately as predictable an outcome as the Andy Reid post-game comments that followed: "we gotta do a better job…that's my responsibility…"
And yet despite the height of my pre-game pessimism, despite my emotional preparation for this inevitable next chapter in Eagles chagrin, Sunday night's loss to Dallas may very well have proved the most heartbreaking game of the season. Yes, it certainly hurt to hear my roommate gloat about his Cowboys' newly re-inspired playoff aspirations, just as it did to watch my Eagles tease us with illusions of victory up until the very last play. What pained me most of all, however, was to watch this Eagles team play some of the best football they've played all season--at least on offense, that is--and in doing so, realize just how good this Eagles team could very well have been.
NBC displayed a graphic a few minutes into the second quarter comparing the defense under Juan Castillo through the first six games and through the subsequent five thereafter under Todd Bowles, who replaced Juan after Juan was fired following week 6's blown game against Detroit. The statistics pretty much speak for themselves:
20.8 points allowed per game
31.4 points allowed per game
Even more frightening than this side-by-side comparison was the graphic that followed: over the last five games (i.e. those coached by Bowles), opposing QBs have thrown 13 TDs, 0 INTs, and held a passer rating of 140.0, the highest passer rating allowed through ANY five-game span in NFL history.
While I would probably agree with most critics that hiring Castillo may have been ill-advised from the start, the decision to release him six games into the season--an unprecedented decision for Reid, who has never fired a coordinator mid-season--was a far more harmful miscalculation. In fact, had their defense continued to allow only 20.8 points per game, the Eagles theoretically could have won three of these last four games based solely on their offense outperforming that average.
As historically bad as our defense has been over the last five games, it's hard to place all the blame on them when our offense has been equally atrocious all season. Averaging only 18.1 points per game, the Eagles rank 29th in the NFL behind only Jacksonville, Kansas City, and Arizona. No matter who your defensive coordinator is, it's pretty difficult for your defense to look good when your offense continuously fails to put points on the board.
It would be easy to blame our offensive struggles on injuries, namely to the offensive line. Having lost four of our five starters throughout the season, it's hardly a surprise that the Eagles have consistently failed to protect the QB. But if injuries were truly the issue, how do you explain the Eagles' performance Sunday night against the Cowboys?
With a patchwork o-line and three key Pro Bowl starters out to injury-(QB) Michael Vick, (RB) LeSean McCoy, and (WR) DeSean Jackson-the Eagles scored more points against a respectable Cowboys defense than they had against any team this season. Averaging a monstrous 6.5 yards per carry, seventh-round rookie Bryce Brown has sufficiently demonstrated why he was the top-ranked recruit coming out of high school, drawing comparisons to Barry Sanders before personal circumstances squandered his college career. Fellow Rookie Nick Foles has also filled in admirably at QB and, according to Yahoo! Sports' Brian McIntyre, will remain the starter for the rest of the 2012 season (and possibly beyond).
But is Foles really a better QB than Michael Vick? Is Brown really a better RB than LeSean McCoy? Or was the Eagles' offensive success last night the result of something broader than any one player?
What Sunday night proved more than anything is that the Eagles (namely offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg) have grossly mismanaged this team's abilities throughout the season. Brown had more carries last night than McCoy had all season save for week 2 against the Ravens, which was also one of Vick's best QB performances on the season. In fact, two of Vick's three wins (as well as his two best performances) came when the Eagles remained committed to the run against extremely potent defenses:
Week 2 (against Baltimore)
32 passing attempts, 31 rushing attempts
24 points scored
94.7 passer rating
Week 4 (against NY Giants)
30 passing attempts, 30 rushing attempts
19 points scored
99.4 passer rating
Chris Collinsworth stated at the end of Sunday night's game: "There's going to be a lot of people wanting to be on the list to be the Eagles' coach too because there is a lot of talent on this football team."
That talent didn't just arise out of nowhere Sunday night. Unlike the Chiefs, who need guys like Brady Quinn to vastly over-perform in order to squeeze out a win, the Eagles have a roster ridden with underutilized talent. Brown & McCoy may very well be one of the most dangerous RB duos for years to come, perhaps enough to win games regardless of who's playing QB. Perhaps if the Eagles had noticed that sooner, Juan Castillo would have remained the defensive coordinator through the rest of 2012, and Andy Reid would still be head coach in 2013.
Matt Meier is a Los Angeles-based Philadelphian, a freelance writer, and a life-long follower of the Philadelphia Eagles.