There have been many attempts to put the Philadelphia Eagles' disaster of a 2012 season in perspective, but here's perhaps the best indicator of just how badly things have gone for Andy Reid's team this year: The Philadelphia Phillies last won a game after the Eagles did. No, really. The Eagles last won a game when they beat the New York Giants, 19-17, on September 30 at MetLife Stadium, and the Phillies last beat the Washington Nationals, 2-0, the next day as the regular season was closing out.
Yeah -- it's that bad. Eagles owner Jeff Lurie has said that another 8-8 season like the one the team went through in 2011 would not be acceptable, and at 3-7, Reid would have to run the table to save his job by those standards. Just about everything that could go wrong with the team has done so, and it's likely that what you'll see from the Eagles tonight is more an audition for the future than anything having to do with the present.
Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers are similarly confused as to how their season has turned so sour. Last year, they were riding high on the efforts of rookie quarterback Cam Newton, who broke several rookie records and seemed to be the face of a franchise on the upswing. In his sophomore campaign, Newton's performance has declined distinctly, and he's seen every aspect of his being analyzed to death -- from the number of read option plays he's involved in to his body language at press conferences. The Panthers are 2-8, and there's no chance at anything but an interesting finish, with possible spoiler status in the NFC South up for grabs.
It's tough to know what we'll see when these two dysfunctional NFL families lace 'em up at Philly's Lincoln Financial Field tonight, and when it comes to the Eagles' offense, you may need a program to identify the players.
When the Eagles have the ball
Start with no Michael Vick, and no LeSean McCoy. Instead, the Eagles will throw rookie Nick Foles in to make his second NFL start, because Vick is still dealing with a concussion. Little surprise that he is, because Vick has been the most hit and pressured quarterback in the 2012 season -- per Pro Football Focus, Vick has been pressured, hit, or sacked in 43 percent of his dropbacks. That's in part due to the risk factors inherent in Vick's mobile style, but it also speaks to an offensive line that is far below average.
Foles will be dealing with these factors, and he's not especially mobile. In his first start against the Washington Redskins, Foles was eclipsed by Robert Griffin III's four-touchdown performance, and that's probably a good thing -- people were less inclined to notice that Foles threw two interceptions, had a few more picks dropped, and another called back due to a penalty. He's far from a finished product, but the Eagles might be better off sticking him in there for the last six games of their season, regardless of Vick's condition -- they have to know what kind of potential he has, because there will most likely be a new head coach and at least one new major coordinator in place in 2013. Foles does have an acceptable arm, which aligns him well with Philly's speedy targets. Fellow rookie Bryce Brown, a seventh-round pick, will replace McCoy in the backfield.
When the Panthers have the ball
It's been one of the NFL's major schematic conundrums this season -- how a Panthers offense that ranked first in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics in the run game in 2011 has fallen off so totally in 2012. The Panthers rank 20th in those same metrics this season, and they have better personnel than they did last year. Not only is Newton still under center or in the shotgun, ostensibly making life a living hell for defenses trying to decipher whether he will pitch, pass, or run, but the Panthers went out and acquired former San Diego Chargers bull-back Mike Tolbert to spruce things up in the red zone. Add those two aspects to the duo of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, and this should have been a cinch. But Stewart has struggled with injuries, Williams has been more of a gimmick player in the team's new goody Wildcat packages (seriously, NFL teams -- dump this damned Wildcat thing. It's SO 2008), and Tolbert has been a missing person when he should be on the field.
For whatever reason, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski -- who did an amazing job merging Newton's Auburn playbook and specific NFL schemes in 2011 -- has decided to abandon the run-first attack that worked so well before in favor of a more pass-centric, shotgun-heavy approach that doesn't seem to fit the current personnel. Per Football Outsiders'' metrics, the Panthers lead the league in shotgun snaps at 72.1 percent. They rank 11th in yards per play with 6.3 in the gun, but here's the problem -- when Newton's under center, that drops to 3.8, which is the second-worst in the NFL. There's just no way a power-running, power-blocking personnel team should fail to play smashmouth football as much as the Panthers do, but that's the primary issue.
Of course, if Newton does want to throw the ball, he'll do it against a defense that's actually worse against the pass since Reid fired ex-defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and replaced him with former secondary coach Todd Bowles. Last Sunday, the Eagles were woefully and pathetically unsuited for the combination of backfield action and multi-tiered route concepts the Redskins threw at them, and the Panthers have at least the potential to use similar concepts. The extent to which Chudzinski lets his freak flag fly will determine Carolina's margin of victory, but I have a tough time picking the Eagles under any circumstances. They're on the wrong side of the personnel match in this game, and they simply don't have the coaching to overcome that fact.
Pick: Panthers 23, Eagles 17