Here are five thoughts on the state of the 1-4 Eagles as they prepare for a Week 6 matchup with the Redskins:
1. The difference between the 2011 Eagles offense and the 2010 version is pretty simple: turnovers. The Eagles had 25 turnovers last season and already have a league-leading 15 through five games. By my count the giveaways have been due to a variety of things: mistakes in execution, poor decision-making, a lack of ball security, good plays by the defense and luck. I know you don't want to hear that last one, but of course luck plays a part. Based on post-game interviews I saw Sunday, players took full responsibility for the turnovers, as they should.
There are certain things coaches control, and certain things players are on the hook for. Consider this: The Eagles are on pace for 48 turnovers. In the previous five seasons, they averaged 24.8. Not once did they rank in the top-10 in most giveaways, and the Eagles never had more than 27 turnovers in a single season. Did the coaches suddenly stop emphasizing the importance of ball security? Of course not. There's a lot to blame the coaches for, but the players need to do a better job of taking care of the football.
2. What else needs fixing on the offense? I think this team needs to shift its identity a little bit. We know this is never going to be a run-first team, and I'm one of the few who is generally fine with that. But let's look at the bigger picture. What's plaguing the Eagles? Turnovers and a bad defense.
I'm not sure the Eagles realize how well their running game is clicking with LeSean McCoy. The numbers are off the charts. He ranks first in the league among backs with at least 30 attempts, averaging 5.75 yards per carry. No one has more runs of 10+ yards than McCoy (17), and with that, he leads the NFL with 28 rushing first downs. Right now, the offensive line is struggling in pass protection, and the Eagles have turned the ball over 14 times in the last four games. So wouldn't it make sense to really test McCoy's workload a little bit? Wouldn't that limit the opportunities opposing offenses have to gash this defense that's filled with holes? Like I said, I'm generally on Ron Jaworksi's side of passing the football to score points in the NATIONAL...FOOTBALL...LEAGUE, but I think the Eagles have to make the most of their strengths and minimize their weaknesses right now. That means more touches for McCoy, who's only had 20 carries in the past two games combined.
3. Fixing the defense? That's a whole other issue. ESPN's Chris Mortensen reports that the Eagles are considering bringing in a consultant to help Juan Castillo. I think that'd be a good idea. Check out some of these quotes from Bills players in The Buffalo News:
Ryan Fitzpatrick: "We were going to let the guys up front who we thought were bigger, stronger, take control of the game. They did a good job."
Stevie Johnson: "I mean, who didn't know that we were going to run the ball? They've been exposed in the run game the entire season, so we'd be foolish to come out there and not try to run all over that group."
Fitzpatrick on the 49-yard screen pass: "We got [the defense] we thought we'd get. Freddy's been a great receiver out of the backfield all year and if you can give him some space, he's a tough guy to tackle."
I wasn't in Buffalo, but it sure sounds like the Bills knew EXACTLY how to attack the Eagles' defense. The word "predictable" comes to mind. I wrote before the game that the Bills ran several successful screens on third down the previous week against the Bengals. So why where the Eagles caught off-guard by the 49-yard screen in the first half?
The first five weeks have felt very much like an experiment on defense. Linebackers and safeties shuffling in and out. Failed attempts to find the right way to use the three talented cornerbacks. And pretty much nothing has worked. Castillo has to take the blame there. Some help would be a good thing.
4. Having said that, there are parts of this defense that are simply set up to fail, given the personnel. Everything the Eagles did in the offseason was based on the wide-9. They hired Jim Washburn. They signed Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins and Nnamdi Asomugha. They traded for Dominique Rogers-Cromartie.
But they went into the season with an unproven rookie at middle linebacker, a position that takes on added importance in this system. Remember, the wide-9 can be effective against the run with the right personnel. Opponents averaged just 3.9 yards per carry against the Titans in 2010; 3.7 yards per carry in 2008. But last year, Tennessee had linebackers like Stephen Tulloch and safeties making plays against the run.
Castillo was given Casey Matthews and Jarrad Page. How many times on Sunday did Page or another player have a chance to drop Jackson for a loss only to miss a tackle (there were 13 misses overall)? That's not on Castillo. He put the player he was handed in a position to make a play, but the player was not good enough. And that is the fault of Andy Reid and Howie Roseman.
By the way, I know many watched the Lions, who also run the wide-9, beat the Bears on Monday night. But it's worth noting that Detroit is allowing 4.8 yards per carry, only slightly better than the Eagles (5.0 YPC). And the Lions have given up five runs of 20+ yards (one fewer than the Eagles, who have given up six). Detroit's pass defense, however, has been much better.
5. From a personnel standpoint, I'm not sure there's much the Eagles can do at this point. If Rodgers-Cromartie is going to continue to look disinterested, it's time to put Joselio Hanson in for nickel situations. And Kurt Coleman probably should replace Page as well. Coleman's not a perfect fit by any means, but is probably the better option at this point.
I know everyone wants the coaches to make an example out of someone, like Juqua Parker, by just cutting him, but I'm not sure that accomplishes anything. This is the NFL - not college, high school or even Pee Wee football. These are grown men. And most of them have each others' backs. The one thing Reid has going for him is players are still on his side. I haven't seen any of them take jabs at him or question his decisions. His relationship with players has really been Reid's biggest strength during his tenure here. Cutting someone, especially someone who is viewed favorably in the locker room, jeopardizes that. And it also points the finger at someone besides the head coach. That's not Reid's style.
EXTRA POINT: Is the season completely over? It depends on how you look at it. A month ago, the Super Bowl seemed like a reasonable expectation. Now, even the most optimistic observer would say the ceiling is a playoff berth and an early exit. And that's if pretty much everything goes right.
What the Eagles have going for them is that the NFC East is not good. The Giants just lost to the Seahawks and are 3-2. The Cowboys are 2-2. And the Redskins sit atop the division at 3-1. The Eagles have only played one division game. They still get the Redskins twice, the Cowboys twice and the Giants once. If they win this week, they will be 1.5 games behind Washington and either 1 or 2 games behind the Giants, depending on what they do against the Bills.
That's the good news.
The bad news? The team has made too many mistakes, and opponents have exposed too many holes for an objective observer to think the Eagles have a big run left in them.
If you missed it earlier, I posted Man Up on the offense, focusing on Danny Watkins and Jason Kelce.