NFL Fact or Fiction: The Philadelphia Eagles Will Finish in the NFC East Cellar
Before the season, most NFL experts picked the Philadelphia Eagles to emerge as champions in the NFC East, citing offseason acquisitions like Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Jason Babin as enough to help the Eagles repeat as winners in an extremely competitive division.
Six games into the 2011 NFL season, the Eagles are just 2-4 with a sea of questions about the team. Even following today’s 20-13 win over the first-place Washington Redskins, the Eagles are still mired in last place in the division.
Are the Eagles destined to finish in last place in the NFC East this year? Here are six key factors for the Eagles to finish out of the NFC East’s cellar in 2011.
Michael Vick’s Production
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Last season, the Eagles’ quarterback was the feel-good story of the league, resurrecting his career with a phenomenal season that earned him MVP consideration. Vick set career highs in passing yards (3,018), touchdowns through the air (21) and on the ground (nine) and passer rating (100.6), earning himself a six-year, $100 million contract that should keep him in an Eagles uniform through the 2016 season.
This year, Vick has been erratic, unfocused, mistake-prone and injury-prone, causing fans to wonder if the nine-figure contract extension was a mistake. Vick played well enough to win today, although his stats (237 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 79.7 rating) were merely average. For the season, he has thrown nine touchdowns to eight interceptions, numbers that put him on pace to throw over 20 interceptions.
When Vick is on, there is no one player in the league that can stop him. There’s not even a defense of 11 players that can stop him. Against the Buffalo Bills, Vick was sloppy for three quarters, then suddenly went out and completed 11 of 12 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter to lead the Eagles from down 21 to within one score (he did throw an interception on the final drive, but if you watched the video, that was Jason Avant who couldn’t hold onto the ball).
Remember last year’s comeback against the New York Giants? DeSean Jackson may have taken the punt to the house to win the game, but it was Vick who engineered three long touchdown drives to pull the Eagles back into the contest from down 21 points. With Vick under center, the Eagles are never out of any game.
Then again, sometimes Vick beats himself. He makes poor decisions, throws a multitude of interceptions and tries to make plays happen when the right thing might be to go with a more conservative approach. As good as he can be, he isn't consistent, and how he plays the rest of the year will greatly impact how the Eagles finish.
Michael Vick’s Health
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As dangerous as Vick is as a player, that puts him at extreme risk for injury, and this has never been so evident as this year. In six games, Vick has already had four injury "scares."
Against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2, he left after getting spun into lineman Todd Herremans and suffering a concussion. The following week against the Giants, he left with what was thought to be a broken right hand, but turned out to be just a right hand contusion. The following week against the San Francisco 49ers, Vick dislocated a finger on his non-throwing hand.
And in Sunday’s contest against the Redskins, Vick had to leave the game for two plays, although it turned out to be simply “dirt in his face,” according to FOX commentators.
No other quarterback in the game—maybe the history of the league—puts himself at such a repeated injury risk as Vick, due almost entirely to his small stature and the extremely physical nature in which he plays. Vick is a running quarterback who takes off anywhere up to a dozen times per game, and while this is part of the reason he is so difficult to defend, it also exposes him and makes him extremely injury-prone.
The Eagles signed Vince Young in the offseason to be Vick’s backup, hoping that a running quarterback like Young would be able to pretty much pick up the same offense as Vick if needed. Young looked awful in training camp, however, and missed the beginning of the season with an injury. In today’s game, he saw his first action since last year and promptly threw a costly interception on his first pass as a member of the Eagles.
Mike Kafka has proven to be a more than capable third string quarterback, but the Eagles certainly don’t want to have to rely on the second-year, unproven player to win football games. That’s why Vick is getting the nine-figure salary.
The Offensive Line
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Today’s game featured just one offensive lineman where he was expected to play, and that was Winston Justice seeing his first action of the season at right tackle, and only because both Jason Peters and King Dunlap were unable to go, and Todd Herremans had to shift to left tackle.
Peters is an All-Pro at left tackle when he is healthy, and Herremans has been the unsung hero of the team, as he is capable of playing both guard and tackle positions. Waiver wire acquisition Evan Mathis has done a superb job at left guard, actually rating as the second-best left guard in the game so far (according to Pro Football Focus), although it may be unreasonable to expect that production to continue.
Jason Kelce and the combination of Kyle DeVan/Danny Watkins has struggled immensely at center and right guard, and without solid blocking, Vick is even more exposed than ever. The offensive line may be enough against weaker pass-rushing teams, but against a unit like the Detroit Lions with a wrecking crew on the front four, the Eagles would likely be in big trouble.
How the line plays for the rest of the year will have a significant impact on the Eagles’ standing come January. If the line continues to struggle, particularly the interior spots, Vick is more prone to injury and the running game won’t perform as well. If the line steps up and blocks better, though, the Eagles have the talent to embark on a winning streak and still challenge for the NFC East title.
The Linebackers and Safeties
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This unit has been as bad as any unit for any team in the NFL this year. Casey Matthews was benched early on, and Moise Fokou and Jamar Chaney haven’t brought much production to the defense. The Eagles play a wide-nine on defense, meaning the defensive ends line up far outside, exposing the middle of the field. This is a system that works well with great linebackers, run stuffing monsters like Patrick Willis and Ray Lewis, who just rack up tackles.
It doesn’t work with linebackers like Matthews, who is slow to the ball and inefficient in his tackle attempts. It also doesn’t work with safeties like Jarrad Page, who played so poorly at strong safety he was finally benched prior to today’s contest. It doesn’t work when the linebackers have no sacks, no forced fumbles, no fumble recoveries and just one interception as a unit.
The Eagles don’t need Pro Bowl production from their linebackers. They just need sound, fundamental production from guys who should be able to make the tackles, especially considering the defensive line ahead of them is a stout unit of Pro Bowlers.
The Pass Defense
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Much like the pitching rotation of their counterpart 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, the Eagles pass defense was supposed to be one of the all-time strengths. The defensive backfield included four-time Pro Bowler Asante Samuel to begin and added shutdown corner Nnamdi Asomugha and former Pro Bowler Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, still just 25 years old.
The Big Three cornerbacks have combined for just two interceptions and the passing defense entered Sunday’s contest having given up 10 touchdown passes (dead-last in the league) against just two picks.
Kurt Coleman broke out at strong safety with a phenomenal three-interception day, the first by an Eagles player since 1966, and Nate Allen added one from the free safety position. Getting four interceptions was what this defense is capable of, although it still wasn’t any by the high-profile cornerbacks.
If the cornerbacks step up and play lights out like they should, the Eagles will be nearly impossible to throw against. If Asomugha continues to struggle, though, and the Eagles don’t put DRC on the field much, the pass defense will actually be a weakness of the team.
The Upcoming Schedule
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The schedule isn’t too tough and it isn’t too easy. It’s a bunch of teams that should give the Eagles a fight, but games the Eagles should ultimately win. Then again, the Eagles should be significantly better than their 2-4 mark so far this season, and they aren’t.
Following next week’s bye week, Philly hosts the division rival Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football, the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football and the Kevin Kolb-led Arizona Cardinals. That stretch is against NFC opponents, the first two of which are right in the mix for playoff spots. That three-game stretch will give fans a pretty clear picture whether the Eagles are looking to finish in first place in the NFC East or the cellar.
The Second-Half Surge
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Andy Reid’s teams have a history of second half surges to save their season, and this year’s team could be exactly the same way.
The 2003 Eagles began the year 2-3 but won nine straight to coast to a 12-4 finish. The ’06 Eagles—sparked by backup quarterback Jeff Garcia—won five straight after a 5-6 start to capture the NFC East title.
The ’08 Eagles. left for dead after the infamous tie to the Cincinnati Bengals and the Donovan McNabb benching a week later, rattled off four wins in five games to sneak into the playoffs, going all the way to the conference championship game.
This year’s September schedule includes contests with the Seattle Seahawks and Miami Dolphins in succession, games the Eagles should win easily to give them momentum heading into dogfights (pardon the pun) with the New York Jets and Cowboys again.
A rematch with the Redskins in Week 17 closes the season. The Eagles should win at least four of those five games, although by that point, anything could happen. Vick could be sidelined with a serious injury, Young could be struggling immensely at quarterback and the Eagles may have all but given up on Reid as head coach.
The Other NFC East Teams
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The NFC East is as wide open as any division in football. Currently, the Giants lead at 4-2, followed by the Redskins at 3-2 and Cowboys at 2-3, with the Eagles in last place at 2-4.
All four of those teams have the capability to still win the division. All four could still miss the playoffs. The Redskins were overachieving at 3-1 (I think most people know they aren’t that good of a team), but they were getting solid coaching from a two-time Super Bowl champion in Mike Shanahan.
With their quarterback switch now, one has to expect a drop-off from them. Then again, Shanahan did love Beck enough over the offseason to say that Beck is his man, even though it had been nearly four years since he took an NFL snap.
The Giants are 4-2 and look like a typical Giants team, one capable of playing tough, physical football with the best teams (knocking off the 4-1 Buffalo Bills today), but also one capable of losing must-win games against substantially weaker opponents like the Seahawks last week. Factor in that the Giants have suffered second-half collapses repeatedly under Coughlin, and their first-place standing in the division right now in no way means they are the frontrunner.
The Cowboys are 2-3, but with Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten on offense, this team can put up 40 points against the best of them. Today’s loss to the New England Patriots was to be expected, and the Cowboys are playing for a new head coach who has managed to inject some fire in the team that Wade Phillips couldn’t do.
The NFC East likely won’t feature a wild card team. Eleven wins will definitely win this division, 10 will probably win it and nine is a real possibility.
Best Case Scenario for the Eagles
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The Eagles take the momentum from today’s game and knock off a Cowboys team for which they have two weeks to prepare (Andy Reid is undefeated following a bye week). They roll over the Bears and Cardinals, knock off the Giants in a rematch and lose to the Patriots (of course) to put the Eagles at 6-5 heading into December.
Games against the Seahawks and Dolphins are easy wins, and the Eagles split with the Jets and Cowboys before knocking off the Redskins to finish 10-6. Meanwhile, the Giants suffer their annual collapse under Coughlin, who is finally fired after the season, the Redskins just aren’t good enough with Beck at quarterback, and the Cowboys suffer agonizing late-season losses to a slew of good teams in succession (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Eagles and Giants) to miss the playoffs.
Worst Case Scenario for the Eagles
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The Eagles prove that today’s win over the Redskins was merely an aberration, as they drop an embarrassing contest to the Cowboys, falling to 2-5 on the season. Vick suffers another injury, this time a serious one, as he fractures his left leg, and is done for the season.
Under VY, the Eagles look much like the team under Mike McMahon down the stretch in ’05, playing careless, sloppy football. The offensive line caves in, Juan Castillo is unable to do anything with the defense as a whole and to make matters worse, Jason Garrett has Romo looking like an MVP candidate over in Dallas.
The Eagles suffer a 20-0 shutout to the Redskins in Week 17, finishing 5-11 and in dead-last in the NFC East, concluding the most frustrating season in the history of Philadelphia sports.
A More Realistic Approach
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The Eagles will likely play much better in the second half than they did in the first half. Then again, they can’t do much worse than 1-4.
Trent Cole and Jason Peters will be back soon from their injuries. The bye week will give everyone an extra week to recover and refocus. As the season goes on, the players should feel more comfortable playing with each other and with the new defensive schemes from first-year coordinator Juan Castillo.
I think this team is too talented to finish in last place. Frankly, I don’t think they have any excuses to finish in third or even second place, either. A division title should be almost automatic given the talent the Eagles have and the questions surrounding the other teams in the division.
Will another NFC East crown actually happen? That’s asking a lot after the way the Eagles started. The Eagles will probably finish with around nine wins; that’s a toss-up in regards to a playoff spot. As far as last place in the division though? No way.