Bird Feed: Eagles’ strengths became weaknesses. Part One

With a 3-6 record, there are plenty of reasons the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles have fallen short of expectations. Most shocking of all, though, have been the Eagles’ struggles in areas that were thought to be their greatest strengths. Today, we focus on Michael Vick and the passing game.

Vick was supposed to compete for NFL MVP. Throughout the offseason, he was discussed in the same breath as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers. Magazine covers displayed his picture above titles like, “Most Dangerous Weapon” and “Unstoppable?” Vick’s receivers weren’t bad, either.

DeSean Jackson, widely considered one of the NFL’s most explosive players, was entering a contract year. He had every reason to give the Eagles his best season yet. On the other side was Jeremy Maclin. Maclin looked to be the purer, tougher receiver of the pair. He displayed better hands, offered a more diverse repertoire, and didn’t bring the typical receiver drama like Jackson. The Eagles even tried to upgrade the depth behind Jackson and Maclin by snatching Steve Smith from the New York Giants. Smith was supposed to work between the hash marks and bring safeties down toward the line of scrimmage. Everything was in place. A match made in heaven. Or so it seemed.

Nine games into the 2011 season, Vick isn’t anywhere near the level of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. He isn’t even the 1st or 2nd best quarterback in his own division. Aside from brief stretches here and there, and his flawless performance against the Cowboys, Vick has been killing the Eagles. He’s already surpassed his interception total from last year by five and in three less games. He’s ruined drives and lost momentum with costly red zone turnovers. He’s missed open receivers, failed to read and dissect defenses, and his passer rating is 20 points lower. He’s not solely to blame, though.

Simply put, Jackson has been afraid to play football. He rarely goes across the middle of the field, and when he does, he either alligator arms the pass or immediately hits the dirt for safety. Actually, whenever Jackson possesses the ball he looks to get out of bounds or down to the ground as painlessly as possible. Against the Bears on Monday night, Jackson took a reverse and instead of cutting it up field for at least five more yards and maybe more, he bounced it to the outside and scrambled out of bounds. This past week (before missing a meeting and getting benched), Jackson talked about the offense needing to figure out how to get him the ball deep and countering what defenses are doing to prevent his big play ability. Maybe Jackson should consider what he could change to be a bigger part of the offense. Maybe go across the middle, use his speed to challenge defenders once he has the ball instead of making it easy on them by surrendering. Maybe he should take a hit now and then and you know, play football. For someone that considers himself to be an elite NFL receiver, he plays an awful lot like Todd Pinkston.

While Maclin isn’t as fearful as Jackson, he too lacks the toughness typical of top-flight receivers. He and Jackson are constantly bullied off routes, they lose positioning in tight coverage, and when the ball is in the air, they lack the grit to win the fight for the ball. Maclin’s case of the dropsies this season raises flags. When he drops passes, he looks disinterested. It doesn’t even appear to bother him. Terrell Owens naturally had bad hands but worked to make himself a great receiver. Maclin has great hands but hasn’t shown he’s willing to work himself into a great receiver. Despite being slightly undersized, Maclin has the speed and ability. He simply needs the drive. I’d recommend Maclin visit the Steve Smith (of the Panthers) training school for “Small, but bad a** receivers.” Smith is as gritty as they come. He blocks, he goes across the middle, takes hits, dishes out hits, and is as physical as any linebacker in the league. Smith kills defenses deep with his speed and punishes them with his quickness and strength in the middle. The Eagles have fairies floating around the outside of the field hoping they don’t get hit. What they need are football players.

Jason Avant and Brent Celek are football players. Watch Celek when he catches the football. It’s all north and south. The fastest way from point A to point B is a straight line. Celek takes that line under, over, or through defenders. I understand it’s unreasonable to expect that same approach from a wide receiver, but diving to the ground all the time or dashing out of bounds at every opportunity is counter-productive. I wonder what Maclin and Jackson think when they see Avant getting lit up across the middle in order to snatch a 1st down pass out of the air. Or, how do they feel about their quarterback taking shots from opposing linebackers as he’s diving for yardage whenever the opportunity presents itself?

It’s pretty clear Maclin and Jackson have been coddled to the point where it’s slowed their development. Neither has missed the playoffs in their brief careers, so perhaps they assume it’s easy to be successful in the NFL. Regardless, the Eagles need less pink and more black and blue from their young receiving duo.

To sum up the Eagles’ offensive struggles, let’s revisit ESPN’s Monday Night Football telecast. As part of ESPN’s intro, Vick and Brian Urlacher offered why their team could win. It was a cool scene as the cameras shot back and forth between the two as they read their team’s strongest attributes.

This was Urlacher’s: “We can beat you with our strength… with our effort… will… intimidation.”
And this was Vick’s: “We can beat you with our speed… with our minds… skill… precision.”

Uh, no, Michael, no you can’t. This is football. Either bully or be bullied.

Playoff Possibility Update
What? You didn’t think I’d actually given up hope yet, did you? I’m an ignorant die-hard. If Bubby Brister were under center for the last seven games, I’d still hold out hope. It’s a sickness.

Anyway, at 3-6 the Eagles are obviously loooooooonnnggg shots. However, miracles happen. Assuming the Eagles win out and finish 10-6, they’ll still need help from the Giants and Cowboys. The Cowboys would need to lose one of these games; @Redskins, Dolphins, @Cardinals, Giants, @Buccaneers, @Giants. Not a certainty, but not impossible, either.

The Giants would then need to lose two of these games; @Saints, Packers, @Cowboys, Redskins, @Jets, Cowboys. Again, nothing is certain, but I like their chances of losing two.

As for the Eagles, running the table clearly won’t be easy. I won’t even include their schedule because it’s irrelevant. They have to win them all. Losing isn’t option. Just like it wasn’t in 2006. That’s right, I’m bringing back the Jeff Garcia mojo. At 5-6 with Donovan McNabb out for the year, the Eagles were all but done. Then Garcia rallied the troops to five straight wins and an NFC East title including that epic “Merry Christmas Philadelphia” win over the Cowboys on Christmas Day. (I almost cried. It remains one of my favorite Christmas presents ever.)

The point is; it’s not over. Not yet at least. With all the pressure and national attention now off the Eagles, they have nothing to play for but pride. Andy Reid has worked similar magic before. While this would be his greatest act yet, he has the necessary props to pull it off. And knowing Reid and the Eagles, there’s no doubt in my mind they win in New York on Sunday night. Not because they’ve turned a corner, or because they’re that good, or because they’re angry. No. They’ll win simply because that’s what happens in Philadelphia. Whatever our sports teams can do to drive us insane, they do. Winning in New York would absolutely drive people batty. That’s why it’s already a done deal. And that’s why Billy Joel and I are keeping the faith.

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