A year after comeback classic, nothing has gone right for Eagles
It's somehow fitting, in that come-full-circle kind of way, that it's once again Giants week in Philadelphia. Because perhaps only the Eagles' annual trip to New York offers the ideal vantage point and perspective needed to stand back and survey just how much has been lost in such a short span of time in Philadelphia.
When the last-place Eagles (3-6) continue their epic disaster of a season by taking the field against the first-place Giants (6-3) Sunday night at MetLife Stadium, it will be almost exactly 11 months since their memorable encounter there in mid-December of last year.
Who could forget that Week 15 instant classic? Philadelphia's furious 28-point comeback in the final 7:28 of the fourth quarter was one long remarkable series of events, led by the almost unprecedented heroics of quarterback Michael Vick and capped by DeSean Jackson's stunning 65-yard walk-off punt return touchdown. That 38-31 Eagles victory -- the Miracle at the New Meadowlands it was dubbed -- not only essentially gave the NFC East title to Philadelphia and kept the shellshocked Giants out of the playoffs last year, it seemed to herald the arrival of a new era of Eagles dominance in the division.
With the unmatched playmaking skills of stars like Vick, Jackson, fellow receiver Jeremy Maclin and running back LeSean McCoy, how could the Giants, Cowboys or Redskins possibly hope to compete in the NFC East? The Eagles were loaded, and as their improbable comeback in New York seemed to prove, anything was possible and no deficit was insurmountable.
But as it turns out, that exhilarating day against New York was as good as it got for the Eagles. It was their high water mark just before a painful and almost unfathomable descent. Since that Giants game, Philadelphia has endured a swift and breathtaking reversal of fortunes, with a series of new lows reached this season, a year which now represents a new standard in terms of Eagles' underachievement. To wit:
• Combined with Philadelphia's 0-3 season-ending slump of last year, which started with that ill-fated and winter storm-delayed home loss to the Vikings in Week 16, the Eagles are just 3-9 since beating the Giants in dramatic fashion that December day. That's the worst mark in the NFC East over that span, with even Washington posting four victories since Week 16 of 2010.
• The Eagles have almost completely lost their ability to win at home, dropping seven of their past eight games at Lincoln Financial Field, where they were once so dominant. Their three-game season-closing losing streak of last year took place entirely at home, including a first-round playoff loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay. But this year, the bottom has dropped out. Philadelphia is just 1-4 at home, and its 21-17 loss to lowly Arizona on Sunday made the Eagles the first team in NFL to blow four fourth-quarter leads at home in a single season.
• Philadelphia's high-profile failures this season have played out amid the backdrop of the team's unprecedented acquisition spree in the summer. But for all the talent on hand, the Eagles have instead become masters of nothing but crisis management. From Juan Castillo's struggles as a first-time defensive coordinator, to Vick's multifaceted health issues, to cornerback Asante Samuel's hurt feelings regarding trade rumors, to Jackson's petulant and unprofessional approach to his contract demands, the Eagles have careened from one firestorm to the next.
It has all been enough to come to the easy conclusion that Andy Reid's 13th and perhaps final season of coaching in Philadelphia has been his unluckiest and most unrewarding one of all. Reid's Eagles teams averaged 10.7 wins per season and made nine playoff trips in his first 12 years on the job, but this year's embarrassment stands alone as an example of how far and how fast a franchise can sink.
Though there are still weeks and weeks for the full post-mortems of the 2011 Eagles to be conducted, several big-picture takeaways already seem apparent. For starters, this year's Philadelphia story again underlines the danger of over-relying on free agency or veteran acquisitions in the attempt to build a championship roster. The Eagles this summer signed big-name (and in most cases big-dollar) free agents like cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, defensive linemen Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins, running back Ronnie Brown and offensive tackle Ryan Harris, and traded backup quarterback Kevin Kolb to Arizona in exchange for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round draft pick. Backup quarterback Vince Young, he of the "Dream Team'' mis-labeling, also came aboard.
It was all pretty heady stuff, and Philadelphia dominated NFL headlines for weeks, clearly opting for an "all-in'' pursuit of that elusive Super Bowl title that Reid and Co. have unsuccessfully chased for so long. But when critics made the comparison between the spending spree the Eagles went on and the ones that never delivered championships to Washington in free agency, as I did at least once or twice, the proponents of Philadelphia's many moves said the key distinction was that the Eagles had proven decision-makers in place who knew what they were doing in regards to personnel, had a track record of success to build around, and had actually spent fairly wisely in accumulating all their many new toys.
That all sounded good, but it hasn't worked out too well, has it? The Eagles have been a failed chemistry experiment this season, and the added glitz factor on their roster hasn't improved their record whatsoever. Philadelphia has looked like a team struggling to mesh its talent all season long, and all those blown fourth-quarter leads (five overall, including the Week 2 meltdown at Atlanta) have exposed a team that plays with none of the toughness, discipline or resilience that most of Reid's clubs have displayed.
The Eagles in the Reid era have traditionally believed in building their roster from the lines out, on offense and defense, and with some exceptions like the failed Terrell Owens trade in 2004 or the Samuel signing in 2008, Philadelphia has eschewed headline-grabbing deals. But this year, perhaps motivated by the sense that their window of Super Bowl opportunity was closing, Reid and the Eagles went out of character and anted up big time.
The results so far have been disastrous and inexcusable. For all the glitzy resumes and reputations that Philadelphia added this year, with the big talk, big contracts and wall-to-wall hype, the Eagles have richly deserved their last-place standing. They do what losing teams have always done, finding new and creative ways to fail.
Though Reid continues to defend Castillo's work, the controversial and unorthodox move to elevate the club's longtime offensive line coach to defensive coordinator simply hasn't produced the desired improvement so far. Asomugha has looked lost a good bit of the time in Philly's defensive scheme, Rodgers-Cromartie has been average at best, and Jenkins and Babin played well, but haven't been the difference-makers the Eagles paid for. As for Brown, the club tried to trade him at October's deadline, but then saw the deal fall through.
This week, with another trip to the Meadowlands looming, Vick and Jackson are again on center stage, but not to take another long bow or revisit the miraculous work they did in delivering that comeback win against the Giants last December. What a different light Vick and Jackson stand in compared to that time, when their unparalleled play-making skills were being celebrated and their future as foundational pieces of the Eagles' puzzle looked assured.
Now Vick is again hurt, with two broken ribs suffered in the loss to the Cardinals, and his season of underachievement pales in comparison to his tour de force performance of last year. As for Jackson, unhappy with having to play out the fourth and final year of his rookie contract from day one of this season, he has shown up far too little on the field in terms of impact, and now is in danger of losing the respect of both his teammates and the organization with his selfish behavior and lack of dedication.
These Eagles are a far different team than the one that enjoyed its finest moment of 2010 against the Giants last December 19. New York walked away from that game looking like the decimated team, with a head coach who might be on his way out, a defense in need of serious repair, and a team-wide deficiency in the clutch.
But in the span of 11 months, a role reversal has taken place. The Giants survived that loss, and again thrived. The Eagles, seemingly riding so high, have collapsed. It would take another miracle to salvage this lost season in Philadelphia, but this time it's not in the offing. These Eagles are so far gone that even another big return in the Meadowlands can't save them now.