2008 NFC Championship Game Brings Another Sad Ending for Eagles Fans

After another disappointing end to another Philadelphia Eagles season in an NFC Championship Game, I have been deluged with questions and comments from Birds fans asking, “Where Did the Eagles Go Wrong in this NFC Championship Game?”

I have broken my response to this question into sections:

1) Head Coach Andy Reid – These guys must like Hawaii in February (coaching the Pro Bowl), because once again Reid and his staff were out-coached in their biggest game of the season.  Sure the offense had a miraculous 19-point third quarter erasing an 18-point lead that they spotted the Cardinals, but the coaching staff failed to make the necessary adjustments after the half that could have helped particularly on defense.  

  • Reid continued his “Bombs Away” throw-it at all costs mentality on offense and the Eagles were never to achieve balance or sustain long drives because of this.
  • The Eagles were inside the Cardinals’ 30-yard line three times in the first half and came away with only six points
  • The Eagles were out-rushed by the Cardinals (29 rushes for 102 yards to 18 rushes for 97 yards) and the Cardinals showed how the run still means something in their game-closing 14 play, 72-yard touchdown drive where they called 9 runs and only 5 passes.
  • The Eagles passed the ball 47 times putting the ball in harm’s way too much, which led to 3 turnovers and quarterback Donovan McNabb being sacked 2 times by safety Adrian Wilson with one sack causing a fumble.
  • Not enough touches for Correll Buckhalter.  I know Buck is not the next coming of NFL legend Walter Payton, but the NFL is built around two-backs sharing the load.  Buckhalter was the forgotten man for the second week in a row in the playoffs as he only had 4 rushing opportunities gaining 21 yards.  You would think with an ailing Brian Westbrook (2 rec 26 yds, 12 rushes for 45 yds, and 1 fumble) being game-planned out of action by the Cardinals that Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mohrningwig should have called Buckhalter’s number more.  I guess you can’t blame Buckhalter, a potential free agent, looking other places for more touches.
  • Reid the “personnel evaluator”, if allowed to continue in that role, has some hard decisions to make this off-season (Buckhalter, Tra Thomas, Jon Runyan, Reggie Brown, and others).  The hope among many Eagles faithful is that Reid and the upper brass final decide to bring in a fresh face to handle talent procurement.

2) Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson and the Eagles Defense

  • The main reason that the 9-6-1 Eagles (ranked #1 in the NFC) made some noise with two playoffs wins, were not at their best in the Desert against the Cardinals (allowed 32 points and 369 yards). 
  • Johnson needed to look at how his defense demolished former Giants starter Kurt Warner and the G-Men 31-17 in the 2004 opening game to help in setting up his game plan.  In that game, the Eagles sacked old Kurt five times and produced three fumbles (recovering one) mostly from pressure from their front four.  However in this year’s NFC Championship, the Eagles blitzed too often with little results.  I guess the coaching staff and defensive members were too busy reading their press clippings, comparing them to if not saying that they were better than the 1991 Number-one-across-the-board Reggie White led defense, to make the necessary adjustments to get after Warner.  The two-time MVP quarterback and Cardinals young offensive coordinator Todd Haley were able to diagnose most of the Eagles blitzes and neutralize them by going to crossing patterns and 3-step drops.
  • In 10 offensive possession, the Cardinals scored points on half of their drives (5), were 3 for 3 in the Redzone, were a solid 6 of 13 on 3rd and 4th down plays, and had no turnovers. 
  • The quickness of the Cardinals 24 first-half points was maddening as Warner led drives with an average starting spot of the ARIZ 25 to the following results Touchdown-Punt-Touchdown-Touchdown-Field Goal.
  • The Eagles defense only had four 3-and-outs and no turnovers for the entire game as they could not get off the field, especially during the Cardinals game-closing 14-play, 72-yard, 7:52 minute scoring drive. 
  • Speaking of the Cardinals game-closing drive, it was groundhog day for the Eagles as their group looked oh too much like their 2001 version against the St. Louis Rams in the NFC Championship.  In that game too, their smallish defense wore down at the end as the Rams behind Warner and Marshall Faulk dominated the second half.  The Rams similarly closed the game mixing in runs and screens that kept the chains moving…remember the Rams 12-minute drive at the beginning of the 3rd quarter.
  • With the Cardinals going to three and four receiver sets along with Larry Fitzgerald dominating, can someone please tell me why former two-time Pro Bowl player Lito Sheppard was barely on the field.  To answer my own question, the Eagles decided that an unhappy player sulking about his contract was no longer “Good” enough to even play for them (see Jeremiah Trotter circa the 2001 NFC Championship Game or Michael Lewis circa the 2006 NFC Divisional Round loss to the Saints).  I guess Sheppard is on the fast train out of town and the team is starting their spin before the off-season hits…can someone please tell me how Barry Gardner and Mark Simoneau did at replacing Trotter.

3) The Eagles Receiving Core

  • The Eagles no-Number 1 receiving core only had 15 catches, which was only 2 more than the 13 catches that the Cardinals starting duo of Fitzgerald and Boldin put up. BTW: How great was it to watch Fitzgerald performing as a Number one (nine receptions for 152 yards and 3 TDs), making you wish the Eagles had tried harder to trade for the game-breaker last off-season.
  • The Eagles receivers had at least 4 drops that I counted.  The biggest one of course being the Kevin Curtis’ 4th down play to basically end the game, but I also have to point out Greg Lewis’ huge drop in the first half.  Can you please tell me how in the world has G-Lou – since when does he merit a nickname – hung around on the Birds roster for 6 years.  I wonder if Patriots receiver Jabar Gaffney (38 catches for 468 yards and 2 TDs in 2008) would have caught that ball as Lewis made the Eagles roster instead of him in ’07.
  • Franchise TE LJ Smith, the team’s franchise player, who Reid said was just as good as future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez on trading deadline day, had one measly catch for 5 yards.  I know it had to have burned LJ’s britches that backup Brent Celek had a career day of 10 receptions for 83 yards and 2 TDs.  I don’t know if you knew this or not, but the Eagles personnel department (i.e. Reid) decided that LJ Smith was a better pro prospect than current Cowboys four-time Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten in the 2003 NFL Draft.  The Birds selected their “franchise” tight end with the 61st pick (2nd round) and Witten went at pick #69 (third round).

4) Philadelphia Eagles QB Donovan McNabb

  • With the game on the line and given the weapons or lack there of that McNabb had to work with, did anyone think he could tie the game with the Eagles two-minute drill.  In a microcosm of his 10-year career, McNabb’s last four throws [Basket (receiver slipped), Jackson (overthrow), Basket (threw behind receiver), and Curtis (slipped/tripped and dropped pass)] were erratic, but he also needed someone else to make a play on the receiving end.
  • Overall in his fifth NFC Championship Game (1-4 record), I don’t care what the McNabb bashers will say (missed some early throws, an interception, fumbled by getting sacked by Adrian Wilson and could not lead the Birds back in the 4th quarter), this man had a great game in the NFC Championship.  McNabb led his team back from an 18-point deficit to take the lead when it mattered and lets face it the defense let him down.  He set a career-high with 375 passing yards and was an incredible in the second-half completing 17 of 28 passes for 266-yards and 3 TDs.
  • His final numbers were 28-47, 375 yards, 3 TDs, and 31 rushing, but I guess that will not be enough for the “Haters” who want the Kevin Kolb era to begin.  To everyone yearning for another quarterback than McNabb, you better take a good look around the NFL because there are not many quarterbacks better than Big 5.  Just image what McNabb could do with some real weapons — Did you see Greg Lewis drop that potential bomb??  Hopefully in the off-season Reid will look to add someone else to compliment scrappy Kevin Curtis and improving rookie DeSean Jackson.  Whomever the team is looking to improve their receiving core, it sure will not be former 2nd round bust Reggie Brown who was in sweats in the Eagles most important game of the season.

5a) Too Many Penalties – Quality teams in the NFL usually execute well causing penalties to drop.  The Eagles definitely struggled with penalties committing 7 for 64 yards as opposed to only 3 for 15 yards for the victorious Cardinals.

5b) Eagles kicker David Akers – As like to always say, “Just a Kicker, Being a Kicker”.  I know Akers was a little snippy after the loss saying don’t blame him for the loss, but the little guy with only one job to do had a big hand in the Birds loss.  He lost his consecutive post-season field goal streak on a missed 47-yarder (dome conditions) then sent a kickoff out of bounds right before halftime setting up Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers for 3 points and his exclamation point moment was inexcusably missing a point-after, which caused the Eagles to chase a two-point conversion.

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