In a game that featured a thrilling rollercoaster like ebb and flow, the ending was non-climatic with New Orleans Saints Drew Brees triumphantly kneeling on the ball and thanking the football gods that his errant pitch to Reggie Bush didn’t matter. The ill-advised toss play with 3:46 left in the game was strangely called by Saints Head Coach Sean Payton and almost handed the Eagles another improbable victory when Brees missed Bush and the Eagles recovered. In my opinion, the next Eagles series after the fumble recovery was the key moment in the game with the Eagles play caller (Reid or Marty Morningweg) calling first a short pass to RB Brian Westbrook resulting in 1 yard loss, then a short run by Westbrook for a 1 yard, and finally another short incomplete pass to Westbrook on 3rd and 10. This headscratching series resulted in the first of two crucial punts down the stretch. The second crucial punt was on 4th down and 15 yards needed with 1:46 minutes left in the game, Eagles Head Coach Andy Reid chose to punt the ball away on the play and leave the game in the hands of his weary defense. I am not sure what Reid was thinking in punting the ball back to the Saints at a point in the game where his D-Line was clearly tired and didn’t have much left. On the previous 4th and 10 play before the punt, I swore Freddie Mitchell and not Hank Baskett caught the ball on the improbable conversion, but once again it was a mirage with the conversion being called back on a crucial false start on Eagles guard Scott Young on the play. There would be no miracle ending this week for the overachieving 2006 Eagles squad.
The final plays after the last crucial punt showed the Eagles greatest weakness, which is their defense’s inability to get off the field on 3rd downs (Saints converted over 40%) and stopping their opponent’s running game. The Saints pounded the Eagles, running for 208 yards and had a 10 minute edge in time of possession. Saints RB Deuce McAllister (143 yards, w/ 1 TD Rushing and Receiving), who has been overshadowed all season by rookie sensation Reggie Bush, once again was the thorn in the Eagles’ side attacking the lighter Eagles interior with tough inside runs that gouged the clock and took away the defensive unit’s will.
The Eagles team made their usual big plays downfield including a beautiful 75 yard Eagles postseason record throw from QB Jeff Garcia to WR Donte “Revenge” Stallworth, but they didn’t do the little things that got them past their superstar Donovan McNabb going down earlier in the season. Brian Westbrook was under utilized with only 13 rushes for an amazing 116 yards w/ 2TD’s. The Eagles needed to get him going early and often, which had been the key to them winning their recent games. He clearly wanted the ball and the Birds “forgot about him”, especially in the first half when they had only 12 yards rushing and on a crucial 3rd and 1 at the Saints 4 at 11:57 of the 3rd quarter. On the play Reid going back to his old ways threw the ball to FB Thomas Tapeh for a 1 yard loss and settled for a short David Akers 24 yard field goal cutting the score to 27-24. The field goal was the Eagles last score of the game and left you with the question, “What If?” The game was eerily reminiscent of the Eagles’ NFC Championship game loss to the St. Louis Rams in 2001. In that game, which the Eagles lost 29-24 they were also in it until the end due to some big plays, but they could not stop the run or control the clock in crucial situations giving up over 200 yards of rushing with Marshall Faulk leading the way with 31 rushes for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns.
As a life long Eagles fan, I had to wonder will it ever be our turn. ESPN writer Bob Simmons can cry the “ Boston ” blues all he wants, our beloved town is the “City of Championship Starved Fans ”. As a Philadelphia fan, who has never been to a parade (wasn’t allowed to go to Sixers 1983 parade), all week I tried to look away from the statistics that showed the Eagles went into the game ranked near the bottom in rushing defense and time of possession, but I too got caught up in “Jeff Garcia mania”. Garcia playing for McNabb showed that he is as gritty and tough as a day old cheese steak. The team was reborn under him and we all believed that after six straight wins and a new found ground churning/chain moving running game behind mercurial Brian Westbrook and a nasty O-line led by Pro Bowler Shawn Andrews that the ‘Iggles” were on their way to the Super Bowl. My eyes couldn’t believe them as the “Air-Andy” Eagles finally instituted the basic tenets of football: Run the Ball, Stop the Run, and Don’t Turn the Ball Over. The Birds were supposed to be going to Miami and the whole city was invited, just like Jacksonville in 2005. Unfortunately now the Saints (11-6) move on to their first championship game in their history against Chicago, (Congrats by the way – The region deserves it) and the Eagles go back to the drawing board for another year. Will year nine of the Andy Reid regime bring a championship? we will have to wait and see and now it is on to the draft. My draft list begins with the Eagles going after a playmaking OLB, a larger attacking DE, an explosive KR, and a better coverage SS.
- The loss of Pro Bowl Guard Shawn Andrews in the 1st half of the Saints game was huge for the Eagles. Not only because replacement Scott Young had some bad penaltie. Andrews, who was my comeback player of the year, who was the key to the Eagles power running game getting to the 2nd and 3rd level and controlling the middle with Jamal Jackson.
- Where was Brian Dawkins?? Dawk unfortunately was under the weather with the flu and contributed 6 tackles, but no game changing plays like had been doing down the stretch during the Eagles 6 game win streak.
- Once again the Eagles did not have any big returns on Punts or Kickoffs. Their longest kickoff return was 28 yards on a reverse by backup WR Jason Avant. This must be a priority in the off season whether Jeremy Bloom or a draft pick are the guy. Remember Westbrook is too valuable to be back on kicks.
- Did you notice how many times the Saints ran the same middle seam route against Trotter and Constandine. They need to start planning for a replacement for the aging Trotter at MLB and a coverage Safety (BTW: I love LSU Safety LaRon Landry in this upcoming draft)