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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Big Decisions in Philadelphia

Have the Eagles fallen that far that fast? Is their predicament as bad as that of the Giants, or worse? It's an interesting question, but not one that compels answering because both teams look to be also-rans.

In the Giants' case, it's a question of not-so-great development of a young quarterback, injuries to key players on both sides of the ball, and bad chemistry.

In the Eagles' case, it's a question of other teams' having figured out the Eagles' once-heralded defensive schemes, a blind spot among the GM/Coach about linebackers, and an equivalent blind spot about the running game. The blind spots, by the way, are not new and are festering sores with the faithful. While the faithful get blasted by sportswriters who apparently know better, even the former players and coaches turned pundits have questioned the Eagles' strategy. Just the other day, John Madden said that the Eagles need a big back. Most Eagles' fans have been saying the same thing for years. Perhaps the comment now is valid because a Hall of Famer like Madden just echoed it.

The Giants' mess could get straightened out if certain players return on defense (the defensive ends, LB Brandon Short and DB Sam Madison), although Eli Manning looks like Dan Quayle when he debated Lloyd Bentsen and Plaxico Burress looks like he's become CEO of the high-maintenance squad (whose members include guys named Owens and Moss). Plus, RB Tiki Barber has vented publicly about the team's problems. Can a week fix all of that? I doubt it. Can the Giants save their season and make the playoffs? Perhaps.

The Eagles, in all likelihood, cannot save their season or make the playoffs. Their QB has had his third season-ending injury in the past 5 years, their defense has not played well, and, from all appearances, their OTs were too old before the season started. The smoothness and oomph that they had when they went to the Super Bowl is gone. Does clubhouse leadership mean that much? Do they really miss guys like Hank Fraley, Hugh Douglas and Troy Vincent?

Or has Andy Reid failed to adapt in a league where, if you don't, the opposition will figure you out and barbecue you? Has it been a mistake to continue to let him head up the GM position while coaching, as most coaches in that role have failed? Who holds Reid accountable for his miscues and so-so drafts? Are Jeffrey Lurie and Joe Banner knowledgeable enough about football to do so? Probably not.

I like Lurie, Banner and Reid and think that they've done a great job. But now they're faced with having two losing seasons in a row and are struggling to find the right mix to get back to the playoffs. They have serious questions at many positions, as follows:

1. Will they draft a QB next year to groom at McNabb's successor? McNabb is a bit young to think of in this light (he just turned 30), but his history of injuries has to be a concern.

2. If McNabb misses '07 (as ESPN.com suggests he might), who will QB the Eagles next year? Jeff Garcia? A.J. Feeley? Can they return to the playoffs with those quarterbacks?

3. Will the Eagles start to play other offensive linemen? Jon Runyan and William Thomas might well be at the end of the line, and it might be time to take high draft picks Max-Jean Gilles and Winston Justice off the inactive list and throw them into action?

4. How will the team solve its issues at linebacker and at "big" running back? Will they ever while Andy Reid is the coach? Clearly, they don't think linebackers are as important in their schemes as the other positions, but it hasn't been as though the defensive line, with all of its supposed depth, has gotten a great push off the ball collectively after Game 5 or that the secondary has covered particularly well. The defense used to have a swagger; now they're getting pushed around.

5. And there's Reid himself. Should he still call most of the plays? Should he remain as both GM and coach? Should he be fired altogether? There are varying opinions out there on all of these questions. What if Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher, who have won Super Bowls, become available? Would you be tempted to let Reid go? My guess is that the Eagles won't because his contract runs through 2010, or until his youngest child graduates from high school. Given the Eagles' high debt service, it will be interesting to see whether Jeffrey Lurie would want to eat four years on a contract to replace Reid. The bet here is that Reid gets at least one more year to turn things around.

The whole thing is a bit of a shame, for many reasons. First, Eagles' fans do like McNabb. Perhaps they don't gravitate to him the way Broncos' fans flocked to John Elway, who played years before he won a Super Bowl. He is a great football player, although for some reason he doesn't draw the love that Phillies 1B Ryan Howard does, and Howard is now the most beloved athlete in Philadelphia. Second, most fans like Reid, holes in his strategy and all. Okay, so he's not a jokester or a taskmaster, doesn't have Super Bowl rings or a famously jutting jaw, but he's good people and has done a good job. They're frustrated is all, and they might think that Coach Andy has taken the team as far as he can. Third, most of the fans like the players -- they like David Akers, they like Jeremiah Trotter, Sheldon Brown, Lito Sheppard, Jon Runyan, Brian Westbrook, Reggie Brown. They want them to win, as the players look like they give a good effort.

Still, big decisions remain, and it appears that the Eagles' record -- this year and next -- will get worse before it gets better. Fortunately, this is the NFL we're talking about, where parity is the watchword and where one year's disappointment becomes the following year's Super Bowl contender.

Jeffrey Lurie and Joe Banner get great praise for managing the salary cap. But that praise only qualifies them as managers, and not necessarily as visionary leaders with a plan to not only manage the cap well and make the playoffs, but to win the whole thing. Yes, they've come close, and I'll give them an A- for their management skills since they've run the Eagles. But they have to get past just tight cap management and look at strategy and the game's evolution, and then sit down with Andy Reid this off-season and have some serious conversations about how to fix things.

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