By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
The Philadelphia Eagles have won five of the past six NFC East titles, but they have a way of making things tough on themselves. They had to regroup last season after they lost quarterback Donovan McNabb to a knee injury and everything else seemed to unravel, and now they've started this season with a poor performance Sunday at Green Bay.
The Eagles lost to the Packers largely because they gave away 10 points on two mishandled punts, the second of which resulted in a decisive field goal in the closing seconds. It's not what people come to expect from an Eagles team that usually has found ways to squeeze the most out of its talent during Coach Andy Reid's tenure. But the other important characteristics of Reid's clubs have been that they rarely panic and generally rebound. Their first chance this season to exhibit those traits will come Monday night when they host the Washington Redskins.
"We surely can't have the turnovers we had on special teams, dropped balls we had on offense, the penalties we had on offense, missing tackles on defense, penalties on defense. . . . You can't have those and compete at this level," Reid said after the game in Green Bay.
Reid's method of holding his team together generally has been to remain calm and tell his players that everyone in the organization must perform better -- coaches as well as players. That's the message he delivered last season after a lopsided defeat at Indianapolis dropped the Eagles to 5-6. The season was looking like a lost cause with McNabb on the shelf, and the airwaves and newspaper columns in Philadelphia were filled with speculation that perhaps Reid's message had grown stale. But owner Jeffrey Lurie and team president Joe Banner stuck by Reid, and the Eagles rallied behind backup quarterback Jeff Garcia to win another division title and reach the second round of the NFC playoffs before losing at New Orleans.
The dynamic is slightly different this season. The football crisis isn't nearly as severe, at least not yet. It's only one game into the season, and McNabb remains healthy and in the lineup. But Reid is being watched closely after a turbulent offseason in which two of his adult sons were left facing an assortment of traffic, weapons and drug charges following separate incidents in January. Reid took a five-week leave of absence from the Eagles in February and March, and said when he returned that quitting coaching had crossed his mind briefly. The test for Reid as a coach could come in moments like this, when he must hold his team together the way he did so adeptly last season. His players say they expect Reid's style to remain the same.
"I don't see that changing," veteran safety Brian Dawkins said last week, before the loss to the Packers. "I really don't. I see him being the way that he is -- in good times, in bad times, whenever."
The Eagles expect to be without two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard, who sprained his left medial collateral ligament in the Packers game; he underwent an MRI exam yesterday and is expected to miss at least one game. William James will start at cornerback opposite Sheldon Brown with Sheppard sidelined. Sheppard also got hurt in the Eagles' first game last season, suffering an ankle sprain that caused him to miss three games, so getting by without him is nothing new. The good news for the Eagles over the weekend was that a revamped defense -- with new starters Takeo Spikes, Chris Gocong and Omar Gaither at linebacker -- performed well. Dawkins acknowledged last week that he didn't know how the new parts would mesh in the season's early stages.
"There's no way to possibly know," Dawkins said. "You can only hope the potential we've seen in each guy will come together. Hopefully there won't be a lot of growing pains involved in that."
The first-game results for McNabb were mixed after an offseason and training camp full of scrutiny over whether he was anywhere close to fully recovered from last year's knee surgery. McNabb seemed to move around the pocket with few problems against the Packers. But his passing was not crisp, and he completed only 15 of 33 passes for 184 yards. He threw one interception and one touchdown, and the Eagles' offense was less than imposing in the 16-13 loss.
But McNabb perhaps was hindered because one of his favorite receivers, tight end L.J. Smith, has been slowed by a groin injury. The quarterback usually has bounced back from injuries suffered one season to get off to a sizzling start the following season, and he said last week he's healthy enough now to resemble his old, reliable self.
"It's a blessing to play this game," McNabb said. "People get hurt in this game. It happens. . . . Yeah, I've missed the last two years. We all know that. We hear it every day. But I've been able to rehab and come back and be ready to play at a high level."
Part of the Eagles' successful formula late last season with Garcia at quarterback was to use tailback Brian Westbrook more as a runner. The DeMatha product always has been a highly effective receiver out of the backfield. But Reid had a tendency to abandon the running game and lean on McNabb's passing, and he and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg balanced things when McNabb was hurt last season. The Eagles struck a decent balance Sunday, with Westbrook running the ball 20 times for 85 yards and catching six passes for 46 yards.
"I think the coaches know that regardless of whether Donovan is in there or not, we have to run the ball successfully," Westbrook said last week. "They haven't promised me anything. But I think they saw when Donovan was hurt last year what we were able to do."