Injuries have nibbled away at the Philadelphia Eagles all season. Now they are threatening to take a big bite out of their chances of reaching the Super Bowl.
"I'm down to two wide receivers," Coach Dick Vermeil lamented after Saturday's 31-16 triumph over Minnesota advanced the Eagles to the NFC title game Sunday. "That's not a very good situation.What will I do? That's a good guestion."
The injuries also have taken some luster off Philadelphia's first appearance in the conference title game in 20 years. In Vermeil's five years with the team, it has advanced from a doormat to one of the NFL's best, despite his disclaimer that "we weren't very talented, but we play hard."
Besides a scarcity of wide receivers, Vermeil has a less-than-healthy leading rusher. Wilbert Montgomery, who has had leg problems, limped off the field Saturday with a "sore" knee. He is expected to play in the next game, but probably not at 100 percent. And the Eagles need him at full speed to mount a strong offense.
Receiver Charles Smith broke his jaw in the regular-season finale against Dallas and didn't play against Minnesota, despite a specially devised face mask. He hasn't been ruled out of the championship game, however.
Smith's replacement, Scott Fitzkee, broke a foot against Minnesota and is out for the rest of the playoffs. That leaves Vermeil with top receiver Harold Carmichael and RodneyParker, a free agent who played a season in Canada before joining Philadelphia this year. Parker has good speed but caught only nine passes in limited action.
Vermeil said he would switch a halfback, perhaps Louie Gbiammona or Billy Campfield, to wide receiver this week. He added that he hoped to get back Wally Henry, a kick return specialist who also plays end. Henry has been injured, which has hindered the effectiveness of the Eagles' special teams. He had four receptions this year.
Still, no matter how Vermeil juggles his lineup, his offense has to suffer as long as Smith is out and Montgomery is limping.
Smith had a career-high 47 catches this year and took a lot of pressure off Carmichael. Montgomery, besides picking up a team-high 778 yards rushing, led the club in receptions with 50.
Without Montgomery, Philadelphia doesn't have a rushing threat. Giammona is the No. 2 runner, but he is a gutty plodder who averaged fewer than four yards to carry this season.
The Eagles already had been having trouble the last part of the season, an inconsistent offense, especially early in games, putting them behind quickly. In three of their last four contests, they have trailed by at least 14 points in the first half.
Vermeil credits his defense plus "our character and toughness" with the club's ability to rally after intermission in all those games. But in championship contests, character and toughness sometimes aren't enough.
Minnesota attacked Philadelphia by using seven defensive backs early in that contests. If Montgomery is ineffective Sunday, the Eagles probably will see that defense again, which will put extra pressure on quarterback Ron Jaworski.
Jaworski, however, had trouble coping with the Viking defense, which is average at best. He threw three interceptions, and Minnesota dropped a handful of other opportunities.
Tony Franklin also had been sporadic with his field goal kicking. He missed on nine of his last 13 tries before booting one against Minnesota. If the Eagles try to control the ball to cover up for their injuries, Franklin will have to be much more effective or the strategy will backfire.
"We had some problems, I won't debate that," Jaworski said. "But I thought Minnesota played very well on defense. They were very agressive. We just have to cut down on our mistakes and be more consistent. I think we'll be okay. We've gotten this far despite injuries and there is no reason we can't keep winning."