On the other side of the field, or for that matter on the other side of the line of scrimmage, the Washington Redskins could see everything they are not and everything they should hope to be. Start with the fact that the Philadelphia Eagles took five Redskins castoffs and made them a big part of the Eagles team that Sunday won the NFC East and just might be the best team in the NFC, maybe the entire NFL.
Where the Redskins have coaching turnover, the Eagles are the picture of stability. Where the Redskins have shown vulnerability all season -- oh, let's use quarterback, just to pick a position -- the Eagles go three deep. While the Redskins look to pitch-and-catch, the Eagles look for field position and a chance to smash somebody in the mouth. While the Redskins try to figure out whether they're Marty Schottenheimer or Steve Spurrier, the Eagles know they are off-tackle and a knuckle sandwich, a tough, smart, brawling team that embraces substance over style every single down.
Not a masterpiece yet, the Eagles are at the very least a fine work in progress, while the Redskins, as evidenced in a loss that dropped them to 5-9, are just a mess. While some of us thought the team at least demonstrated some guts in cutting a 24-point deficit to 10, Steve Spurrier said afterward that while some players spent themselves in defeat, "maybe some did not bust their tails." Wow, how damning is that?
Even accomplished, fully motivated Redskins teams playing with great purpose and incentive have come up here and been thumped. So, it didn't look good for Spurrier's Boys from the opening kickoff. The Eagles knew they could win the NFC East, knew they could stay ahead in the race for home-field advantage, knew they could close out regular season play at their precious dump of a stadium with one final win. And at 31-7, the Eagles had done just that, even though as Spurrier observed afterward, "They didn't completely stymie us the way they did in the first game." Spurrier was absolutely right in his assessment, but how bad is it to be relatively competitive, relatively speaking, with a division rival down to its third quarterback?
The good news for Washington, besides never having to play at the Vet again, was in the way rookie quarterback Patrick Ramsey stood in and delivered passes like a veteran. And the bad news was everything else.
Even so, quarterback is such a small part of what ails the Redskins. The defense, hardly perfect to begin with, is on the field way too long most Sundays (17:35 to 12:25 for the offense in the first half), largely because the offense and special teams keep turning over the ball or giving the opponent great field position. Continuing to use Champ Bailey, the team's second-best defensive player and a man who should be concentrating on only playing cornerback, as a punt returner is suicide. Blame the coaches for stubbornly putting him out there, or whoever didn't get a return man on the practice squad.
Antonio Freeman, the Eagles' wide receiver who won a championship with Brett Favre and the Packers a few years ago, was figuring out which team to join after being cut by the Packers. "I was thinking about how the Ravens won a Super Bowl two years ago, mostly with special teams and defense," he said. "That team did it without much offense, but when I looked at the Eagles, I could see a great defense, great special teams and a great young quarterback in Donovan [McNabb]. And it was obviously a tough, tough football team with speed. It had everything that appealed to me."
But what about playing without McNabb, and for that matter without second-string quarterback Koy Detmer? The Eagles have won four straight since losing McNabb, never whining or running to convenient alibis. "Normally," Freeman said, "teams put in their third-string quarterback and there's a tremendous drop-off. But we've got a complete team here. Everybody knew we had to take it week by week, but systematically find a way to win that might differ each week depending on the opponent. We know that the [10-3] St. Louis victory wasn't pretty, but it's the way we had to play that week to win." Or as Brian Mitchell said, "Our offense goes as our front five goes. . . . We don't sit back and throw it 40 yards 15 times a game. A.J. has played well . . . and he has a lot of help."
Some weeks the Eagles pile more responsibility on running back Duce Staley, some weeks they need the defense not only to stop people but to score. Some weeks they might need Mitchell, the extraordinary return man the Redskins waived bye-bye to three years ago, to bust a long return or two. Speaking of Mitchell, 34 and playing better than ever, how much crow should Redskins talent evaluators eat for letting go of Mitchell (who every week makes a case for serious Hall of Fame consideration), receiver James Thrash (50 catches, seven touchdowns), defensive end Ndukwe Kalu (seven sacks), place kicker David Akers (28 for 31 on field goals) and linebacker Shawn Barber (second on the team in tackles)?
Of course, the whole thing has to be easier to choreograph when you're not changing coaches every season. Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington is on his third defensive coordinator in three years, and he'll likely get No. 4 next season. How many sets of coaches have these Eagles had? One. Andy Reid, who gets my vote for coach of the year, has been in Philly four years, as have 13 of his 15 assistant coaches, including both coordinators. And the Eagles also have, in 35-year-old Tom Heckert, quite a personnel man. He spent 10 years with the Dolphins in personnel, and ran the department in his last season there (2000). The Eagles don't have questions about who's running the draft or coaching or coordinating. It's pretty much set in stone 365 days a year.
And let's not forget another intangible the Eagles have over the Redskins: the home-field advantage. While Washingtonians whine incessantly about FedEx Field, the Eagles and their fans embrace the Vet. Oh, I hate the Vet. It took 23 minutes to get an elevator to the locker room after the game because the cops kept using it to transport drunken bums to the jail cell in the stadium's basement. Strangely, that's part of the charm, that it's a dump. Outsiders are supposed to feel like the enemy, unwanted and unwelcome. Mitchell, who hated it as a Redskin and loves it now, hears visiting players freaking out over the hellish turf, even though that turf was replaced two years ago.
"The thing I remember was no matter how good a team we had, it was never easy coming in here," Mitchell said. "It's a stadium you regret going into. But it's not just the turf or the fans, the guys with the little wings on the sides of their helmets have something to do with it, too."