John Milton never witnessed a sporting match of any kind. Despite this tiny obstacle, the seventeenth century Englishman might be the most prophetic sports writer ever to pen a single line.
Amidst the extensive Paradise Lost, a single line explains the premature decline of successful sports teams: “our torments also may in length of time become our elements.” Thus, treading down the same miserable path that ensnared the post John Gruden Oakland Raiders, the post Barry Sanders Detroit Lions, and the post Jim Kelly Buffalo Bills, the Philadelphia Eagles have fallen from the upper echelons of the National Football League.
On Sunday, the Eagles suffered a humbling 31-13 defeat at the hands of the lowly 2-7 Tennessee Titans.
Lead by this year’s third overall selection in the NFL draft, Vince Young, the Titans tore through a depleted Eagles defense, totaling three hundred and ten total yards of offense.
The Eagles’ opponent had an early 7-0 lead only six plays into the game.
The Titans never looked back. Tennessee left the field boasting a decisive 31-13 victory over an Eagles team which, prior to the loss, appeared to stand a chance in the bitter NFC East.
Dominated by a rookie led, rebuilding, less than average Tennessee Titans, the Eagles emerged from last week’s loss having more questions than answers; and, unfortunately, what answers they have are not good.
The most pressing issue is Donovan McNabb’s injury. For the second time in two years, McNabb is out for the season. However, this time, the injury he sustained could jeopardize next season as well.
An MRI performed by team doctors confirmed that the quarterback tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Perhaps the most severe injury in football next to spinal cord damage, torn ACLs have routinely ended careers. While the severity of the injury has been blunted by drastic progress in medical technology, McNabb will be out for the rest of the season and cannot have surgery performed on his knee for another two to three weeks because of swelling in the joint. Orthopedic specialist Dr. James Andrews of Birmingham, Alabama will perform the surgery, after which, McNabb will begin the eight to twelve month rehabilitation process.
Now behind both the Cowboys and the Giants in the NFC East, the Eagles schedule more closely resembles a sadistic trek to football impotency than something handed down by the league office.
Five of the team’s remaining six games will be played against teams with a five hundred record or better, and four of those six will take place on the road.
Injuries have given this team reason to justify their missteps, but look past the front office press releases and to the mundane whisperings of Andy Reid. The Eagles are not a good team because they have forgotten how to play the fundamentally sound football that carried them to four straight NFC title games.
Yet, this manifestation of poor play is not due to the sudden onset of amnesia. Dating back to their Super Bowl run, the Eagles have continued to make the same mistakes, mistakes that they are now unable to hide.
The third ranked offense in the league seemed befuddled by the thirty-second ranked defense in the league. While Andy Reid never relied upon the running game to provide yardage, preferring the screen pass over the half-back draw, the Eagles running backs have never been so conspicuously absent.
Brian Westbrook’s inability to break through the Titans goal line defense in the first quarter lead to an ill-advised McNabb throw that landed in the hands of opposing linebacker Sam Tulloch rather than those of L.J. Smith. The goal line blunder reveals a startling trend in the number of rushing touchdowns the Eagles have scored.
In 2003, the Eagles combined for twenty three rushing touchdowns, second only to the Kansas City Chiefs. However, in 2004 and 2005, the Eagles tallied a total of twenty one rushing scores. The disparity should have triggered a reaction within the Eagles organization, sparking Andy Reid to correct the problem. The caveat went unanswered and the Eagles continue to struggle rushing the ball for touchdowns, scoring only eight of their second best thirty touchdowns on the ground.
The Eagles flaws are more glaring on the defensive side of the ball.
Vince Lombardi once said that “the best defense is a good offense.” The man for whom the Superbowl trophy is named would scoff at the utter inefficiency of this defensive unit, a group that routinely keeps the ball out of the hands of a prolific scoring threat.
The Eagles rank first in the NFC in defensive time of possession, averaging 31:57 on the field. Stranded in between the endzones for a total of 657 plays through only ten games, the Eagles refuse to stop the run or play disciplined football.
Similar to the 2004 season, over the first five games, the Eagles employed the “shock and awe” tactic, jumping out to a 4-1 record and restoring their reputation as a team to beat in the NFC. However, the last five weeks have proven that we can no longer confound defenses by heaving hail mary after hail mary. The downgraded running attack Andy Reid chooses to rely on has created a vortex which an aging defense to compensate for an offense that routinely goes three and out.
The season is lost. While 2004 enlivened a football crazy city, the 2006 team is lost amidst the competitive NFC. The bad habits have malevolently blossomed into glaring weaknesses, failings that the Eagles must redress in order to preclude another cataclysmic collapse from happening in the future.
Milton once asked, “What better can we do, than to prostrate fall before him reverent, and there confess humbly our faults?” Without anyone to question their decisions, the despotic duo of Andy Reid and Jeffrey Laurie will cursorily dismiss any critics. Their arrogance will not allow them to so much as acknowledge an error in thought or execution. Though we desire it, Philadelphia, we will receive no apology, no admission of guilt from the Eagles administration. Rather, the necessary repairs this team so desperately requires will receive an empty-hearted, eventually ineffectual remedy. Philadelphia, we can hope no higher.