"They've come a lot of miles in a short period of time, and they've given this whole team a boost with the job they're doing. I mean, it's night and day, and I think a lot of it has to do with the coaching change."
The Coaching Change.
That is always the first thing the players mention when speaking about the vastly improved offensive line play this season. Bill Muir's name usually pops up later in the same conversation. Always, without fail, it is attached to the two most visible ingredients that Muir has brought the Eagles linemen with his less complicated, more aggressive approach to pass protection and run blocking: confidence and attitude.
"We've always been kind of the stepchild around here," center David Alexander said. "But when Bill came in here, it was evident right away that those days were over. (Coach) Rich (Kotite) obviously knew what we'd gone through, wanted things changed and got the guy to change them. Bill has instilled so much confidence in everyone. He came in and right away, in our first meeting, we began feeding off his excitement about being here and working with us.
"I think the thing that hit all of us (veterans) was, 'Things are going to be different around here under this guy.' You could just feel it."
Suddenly, the Birds' offensive line has become a large reason - as much as the No. 1-ranked defense, the return of Randall Cunningham and the addition of Herschel Walker - for the Eagles' 4-0 start.
The Eagles are second in the NFC and third in the NFL in rushing offense (151-yard average), with Walker (366 yards) fourth in NFC rushing. More important, most of Cunningham's scrambles this year came from what defenses are giving him. He has accounted for only 126 of the team's 604 rushing yards, or 21 percent. In 1990, Cunningham's 942 rushing yards came out of necessity and represented 37 percent of the team's 2,556 rushing yards.
He has been sacked 14 times, but only seven were due to breakdowns in pass protection. The other half came on Cunningham fumbles or scrambles when he could find no receivers open.
Muir, 49, spent the last three seasons with Indianapolis, including 1991 as the Colts' offensive line coach, before joining the Eagles' staff in January. Among his other coaching stops was one as an assistant at Delaware Valley
College. He replaced Bill Walsh, who retired.
The veteran of 15 NFL seasons, while happy with his team's progress and consistency, is not prepared to do cartwheels, with 12 regular-season games remaining.
"Obviously, I'm pleased," he said, "but it's the old adage - we aren't where we want to be, maybe we're not even where we should be, but thank God we aren't where we were in Canton against the Jets (preseason opener).
"We haven't done enough yet to say we've established the objectives that we want, but at least the signposts say we're headed in the right direction."
The offensive line looked so bad in that Hall of Fame game that there was serious concern among the Eagles coaches. Kotite publicly expressed his disappointment that week in training camp, specifically pointing at second- year man Antone Davis. The following week at Pittsburgh, the line play picked up some, and with each game, Davis, Eric Floyd, Alexander, Mike Schad and Ron Heller appear to get better. Perhaps the most noticeable difference on the field is that the Eagles this year are blocking as a unit, rather than as individuals out for themselves.
Even Muir isn't sure when he noticed it all starting to come together. Like Kotite, he's just glad it did.
"It's hard to pinpoint," Muir said. "It came in stages. I think as the preseason progressed, I think they saw glimpses of things falling into perspective form. I sensed it in the Cincinnati game (third game). It wasn't a quote, unquote, spectacular statistical game, but I sensed a little bonding in that game. I can't put my finger on a play or an instant and say, 'Click, there it was.' But I think that week, in practice, and the things that happened in the game, they started to believe.
"And they've built on that confidence since. There's a quiet sense of, 'We can do that. We'll get that done.' When we talk on the sidelines during the game about things evolving, whether it's defensive alignments or an individual doing something, I can see in their response and in their expressions that when we start talking about things, even if they're new and unexpected, they just have a sense of 'OK, we'll do this and get it done.' "
Said Heller: "We're not playing guessing games anymore. We know what to do and how to do it."
Two areas of remarkable improvement have been the Eagles' stunt pickups and the right-side play of guard Floyd in combination with Davis, who has begun to live up to his overblown advance billing.
"That's an indication that a lot of hours picking up stunts in practice is paying off, nothing more," Muir said. "It's just understanding principles. You just have to do it. It becomes a confidence thing. It's like a golfer or baseball player who has a groove to the swing. When they start hitting the ball well, they never worry about the mechanics of the swing. They take it for granted. Line stunt pickup is sort of like that."
A developing friendship between Davis and Floyd, Muir said, cannot be underestimated as a factor in their fine play. The two have warmed to being the Birds' go-to guys in crucial run situations.
"It's not a completed process, not by a longshot," Muir said. "But some of the things we thought would evolve are evolving. There are flashes. They are big men and in the running game, they create movement when they come off the ball. Serious movement. Sometimes, you'd like it to be longer in terms of sustaining things, but the big thing is they're developing a rapport with one another."
There are other factors in the much-improved line play. Schad's impressive return from 1991 back trouble has been huge on the left side, Heller's health has been another plus, and there is no question that Walker has made their jobs easier up front.
"If you don't have talent at the running back position, then everything you do up front has to be perfect to the nth degree, and obviously it isn't,"
Muir said. "The better talent you have at running back, the less perfect you have to be up front. And so, if we can just be going in the proper direction with the running back talent we have here, something positive's going to happen. Richie (Kotite), in terms of the bird's eye view, has matched abilities with design and I think that's important."
It is Muir's nature to heap praise on his players and away from himself in interviews. After the first two regular season games, he declined interviews, suggesting that reporters talk to the players instead. Following the Eagles' 31-14 victory at Phoenix, Kotite awarded Muir with his first game ball as an Eagle coach.
"There weren't many game balls or wins in Indianpolis," he said. "But I look at that as something I received in trust for the eight guys (who play) on the line. I don't go out and play. They go out and take your drawings and make them come alive. I look at that game ball as ours, not mine.
"I'm just glad to see them getting some recognition and seeing them have the sense of satisfaction that their hard work is paying off for them. And I also am cautious and quietly concerned that we don't accept this (start) as a job well done, but realize that there are a lot of tough things left undone ahead. This is no time to rest on our laurels. If this were Feb. 16, we could reflect what kind of year we had. That's what I'd like to do, sit back at the end of this season and know we helped this team get to the playoffs and win a championship. Then you'll see a bleep-eating grin on my face."
Linebacker Seth Joyner (sprained knee) was the only Eagle not to practice yesterday.