Bill Conlin | At least they didn't let Hester beat them

Posted: October 22, 2007

THE EAGLES avoided Devin

Hester as if he were a bearer of Bird Flu. OK, weak pun . . .

They decided to run a football game against the punchless Chicago Bears under a yellow caution flag. If that strategy sounds like the pits . . . well, that is where it landed them. In the pits of a

coyote-ugly, red-zone defiling, field goal frenzy where Robbie Gould was outdueling David Akers, 12-9.

Until . . .

A 74-yard drive that ended with.

Ended with . . .

Give me a second to look up the word, OK?

Here it is . . .

A touchdown. One. Count it. Same as two field goals. Six lovely points. Home free. All they had to do was hang tough to that late, lovely, 16-12 lead. Hold it to their manly bosoms for 4 minutes, 57 seconds - an eternity, as it turned out.

Ah, but with the season now slipping

toward irrelevance after the 19-16 knee to several million groins, if you're in the mood to celebrate what turned into a major triumph for the caution-light strategy, Devin Hester played no role in the Bears' return game.

In fact, if you had to vote for a single, game-altering play before veteran quarterback Brian Griese's amazing 97-yard drive with 1:52 remaining ended with his 15-yard strike to Muhsin Muhammad in the back of the end zone, it was the third out-of-bounds, Hester-evading punt of the game by rookie Australian Rules

legmeister Sav Rocca.

The first two were something from a high school JV game - in Sydney, New South Wales, that is. His first unhappy hooker left-turned out of bounds after 21 yards at the Bears' 41. But the Minis of the Midway went three-and-out.

Rocca wasn't as lucky in the fourth quarter with the NFC's two punchless flops locked in a turgid 9-9 deadlock. His fourth-and-17 punt from the Eagles' 23 could have been arrested for failure to

signal a left turn. It left Griese 50 yards from the end zone and resulted in a 45-yard field goal by Gould that gave the Bears their first lead, 12-9.

But Rocca's final effort was bent like Beckham bends it, 43 yards and out of bounds on the Bears' 3 with Hester watching, helpless. The clock said 1:52.

Twelve plays later, the clock read 9 seconds and the precise time of day was: "Season Almost Over."

With an arrogance that has become more and more the face of this franchise, Andy Reid refused to answer a question on how much trouble the loss heaps on the 2-4 Eagles. His look of disdain failed to show up on the quote sheet. It was,

after all, an afternoon when the Birds'

division rivals all won, cement-shoeing them into last place in the East.

"The NFL is tough, man," is about the only sentence among Reid's alphabet soup of avoidance and self-serving coaches-gotta-do-a-better-job-of putting-the players-in-a-better-position-to-win to ring with sincerity. The man's rap has become almost as hard on the ears as the scarred and arid Linc surface is on the eyes - and legs.

Asking Sav Rocca to become a directional punter when the seven-game American rules football veteran is just learning to put on the equipment right is like asking a Mummers string band to perform Mozart. It takes practice, practice, practice. Andy says teaching his punter the art of kicking the ball away from dangerous returners like Hester remains on a

to-do list that should be fatter by now than his playbook.

Maybe the Eagles should have put more effort into improving their own marginal return game instead of launching pre-emptive strikes on stars who could be controlled with a more experienced punter. No slap at Sav, but the NFL is tough, man. And unforgiving. The Reid qualifier to that statement was, "and we have tough guys here and hopefully we bounce back. We have another game next week."

That used to be the good news . . .

The Eagles were No. 26 in kick returns going into Week 8. Reno "Hands" Mahe fielded one punt and returned it 6 yards. Correll Buckhalter had five returns for 115 yards, slightly more than a breaking-even 20 yards a pop.

Return men apparently are a commodity Reid regards as part of the big picture, which is the intricate multiplicity of the system he learned in the College of Bill Walsh. Once in a while it might help to start a drive after a kickoff in the other guy's end of the field. Let his defense be the one that looks gassed after handing you a 97-yard field to negotiate.

Hard to believe how you let a receiver slip behind you in a red zone that had shriveled to 15 yards, but strong safety Sean Considine managed. Maybe the NFL needs a no-doubles defense. Whatever, Considine didn't clam up, he manned up when asked how he lost track of a large wide receiver like Muhammad.

"No, he ran the route and I had to cover him and you can only backpedal so much before I had to turn my back, and it was just one of those deals when you have your back turned to the quarterback and you can't see the ball coming," Sean said.

It was a lot easier to see one of the most brutal losses of Reid's slowly unraveling stewardship coming than it was for Considine to locate Muhammad and a perfectly delivered ball past the time it is possible for a safety to stay glued to a wide receiver.

David Akers had the last word on Operation Hester:

"He didn't touch the ball once today [on returns] and that was on purpose."

Hey, the patient was a success, but the operation died . . . *

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