Winter squanderland: Eagles' failure to take charge is catching

Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall hovers over L.J. Smith after fourth-quarter incompletion.
Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall hovers over L.J. Smith after fourth-quarter incompletion.
Posted: December 22, 2008

LANDOVER, Md. - Maybe it's time to bench Donovan McNabb again, just to fire everyone up.

We kid, we kid.

McNabb was not the Eagles' biggest problem, or even close to it, on the day they were handed the controls to their playoff destiny and promptly drove off a bridge.

McNabb was what he has been a lot the last 4 years - victimized by seven drops and by inept playcalling, unwilling to try to ignite a spark with his feet, and in the end, not quite up to getting it done.

"We just didn't make any plays," said right tackle Jon Runyan, who is 35 and is quite possibly facing his last week in an Eagles uniform. At this point, their playoff hopes dangling on a ridiculously slim thread, Runyan isn't going to yammer nonsensically about pieces of pie, or suggest, as Eagles coach Andy Reid actually did, that neither the offense nor the defense was good enough to win on a day when the Redskins' only touchdown came at the end of an 18-yard drive set up by a turnover.

"You've gotta make the first one to make the second one. It just didn't happen," Runyan continued. "The biggest issue is, you've got to catch the ball. That's been the story most of the year, and it's popped up again. That's been the story around here for many years."

Not many fans will disagree there. Kevin Curtis (calf) and Hank Baskett (knee) were missed on a day when DeSean Jackson looked more like a rookie and less like a star, dropping the tying touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone with 57 seconds remaining. If the defense could be faulted, it would be for the interceptions Quintin Mikell and Asante Samuel dropped, plays that could have provided a spark.

But there was another story that heavily contributed to the Eagles' painful offensive ineptitude in a crushing, 10-3 loss to the host Washington Redskins, who had lost five of their previous six and had nothing to play for, other than pride.

When the offense didn't click into gear right away, Reid forgot the "effective balance" that had fueled three successive victories.

Reid and/or offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg did not call a running play between 7:26 remaining in the third and 3:48 remaining in the game. That meant 15 successive pass plays, if you were keeping score at home, then a designed pass on which McNabb took off because everyone was covered on third-and-9 from his 21. He went out of bounds at the 26, well short of the first down. The next possession began with a 3-yard Brian Westbrook run.

"I didn't ask any questions. Coach, I'm assuming he saw something that dictated we should pass the ball," Westbrook said. Westbrook, ostensibly as healthy as he was the previous three games, carried just 12 times, for 45 yards. Take away two McNabb scrambles and the Eagles ran 14 times, tried to pass it 50 times, including the scrambles and the two sacks. And two of the runs were spent killing the clock at the end of the first half.

Most of the second half, you would have thought they were trailing by four touchdowns. Over and over again, McNabb dropped back, patted the ball, didn't like what he saw, and hurried a dumpoff that was as likely to be dropped as to be caught.

"Next question," center Jamaal Jackson said, when asked about that imbalance.

"We were trying to get something started, any way we possibly could," Reid said, when asked about the lack of anything approaching balance. Many football people would tell you that offenses develop rhythm and consistency by running the ball, particularly when the pass is hit-or-miss.

"The run game and the pass game really struggled, I thought, the whole game, with the exception of right at the end there," Reid said. And as we all know, if the run and the pass both struggle, that means you stop running.

"Right at the end there" was a 90-yard, 16-play drive that ended when prodigal wideout Reggie Brown caught a McNabb pass at the Redskins' 1 and was hit by safety LaRon Landry and corner Fred Smoot. At the point where Brown caught the ball, it was inches from the goal line, which was why the Redskins' celebration was interrupted by replay review. But Brown did not score. And since the play began with 12 seconds left in the game, and Reid - stop us if you've heard this before - had burned a timeout following the second play of the third quarter, the Birds could not stop the clock. The game and probably their season died at the Redskins' 1.

"It's not a good feeling," said Reid, who knew that the Chargers had upset the Bucs just before the Eagles took the field, meaning the Birds would be in the playoffs if they defeated the Redskins and then the Cowboys next Sunday. Reid did not know, as he began his news conference, that his team remained alive for the postseason, which seems not that different from a quarterback not knowing a game can end in a tie.

You'll find all the playoff scenarios explained more fully elsewhere, but if the Eagles beat the Cowboys and the Bucs should continue their nosedive by losing at home to the Raiders, and either the Vikings lose to the Giants or the Bears lose either their game tonight against the Packers or their finale at Houston, the Birds are in.

That's a lot of help to need, when you began yesterday's game not needing any.

"It was very disappointing," said Reid, who called the offensive performance against the NFL's fifth-ranked defense "terrible."

McNabb, pinned to his own end zone most of the second half by Redskins punter Ryan Plackemeier, and by the lack of an attempt at a running game, said the Eagles "had everything we asked for'' going into the contest. He referred to "things that were just uncharacteristic of this team, particularly the last month and a half."

The Eagles couldn't have come out colder if they'd ridden down from 30th Street with the train windows open.

Basically, the Birds took turns having their early drives sabotaged by penalties and L.J. Smith drops.

The Redskins had the ball nearly twice as long as the Eagles (19:25 vs. 10:35) in the first half. McNabb was 6-for-11, most of the completions dumpoffs, for 41 yards. Jason Campbell, who faced little pressure much of the half, completed 15 of 23 for 116 yards. Clinton Portis carried 10 times for 46 yards despite spending Washington's one scoring drive on the sideline with a hand injury.

The Eagles were lucky to be down only 3-0 at intermission.

Then, in the third quarter, yet another stupid penalty - obvious holding on Brown - set up a sequence that ended with McNabb being stripped by Jason Taylor, who recovered the fumble and ran it to the Eagles' 18. Portis ultimately made it 10-0 on a 1-yard run on third and goal.

Belatedly, the Birds put a drive together, 76 yards on nine plays, but it ended when McNabb threw to Westbrook 2 yards shy of the first down, at the Redskins' 4. The Eagles settled for a 22-yard David Akers field goal. Through three quarters, they'd gained just 165 net yards and managed eight first downs to the Redskins' 16.

"There were too many opportunities we didn't take advantage of," McNabb said, when asked what he will think about this season if the 8-6-1 Birds fail to make the playoffs, as now seems very likely. "Things early on will cost you later. As you can see, at this point we're paying for the mistakes we've made. But we can't afford to put our heads down right now. We've got to learn from this, be ready for next week, because no matter how we look at it, we're all playing for something. We need to go out and we need to play well."

Asked if he felt he was playing for his 2009 job next week, McNabb said: "Not at all. We're all playing for an opportunity. You never know what can happen. We have another game on our schedule, and that's the Dallas Cowboys."

Runyan agreed that if this season ends in disappointment, "You think about the missed opportunities you had earlier in the season."

In six losses, the Eagles have been beaten by more than a touchdown once - that Nov. 23 blowout in Baltimore when McNabb was benched at halftime. *

For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.

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