Rich Hofmann: Eagles can't afford to fall short against Bears

Posted: November 18, 2009

SUNDAY NIGHT, Soldier Field, Chicago.

Also known as the scene of the crime.

Late last September, this is really where it started for the Eagles. It was the fourth game of the season. To that point, they had thumped the hapless Rams in the opener, lost a memorable shootout in Dallas and beaten Pittsburgh in an impressive, low-scoring game. Then it happened.

Trailing by 24-20.

Less than 6 minutes to play.

First-and-goal at the 4.

It was hard to know what to think about the Eagles before that moment. They had looked pretty solid overall. They were never going to be a great running team, partly because of their personnel and partly because of their coach's particular predilections, but things looked entirely serviceable. Then came the train wreck.

First-and-goal at the 4: Correll Buckhalter runs for 3 yards.

The reason that Buck was carrying the load at this point was because Brian Westbrook was out with an ankle injury. And Buckhalter was doing fine. It had been a brutal game to this point, one in which the quarterbacks were getting knocked around a lot, but the Eagles were in a position to salvage things. It was nearing midnight in the East, but the Eagles appeared as if they were going to pull it off.

Second-and-goal at the 1: Tony Hunt, no gain.

This is where the comedy of errors began. Hunt would be gone very soon from this roster, and this had to be one of the reasons. Because the line did get this one blocked. There was a hole on the right side. Hunt, though, either couldn't recognize it or just blundered terribly, cutting the play farther outside and running into traffic. He ended up getting nothing. And on the television, NBC analyst John Madden was calling for some kind of pass on third down.

Third-and-goal at the 1: Buckhalter, no gain.

This is the one where they really missed Westbrook. Because there really was no hole on the right side, where Buckhalter carried. He tried to leap over the pile, but he is no Westbrook that way. Time after time through the years, Westbrook showed an ability to jump over the train wreck, to turn nothing into a touchdown by overflying the mass of bodies below him. But Buckhalter couldn't quite get airborne enough.

Fourth-and-goal at the 1: Buckhalter, no gain.

Madden, on the television, was not quite flabbergasted but openly questioning now. Because he likes Andy Reid on the one hand but he recognizes what the Eagles are on the other hand: that is, a passing team. He thought they either had to call some kind of pass play, maybe rolling Donovan McNabb out, or have McNabb keep it himself on a quarterback sneak.

Instead, they gave it to Buckhalter again. He might have made it, too, if tight end Matt Schobel had not completely, inexplicably whiffed on a block of the Bears' right defensive end on the play, Alex Brown. Schobel isn't here anymore, either.

Now, a lot of stuff happened in that game, a lot of close calls, replay challenges that Reid didn't make on several close spots of the ball, all manner of controversies. The play-calling alone on that goal-line series would be chewed on for days. That's what happens when you lose a tight game.

But the real issue was larger. This was the game where the Eagles' short-yardage/goal-line problems were really laid bare for everyone to see. It cost them a game, a nationally televised game. It began a pattern that would continue for the rest of the season. It displayed a reality that the Eagles would spend the entire offseason attempting to alter - and they thought they did alter it.

They brought in a real fullback, Leonard Weaver. They drafted a promising running back, LeSean McCoy. They completely reconfigured their offensive line, bringing in Jason Peters and Stacy Andrews, and counting on Shawn Andrews to return. They got bigger and younger and more talented - at least they thought they did.

But injuries have nicked Peters and nicked him again. Shawn Andrews turned out to be a terrible gamble by the coach. Stacy Andrews just hasn't played well yet. The rest of the guys are doing what they can as things shift from position to position, week to week, quarter to quarter, injury to injury. The result, though, is the exact same series of problems, manifest this time at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

First-and-goal at the 1: Weaver, no gain.

Second-and-goal at the 1: Incomplete.

Third-and-goal at the 1: Eldra Buckley, no gain.

A year later, the issues are similar but the stakes seem even bigger. Terribly banged up on defense, missing Westbrook with a concussion, it doesn't matter: A loss here would be devastating. And now they go back to Chicago again, to Soldier Field for another Sunday night game.

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