Bob Ford: Why do the Eagles pass? Because they can't run

Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg (left) has taken over play-calling from Andy Reid, but with similar results: pass, pass, pass.
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg (left) has taken over play-calling from Andy Reid, but with similar results: pass, pass, pass.
Posted: November 20, 2009

Even though Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg rarely stand together on the sideline, they are closely linked by both the headphones over their ears and the spaces between their ears.

When Reid cleared his throat at his Monday news conference this week and said the offense's failings in the red zone were partly due to the scheme and partly due to the execution of plays, some took it as an oblique criticism of Mornhinweg's play-calling.

Not that there was anything out of the ordinary about Sunday's loss to San Diego, when 58 passes and 13 runs were called. If the Eagles are always pass-happy, maybe they were pass-delirious this time, but had Reid been making the selections, probably not that much would have been different.

"I've been asked a couple of times in these meetings if I ever go back and question what I called or asked for, and there are times that you do that," Reid said, "even [after] games that you're very successful. You're always analyzing yourself."

In the past, Reid and Mornhinweg have shared the play- calling at various times. Since last season, and all of this season, it has been Mornhinweg who makes the decision on the field, holds the play chart in front of his mouth, and relays the call to the speaker in Donovan McNabb's helmet. Reid checks the call on his own chart and then settles back, just like you, to see what happens.

Football at this level becomes a game of preparing for and guessing what the other guy's tendencies might be. The Eagles have shown some very specific tendencies this season. Only one team in the league - interestingly enough, the Chicago Bears - passes the ball more often in first-and-10 situations than the Eagles, for instance. (Bears, 62.6 percent; Eagles, 61.1 percent, according to the NFL Game Statistics and Information System.)

As Reid and Mornhinweg formulate their game plan, they compose the play-calling "script" for the start of the game, an outline of 15 to 20 plays designed to test the defense and perhaps to disguise the Eagles' true intentions.

In the first quarter against San Diego, the Eagles ran the ball on three of their first four first-and-10 opportunities. They didn't do it particularly well, but, against all their tendencies, they did it.

Whether that fooled the Chargers or not is unknown, because the next time the Eagles got the ball - preparing to run their 13th play from scrimmage - they already trailed, 14-0, and that was that for running the football. The Eagles proceeded to throw a pass on their next 19 first-and-10 opportunities. Now there is a tendency for you.

"When you're running the football well, it's a little bit easier to [call] a run," Mornhinweg said yesterday. "When you're behind a little bit, the numbers get skewed as far as pass-to-run."

Reid and Mornhinweg are easy targets on this subject, because neither will say out loud that the reason the Eagles aren't running the ball more this season is because they can't run the ball effectively.

Combine the unsettled, inconsistent state of the offensive line with the loss of Brian Westbrook, and there is little question that the coaching staff has no confidence in the run game.

That was certainly on display last week with the disparity in the play calls, and particularly with how the team's opportunities in the red zone turned out against San Diego.

On the first drive inside the 20, the Eagles had a first and goal at the Chargers' 1-yard line after an interference penalty. They sandwiched runs for no gain - by Leonard Weaver and Eldra Buckley - around an incompletion to Brent Celek before settling for a field goal.

On the second drive into the red zone, with a first down at the 9-yard line, the sequence was reversed - pass, run, pass - with the same result.

On the third deep drive, which arrived early in the third quarter with the Eagles trailing, 21-6, the Eagles took the field goal after a third-and-1 pass to DeSean Jackson from the 9-yard line went incomplete. After the play, television cameras caught McNabb turning to the sideline and stepping in place quickly to indicate he would have preferred a run play there.

"I didn't see it. If he did, he was probably right. We didn't execute the play well enough," Mornhinweg said.

Criticizing the offense after it records 462 net yards is legitimate only if the offense misfires in its most important moments. And, talk about tendencies, that's one the Eagles definitely show.

They are No. 1 in the league in scoring points when they get into the red zone, coming away with points more than 90 per cent of the time. Unfortunately, they are No. 23 when it comes to scoring touchdowns in the red zone.

"That doesn't cut it," Mornhinweg said.

It doesn't, but the Eagles are not a predictable team, inside the red zone or not, just because Reid and Mornhinweg happen to like to throw the ball a lot. They have become predictable because the running game isn't there, and opponents are aware of that, too.

Fixing the run game at this point would be difficult and probably won't happen this season. In its absence, Mornhinweg will continue to hold the play chart in front of his face and call pass play after pass play. Reid will continue to hear the calls, glance down at his own chart, and, for the most part, agree.

Passing the ball beats the alternative for this team - even if it isn't as reliable in beating the opponent.


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read

his blog at http://philly.com/postpatterns.

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