Sam Donnellon: Eagles' red-zone woes have become running joke

Posted: November 20, 2009

HIS ANGST came and went Sunday, but for a quarterback known for saying nothing, Donovan MacNabb's actions spoke a thousand words. The Eagles had just flubbed a third-and-1 from the San Diego 7-yard line, this time on a well-covered rollout incompletion into the end zone, and their quarterback, who has seen this sort of thing so often over 11 years on the job, had enough.

Spinning toward the sideline with that now all-too-familiar pained look on his face, McNabb pumped both arms along his side as if on an imaginary treadmill and angrily screamed, "Run the ball!"

Was it directed to the head coach? To offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg? No one seemed to remember the moment, vividly captured on the televised broadcast. "Do I remember that? I don't know. I've said a lot of different things through the course of the game," McNabb said.

"I didn't see it," said Mornhinweg. "I remember the play . . . Probably could have run the football.

"If he did, he was probably right."

That's the standard response, week in and week out, from everybody of import in Eaglesville. Assume blame, whether you think you deserve it or not. The head coach does it every Monday after a loss, then usually contradicts that position by the end of the press conference. And despite his olive branch there, Mornhinweg made it clear in subsequent remarks yesterday that he did not see play selection as much of an issue during Sunday's red-zone problems - or more specifically, that it should have been.

"We didn't execute the play well enough," he said at another point. "We were in a decent play there. We'll see. When you're running the football well, it's a little bit easier to get to a run. When you're behind a little bit the numbers get skewed as far as pass to run."

They get skewed even more, I would argue, you would argue, coaches in the broadcast booth would argue, because the Eagles abandon it too quickly, usually without even trying to pound it in there several times.

The Eagles are first in scoring once inside the red zone. They are 23rd scoring touchdowns once they get there. As they head into Chicago for yet another must game, statement game, season-swinging game, this touchdown tic is just one on a list of problems.

Another is their makeshift offensive line, which often has been cited for their inefficiency down low. It's hard to believe that a line that has made big plays and moving between the 20s seem like such a breeze can be so impotent once it gets close. And as Jon Runyan will tell you, even the best of times around here has produced the worst of ratios.

Stop the Eagles on a first-down run and you can put your pass-protection package in the very next down. Stop them a couple more times on first-down runs and you can play pass protection all the time. Mornhinweg seemed convinced that, conceptually, his plays in the red zone should have succeeded Sunday, that the fault lay with him not "coaching the details better" and his players' failure to execute.

"We certainly had opportunities there," he said at one point.

But then he issued this bit of frustrated honesty that sounded eerily similar to Joe Banner's oft-quoted "insanity" quote following last season's NFC Championship Game loss.

"Look, if it doesn't work, you coach it better, play with more detail," he said. "Or you do something else because if you think, 'The play should work, the play should work, they play should work' - many times that doesn't cut it. You have to play to your players' strengths. We can do some other things there as well."

As is the case with Banner, you wish he really believed what he said there. Playing to Donovan's strengths would be running the ball until it is effective, even if you fall behind early, as the Eagles did Sunday. Mornhinweg cited that yesterday, too, as if a 14-point first-quarter hole required a frantic recovery mentality.

I'll say it again: McNabb would be an elite-level quarterback on a team with a balanced attack. He could take his shots, use play-action more effectively, get into that rhythm the coaching staff so often speaks about but rarely achieves.

And then when they did get to the red zone?

Who knows what they might do?

As it is, everyone knows. They may try one run if they have a down or two to burn. Then they will pass. And pass. You know it, I know it and doggone it, every defensive coordinator in the NFL knows it, too.

On Monday, Andy Reid was asked whether he thinks being a pass-first offense adversely affects the running game in short-yardage situations, particularly inside the red zone.

"I don't think that's the problem," he said.

So maybe we do know who the quarterback was yelling at Sunday after all.

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