Phil Sheridan: Eagles' endless loop of must-win games

This is not a recording: Donovan McNabb says the Eagles must beat the Bears. November blahs are a team pattern.
This is not a recording: Donovan McNabb says the Eagles must beat the Bears. November blahs are a team pattern.
Posted: November 22, 2009

When Donovan McNabb applied "must-win game" to tonight's game at Soldier Field in Chicago, the quarterback created a bit of a stir. Of course, that happens when McNabb says anything. If he says he's giving 110 percent, he gets ripped for not giving enough and for being lousy at math.

McNabb is clearly trying to ratchet up the sense of urgency in the locker room. In pursuit of that worthy goal, his words are fine.

But must-win game? Really?

If we've learned anything from watching the endless loop that has ensnared the Eagles - deja vuvuvuvuvu all over again - it's that there are no must-win games until the playoffs.

That says something about an NFL where regular-season games, especially the first 10 of them, have become devalued. Ask fans of the Denver Broncos how good they feel about the team's 6-0 start now that the Broncs are 6-3. How about New York? The Giants are 5-4 after a 5-0 start. The Jets slid from 3-0 to 4-5.

There are a few teams you can be pretty sure are good and a bigger bunch that are hopeless. The Eagles are in the muddling middle, where it's a coin flip every week.

They are there partly because this is a team that treats September and October as the preseason and November as No Big Deal. Not just this year, but every year since 2004, the year the Eagles made their every-quarter-century appearance in the Super Bowl.

It would be much better to be 6-4 than 4-6 after 10 games, of course. The Eagles can really help themselves by winning this game after losing two very winnable games in a row. But must-win?

After 10 games, the Eagles were:

4-6 in 2005.

5-5 in 2006.

5-5 in 2007.

5-4-1 in 2008.

That is an endless loop of grim mediocrity. Each season had different details - the Terrell Owens implosion in '05, the Jeff Garcia resurrection in '06 - but that kind of consistency tells a pretty convincing story. The really amazing thing, though, is that those 10-game records offer no indication whatsoever of how those seasons turned out.

In 2005 and 2007, the Eagles went on to miss the playoffs with records of 6-10 (with Mike McMahon playing QB at the end of '05) and 8-8.

In 2006, the Eagles won their last five games to win the NFC East title. But first they fell to 5-6 with a humiliating blowout loss in Indianapolis.

If the 11th game of the season wasn't must-win, what is?

In 2008, McNabb was benched during a hideous loss in Baltimore on Nov. 23, just about a year ago. The Eagles were 5-5-1 and in apparent free-fall at that point. They went 4-1 the rest of the way and won the division again.

But then, in proving that a late-November record of misery and woe has no bearing on a team's playoff chances, the Eagles also demonstrated the downside of sneaking into the postseason with nine wins. Their unexpected run to the NFC championship game took place entirely on the road - at Minnesota, at the Giants, and finally at Arizona. Cash in a couple of those September and October missed opportunities and maybe the championship game is at the Linc.

And that raises the question of whether the goal is to be a middling muddled team that finds its way into the playoffs or the kind of winning team the Eagles were from 2001 to 2004.

"I think what happened last year, by us even getting into the playoffs, was a miracle," safety Quintin Mikell said the other day. "We don't really want to count on miracles too much. . . . We have to win this game."

Mikell went on to call tonight's prime-time matchup "our Super Bowl right now," but you suspect the emphasis was on "right now." Next week will bring another ersatz Super Bowl for the Eagles, then another.

This late-season desperation is, of course, born of early-season failures. When they were very good under Andy Reid, the Eagles might let a game or two slip away in the early going. But this team has three shoulda-wons in the loss column. The abomination in Oakland was particularly embarrassing, but the Eagles would not have had to exceed their abilities to beat Dallas or San Diego.

The shorthand on this season will eventually focus on the failed rebuild of the offensive line and injuries to Brian Westbrook and Stewart Bradley. You will have to be reminded that this was the year Reid mystifyingly wasted a roster spot (and a lot of energy) on Michael Vick.

Whether it's a wasted season or another rally to the postseason is not known. What is known, based on the endless loop, is that this is not a must-win game. It should be, but the endless loop says otherwise.


Phil Sheridan:

Eagles

at Bears

Tonight at 8:15 (NBC10)

Line: Eagles by 3

Inside

Postgame injury report will tell you a lot. E10.

Leg pads? It's style and speed over safety. E10.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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