Rich Hofmann: How Andy & Marty have Birds in the running

Posted: November 10, 2010

OH, FOR THE DAYS of yore - when men were men and it wasn't an Eagles season without at least a half-dozen full-throated discussions of the unnatural relationship between Andy Reid and the run-pass ratio.

Instead, it is all about winning games with Michael Vick, Kevin Kolb or whoever at quarterback. It is about having a 5-3 record despite incessant shuffling along the offensive line. It is about keeping things pulled together even though the lead running back (Shady McCoy) has played with a cracked rib, and his presumed running mate (Leonard Weaver) is gone for the season, and his original backup (Mike Bell) flamed out and was traded. It is about staying on pace even though receiver DeSean Jackson has missed nearly a quarter of the quarters played so far.

Through all of this, Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg are having a really good season, adjusting well to a slew of injuries to key players, and to the quarterback rotation, and to the critical reality that the offensive line was going to struggle to get itself pulled together for the home stretch.

Even if it is impossible to give the most meaningful grade until the end - until we know if Vick can lead the Eagles on a long January run, the only way to justify the short-circuiting of a season of Kolb's development - it is plain, halfway through the season, that Reid and Mornhinweg have made the most of this rotating series of changes.

And this: that they have somewhat changed the notion of how they want their offense to look. With McCoy replacing the often-injured Brian Westbrook, they have been more willing to lean on their running game - especially out of spread formations. The changes are not seismic but they are noticeable.

Some of this is fairly subtle, but here goes. We will begin with this notion: that all of this can be traced back to that day in Baltimore in 2008, that day when Donovan McNabb was benched at halftime and replaced by Kolb. It was a day that forever altered McNabb's relationship with Reid and with the organization - and everybody remembers that. In the recent history of the franchise, it remains one of the handful of truly meaningful days because it did mark a real turning point.

Not as easily remembered, or recognized, was the change that occurred with Reid and Mornhinweg. They had done reassessments before, often during bye weeks. One year, during the bye, Reid fired himself as the playcaller and gave the job to Mornhinweg. Other times, the pretty lines that they drew up in the playbook were replaced by the cold reality that they were going to get McNabb killed because the offensive line couldn't handle all of the pass blocking. More than once over the years, the offense became more conservative to suit the circumstances of a season.

It happened again in 2008 after the benching - but it was different. The pulling-in of the reins in those last few games, with McNabb back at quarterback, was pretty pronounced (even, if I remember correctly, that I did everything I could to minimize what was happening at the time - mostly because I never thought the run-pass business was a big deal).

Anyway, it happened. The Eagles were throwing the ball nearly 70 percent of the time in the first half of games before that benching - the first-half stats being the most instructive because time and score are not yet completely controlling. After the benching, it was 57 percent of the time.

But here is the difference: The change stuck as 2008 rolled into 2009. In the past, as the NFL became more and more and more of a passing league, Reid was always in the vanguard of this ever-expanding passing game. Since the benching, though, he has calmed down this leadership role among the aerialists.

Again, it is subtle. By one set of numbers, he really hasn't changed that much. In the first half run-pass numbers, Reid and Mornhinweg called pass plays 66.5 percent of the time in the first half last year and they are calling pass plays 66 percent of the time in the first half this year. The philosophy is still to pass the ball, score points, get a halftime lead, and then run it more in the second half. That is what they did last year in getting a halftime lead 11 times, and it is what they have done this year in getting a halftime lead five times so far.

But it is different now. It just feels different. In the first half of games this year, they have run it on first-and-10ish about 40 percent of the time, a tiny bit less than last year. That's more than in the pre-benching portion of the 2008 season (35 percent), another sign of the evolving philosophy. So that's part of it.

Still, it is more about where the Eagles stand among their peers. This is the one that kind of jumps out at you. Through midseason, the Eagles are 14th in the NFL in rushes per game. If this were to hold up, it would be the first time they are in the top half of the league in rushing attempts since 2002.

They're still a passing team. They still do most of their running when protecting a second-half lead. But the Eagles at midseason have evolved since that day in 2008 when their franchise quarterback was benched at halftime. It is different now, in more than just the obvious ways.

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