Without McNabb, finger pointing more complex

Posted: January 10, 2011

Well, maybe it wasn't entirely Donovan's fault, after all.

Following Sunday's flat 21-16 dismissal in the wild-card round of the playoffs - the first time the Eagles have lost at home in the opening round in 20 years - there will have to be a major search for a fresh spot to place the blame.

The loss to Green Bay ended with a pass into the end zone. If it had been a touchdown, the Eagles would likely have won and advanced to the second round next Sunday against Chicago. Instead, after a season of producing unexpected wins, quarterback Michael Vick finally lost his hot hand with the dice. The pass, which was underthrown to a receiver with a defender between him and the ball, was intercepted. It was a bad decision as soon as it left Vick's hand.

"It was a bad way to go out, but, hey, I went out swinging," he said after the game.

There's no way to blame Vick for the loss, even though it was far from his best performance. He was harassed by the Packers' defense all game, had his best receiver leave the field for a time with an injury, and was himself playing at the end with a badly sprained ankle.

The only blame Vick has to accept is for making everyone - including his coaches and teammates - operate under the assumption that he would always be able to pull their fat from the hot fire of their many inadequacies.

"This is the playoffs. Everything's magnified," rookie middle linebacker Jamar Chaney said. "Teams are going to know your weaknesses and strengths."

The Green Bay Packers are a nice team, but not a great one. That is not meant to diminish their win Sunday. They were the better team, and the Eagles were something less than Vick has often made them appear.

On defense, as Chaney suggested, the Eagles had a couple of weaknesses that even they might not have known about. The Packers - the 11th-ranked rushing offense in the NFC, by the way - were able to open huge gashes in the line for rookie running back James Starks.

The combination of Starks' rushing and quarterback Aaron Rodgers' picking the Eagles apart with screen passes and short passes over the middle allowed the Packers to build two long drives in the first half that staked them to a 14-3 lead.

"We just didn't get off the field," said injured linebacker Stewart Bradley, who had a good perspective on the game from the sideline. "They were able to pick up good yardage with their runs and short plays, and that gave them very manageable third downs."

Green Bay was 5 for 5 on third-down attempts in those two drives, and 2 for 2 on third downs in their only other scoring drive, a deliberate, 80-yard march through a porous defense that made it a 21-10 game.

And that is where the script was supposed to turn, where it has turned all season. The defense was supposed to stop allowing points - at least partly because the other team goes into a more cautious mode - and that happened right on cue. The Packers would punt in their final three possessions that mattered, and Vick would have the outcome in his hands.

The script went awry this time, however, and it might have been partly because Green Bay's defense is the best in the conference. But that defense didn't have anything to do with David Akers' missing a 34-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, and it didn't have anything to do with Andy Reid's spending his time-outs until his pockets were empty.

Vick led them to one score, and then he got them within a better decision of the winning touchdown. If you want to spend the off-season picking things apart, you can say Brent Celek was a defenseless receiver when Packers safety Nick Collins leveled him near the end, without the benefit of a penalty flag. And you can say that receiver Riley Cooper should have been the last option on the final offensive play rather than the first one, or that the 6-foot-3 Cooper should have found a way to keep 5-11 Tramon Williams from boxing him out.

All reasonable points, but pointless. The Eagles had their chances and didn't come through. The Packers handed them a gift by muffing a punt-return opportunity in the first quarter, but the Eagles couldn't take advantage. Green Bay receiver James Jones dropped a long gain, maybe a touchdown, near the end of the first half, and that didn't save them, either.

It came down to those three drives in which Green Bay dissected the defense, and the three quarters in which the Eagles' offense frittered away time. So often this year, Vick would make up for that kind of trouble, but there turned out to be one final course at the table that he couldn't finish all by himself.

A successful season? Sure, if you say so. The first division title in four years. Double-digit wins for the eighth time in 12 years under Reid. An MVP candidate who rises from the bench to nearly save the day.

So, all right, a successful season, but a very bad ending. And had Donovan McNabb thrown that last pass, it wouldn't have taken long to find the scapegoat.

It might just be, after all these years, the real problem is a little farther up the organizational food chain.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford

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