Marcus Hayes: How Eagles can top 8-8

Michael Vick must still learn to protect himself on the field.
Michael Vick must still learn to protect himself on the field. (SARAH J. GLOVER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: January 03, 2012

AS THE MEDIOCRE Giants prepare to host a playoff game this weekend, relentlessly the Eagles discuss "momentum" and "good feeling."

They won their last four games of the season, but none of those teams finished with a winning record, much less a playoff berth.

They limited those four offenses to 11.5 points per game, but none of those offenses ranked in the league's top 10 in points or yards.

Still, wins are wins, momentum is momentum, execution is execution.

How to preserve it for 8 months of idleness?

Plenty of things need to happen for the Eagles to get better. The Birds must acquire two linebackers who can play and a real backup quarterback. They must develop second-round rookie safety Jaiquawn Jarrett, and turn injured end Brandon Graham into a pass-rushing threat.

None of those issues has anything to do with staying as good as they are.

They stay as good as they are by convincing quarterback Michael Vick that he is not invincible. They placate receiver DeSean Jackson and running back LeSean McCoy. They retain defensive-line coach Jim Washburn, which means not firing defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.

These are the issues to keep the ball rolling with their current personnel:

Progress

The most disturbing element in the past month has been Michael Vick's apparent failure to recognize that his turnovers can be averted.

After the game Sunday, Vick was defiant in his defense of tipped-ball interceptions. Which both incorrectly shifts blame for those picks and minimizes his other interceptions.

At 6-foot, Vick is a small quarterback. Well, Drew Brees is the same size.

Brees, a fine athlete, has learned to float in the pocket, to slide around his offensive linemen, who, invariably, are engaged with defenders bent on altering the flight of passes. Brees improves his sightlines and constructs cleaner passing lanes.

Brees just had the best season a quarterback ever had.

Vick must learn what Brees now knows.

First, though, Vick must learn what kept Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and, perhaps a better comparison, mobile Aaron Rodgers from the open-field punishment Vick absorbs.

Vick must learn to throw it away.

Not all quarterbacks can. Some lack the arm strength to fire a ball over the heads of everyone, sometimes as much as 30 or 40 yards, often while fleeing.

Vick has plenty of arm strength. What he must learn is humility.

Vick cannot resist the temptation - the instinct - to extend plays beyond any reasonable limit.

He must resist. The Eagles cannot win without him; they were 1-4 in games in which he was injured or games that he missed. Yesterday, it sounded as if he realized that his presence is more important than his highlight reel:

"I have to be available for all 16 games for this team," he said, physically as fresh as he ever has been after a game, and this, after the 16th game. But then, considering the complexity of the Eagles' offense and his increasing mastery of it, Vick is at the end of the best four-game string of his career. "I have to get away from trying to do too much. Not waking up sore on Monday mornings doesn't mean you didn't give it your all. It means playing smart."

That sounds great. He has said the same thing before.

But the Dolphins and Jets clobbered him in the 2 weeks after his return from cracked ribs. Afterward, Vick defiantly contended that he was the sort of player who will never slide or otherwise surrender.

If he can learn to find the passing lanes, if he can learn to avoid punishment, if he can make himself "available" for all 16 games in this iteration of his career, he can be, as he put it, "unbelievable."

Satisfy the Seans

Effervescent and lethal, receiver DeSean Jackson and runner LeSean McCoy both enter the offseason dissatisfied with their contract status. Arguably, along with Vick, they are the most talented players to have played their positions in Eagles history; certainly, the most fearsome trio the club has ever seen.

Next season, McCoy, the 53rd overall pick in the 2009 draft, will be in the final year of his 4-year rookie contract. He will make just north of $600,000 next season.

He will be in the exact position in which Jackson and, more significantly, Bears running back Matt Forte, found themselves this season.

Forte, the 44th overall pick in 2008, reported to training camp and played wonderfully for the Bears despite making about $600,000 this season. He led the league in all-purpose yards and the Bears were 7-4 when a sprained knee cost him the rest of the season . . . and untold riches.

Jackson, the 49th overall pick in 2008, held out of training camp to protest his $600,000 salary and, on Sunday, admitted to having played uncommitted football this season:

"I can admit to certain things affecting me during the season. I just want to apologize."

On the other hand, unlike Forte, Jackson is fully healthy.

McCoy is not fully healthy. He missed Sunday's game with a sprained ankle, an omen for him, perhaps, as the offseason starts.

Jackson can be slapped with the franchise-player tag, which, on Sunday, he claimed would not anger him. He might even believe it.

But it will anger him. That is who he is. He sulked and he pouted and he cowered this season.

"There are guys that can play football out there. And Marty's [Mornhinweg] a great offensive coordinator. He'll find ways to get the job done," said Jeremy Maclin, Jackson's tandem in harness. "We won the game without Vick before. We won the game without me. We won the game without Shady."

Well, they did not win when Jackson was benched for his attitude this season - a benching that might have cost the Eagles a playoff berth, considering one more win gets them in. The loss came at home, to 2-6 Arizona, playing without starting quarterback Kevin Kolb.

Similarly, McCoy can be ignored . . . which, certainly, would anger him. You don't want McCoy avoiding contact to stay healthy, not now that he has learned the Tao of short-yardage success and touchdown scoring.

McCoy and Jackson are represented by Drew Rosenhaus.

Maybe the Birds can get a bulk discount.

Continuity

The importance of the retention of defensive-line coach Jim "Wide-Nine" Washburn, and, perhaps by association, of Juan Castillo, cannot be overstated.

The Eagles shared the league lead with 50 sacks, of which 46 were by defensive linemen. By comparison, 10 of the Vikings' 50 came from linebackers and defensive backs.

Left defensive end Jason Babin recorded 17 1/2 sacks in six seasons before Washburn got hold of him in Tennessee last season. Babin had 18 sacks this season and 31 sacks in the past two seasons.

Make no mistake: Right end Trent Cole is the most important player on the defense, if not on the entire team. When Cole missed two games, Babin disappeared.

But Babin, Cole and Washburn are a recipe for magic.

Fatherly tackle Cullen Jenkins, the other free-agent acquisition on the defensive line, had the finest of his eight seasons under Washburn's thumb in Castillo's system.

Jenkins yesterday succinctly pointed out that, while the offenses the Eagles faced down the stretch were unimpressive, so were some of the offenses that beat them up. Seattle, Buffalo and Chicago each scored at least 30 points, largely because of ineffective play by inexperienced linebackers and safeties who largely are without pedigree.

Jenkins also said that the defense would be best if the coaching staff remained static.

Blame who you like how you like, but carefully sprinkle the blame.

Washburn should be courted, and rewarded.

That means keeping Castillo.


Send email to hayesm@phillynews.com

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