John Smallwood: Like last season, Eagles at a loss

Michael Vick hangs his head after loss to Lions.
Michael Vick hangs his head after loss to Lions. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 15, 2012

THIS IS EERILY familiar - and not in a good way.

Last year, the Eagles' season unraveled with a stunning string of three straight games in which they blew fourth-quarter leads and lost.

After Sunday's fur ball choke job in a 26-23 overtime loss to the previously struggling Detroit Lions, it isn't yet "deja vu all over again" in the Delaware Valley, but it's damn close.

Holding a 10-point lead with just over 5 minutes remaining in a game that should have given them a 4-2 record going into this week's bye, the Eagles yanked defeat out of the nurturing arms of victory.

After giving up a late lead and losing on a last-second field goal to the Pittsburgh Steelers in their previous game, the Eagles sipped a late dose of arsenic against the Lions.

All they need to do to make this a complete 2011 redo is to come back in 2 weeks with the same zest for losing against the undefeated Atlanta Falcons.

Forget the pretender or contender debate, this team is as much of a playoff team as the one that finished 8-8 and missed the postseason last year.

Everyone knew the Eagles were walking a thin line in the first 4 weeks when they produced a 3-1 record on the back of last-minute victories over Cleveland, Baltimore and the New York Giants.

Since winning is the paramount thing, it masked the fact that a lot of things really hadn't changed since a year ago.

Hmm, let's see.

Quarterback plays erratically - CHECK.

Yes, Michael Vick passed for 311 yards and two touchdowns against Detroit, but the careless lefty also threw two more interceptions, bringing his total to eight, and lost another fumble.

"Pretty much don't know what to say," Vick said. "We put ourselves in position to win games and we don't finish."

Offense goes comatose in red zone - CHECK. Against Detroit, the Eagles were 1-for-3 (33.3 percent) in the red zone. The Eagles are ranked near the bottom of the league in points-per-game (17.2).

"It sucks because we put so much pressure on the defense," running back LeSean McCoy said. "Today doesn't say a lot about our offense."

Defense can't hold fourth-quarter lead - CHECK.

This coup-de-grace bugaboo has returned with a vengeance in the last 2 weeks.

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers drove 64 yards and used up the final 6:33, culminating with a field goal as time expired in a 16-14 victory.

The meltdown on defense was infinitely worse against Detroit.

When Vick connected with Jeremy Maclin on a 70-yard touchdown to push the lead to 23-13 with 5:18 left, fans began filing out of Lincoln Financial Field.

It was hard to blame them considering the Lions' offense had shown little capability of mounting a comeback for most of the game.

But the Eagles were in the mood for giving, and let the Lions score 10 unanswered points to send the game to overtime and, ultimately, the win.

"One-hundred percent we have to win that," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said of blowing the lead. "If we can't win these games, we have to go back to the drawing board and see what's going wrong.

"We had a really good thing going. We were able to close out games and that was starting to be our mantra.

"The last 2 weeks it got behind. Last week, we played well and held them under 17 points. This week we played well for so long, but we just couldn't close it out.

After the win over the Giants, Eagles coach Andy Reid praised the grit of his team for its mental toughness in being able to pull out close games with late comebacks in the fourth quarter.

The tune has definitely changed over the last 2 weeks.

"[The Lions] wanted it more," cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said. "You have to go out and fight. We had to win and once again, we blew it. Point blank, period."

Reid went through his typical "blah, blah" spiel while saying nothing about what's going on with his team.

"We can't start the way we started, and we can't finish the way we're finishing both offensively and defensively," Reid said. "We've got to make sure we take care of business and get better.

"We have to learn how to win football games as coaches and players. That's my responsibility. You have a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, and then you have to take care of it. We didn't do that."

It's the same crutch Reid leaned on virtually every week of 2011.

The problem was that as the season trudged on, it became clear that Reid couldn't figure out how to "do a better job of putting his players in better positions."

Now he's faced with the same dilemma and frankly, everyone needing to "look themselves in the mirror and get better," as Reid suggested, is not a practical avenue for change.

Last year, the fourth-quarter choking stopped primarily because the Eagles started losing games in the more conventional start-to-finish manner.

The bright spot of the first four games of this season was that the defense had played well enough to overcome the numerous shortcomings being displayed on offense.

That hasn't been the case over the last 2 weeks.

Playing stellar defense for 53 or 55 minutes doesn't matter if you implode in the closing minutes and start finding ways to lose.

The Eagles never recovered from the pattern of behavior a year ago. That three-game streak of fourth-quarter incompetence laid the groundwork for the entire underachieving campaign that followed.

And now 2012 looks like it might be careening down the same path.

A glass that was half-full is suddenly half-empty.

An Eagles team that could be 5-1 could just as easily be 0-6.


Contact John Smallwood at smallwj@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to philly.com/Smallwood.

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