Phil Sheridan: Do Eagles have the character to turn their season around?

Andy Reid can do only so much. Now it's up to the players to show they have the character to succeed in the final 10 games. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff
Andy Reid can do only so much. Now it's up to the players to show they have the character to succeed in the final 10 games. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff
Posted: October 22, 2012

The difficulty of Andy Reid's challenge can best be understood this way. After some bye-week tinkering, he needs an Eagles team that is .500 (11-11) since the start of the 2011 season to go 8-2 or, at worst, 7-3 over the next 10 games.

Is it possible? It is, for a couple of reasons.

First, the schedule provides a paved road. After next week's game against undefeated Atlanta, the Eagles face a bunch of eminently beatable opponents. Half their games are against the thoroughly mediocre NFC East. A strong showing there would go a long way toward getting them into the playoffs.

Second, Reid has done it before. His teams have gotten off to 3-3 starts four times in his previous 13 seasons. All four teams went on to make the playoffs. In 2000 and 2001, the Eagles finished 11-5. In 2003, the team went 9-1 to finish at 12-4. The 2008 team finished just 9-6-1, but won two playoff games.

The qualifier: Reid's four previous 3-3 starts were turned around with Jim Johnson coaching his defense, with Donovan McNabb playing quarterback, and with Brian Dawkins among the team leaders. Back then, the bigger question was why a perennially contending team started off so slowly every year.

Now the only question is whether this group of players and coaches is exactly what its record says: mediocre. And the answer, ultimately, can't be provided by Andy Reid.

It is now up to those players.

Way back when, early in the Reid Epoch, he and the team's top personnel man, Tom Modrak, made character a major part of their evaluation process. That important quality, Modrak used to say, would show itself at key moments - such as the fourth quarter of games.

"Andy Reid and Tom Modrak talk about getting character guys," John Harbaugh, now head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, said back then. "What do they mean by character? Well, that's what you see in the fourth quarter of a game. . . . That's character."

By that measure, the blown leads and late-game miscues that define these Eagles suggest something is lacking.

Now, with Juan Castillo sacrificed and with Reid's tenure riding on the rest of the season, these players will be tested as never before. They need to respond as never before - with real character and grit.

If Reid is sticking with Vick, and it appears he is, the quarterback must reward the coach's confidence with real improvement on the field. That means no more talk about how he's going to get better. It means actually getting better. Vick can't just shrug off his fumbles and interceptions with, "Everything happens for a reason." He must stop turning the ball over. Period.

From the defense, we've heard three weeks of excuse- making for the lack of sacks and turnovers. Guys who get paid very well for one thing - getting to the quarterback - must get to the quarterback. Period.

Look at last Sunday's loss to the Detroit Lions. After 60 minutes, there was just one sack on the stat sheet: Detroit's Cliff Avril got to Vick late in the third quarter.

Come overtime, and Avril abused right tackle Todd Herremans to drop Vick for a 7-yard loss on the Eagles' first play. The pocket collapsed from the other side on second down, and Vick ran backward before taking a 14-yard loss.

When the game was on the line, the Lions defensive line cranked up the intensity and destroyed the Eagles offense. When the game was on the line, the Eagles defense allowed the Lions, and the Steelers before them, to roll down the field.

No one will be able to blame Castillo the rest of the season. The defensive stars - at least on payday - will have to start delivering big plays on the field before delivering their astute postgame analysis.

A lot was said last week about Castillo's use of the blitz as compared to the revered Jim Johnson. Reid made a good point when he said, "With Jim, you would think by the way people talk that he blitzed every down, and that's not what he did. He blitzed a very low percentage of the time, but he blitzed at opportune times."

Take it one step further: Johnson had players with the will and the ability to get there when he sent them. Dawkins personified that combination.

Remember how it was just impossible to bring down that big, tough Ben Roethlisberger two weeks ago? The 2008 Eagles, led by Dawkins, blitzed and harassed him for eight sacks, two fumbles, an interception, and a safety for intentional grounding in the end zone.

So Reid can change coordinators. He can adjust the starting lineups and the offensive approach. But the real change has to come from the players.

We're about to find out whether they have what it takes.


Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Sheridanscribe.

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