Eagles' balanced attack is almost good enough to win

Eagles Bryce Brown hurdles over Cowboys defenders en route to a long run in first quarter. Philadelphia Eagles at the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, December 2, 2012. ( Ron Cortes / Staff Photographer )
Eagles Bryce Brown hurdles over Cowboys defenders en route to a long run in first quarter. Philadelphia Eagles at the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, December 2, 2012. ( Ron Cortes / Staff Photographer ) (Ron Cortes)
Posted: December 04, 2012

ARLINGTON, Texas - At the tail end of a lost season, at what looks like the bitter end of a long coaching run for Andy Reid, the Eagles finally played something that resembled a cohesive, intelligent offensive scheme on Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys.

There are so many asterisks attached to that statement that the whole scene is dotted with them like the smeared starry nights of Van Gogh.

Reid hasn't cut off an ear to send as sacrifice to the memory of Sid Gillman or some other of the pass-happy mentors in his coaching lineage, but he cut off his maddening tendency to try to win every game on degree of difficulty.

Why now? Well, there are asterisks for that one, too - mostly connected to the presence of Nick Foles as his untested rookie quarterback - but, a better question, why not? Yes, the season is mangled beyond repair and, no, there is no solace that will be gained from a 38-33 loss to a division rival simply because it could have been a win. But, for a change, it was nice to see the Eagles not try to outsmart the game of football.

Using a well-balanced combination of solid running plays and high-percentage pass plays, the Eagles marched up and down the field against the Cowboys despite doing the marching without their starting quarterback, starting running back and best wide receiver.

Amazingly enough, this strategy made it difficult for the Dallas defense to know what was coming. With that edge in their favor, the Eagles took advantage and, for once, it was the other team that found itself fooled by misdirections and screens and the draw plays that have never been a dependable staple of a Reid offense.

The offense gained more than 400 yards and set a number of new milestones for 2012 - although some are small stones that took too many miles to achieve - but there is nothing that will remotely salvage this season. A win wouldn't have done it. Certainly, a loss doesn't, particularly one in which the defense was as depressing as the offense was uplifting.

The Eagles held the lead three times and lost it each time. Foles had his best game yet, making a number of superb throws and limiting the rookie mistakes that dotted his previous games. "I thought he handled it well and made some great decisions," Reid said.

Along the way, the offense had its only lead at the end of a first quarter this season (7-0), its largest lead of the season (14-3), and the offense scored more points than in any game this season (27).

Every time they cobbled together a lead, or regained another, however, the defense gave it away. Finally, Bryce Brown, the rookie who was making the balanced attack work, fumbled the ball again and the game disappeared. He lost two fumbles last week against Carolina while gaining 178 yards. Against the Cowboys, it seemed his night wouldn't be tainted, but then a fourth-quarter fumble resulted in a Dallas touchdown and the Eagles were finally too far behind. Brown finished with 169 yards and two touchdowns against the Cowboys.

It got closer with a punt-return touchdown by Brandon Boykin and they were a recovered onside kick from having a chance to steal back the game, but that isn't how this season is meant for be for them. Even their successes are so puny that they lose meaning.

It is too late to worry about damning the Eagles with faint praise, though, because that's the only kind they are going to get this season. For whatever reason - and some of it might have been the fault of over-pursuit by the Dallas defense - the offense moved on this night and it moved better than it has all year.

In some ways, the West Coast purist might say the offense has been dumbed down, but it actually looked as if it has been smartened up. There's nothing smart about telegraphing one's intentions by throwing the ball 45 times every game, or by operating constantly out of the shotgun or with an empty backfield.

At least in this game, there was something worth watching - half the time - and maybe Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg learned something. In all probability, those lessons will be for the benefit of another franchise. (Actually, in all probability, they will be forgotten.) But for one night, the offense wasn't crazy and not being crazy made sense. Just like everyone always thought.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns, and follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

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