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Catching up with the Eagles

August 23, 2010

We are halfway through the Philadelphia Eagles’ preseason schedule, so now seems like a decent time to take an accounting of where the team stands.

Then again, anything we’ve seen so far may not have any real bearing on how the regular season goes.  It is preseason football after all.

Preseason football isn’t usually much to get excited about.  Fans tend to get a little pumped up because there haven’t been any NFL games since February, and many are chomping at the bit to see any type of action.  But preseason games are usually boring affairs where the starters barely play, the offenses are kept fairly basic, and the outcome of the games depends on guys who might not even make the team.

Of course, the NFL still charges full price for tickets to these games. 

Side rant: 

Charging full price for preseason games, and including the two home preseason games in the season ticket package, is probably the biggest scam in professional sports.  It is absolutely ridiculous that fans are forced to pay full price for a product that is so substandard.

The owners are currently discussing plans to expand the NFL regular season to 18 games and eliminate two of the preseason games.  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says that this is what the fans want to happen.  However, he’s only partially correct.

Fans would like to see two preseason games eliminated, but I don’t think most people want the regular season expanded.  To me, 16 games seems like a perfect length, as “season fatigue” never really sets in. 

Already, the NFL has a problem with non-competitive games towards the end of the season, since some teams have already clinched their playoff seeding, and rest most of their starters.  Other teams get eliminated from playoff contention early, and spend the last portion of the schedule merely playing out the string.  If they add two more games, it has the potential to add even more non-competitive games to the schedule.

Of course, the owners would never just drop two of the preseason games, because they’d lose the revenue from them, and losing revenue is something that owners of sports teams simply do not do.

I’m not sure if the schedule expansion will happen.  The players oppose the move, as they don’t feel like they will be duly compensated for the two extra games, while leaving themselves at greater risk for injury.  This is going to be a key point of contention when the two sides negotiate a new labor contract next offseason.

Rant over.

It was hard to take much from the  first preseason game against the Jaguars.  The starters only played one quarter, and both of the defensive series were three-and-outs.  While that seems good, it might have been due more to the Jaguars ineptitude, and didn’t really give any of the defensive players a chance to make an impression.  On the other hand, the second team defense looked shaky, getting burned for a couple of long touchdowns.

The second game against the Bengals showed us a little bit more, as the presumed starters played the entire first half.  The end result was a 22-9 loss, but wins and losses don’t mean anything in the preseason.  It’s all about avoiding injuries and how the starters execute.

I’m happy to say that the Eagles avoided serious injury.  At first, it looked as if receiver Jeremy Maclin might have suffered a major arm injury, but since he has returned to practice, it is apparently nothing serious.  So that alone means the game counts as a “win” for the team.

But how did the starters perform?  I’ll take a look at a few areas which I thought might have been concerns for the team:

– Quarterback Kevin Kolb – easily the biggest question mark of the season – looked pretty good.  He moved in the pocket well (which was necessary since his protection wasn’t great) and was fairly accurate.  His performance would have seemed even better had he not had a touchdown called back due to injury.

On the other hand, he definitely made some mistakes, especially in the red zone where he missed some open receivers.  One potential problem I’ve noticed is that on third down plays, he is looking way too conservative.  Instead of making a tougher throw, he seems content to check down to his “safety valve” receiver.  This typically forces the receiver to make at least two guys miss in order to make the first down, and often ends in failure.

I have to guess that since Donovan McNabb did this all the time, that this is something that the coaches preach.  Someone should remind them that the strategy works much better when you’re dumping the ball off to an in-his-prime Brian Westbrook.  We saw that in the past two seasons, as Westbrook slowed down, the strategy became much less effective.  And thus far, none of the Eagles backs looks to be capable of making this play a success on a regular basis. 

Of course this was the preseason, and it is possible that once the games start to count, Kolb will become a little more daring in these situations.

– The Eagles offensive line did not look good.  There were numerous penalties, Kolb was under a lot of pressure, and there didn’t seem to be much room for the team’s running backs.

Left tackle Jason Peters had problems with false starts and illegal formation penalties last year, so it isn’t a good sign that he committed two such penalties on Friday.  The rest of the line seemed to underperform as well.  There were penalties, breakdowns in protection, and a lack of a push in the running game.   Part of the problem may have been due to backups playing at left guard and center.  Still, there’s a good chance that these backups will be called upon at some point during the season.  They’ll need to perform better than this.

– Short yardage and red zone situations may continue to be problems.  For the past two seasons, the Eagles have had a lot of trouble when dealing with situations when they need two yards or less to convert a first down.  Part of the problem was the offensive line’s inability to clear enough space, and the lack of a power back who could get the necessary yards.  Another part of the problem was Andy Reid’s playcalling, as he had an inexplicable tendency to go for long pass attempts in these situations.

Running back Mike Bell was brought in to presumably be a power back, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy in training camp.  As the preseason continues, it becomes less likely that he will be the answer.  And as mentioned earlier, it doesn’t appear that the offensive line will be any more effective in these spots than they were last season.

As far as the red zone, the explanation is less clear.  I think that the aforementioned tendency by the QBs to check down might be causing some of the issues.  But with a talented group of receivers, there should be plenty of options available.  While receiver DeSean Jackson has yet to show that he can be a red zone threat, Jason Avant and tight end Brenk Celek should both be strong red zone performers.

– The defense gave up a lot of yards, but countered that by making some big plays.  The Bengals have an excellent group of wide receivers, and without top cornerback Asante Samuel, this figured to be a bad matchup for the Eagles.  The Bengals connected on one big play to receiver Terrell Owens setting up their first half touchdown, but aside from that, the cornerbacks performed solidly.

They also forced two turnovers, which helped keep the Bengals scoring totals down.  While they’ll have to do a better job of limiting yardage in the regular season, all in all, it was a good showing for the defense.

So based on all that, what do I think of the team’s chances?  Before training camp, I thought the team had some talented pieces, but also enough holes to keep them out of the playoffs.  Nothing I’ve seen so far has changed my mind about that, so I’m going to stick with my early 8-8 prediction.

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