Posts Tagged ‘Donovan McNabb’

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Eagles Week 4: Kolb and the Defense Come Up Short in McNabb’s Return

October 4, 2010

Donovan McNabb’s Redskins defeated the Eagles yesterday, and amazingly, McNabb wasn’t even the big story of the game.

First off, as I predicted, McNabb received a positive reaction from the crowd when he was introduced.  Many gave him a standing ovation.  I hope that will shut up the national media types who were sure that the crowd would be hostile to him. 

Of course when the Redskins offense took the field, there were boos.  But I think that was to say “We gave you your props, but now you’re the enemy and we’re rooting against you.”  Nothing wrong with that.

As for the game itself, the Eagles did not play well.  Special teams mistakes, poor tackling, and countless penalties – many on key plays – pretty much handed the game to the Redskins. 

Despite all that, the biggest news was probably the injury suffered by Michael Vick, and the lackluster performance by Kevin Kolb in relief.  Against a defense that had been torched the past couple of weeks, Kolb looked either unwilling or unable to complete a pass downfield. 

What went right?

– Not too much in this section.  RB LeSean McCoy had a very busy day.  Reid actually ran the ball a decent amount, and since Kolb only likes to throw screen passes or dump offs, he had a busy receiving day.  For the most part, he ran well, but he did have an extremely costly fumble which probably cost them points.

– Sav Rocca had a good day punting.  (No, it isn’t good when the punter is one of the highlights)

What went wrong?

– The Eagles continue to commit costly penalties.  On two different occasions, the Eagles had the Redskins stopped on third down, but committed penalties which kept the drive alive.  Especially galling was a roughing the passer penalty on McNabb, since the refs almost never called that on McNabb when he was a member of the Eagles.

– While the offensive line did seem to give Kolb adequate time, I think that may have been due to a heavy protection scheme and the Redskins not employing a heavy pass rush.  The line also committed a few key penalties, most notably on the play where Vick got injured.

– Another special teams breakdown came on the Eagles first punt.  They allowed a long return setting up the Redskins’ first touchdown.

– The defense did not have a good showing.  They couldn’t seem to tackle well at all, and because of it, Redskins backup RB Ryan Torain had a big game.  Normally reliable guys like Quintin Mikell and Stewart Bradley both had some missed tackles. 

– There were also some breakdowns in coverage, and the Eagles were lucky that McNabb was inaccurate.  On the first play, he missed the receiver.  On the second, he hit WR Anthony Armstrong for a long completion, but he stumbled out of bounds after the catch.  Both plays could have been touchdowns with better passes.

– Kolb looked slow and indecisive, as every play seemed to take forever to develop.  And the belief that Kolb is an accurate passer might be a myth.  It’s not that hard to be accurate when you’re throwing nothing but screen passes and outlet passes to the backs.

Later in the game, when the Eagles desperately needed to stretch the field, Kolb simply wasn’t able to get it done.  This wasn’t a strong secondary the Eagles were facing, and if Kolb is unable to succeed against them, it’s a bit scary to think what will happen when he faces a good defense.

While the announcers seemed to want to use Kolb’s youth and inexperience as an excuse, you have to keep in mind that this is his fourth year in the league, and the Eagles pretty much handed him the keys for the season.  If he isn’t ready to play now, then he might never be.

The McNabb Report

It may have been a one game aberration, but Redskins coach Mike Shanahan may have realized what Andy Reid never seemed to: Donovan McNabb is not an elite quarterback, and the onus of winning football games shouldn’t be put solely on his shoulders.

McNabb didn’t have a great game.  He was actually kind of lousy.  There was an interception, inaccurate deep balls, and some classic McNabb grounders.

But, he wasn’t forced to be the whole offense, and he made a couple of big plays to win the game.  The touchdown to Chris Cooley was a perfect pass.  And his scramble for a first down helped seal the deal.  (Although you can question why he ran out of bounds)

If the Redskins running game can perform the way it did yesterday, and McNabb can keep making a few big plays a game, then the Redskins might have a winning formula.  If the Redskins were smart, they’d use Torain as the feature back.  It might have been a fluke performance yesterday, but if the alternative is Clinton Portis, then they should at least give him a chance.  Portis looks slow and seems to get injured on every play.

Bad Andy Reid Coaching Move of the Week

I’m still not sure what happened when the Eagles had the ball on the goal line late in the second quarter.  The announcers didn’t seem to know either.  After a booth review to see if the Eagles had scored a touchdown, the Eagles called timeout to set up the next play.  Bafflingly, after the timeout, as the play clock wound down, the offense wasn’t ready, and they were charged with a delay of game penalty.

While I’m sure the officials may have done something wrong (the announcers said as much), I have to question why after a lengthy review and a timeout, the Eagles offense wasn’t ready to go regardless.  Why did they wait so long to come onto the field in the first place? 

This is not the type of thing that should happen to a coach who has been in the league for over eleven years.

Elsewhere in the NFL

– After looking horrendous last week against the Eagles, the Jaguars manage to upset the Colts on a last minute field goal.  Does anyone know who in the NFL is actually good right now?  The league says it wants parity, and that certainly seems to be what we have right now.

– The Bears are no longer undefeated, as the Giants (a team who many were writing off after last week) crushed them on defense.  QB Jay Cutler was sacked nine times and was eventually knocked out of the game.

Eagles Next Opponent

As I predicted, the San Francisco 49ers appear to be this year’s team that was overhyped without actually achieving anything and then disappoints.  It was a close contest against the Atlanta Falcons, but a last minute Falcons field goal dropped the 49ers to 0-4. 

 If there was ever a bad time to play on 0-4 team, this is it.  The 49ers will be desperate, and the Eagles have to play a cross-country night game, which is always tough.   The Eagles also often underperform in prime time games as well.  And considering how bad the Eagles run defense has been, RB Frank Gore might be due for a monumental effort.

Final Analysis

Vick’s status is still uncertain, but considering he’s going in for an MRI today, I’m guessing he’ll miss at least a couple of weeks.  This may be Kolb’s big chance to reclaim the starting job.  Considering how he was the designated heir to McNabb, you have to figure that if he looks good, he’ll remain the starter even after Vick returns.  On the other hand, if he continues to falter, then you have to wonder how many more opportunities he’ll receive.

He’s definitely going to have to look better than he has thus far.  While it is good that he can complete short passes, he has to remember that he’s got some dynamic wide receivers on the team.  If he can’t get the ball to them, then the Eagles offense is not going to succeed.

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Donovan McNabb and Eagles Fans: A Love-Hate Relationship

October 1, 2010

It’s Donovan McNabb week in the NFL!  McNabb and the Redskins are coming to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles!  And that can only mean one thing: Members of the national media will take this opportunity to criticize Philadelphia sports fans.

According to some of the media pundits, Philly fans are evil, horrible creatures.  We hate everyone and everything.  If you don’t believe it, the proof can be found with one story:  The Santa Claus Incident.

Every time somebody wants to point out how bad Philly fans are, they always mention the Santa Claus incident.  “Philly fans are so horrible!  They booed and threw snowballs at Santa!”

Is it possible that people can stop referencing this story?  First, this incident happened in 1968, so many of the fans involved aren’t even around anymore.  And when you look at what actually happened, it wasn’t as horrible as some people would have you believe.

Supposedly (I can’t speak in certainties because this happened 42 years ago!) this incident came at halftime of a December game where the Eagles – a very bad team at the time – were playing horribly.  There was supposed to be a Christmas show, but the guy playing Santa Claus didn’t show up. 

At the last minute, they pulled some guy out of the stands who happened to come to the game wearing a Santa suit.  He was skinny and wearing a cheap looking fake beard.  He was supposed to be pulled around the stadium in a sleigh, but because of snowy conditions, the sleigh couldn’t make it around the field.  Instead, he had to get out and kind of stumble around.  From all accounts, it was a sorry spectacle.

Already annoyed by the team and the game, the fans didn’t react well to this.  Was it a shining moment in the city’s history?  No, but it isn’t the same as fans just maliciously throwing snowballs at Santa Claus.  We also shouldn’t act like this wouldn’t have happened in many NFL cities.

Assuming we can move past that incident, in recent times most of the criticism of Philly fans has centered around our treatment of McNabb.  Apparently, Philly fans never appreciated McNabb properly, and we supposedly didn’t give him the respect that he deserved.

For evidence of this, the clip of McNabb beeing booed at draft day is always shown as if this is somehow representative of how Eagles fans treated McNabb. 

I understand that this may be a bit confusing for some people, but I want to explain: Eagles fans were not booing McNabb.  They were booing the Eagles selection of McNabb.  There is a difference.

Once the fans got over their disappointment of the selection, they were generally supportive of McNabb.  Sure, there were some who didn’t like him, but just about every quarterback in the league has some detractors.

Side rant:

It’s amazing that Indianapolis and Green Bay fans have the nerve to criticize Philly fans about their mistreatment of McNabb.  Colts fans say: “We never criticize Peyton Manning!”  Well, Manning has multiple MVP awards, a Super Bowl ring, and will easily get mentioned among the greatest quarterbacks of all time.  Why would they criticize him?

And as for Green Bay’s treatment of Brett Favre, it shows what winning a Super Bowl early in your career can do for you.  Despite countless subsequent playoff flameouts, Packers fans continued to worship Favre.  And how did that work out for them in the end?

Anyway, if I had to sum up the Philadelphia/McNabb relationship it would be that Eagles fans liked McNabb but felt disappointed by him.  We REALLY wanted him to lead the team to a Super Bowl win, and when the team fell short every year, it led to some bitterness.

Up until February 2005, most Eagles fans believed that McNabb would eventually lead the team to a title.  Then came the Super Bowl loss, the T.O. controversy, and a couple of season ending injuries.  After he came back from another season ending injury in 2007, McNabb didn’t seem to be the same QB that he once had been.  He was still one of the better QBs in the league, but he didn’t seem to be quite at the elite level.

With McNabb as the QB, the Eagles seemed destined to be good enough to make the playoffs every year, but not quite good enough to win the Super Bowl.

I’m not saying that the playoff failures were all McNabb’s fault.  In most of the losses, the rest of the team played poorly.  But McNabb certainly didn’t carry the team to victory either. 

For whatever reason, Andy Reid decided that his offense would require McNabb to be great in order to succeed.  I realize that this may sound a bit stupid.  Don’t most offenses require their quarterbacks to play well in order to succeed?  Yes, but other teams at least give their quarterbacks some help. 

Other teams often surround their QB with good receivers who can be depended on to make a big play when necessary.   As any Eagles fan could tell you, aside from Terrell Owens, the Eagles never had a receiver who could be relied on to make a big play.  Other teams will also occassionally rely on the run game to win games.  But that wasn’t Andy Reid’s style.

Basically, the Eagles needed McNabb to have a big day in order to win, and sadly, in most of those playoff losses, he was not up to the task.

That essentially is the reason that many Eagles fans were fine with McNabb leaving town.  After ten years of the Reid-McNabb combo falling short, we figured that something had to change.  It is unlikely that Andy Reid was going to change his ways, and therefore, McNabb had to go.

Was it so wrong that the Eagles got rid of McNabb?  He was a good – not great – quarterback, who by all reports is a good guy.  Does that somehow make the Eagles obligated to keep him?  Isn’t the ultimate goal of an NFL team to win the Super Bowl?  If the team decides that they aren’t going to win the Super Bowl with McNabb, then why are they obligated to keep him?

It might be nice to think that loyalty means something in the NFL, but as we’ve seen countless times, loyalty comes second to winning.  (And possibly third behind making money).  That’s why Brian Dawkins is in Denver and Brett Favre is in Minnesota.

For their part, the Eagles have been nothing but complimentary towards McNabb and they tried their best to send him to a suitable destination.  Supposedly, they had good offers from teams like the Bills and Raiders, but McNabb had no interest in going there.  He wanted to play for Mike Shanahan, so despite being a division rival, the Eagles traded him to the Redskins.

I’ve heard some say that it is disgraceful that Eagles fans wouldn’t give McNabb the respect he deserved, and yet are cheering for Michael Vick.  This is absolutely ridiculous.

There are still Eagles fans who won’t cheer for Michael Vick.  My mother has completely turned on the team because of him, and I’m sure there are others like her.

As for those who do cheer for him, what else would you expect?  He’s the quarterback of the Eagles.  Fans want to see the Eagles win, so when Vick plays as well as he has, they will get behind him.  When it comes down to it, fans are generally loyal to the team first, and the players second.

Besides, Vick has only been the starting QB for two games.  Let’s wait to see how his tenure plays out before we judge how he was ultimately received by the fans.

As for how McNabb will be received this week, I know that many media members are sure that Philly fans will show their “vicious, nasty side,” and boo him without restraint.  I’m sure that some in the crowd will boo him.  Some people never liked him, and now he is a former Eagle now playing for a divisional rival.

But I believe that a majority of the fans will cheer him.  In past instances of former stars returning (Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley), the stars were given a warm welcome.  Like with those former stars, I believe that the fans will appreciate that McNabb didn’t necessarily want to leave Philadelphia, but circumstances forced him out. 

I believe that most fans will remember the good McNabb moments and will applaud him on behalf of the great games he had for the Eagles. 

Hopefully, the image of Eagles fans cheering their former star quarterback will then become a symbol of the classiness of Philly fans.  From here on out, people will see that Philly fans can be very good to their players both past and present.

And then maybe we won’t have to hear any more tired stories about booing Santa Claus.  But somehow, I doubt it.

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Eagles Week 3: Vick Demolishes the Jaguars

September 27, 2010

For at least one week, Andy Reid’s decision to start Michael Vick looked like the correct one, as Vick led the Eagles to an easy 28-3 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

This game certainly went better than the last time the Eagles played in Jacksonville.  Of course that was the 2005 Super Bowl, and the Jaguars are probably not going to qualify for this year’s big game.  Based on what I’ve seen, they might be the worst team in the NFL.

As far as Reid’s QB decision, I think he was kind of in a no-win situation.  We saw the criticism he received by starting Vick.  But if he had gone back to Kolb, he might have received even more criticism.  Reid was correct in saying that if he had gone back to Kolb and Kolb struggled, he would have been crucified.  Of course, if Reid truly had faith in Kolb, would this have even been a concern?

Reid’s critical mistake came immediately after the Lions game when he said that Kolb was his starter.  Here’s what he should have done:

When asked who the starter was after the Lions game, he should have said, “We’ll have to evaluate how Kevin is doing.  He seemed to be doing better, but it’s better to be cautious with concussions.”  Considering the criticism the team took for their initial handling of Kolb’s concussion, nobody would have questioned this, and many people would have praised Reid for looking out for his player’s well being.

By claiming caution they could have probably bought themselves two weeks of Vick as the starter.  If Vick continued to play well (as he did yesterday) then most people would have understood sticking with him.  Sure, the cliche says that you shouldn’t lose your job because of injury, but I’m sure there’s also a cliche about not benching a red hot QB who has the offense playing well.

On the other hand, if Vick struggled, then Reid would have been justified in going back to Kolb.

Regardless, Vick made Reid look good for another week.  We’ll see what happens when they finally play a team with a good secondary.

The highlights

– The Jaguars may be a bad team, but the Eagles controlled things throughout.  The offense continues to churn out big plays, and the defense did a good job in shutting down the Jaguars offense. 

– Maurice Jones-Drew had some plays throughout, but once the defense stopped overpursuing, they contained him nicely.  Mrs. Cutter pointed out (this was after she finally figured out that the Eagles were wearing white and she should stop cheering when the teal team made a big play) that the Jaguars have two key players on offense with hyphenated names.  I think it’s a secret rule that no team can be successful with two players with hyphenated names.

The lowlights

– Penalties continue to be an issue.  This team needs to become more disciplined.

– It might be nitpicking, but much like last season, the offense looks a bit too dependent on big plays.  Eventually, they’ll match up against a team that can actually cover DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.  Will the Eagles be able to respond?

– They had another notable short yardage failure.  Part of the problem was the play call, part of the problem appears to be the blocking, and part of the problem seems to be that RB Mike Bell doesn’t appear to be the answer in short yardage situations. 

In future short yardage situations, Reid should probably stick with LeSean McCoy who has shown some elusiveness and ability to keep going after initial contact. 

Bad Andy Reid Coaching Move of the Week

Faced with a 4th and 1 situation, Reid calls for a pitch to Bell.  At first glance, it appeared that Bell gained the necessary yard, but the Eagles didn’t receive a favorable spot.  The play was challenged (I agreed with Reid’s challenge here), but replays  couldn’t overturn the call.

Reid apparently doesn’t understand physics.  Why does he call a play that gives the ball to the running back five yards behind the line of scrimmage?  Why make the back run an extra distance to pick up the necessary yardage?  Wouldn’t you want him to have to travel the shortest distance possible?  Even worse, it was a slow developing pitch play that gave the defense time to adjust.

The McNabb Report

Matched against a team that hadn’t won at home in 14 straight games, the Redskins did the one thing you should never do to a (supposedly) inferior team: Give them early hope.

Thanks to a big run by RB Stephen Jackson and a Santana Moss fumble, the Rams got off to a 14-0 start.  The Redskins were able to come back and take the lead, but left some points on the board due to a familiar McNabb problem: Failure in the red zone.

From what I’ve seen, there are two main causes for McNabb’s red zone problems:

– Poor red zone personnel: Who on the Redskins really seems like a threat close to the goal line?  Their best skill position players aren’t really suited for short yardage.  Clinton Portis doesn’t seem like he can get the tough yards anymore, and Santana Moss is much better in the open field. 

– McNabb isn’t a good red zone QB: McNabb used to be very good in the red zone.  Perhaps not coincidentally, McNabb also used to be a threat to run the ball in himself.  Once teams stopped fearing the threat of McNabb’s legs, he became much less effective. 

Also, his lack of pinpoint accuracy and reluctance to throw into tight spots don’t help him out.  With less available field, receivers are rarely wide open, and it usually takes an accurate throw to hit them.

Regardless of the cause of the failures, the Redskins gave the Rams an opening they gladly took.  In the second half, the Redskins offense was largely shut down, only scoring 3 points.  Not a great way to head into McNabb’s homecoming game.

Elsewhere in the NFL

– The two 3-0 teams are both somewhat surprising.  While the Steelers are typically a good team, most didn’t predict that they’d go 3-0 while Ben Roethlisberger was suspended.  In theory, this is a good thing, as they should only get better when Ben returns.  On the other hand, isn’t this potentially a huge disruption to a team that is on a roll?  Will Ben be able to seamlessly take over?

– I don’t think anyone expected the Chiefs to be 3-0.  While they’ve taken advantage of a somewhat weak schedule, you have to give them credit for winning the games.  QB Matt Cassel might never be one of the top passers in the league, but he has shown a knack for being able to win games.  And their upcoming schedule doesn’t look too imposing.  They have two tough games next against the Colts and Texans, but after that, they have a string of beatable teams.  Could the Chiefs be this year’s surprise team?

Eagles Next Opponent

McNabb and the Redskins make their much-hyped return to Philadelphia.  Not only will this be an emotional game, but if the Eagles can win, they’ll be in solid shape in what looks to be a close-bunched NFC East.

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Life with Donovan

September 2, 2010

Watching Donovan McNabb with the Redskins, I kind of feel like someone whose ex-wife has just taken up with a new man.  While you may not want the new relationship to fare too well, you also feel somewhat obligated to give the new guy some advice, because you know just how crazy life may get for him.

So here is my advice to Redskins fans on how to handle life with Donovan McNabb as your team’s quarterback:

1. Don’t count on McNabb playing all 16 games

McNabb is already suffering from an ankle injury and coach Mike Shanahan has said his status for week one is in doubt.  This is not terribly surprising.

Over the past five years, McNabb has missed an average of over three games per season, suffering two season ending injuries along the way.  2008 was the only season where he played in all 16 games. 

Any NFL player will be more susceptible to injury after ten years in the league.  And in Andy Reid’s pass-happy offense, McNabb has taken a lot of hits over the past ten seasons. 

He will also hold the ball for an extended period of time, often using his legs to buy time and try to find an open receiver.  While this may sometimes lead to a big play, it also leaves him vulnerable to taking some extra hits.

With the Redskins offensive line still a question mark, it is likely he’ll take a decent amount of abuse again this season.  And that means that Rex Grossman might be called on for a couple of games.

Will Grossman prove to be an effective backup?  Based on his play with the Bears, you wouldn’t want him as a long-term starter.  (Although to his credit, he wasn’t as bad as some people think and did QB a Super Bowl team)  I think he’ll be fine in limited action though.  Remember, the reason that backups are backups is because they weren’t good enough to be starters.  Any team will suffer when their top guy goes out.

2. He will look like the best player in the league at times

McNabb will have some games when he looks absolutely amazing.  He’ll run around defenders, and carve apart a secondary.  You’ll wonder why the Eagles would have ever gotten rid of him.

And watch out if he starts off a game hot.  He can sometimes be a slow starter, but when he’s doing well from the opening drive, the Eagles offense is usually in store for a huge week.

3. There will also be some bouts of inaccuracy

Don’t get too excited by the big week, because it could easily be followed up by a game where McNabb can’t seem to complete a pass.  McNabb has many skills as a QB.  Great accuracy is not one of them.  Get ready for some balls to be thrown into the turf, especially early in games when he comes out maybe a little too fired up.

4. There will be some beautiful deep passes

Of course, a good coach will learn to work around a player’s weaknesses.  Unlike Andy Reid, I’m guessing that Mike Shanahan will realize that short range passing is not McNabb’s forte.  On the other hand, he has excellent arm strength and throws one of the best deep balls in football.  It isn’t clear if any of the Redskins receivers can get open as well as DeSean Jackson, but there will be opportunities for them if they can.

5. Inexplicable decisions will be made

While he normally does not throw many interceptions, McNabb will sometimes pick odd times to take chances.  I can remember one game against the Cowboys when the Eagles had a lead in the fourth quarter, and they were trying to keep a drive alive and run down the clock.  For some reason, McNabb decided this was a good time to squeeze the ball through coverage.  The result was an interception returned for a touchdown.

Then there was this scenario: The clock was winding down in the second quarter and the Eagles were well within field goal range.  They were out of timeouts, but had enough time to try for a touchdown. 

On multiple occassions, when faced with this situation, McNabb threw the ball to a receiver short of the end zone, only to have that receiver tackled before the goal line.  And they were then unable to stop the clock, squandering three points.

And while much of the blame may lie with Andy Reid, the Eagles’ hurry-up offense would often look disjointed and disorganized.  McNabb never seemed to show the necessary late game urgency. 

6. You will hear some head scratching quotes

In postgame interviews, when asked about these bad decisions, McNabb will explain them with reasoning that is even more inexplicable.  For instance, the more he talks about his famous lack of understanding of overtime rules, the less sense he makes.

He will also sometimes recap the game action in a way that makes you wonder if he saw the same thing that you did. 

7. Win or lose, you will see Donovan smile

Eagles fans can be a bit intense.  They do not take losing lightly and they expect the players to take it as poorly as they do.  So it never went over too well with some fans that when the Eagles were struggling, you would see McNabb on the sidelines with a big grin on his face.

McNabb would explain that he needed to stay positive, and keep a steady head even in the worst of situations.  And maybe that is true.  But it is still annoying when your team is getting crushed, and the QB looks like he’s having a good old time. 

8. Beware of the Jaguars game

Jacksonville’s stadium (Now apparently called EverBank Field) has been McNabb’s personal house of horrors.  He’s played there twice in his career.  Both games saw the Eagles fall behind, and McNabb unable to complete a late comeback attempt.

And on both occassions, he either threw up, or was winded to the point where it was largely speculated that he threw up.   

So if the Redskins are trailing late in that game, and you have front row seats…you might want to watch out.

9. He’ll still be much better than any other Redskins quarterback over the past ten years

This isn’t high praise when the basis for comparison is Patrick Ramsey and Jason Campbell, but McNabb will seem like Peyton Manning compared to them.

McNabb is still one of the top ten QBs in the league.  He may not be capable of carrying a team to a title (although I think he could win one in the right system), but he’s still plenty good enough to lead a team to the playoffs.

So will the playoffs happen for the Redskins this season?  Hard to say, but they are definitely closer to that goal than they were before they traded for him.

So good luck Redskins fans.  At the very least, it should be an interesting season.

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Despair (and Hope) in CapsTown

April 30, 2010

Wednesday night, the Washington Capitals suffered a crushing loss in game seven in their opening round playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens.  As the #1 overall seed in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Caps were heavily favored in this series, and were thought of as serious Cup contenders.  But after taking a 3-1 series lead over the Canadiens, the Caps lost the final three games of the series and have been eliminated.  And the Washington area does not seem to be taking the loss well.

I’ve seen this before.  I’ve seen the hopes of a title starved city get crushed when a championship quality team and their star player come up short.  And it isn’t pretty when it happens.

In the past two years, Washington has fallen in love with the Capitals, and the city has been transformed into CapsTown. Throughout my time here, I’ve never seen people get behind a team like they have with the Caps over the past two seasons. 

Back in 1998, when the Caps were in the Stanley Cup Finals, it seemed like there prevailing mood in the city was apathy.  Sure, hardcore fans were excited, and I’m sure that people thought it would have been nice for the city to win a title.  But for the most part, the city didn’t seem to be all that excited about the team.  It was certainly far from the Caps Mania that we have here now.  In 2010, the Verizon Center is packed for every game, and anywhere you look on the streets, you can see people “Rocking the Red.”

What changed?

Alex Ovechkin has been a big part of it.  It’s always exciting for a sports fan knowing that your team has a player who might be the best in the game.  Caps fans know that Ovechkin’s presence alone should give them a shot at winning every time out.  And not only is Ovechkin talented, but he also has a dynamic personality that the fans can get behind.  Fans love to see passion, and Ovechkin typically delivers it, not only with his hard play, but how he crashes himself into the boards after he scores a goal.  That’s the type of behavior that makes a player beloved.

But it can’t be Ovechkin alone that has made DC into a hockey city.  The Caps have had good players before.  While Ovechkin might be the most talented, is his presence alone enough to make people go Caps crazy?

I think much of it has to do with the difference in the DC sports landscape between 1998 and now.  Back in 1998, Washington was only seven years removed from its most recent sports title.  And all of the local teams were doing fairly well at the time.  The Wizards were a playoff team, the Orioles (Yes, they’re from Baltimore, but since they were essentially Washington’s unofficial baseball team, I’m going to include them) had just made a run to the ALCS, and Redskins fans were high on their team, with no idea of the horrors that Daniel Snyder would soon inflict upon them. 

Twelve years later and the fans have gotten a bit desperate.  They are desperately craving a title in any sport, but most of the local teams don’t look to be in any shape to deliver.  Despite adding Donovan McNabb, the Redskins still look a long way off; the Nats and O’s have been hopeless for years; and the Gilbert Arenas-led Wizards are pretty much just a punchline these days.

That leaves the Capitals as the city’s one hope to win it all.  And they did not deliver.

In 2002, there was a similar feeling in Philadelphia.  It had been 19 years since Philly’s last title, and the fans were getting desperate.  While the Sixers had a nice run behind Allen Iverson the year before, it appeared like that team had peaked and wouldn’t win a title; the Flyers were a dysfunctional group who could make the playoffs, but couldn’t be seen as real contenders; and the Phillies hadn’t even made the playoffs in nine years.

Philadelphia’s shining hope was the Eagles.  Under coach Andy Reid, the team looked like it was on the verge of a championship.  They had a great core of players led by an emerging star in quarterback Donovan McNabb.  Back then, McNabb looked like he might be becoming the NFL’s best player, and the type of QB who could win them multiple Super Bowls.

Coming off a defeat in the NFC Championship game the year before, the 2002 Eagles – like the Caps – earned the top seed in the playoffs.  And like the Caps 3-1 series lead, the Eagles seemed ready to live up to expectations by winning their first playoff game, and taking a lead in the NFC Championship game against the Buccaneers.

And then, it fell apart.  Ronde Barber’s interception sealed an improbable NFC Championship loss and Philly’s title hopes were squashed yet again.  January 19, 2003: Black Sunday.  Perhaps the darkest day in Philadelphia sports history.  Certainly one of the worst days of my life.

After that, McNabb’s star never seemed quite as bright.  Sure, he had more chances, but could never get the Eagles to the ultimate goal.  And with each playoff defeat, the city of Philadelphia seemed to sour on McNabb a little bit.  The talk of “he can’t win the big one,” grew and grew, until this past offseason, many Eagles fans were glad to see him go, because they didn’t think the team would ever win the Super Bowl with him.

Will Ovechkin suffer the same fate? 

Not only have the Capitals fallen short of expectations the past two seasons, but Ovechkin’s Russian team also came up small in the Olympics.  Making things worse for him is that Sidney Crosby – typically considered to be his main competition for the “best player in hockey” title – has succeeded where Ovechkin failed, winning last year’s Stanley Cup, and helping Canada capture Olympic gold.

When a team continues to fall short of expectations, the star player inevitably starts to feel the fire.  The criticisms have already started: He’s too flashy.  He doesn’t have an extra gear for the playoffs.  He’s not a leader.  He doesn’t have it in him to carry the team to the title. 

It’s easy for Caps fans to get down on the team and its star.  Suffering a playoff upset leaves you with an empty feeling.  Caps fans will remember the game seven loss to the Canadiens for a long time.  They’ll probably replay the loss in their heads over and over again.  They’ll go over all the things that could have broken differently.  Watching the other local teams probably won’t help matters.  When the Nationals and Redskins fail, it will just be another reminder that the Capitals were the best chance they had.

But one thing they shouldn’t do is turn on Ovechkin.  There have been a lot of young athletes who failed a few times before winning a championship.  Even Michael Jordan was once thought of as a flashy player who didn’t necessarily have the substance to lead a team to a title.  So there’s still hope that Ovechkin can lead the team to a title.  Because like it or not, he’s probably the best hope Washington has. 

And the best thing about sports is, there’s always next year.  When the season starts up again in October, the Caps should have a strong, Cup contending team.  Maybe the team will learn from the loss, and use it as motivation.  Maybe it will help inspire them to finally win it all.  If that happens, this year’s playoff defeat will seem less like a failure and more like a misstep on the road to a title.

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Post McNabb: Where Do We Go Now?

April 27, 2010

Now that the NFL Draft has been completed, the majority of offseason player movement is complete.  With only a few exceptions, team rosters look the same way they will when training camp begins.  So now that a few weeks have passed, and we have a better idea at how the teams’ rosters stand, how do the Eagles and Redskins look after the Donovan McNabb trade?

The Redskins

The Redskins’ offense resembles the fantasy football roster of a casual fan who hasn’t paid attention to the NFL for the past few years.  Donovan McNabb!  Clinton Portis!  Santana Moss! Willie Parker!  Larry Johnson!  This would be an amazing collection of offensive talent…assuming it was 2005.  Unfortunately for them, it is now 2010, and these guys all seem to be past their primes.

So is there any hope for this collection of past-their-prime talents?  Most of the optimism in DC is based on the hope that coach Mike Shanahan will be able to build a championship caliber offense around McNabb much the way that he did for John Elway in the late 90s.

Many people – myself included – believe that a large part of the blame for McNabb’s failures in Philly came because head coach Andy Reid never really adapted the offense to suit McNabb’s strengths.  Reid’s offense is designed for an accurate passer who could hit his receivers in stride, allowing them to break away for long gains.  But accuracy, especially on short routes, never seemed to be McNabb’s strength. 

McNabb’s strengths are his mobility, his deep arm strength, and running a screen pass based offense.  I’m guessing that Shanahan wouldn’t have traded for McNabb if he was going to take advantage of these traits.  I expect to see a lot more deep throws by the Redskins this season.  Of course, in order to throw the ball deep, the quarterback needs to have decent protection from the offenseive line.  And last season, the Redskins offensive line didn’t provide much protection at all.

Wisely, the Redskins selected an offensive tackle (Trent Williams) with the 4th pick in the draft.  But while Williams might anchor the Redskins offensive line for years to come, even with the best rookies, there are always growing pains.  Even with the rookie, the offensive line might not be too much improved over last season.  And while McNabb’s mobility will help him avoid a few sacks, Redskins fans should keep in mind that he isn’t the same QB who used to run all around the field in his younger days.  He no longer has the speed to avoid top pass rushers, and will probably suffer quite a few sacks this season.

As far as the screen game goes, part of the reason why McNabb and the Eagles were so good at it was because they had Brian Westbrook, who was among the best pass catching backs in the NFL.  None of the Redskins backs have ever been known as great pass catchers, so it is unlikely that the screen game will work as well with them.

Speaking of the running game…For the past few seasons, many Eagles fans felt that the best chance the team had to win was to go to a more running-based offense.  They felt that at this stage in his career, McNabb could no longer be the focal point of a championship offense.  Based on recent results, they might have been correct.

Some suspect that Shanahan will do something similar to what he did in the late 90s, when Elway was nearing the end of his career.  He changed the Broncos offense to revolve around star running back Terrell Davis.  Elway was still asked to make plays, but Davis was now the focal point.  Thanks to this change, the Broncos won two titles.

I think that at this stage in his career, McNabb could indeed pull off an Elway and win a Super Bowl if he wasn’t the main focus of the offense. But the main question is: Are any of the Redskins’ running backs good enough to carry the offense? 

It doesn’t appear likely.  Portis had a decent season last year, but he seems to be on the decline, and he certainly doesn’t seem to be a franchise back who can carry a team.  Between nagging injuries and discipline issues, Larry Johnson seems to be on his last legs, and likewise isn’t probably somebody you can depend on as the fulcrum of the offense.  As for Parker, he hasn’t had a healthy season in years, and it would be a huge surprise if he turned out to be the answer.  Could a combination of the three backs, each in a lesser role, somehow be effective?  Possibly.

Perhaps the Redskins best hope is to complete their collection of elite 2005 talent and sign Terrell Owens.  McNabb’s best season came when he was throwing to Owens, because Owens was capable of taking those slightly inaccurate short passes, and still taking them for big gains.  While Owens isn’t the top receiver he used to be, he is still a dangerous threat that defenses have to account for.  With Owens, opposing defenses might be back on their heels a little, and that might give the running backs a little extra space to work with.  And as for the concerns that Owens is a cancer who wrecks a team from the inside…well, those concerns are probably valid, but the problems usually don’t surface in the first season with a team.  Then again, if either of the Redskins’ young receivers – Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas – finally develop into viable receivers, then Owens probably wouldn’t be necessary.

So given all that, how do I think the Redskins offense will look in 2010?  Good, but not great.  Assuming the offensive line can at least provide mediocre coverage, I think the combination of Shanahan and McNabb will be a huge improvement over recent seasons.  While not elite, McNabb is a good QB who you can win games with, and I think Shanahan will put him in the position to succeed.  They may need a couple more parts (a younger running back and another lineman to start), but some good things should come out of this season.

The Eagles

As mentioned above, McNabb never seemed to be a perfect fit for Andy Reid’s offense.  But will his successor be any better?  Due to limited playing time thus far in his career, Kevin Kolb is still largely an unknown.  Scouting reports say that his strengths are the short to intermediate routes, so that alone should make him a better fit.

The problem is, will that make him a good fit with the Eagles’ best offensive player?  In DeSean Jackson’s first two seasons, he has established himself as a dangerous deep target, and is a threat to score from anywhere on the field.  He hasn’t been as good in the short passing game, although part of that might have had to do with the QB who was throwing to him.  But if Kolb doesn’t have the arm strength to get the ball deep down the field to Jackson, will that reduce his effectiveness?

One promising sign is how well Jackson did in the two games that Kolb started in 2009.  In those two games, Jackson caught ten passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns.  So it doesn’t appear that Jackson should suffer too much, if any depreciation in his numbers.  In fact, with Kolb at the helm, his overall performance might actually increase.

In addition to Jackson, Kolb should have plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal.  Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Brent Celek, and Hank Baskett are probably the best set of receivers the Eagles have had under Reid. 

And not that Reid will run the ball much, but the running backs appear to be a strength as well.  Now that Brian Westbrook is gone, second year man LeSean McCoy will be the featured back.  While it would be a reach to think he could match Westbrook’s production, McCoy showed a lot of potential last year, especially in games where he went in as the starter.  Former Saint Mike Bell should be a good backup, and fullback Leonard “Part 6” Weaver also had some big games last season.  One concern with the backs is that unlike Westbrook, none of them have proven to be a great pass catcher.  Reid loves calling pass plays to his backs, so if they aren’t able to excel in that area, it could be a huge hinderance to the Eagles offense.  And possibly more importantly, Reid calls upon his backs to pass block quite a bit.  Westbrook excelled in this area, and it is yet to be seen if the others can do as well.

Perhaps the biggest concern with the Eagles offense is the offensive line.  In their playoff loss to the Cowboys, the Dallas defense pretty much had their way with the Eagles offensive line.  And with no major offseason additions, it’s hard to see where any improvement will come.  While left guard Todd Herremans is solid, the rest of the line is full of question marks.

Left tackle Jason Peters made the Pro Bowl, but that was more due to his reputation than from outstanding play.  Starting center Jamaal Jackson is rehabbing an injury, and it isn’t clear if he’ll be ready for the start of the season.  When backup Nick Cole replaced him last season there was a large dropoff.  While it’s reasonable to expect some improvement from Cole with a full offseason to prepare, he still may not be a starting caliber center in the NFL.  The rest of the line will probably be Stacy Andrews and Winston Justice, and they are both average players at best.

Considering the weapons available, and the expected improvement in accuracy, should we expect the Eagles offense to perform better in 2010 than it did in 2009?  Not necessarily.  Going from a ten year veteran to a first time starter, there is almost always going to be some sort of drop off, if not physical, then at least mental.  While Kolb has gotten plenty of practice reps over the past three seasons, there’s a lot of things that he hasn’t seen before.  And you can be assured that defensive cooridnators are going to throw everything they can at Kolb in order to confuse him. 

Plus, with a potentially subpar offensive line, the Eagles may miss McNabb’s superior mobility.  There may be times when Kolb won’t be able to escape from a relentless pass rush.

Overall, I expect the QB switch to eliminate those games where the offense does absolutely nothing.  With McNabb and Reid together, you would get at least one or two of those games each year.  Hopefully the swicth to Kolb will prevent this from happening.

On the other hand, the offense will probably be more mistake prone than it was under McNabb.  Because McNabb so rarely threw them, I expect a large increase in the number of interceptions by the Eagles offense.  In addition, I can see more than a few drives ending due to a big sack.

As always, Reid could make things easier on his QB by running the ball more, but I don’t expect that to happen.  The Eagles will continue to be a passing based team, and will do as well as their QB does.  Hopefully, Kolb lives up to the expectations that Reid has for him.  Otherwise, the Eagles offense is going to struggle.