It's hard to know what, exactly, we were watching Saturday when the Philadelphia Eagles won their third game in a row, 20-7, over a Dallas Cowboys team that was missing several of its most important players. The New York Giants' victory that concluded in the early minutes of the Eagles-Cowboys game eliminated Philadelphia from playoff contention -- a punctuation mark that would have been far more bitterly disappointing if it hadn't been all but assured weeks earlier.
Eagles fans could be happy their team is playing hard and finishing the season strong after a 1-4 start, but that kind of stuff is for fans whose teams didn't have preseason Super Bowl expectations. This is a lost and lousy season for the Eagles no matter how you slice it -- a terrible missed opportunity in a season that required no more than nine wins for the NFC East title.
So what are we looking at when we're watching Michael Vick slice up the Cowboys and the Eagles' defense torment an opposing quarterback for the third week in a row? Does the Eagles' late-season performance matter? Does it say something about the way we can expect them to play next year? Or is all of this easily swept under the "meaningless games" rug and dismissed as useless for predictive purposes?
I think there's a pretty good chance these are the real Eagles -- the Eagles the way they were supposed to be when they put this thing together in July and August. If you remember, the Eagles weren't playing bad football in September and October -- they were merely finding different and agonizing ways to lose games in the end. They matched up physically with nearly every team they played this season. Of their eight losses, they held fourth-quarter leads in five. There were two games they weren't in at all -- New England and Seattle -- and they were using their overmatched backup quarterback in both of them. And they're 4-1 in the division with one game left against Washington next week, so it's not as though they have major problems with their closest competition.
This is, of course, the angle that Eagles coach Andy Reid will try to sell to the front office and ownership when he meets with them in the coming weeks to discuss the team's future and his own -- that the way the team has played indicates a potential for great things if they stay the course, cut down on turnovers and put in a full offseason program with the players and coaches who are suddenly playing and coaching so well. And while Eagles fans may not buy it, it's entirely possible ownership will. It depends on the level of faith they have in Reid. That faith has long been considerable, but it would be understandable if it had been shaken a little bit by what went on this year. We'll see whether Reid is in trouble (I doubt he is), or whether he'll have to sacrifice first-year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo or make other staff changes to keep his own job.
The Castillo issue is interesting. Even if Howard Mudd goes back into retirement, the Eagles can't shift Castillo back to his old position of offensive line coach. Mudd introduced a completely new way of blocking, and the Eagles' linemen have bought into it and thrived in it. They're not about to tell Castillo to go back to his old job and coach Mudd's schemes instead of his, and they're not about to tell the linemen they're going back to the old way of doing things. That's out. The three choices with Castillo are to fire him (which Reid would surely hate to do), reassign him to a defensive position-coach job or keep him right where he is in the hopes that this late-season defensive surge represents his potential as a coordinator.
That last one would be an impossible sell to the fans, even if Reid could sell it to ownership. But much worse, I personally believe it would be a tough sell to the players. Castillo is a nice, hardworking guy, but the defense has had too many failures in too many big spots this year for the players to maintain faith that Castillo knows what he's doing. Bringing him back in the same role could actually damage the late-season progress the Eagles have made if the players on the defensive side of the ball don't believe in him.
Lots of fascinating decisions yet to be made with the Eagles, and the way they are finishing the season can't help but factor in. Three weeks ago, we said Reid could be in trouble if the team played the final four games as if it didn't care. The opposite has happened, so it stands to reason that that only strengthens Reid's position. At this point, you have to believe he'll be back in 2012. The question is, based on what we've seen from the Eagles this month, is there reason to be encouraged about that?