The "Monday Night Football" spotlight shines on Philadelphia this week, but it's likely the home team would just as soon point it somewhere else. The Philadelphia Eagles are 3-7, haven't won a game since September, and are hosting the Carolina Panthers on Monday amid turmoil, outside ridicule and a growing certainty that the 14-year tenure of Andy Reid as their head coach is six games from its end.
So what, then, is left to drive them? What will get the Eagles out on that field Monday to lay their backs and knees and shoulders and ankles on the line for three grueling NFL hours and give an honest effort in a nationally televised game? Sure, they're not technically eliminated from contention in this year's shaky-looking NFC East, but no one who has watched them play this year can possibly think that's still a realistic hope. If these Eagles are playing for anything, they're playing for pride. And what you see Monday from an effort standpoint will tell you almost everything there still is to learn about this extremely disappointing team.
Some have put forth the idea that the Eagles have "quit" on this season, on Reid or both. That's not what I've seen. I have not seen, to this point, a lack of hustle or a lack of effort. They've just played badly. The coverage breakdowns have been the fault of poor communication or the failure of individuals, in the moment, to understand or carry out their responsibilities on a given play. The Eagles haven't been lazy -- they've just been bad. We've seen other teams shut down and quit on their coaches, but the Eagles don't look like such a team. They're not playing significantly worse right now than they did last year, or early this season when they were in first place. Their issues are ones of poorly assessed quality. The roster just isn't as good as those who assembled it believed it would be. They try hard, but the results aren't there. The Eagles have the fifth-worst record and the fifth-worst point differential in the league, and 11 weeks is enough time to prove how good (or, in this case, how bad) you are.
But even bad teams have moments of brilliance. And apart from a few clutch fourth quarters that won them their three games back in September, the Eagles haven't really had any. They have not elevated themselves above their natural state of misery for a full 60 minutes -- played over their heads in any kind of inspired way. When they were winning, they were winning by the slimmest of margins, making exactly as many mistakes as they could afford to make but not one more. For the past two months, they've just stunk, without any kind of positive respite.
The last time the Eagles played a good game was Sept. 30, a 19-17 victory over the Giants. That's their largest margin of victory this season, and the reason they can call it a good game and not some kind of voodoo Giants fluke is the 191 rushing yards Philly ran up against the Super Bowl champs that day. A lot had to go right in order for the Eagles to win that game, including key penalties and a missed 54-yard prayer from Lawrence Tynes at the end, but they won it honestly. They just didn't win it convincingly or with any kind of aplomb.
At the time, that was deemed fine, because the Eagles were 3-1 despite not having played their best. The idea was that they eventually would, and then the toughness they showed in winning those three September games would really start to pay off. Instead, they have sunk into a nightmarish malaise from which they appear incapable of waking even briefly. One of these weeks, you keep thinking, they'll look like a great team. Not because they are, but because every team looks like a great team at least once in awhile.
The Eagles don't have much to play for Monday night or the rest of this season. But there is the fact that they haven't yet had that great game -- the one that makes them say to themselves, "Yeah, that's the way we believed we were capable of playing." They haven't had that afternoon or evening on which they looked and felt as though they could beat anyone. Maybe the quest for that feeling can keep them going out there and beating up their bodies for the amusement of national TV viewers. It's not much, but the pursuit of that previously undiscovered level of pride may be all the 2012 Eagles have left.