- Ashley Fox
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Let's play devil's advocate.
Maybe the sky isn't falling in Philadelphia. It isn't sunny, sure, but maybe things aren't as bad with the Eagles as one might think, unpopular as that notion is.
What if against the undefeated Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, the Philadelphia defense is invigorated by secondary coach Todd Bowles replacing Juan Castillo as defensive coordinator? Bowles was a defensive back in the NFL for eight seasons. He is a former player who connects with the current players, is well respected in the locker room and has a strong, self-assured voice.
What if Bowles has the gravitas to tweak what Philadelphia is doing with defensive line coach Jim Washburn's Wide 9 front that has failed to produce a single sack in the last three games? The Eagles led the NFL with 50 sacks in 2011. Have the pass-rushers -- namely Jason Babin, Trent Cole and Cullen Jenkins -- declined that much, or have opposing offenses figured out how to neutralize them? Maybe a fresh perspective, a fresh set of eyes, and subtle changes would help.
And what if Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg realize that the best way to help Michael Vick eliminate turnovers in the red zone is by giving the ball to someone else, namely LeSean McCoy, who had one turnover in 2011? Max protect to aid an offensive line that is missing two starters, including All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters, and call for Vick to get rid of the ball more quickly. Pull the tight ends in. Do away with the seven-step drops. One, two, three, boom -- the ball is out and Vick is upright. Bring back the screen game. Don't worry about going deep.
The Eagles have an offense that has not struggled to move the ball this season as much as it -- and Vick -- has shot itself in the foot. They are seventh in the league with 379.0 total yards per game, but they've struggled to score, averaging an anemic 17.2 points, in large part because they've had brutal turnovers in the red zone. The other four teams in the NFL cellar in scoring -- Jacksonville, Kansas City, Seattle and Carolina -- are a combined 7-18. In 2012, a low scoring average will get you beat.
The turnovers are the real killer. The Eagles have a minus-9 turnover ratio. Only Kansas City is worse at minus-15 (and the Chiefs benched their quarterback, Matt Cassel). Vick has 13 total turnovers, including eight interceptions.
"We flip that turnover ratio and that takes care of an awful lot of things," Mornhinweg said Thursday.
These are precarious times in Philadelphia. In the preseason, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said that a second consecutive .500 record would be unacceptable given the personnel in which he has invested. Presumably, finishing 8-8 would get Reid fired after 14 seasons that would have included one Super Bowl appearance in 2004 that seems like a distant memory.
The question that Lurie has left unanswered is, what would be acceptable? A 9-7 finish? A playoff appearance? Does this team need to make a serious run to, at minimum, the NFC Championship Game? Or is it Super Bowl or bust?
Those are important questions. This Eagles team doesn't look or feel like one that is poised for that kind of run, but neither did the Giants as late as early December last season. It's not always about sustained excellence throughout the course of a season. It is staying competitive, staying within striking distance, and then getting hot in the end.
It isn't out of the realm of possibility that the Eagles could fall into that last category, but there is no question that Sunday's game against the Falcons is pivotal. The Eagles have lost two straight games in which they've held fourth-quarter leads. They have dominated no one. A third consecutive loss would send an agitated and irritated fan base into an all-out mutiny. There is Andy Reid fatigue in Philadelphia that won't be soothed by anything other than success.
Using the Eagles' last 22 games as the sample size, success seems unlikely. Dating to the start of 2011, the Eagles are 11-11, the picture of inconsistency. Turnovers have been their downfall.
"The ball security is the biggest statistic that correlates with winning," Mornhinweg said. "Many of these stats that are thrown around mean very little in regards to winning and losing. Turnovers? Big. ... On an occasion, you can overcome a negative turnover ratio and win the game. It's not going to happen consistently. We just simply have to flip it."
The Eagles are 13-0 after a bye week under Reid. It is not an insignificant statistic. It has been an interminable two weeks in Philadelphia since the Eagles lost to Detroit. The Falcons are undefeated against the weakest schedule in the NFL and haven't won in Philadelphia since 1988.
The Eagles are up against a wall. No one expects them to win. The expectation is that they will crumble under the weight of the moment, press too much, and then fold, another season of great expectations gone. But consider the devil's advocate. The Eagles beat the Giants earlier this season under tough conditions. They beat Baltimore, too. Will all still be lost if they win?
Tony Romo is under constant fire in Dallas, particularly considering that the Cowboys, like the Eagles, are 3-3 and Romo has thrown eight touchdowns and nine interceptions.
According to ESPN's Stats & Information, Witten leads the NFL with seven drops this season. He has been targeted 50 times and has 33 catches for 320 yards and one touchdown. Bryant is among eight players tied for second with five drops. He has been targeted 51 times and has 36 catches for 378 yards and two touchdowns.
Quarterbacks and coaches in the National Football League get too much of the credit when the team wins and too much of the blame when it doesn't. But Witten and Bryant could help the Cowboys by hanging onto the ball. They'll get another chance Sunday against the emerging secondary of the New York Giants.
• • •
Victor Cruz will get paid. It is only a matter of time. Maybe New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese will renegotiate Cruz's rookie deal this season, or maybe he will wait until the offseason. But it will get done.
After signing with the Giants as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2010, Cruz set a franchise record with 1,536 yards in 2011. He was part of the team that won the Super Bowl. And this season, he sits first in the league with seven touchdown receptions, third with 50 receptions and fourth with 627 receiving yards. He and Eli Manning obviously have chemistry. He was open late against Washington. Manning delivered the ball. Cruz scored on a 77-yard play. Done.
Cruz shouldn't hold out or give his contract, which pays him $540,000 this season, another thought. Being underpaid last season wore on Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson to the point that he sulked, didn't play his hardest and was late to a team meeting. Cruz doesn't need to do that. The Giants are a Super Bowl-caliber team. In time, his deal will get done.
• • •
Roger Goodell statement that the NFL will consider dropping the Pro Bowl if the level of play does not improve from that the players displayed in the last game -- deemed "embarrassing" by none other than Aaron Rodgers -- is nothing more than an idle threat. The NFL isn't going to do away with the Pro Bowl. The ratings are too good.
It is the same reason the league now plays the game the Sunday before the Super Bowl instead of after the Super Bowl, when all chosen players, including the world champions, could participate. It's all about the ratings, which translate into money.
Last season's atrocious game was won by the AFC 59-41. There was no tackling. It was essentially glorified two-hand touch. And 12.5 million viewers still tuned in. That's more than the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, more than any hockey game and more than any NBA game except for the Finals.
During an appearance earlier this week on SiriusXM NFL Radio's "Town Hall" hosted by Michael Strahan, Goodell said this: "If we cannot accomplish that kind of standard (of high play), I am inclined to not play it. It is really tough to force competition, and after a long season, to ask those guys to go out and play at the same level they played is really tough."
That is nothing more than posturing. The players want the game to remain. Goodell wants something in return. The league would never cancel the Pro Bowl, because the ratings are just too good.
• • •
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs surprised everyone except himself by returning from a serious Achilles injury in just six months and playing last week against Houston. He was essentially a medical miracle. But would Suggs have played against the Texans, instead of taking a more measured approach and sitting out through the Ravens' bye this week, had the defense not lost middle linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb to season-ending injuries in Week 6?
"Absolutely," Suggs told me. "Absolutely. I'm a football player. I ain't myself if I ain't playing football, and it was ready. I've got to get the rust off. I don't want to be rusty come November, December. You know what I am. Those are going to be our biggest games of the season coming down the stretch."
Baltimore has four division games remaining, including both with Pittsburgh, plus conference games against Oakland, San Diego and Denver. The Ravens also play at Washington on Dec. 9 and against the Giants on Dec. 23. They looked shaky in a 43-13 loss to the Texans, but Suggs said, "We're still 5-2. Still 5-2."
• • •
To magnify how important ball security is in the NFL this season -- and why teams that turn the ball over frequently have struggled -- consider this: none of the 12 teams that have a minus-2 turnover ratio or worse has a winning record. Of the 10 teams with a plus-3 or better turnover ratio, only two don't have winning records.
Turnovers are even more important this season because the games have been so close. Sixty-two of the 104 games played have been decided by eight points or fewer. That's 59.6 percent, and according to ESPN Stats & Information, it's the most one-possession games through the first seven weeks of a season in NFL history.
Last week alone, only two games were decided by more than one possession. Games are close. Taking care of the football is paramount. The teams that do typically win.
Greg Cosell has been breaking down game film at NFL Films for more than three decades. The film doesn't lie. And this week in preparation for ESPN's "NFL Matchup," Cosell and his team studied Cam Newton. Not Newton's body language or postgame press conferences. The film.
What did it show?
"I don't think there's anything wrong with Cam Newton," Cosell said. "I think he's throwing the ball fine."
What the film showed is that the Carolina Panthers are an option, deception offense -- and that rarely works in the NFL. According to Cosell, against Dallas last week Carolina had 60 total snaps, and Newton was under center only 11 times. On the season, 66 percent of Carolina's runs have come out of the shotgun. Of Newton's 188 pass attempts and sacks this season, 153 of those have been with him in the shotgun. The most revealing set of numbers, Cosell said, comes in the red zone. The Panthers have had 54 red zone plays, and 47 of them have been in the shotgun. Of their 34 plays inside the 10-yard line, 30 have been in the shotgun.
"They have no drop-back passing game," Cosell said. "So, when you really study their offense, they don't have a base running game and they don't have a drop-back passing game. It's really tough to succeed that way in the NFL."
STATS & INFO
One of the biggest knocks on the Atlanta Falcons under fifth-year coach Mike Smith and fifth-year quarterback Matt Ryan is that, despite their regular-season success, the coach and quarterback have failed to win a playoff game. They are 0-3, which includes a loss at home in 2010 when the Falcons were the NFC's No. 1 seed and a 24-2 loss on the road to the New York Giants last season.
But there is hope for the Falcons, the NFL's lone remaining unbeaten team at 6-0, in the guise of a statistic. According to ESPN Stats & Information, among the 37 teams to start at least 6-0 and be the NFL's final unbeaten team during the Super Bowl era, 10 won the Super Bowl and 20 reached the Super Bowl. Thirty-five of the 37 reached the postseason.
The Falcons aren't trying to just make the playoffs. They've done that. They are trying to mirror the 54.1 percent of the 6-0 teams that reached the Super Bowl.
"So are people really questioning the hit by Suh last night? Man once a guy gets label he better not sneeze too hard!"
The Pittsburgh Steelers' free safety wasn't kidding. Ndamukong Suh crushed Jay Cutler in the second quarter of Detroit's 13-7 loss to Chicago on Monday night. It was a vicious hit that left Cutler on the ground for several minutes with bruised ribs, but it was a legal hit Suh didn't get fined for making. But by his play and his actions, Suh has developed a reputation as a dirty player. It will be hard for him to shake that reputation.
"Big thanks to all #Texans fans for their support the first 7 weeks. A lil break for the bye to rest up and get ready for the stretch run."
At 6-1, the Texans have the best record in the AFC, but only two of their first seven opponents have winning records. Houston beat one (Baltimore) and lost to the other (Green Bay). After this week's bye, only three of the Texans' remaining eight opponents -- they face Indianapolis twice -- have winning records. Overall, Houston's remaining opponents have a 31-29 record.
"Gonna be a nice world series!!!GIANTS"
Spoken like a true San Francisco guy. #transplant.
All games Sunday unless otherwise noted. All times ET.
Miami (3-3) at New York Jets (3-4), 1 p.m.
If the playoffs started today, the Dolphins would be in. Amazing. They control their destiny. Jets 17, Dolphins 14.
San Diego (3-3) at Cleveland (1-6), 1 p.m.
Cleveland is just what San Diego needs after a tumultuous couple of weeks. Chargers 30, Browns 16.
Indianapolis (3-3) at Tennessee (3-4), 1 p.m. Is there a brewing quarterback controversy in Tennessee? The Titans are 2-1 with Matt Hasselbeck starting in place of Jake Locker. Hasselbeck will start against the Colts. Titans 24, Colts 21.
Atlanta (6-0) at Philadelphia (3-3), 1 p.m.
If there can be a must-win game before the season's midpoint, this is it for the Eagles. They know it. Eagles 24, Falcons 23.
Washington (3-4) at Pittsburgh (3-3), 1 p.m. RG3 has been off the hook and the Steelers' defense is ailing, but Pittsburgh doesn't lose often at Heinz Field. Steelers 28, Redskins 24.
Seattle (4-3) at Detroit (2-4), 1 p.m.
The Lions are hurting and will miss Nate Burleson, but this is a huge game for them. Lose, and the season is lost. Lions 17, Seattle 13.
Carolina (1-5) at Chicago (5-1), 1 p.m.
There are easy jokes about sideline demeanor that could be made, but not here. Nope. Not about Cam Newton or Jay Cutler. Not going to happen. Bears 24, Panthers 17.
New England (4-3) at St. Louis (3-4), 1 p.m. This is the NFL's now-annual game in London. Will the Patriots be able to close a game better across the pond than they have here in the past three weeks? Patriots 31, Rams 17.
Oakland (2-4) at Kansas City (1-5), 4:05 p.m. Andy Reid fired his defensive coordinator. Jerry Richardson fired his general manager. Romeo Crennel fired his quarterback. Will the Brady Quinn era yield different results? Raiders 17, Chiefs 12.
New York Giants (5-2) at Dallas (3-3), 4:25 p.m. Let's rank the quarterbacks in the NFC East: There's Eli Manning, and everyone else. In the fourth quarter, no one is better with the ball in his hands. Giants 24, Cowboys 23.
New Orleans (2-4) at Denver (3-3), 8:20 p.m. How good has Peyton Manning been lately? In the past four games, he has thrown 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He has found his groove. Broncos 31, Saints 27.
San Francisco (5-2) at Arizona (4-3), Monday, 8:30 p.m. Arizona has the fourth-ranked rushing defense in the NFL, but it will have its hands full with Frank Gore. The 49ers haven't lost during the Jim Harbaugh era when Gore rushes at least 25 times. 49ers 24, Cardinals 17.
Idle: Baltimore, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Houston.
Last week: 10-2. Season: 61-37.
With a tweak here and fewer turnovers there, the Eagles could save their season, writes Ashley Fox.