Eagles facing early-season gut check
Philly's big names and big contracts mean nothing without heart and toughness
PHILADELPHIA –-- This was not supposed to happen. This was not part of the grand plan. Teams that are "all-in" and making a run to the Super Bowl -- as Philadelphia Eagles president Joe Banner so boldly said after overseeing a shrewd spending spree that was the talk of free agency -- don't start the season 1-3.
They don't repeat the same mistakes from one game to the next. They don't play without urgency. They don't get complacent with a lead, and they don't look around when things get tough and wait for someone else to make a play.
Teams that are all-in do not typically need an October gut check, but that is where the Eagles are after blowing a third consecutive fourth-quarter lead. First it was Atlanta. Then it was the New York Giants. Michael Vick did not finish either of those games. He finished in Week 4 despite injuring a finger in his throwing hand and had a career day, and it did not matter. The Eagles still lost to the San Francisco 49ers 24-23 after leading 20-3 at halftime.
Teams making a run at the Super Bowl don't lose to an inferior team. It is a tough road to travel, from 1-3 to Super Bowl title. New England in 2001 was the last team to make that trip.
The Eagles have fundamental problems on both sides of the ball, from tackling to protecting the football to getting into the end zone when they are in the red zone. They lack playmakers at key defensive positions, and you have to wonder whether they have enough guys on defense who have the nastiness -- beloved former Eagles safety Brian Dawkins used to call it the "dawg" inside -- to make a stop when it matters most.
But no problem is bigger for the Eagles right now than this one: The players think this team is better than it is. They are all gloss, and so far little substance.
As Bill Parcells famously said, you are what your record says you are. The Eagles are 1-3. They need to accept it, deal with it, and then go out and fix it, because the problem is not going to fix itself.
From the sound of it, Vick understands that, but he might be one of the few. Vick threw for a career-high 416 yards and ran for 75 more against San Francisco, but no task will be bigger than getting the Eagles to buy into the fact that they cannot rely on their talent alone.
"I heard Steve Young a couple of weeks ago mention when he played it was a sense that came over him, and the sense was, 'Over my dead body, I will not lose this game. I will not let this guy in front of me beat me,'" a stoic Vick said after the loss.
"From my perspective, I will not let this defense overcome what I'm trying to overcome. It's just the 'over my dead body' attitude that you have to take. And you have to be willing to give everything you got, and at the same time stand fundamentally sound, be mentally sharp and let your physical abilities show.
"That's gut check. Some people have it, and some people don't, but we're going to find out who's got it."
Can DeSean Jackson shelve whatever animosity he feels toward the organization over his unresolved contract situation and make big catches? Can Jeremy Maclin remember how to cradle the football so he won't fumble it? Can Andy Reid learn to call basic plays to pound the ball into the end zone from the 1-yard line, instead of giving his backup running back an option to throw the ball on third-and-goal from that spot?
Can the defense, which has issues at linebacker and safety, learn to wrap up a ball carrier? And can the players make up for having a first-year defensive coordinator in Juan Castillo, who had spent the previous 13 seasons coaching the Eagles' offensive line?
It is a lot to ask.
Against the 49ers, the Eagles went ahead 23-3 on an Alex Henery field goal midway through the third quarter, but the defense gave up consecutive scoring drives that allowed the Niners to cut the lead to 23-17 late in the quarter.
In the fourth, the Eagles twice had long drives that ended in missed field goals by the rookie kicker, one from 39 yards and the other from 33, with Philadelphia's franchise's scoring leader, David Akers, watching from the Niners' sideline.
Frank Gore gave the Niners the win with a 12-yard run up the gut that typified the Eagles' problems against the run this season.
"You can't be up 23-3 and then lose it," said cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, the Eagles' prized acquisition in free agency. "We kept saying in the huddle, 'It's 23-17, if they don't score, we win.' They drove down and did that run down the right side and got in -- stuff like that can't happen."
No, it can't. And neither can quotes like this: "From paper," Jackson said, "I know our team is a lot better than what our record says."
Actually, it is not. Not yet at least.
After the game, as he usually does, Reid took full responsibility for the loss and worked hard to deflect pointed questions about his defense and his defensive coordinator. This was a total team collapse, Reid insisted. It started with the head coach.
"You have to play as a football team," Reid said. "My responsibility is to get the football team to play as a football team. I don't care how much talent you have, you have to play as a football team. That's my responsibility."
Cullen Jenkins, one of the few players on the team who actually has a Super Bowl ring, broke down the Eagles' problems best. He said the team lacks "attitude," and that when things start going wrong, "there's not that fire," not that mental toughness.
"Somehow, some way, we've got to get it," Jenkins said. "Maybe it's because everybody has spent so much time adapting and getting used to each other and this and that, but at some point, you know, the man in you has to come out. At the end of the day, it's the game of football. It's you against the person across from you. It's you doing what you've got to do. Are you going to get it done better than the person across from you?"
"We're doing it for about half of the game, maybe even three quarters of the game sometimes. But, we're not doing it for a whole game."
That will have to change, and quickly, or else it won't matter that in August the Eagles were all-in. They will be left out in February, when it matters most.
What I learned from Week 4:
Detroit is for real: Yes, the Lions are the feel-good story of the NFL through the first four weeks, but there is substance there. Last week, they overcame a 20-point halftime deficit to beat Minnesota. This week, they came back from 24 down in the second half to beat Dallas. Dating to last season, Detroit now has won an NFL-best eight consecutive regular-season games. And Calvin Johnson has been magnificent.
With two more touchdown catches against Dallas, the receiver they call "Megatron" now has tied an NFL record by catching at least two touchdown passes in four straight games.
If there was an MVP award for the first quarter of the season, Matt Hasselbeck would be in the running: Yes, you could make a strong argument for Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, but Hasselbeck has meant just as much to his team.
Through four games, Hasselbeck has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions. After beating Cleveland 31-13, a game in which Hasselbeck threw three touchdowns (his most since Sept. 13, 2009) and one interception, the Titans are now 3-1 and tied with Houston atop the AFC South.
Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz can call running plays: On Sunday against Carolina, possibly in an attempt to keep the ball out of Cam Newton's able hands, Martz called Matt Forte's number 25 times. Forte, who entered the game with 35 rushes for 119 yards in the first three games, rewarded Martz with 205 rushing yards (8.2 yards per carry) and a touchdown in a 34-29 win.
If the Bears are going to have success this season, they will need Forte to have a major role. In a Week 2 loss to New Orleans, Jay Cutler threw 45 passes and Forte got 10 carries. Cutler begged Martz to run the ball more, and on Sunday the message seemed to have been received.
The thrilling kickoff return is not dead: Kickoffs might be safer, given that touchbacks are way up because teams are now kicking off from the 35-yard line rather than the 30. But the play has not been completely eradicated from football as many, including this writer, feared it would be after the rule change.
The latest proof: Jets running back Joe McKnight's 107-yard return for a touchdown to pull New York to even at 7-7 with Baltimore. It was the fourth kickoff return for a touchdown this season.
If your team has a double-digit lead, don't go to the beer stand: No lead is safe this season. Just ask Philadelphia, Dallas and Buffalo, the latest teams to cough up at least a two-touchdown lead and lose in Week 4, bringing the total to nine teams over the first four weeks. That's the most ever in the first quarter of the season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
After Arizona gave up a 10-point lead to lose to the Giants, 15 teams have lost after leading by at least 10 points, also an NFL record.
What does this means to you? Stay thirsty, my friend.
SLEEPING IN THE OFFICE
Issues that will keep coaches awake this week:
What happened to "ground and pound"? Against the Baltimore Ravens, Rex Ryan's New York Jets managed just 38 yards on the ground. With center Nick Mangold out again, the Jets' offensive line was a mess, but only 38 yards rushing? The Jets can't win like that.
New England is up next. New York will need a win to avoid going oh-fer on its current three-game road swing.
The Houston Texans' franchise has a hamstring injury: Wide receiver Andre Johnson pulled up with a hamstring injury in the second quarter of the Texans' win over Pittsburgh, but it looked much worse.
After missing last week's game against New Orleans, Texans running back Arian Foster -- who fought a hamstring injury earlier in the season -- gained 155 rushing yards on 30 carries, but Houston would love to have Johnson next week against Oakland.
"It was very difficult," Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. "He's the leader of this team, the leader of this franchise. If we have to go without him for a period of time, we'll have to have some guys step up to the plate."
RANT AND RAVE
A player who will be under review today:
The Cowboys live with Romo, and they die with Romo, and on Sunday they died after he threw three second-half interceptions, two that were returned for touchdowns, to give the Lions hope and then the win. Three weeks after presiding over the worst fourth-quarter collapse in Dallas history, Romo orchestrated the worst collapse in Dallas history. The Cowboys held a 27-3 halftime lead, but lost 34-30.
This has become Romo's MO. When he's good -- as when completing 19 of 24 passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns in the first half against Detroit -- he's very good. When he's bad -- as when he was throwing interceptions to Bobby Carpenter, Chris Houston and Stephen Tulloch -- he's very bad.
And this isn't likely to change. It is not like Romo has a hiccup in his mechanics. He is not just making mistakes. He is making horrible decisions, decisions a 31-year-old, nine-year veteran should not be making anymore, unless he is just an average quarterback. Good, but not consistently great.
"However we go, we go with Tony," team owner Jerry Jones told reporters after the game. "As Tony goes, we'll go."
Which, given Romo's history, means he might be the GOAT (greatest of all time) one week, and the goat the next.
Notable tweets from around the league:
"Rule says runner down if he falls to ground+makes no effort to advance. It's a judgment call." -- @gregaiello, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, on the New York Giants' Victor Cruz, who caught a 19-yard pass from Eli Manning, fell to the ground untouched and got up without the football. Arizona recovered the football, but the officials ruled Cruz down. New York scored on the next play and won the game 31-27.
According to Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1 of the NFL rulebook: Dead Ball Declared. An official shall declare the ball dead and the down ended: (e) when a runner is out of bounds, or declares himself down by falling to the ground, or kneeling, and making no effort to advance.
"In Giants game -- in my opinion it should have been ruled a fumble." -- @MikePereira, former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, now an analyst at FOX. Pereira later explained, "If you have possession of the ball and you take a knee thats giving yourself up, Cruz stumbled."
"I hate losing, ill never be ok with Losing, just sitting here thinking about what I could have done different. Got to do some different.! -- @darnelldockett, Arizona defensive end Darnell Dockett.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.