In theory, Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg understand that running the football can be a helpful strategy. But once the action starts, they're not wired to follow this type of logical approach. The Green Bay Packers -- Philadelphia's opponent in an NFC wild-card game Sunday -- give up more than 114 rushing yards per game, and the Eagles have two running backs who are capable of breaking big gains.
Reid admitted this week that he and Mornhinweg often script four or five plays for running back Jerome Harrison, but he didn't really have an answer for why those plays are rarely called. It's no secret the Packers probably will do exactly what the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings did to Eagles quarterback Michael Vick in recent weeks. They'll blitz cornerbacks and safeties in an attempt to cause chaos with the Eagles' protection schemes. I've been told by more than one NFL personnel man that Eagles offensive line coach Juan Castillo is brilliant when it comes to designing protections and running plays. It was Castillo who designed and suggested the toss play to LeSean McCoy that went for a 50-yard touchdown to beat the Giants in their first matchup this season.
Sometimes we watch young hitters have a lot of success until pitchers develop a book on them. And it appears that the league is finally developing a book on the post-prison Michael Vick. Over the first half of the season, he was remarkably efficient and it looked as though he might never throw an interception. But our friend KC Joyner, aka the Football Scientist, indicated back in November that Vick was getting away with a lot of loose throws as he counted up his near-interceptions.
Vick had a league-high 115.1 passer rating through the first 10 games, but he's tailed off significantly in his past six starts. Vick has an 89.7 passer rating and six interceptions to go along with 10 touchdowns. And he hasn't done a good job securing the football, as evidenced by his nine fumbles in that same span. There's a chance that last Sunday's "bye" week against the Dallas Cowboys helped restore Vick's focus and, more importantly, his health.
But to me, the most disturbing thing about the loss to the Vikings two weeks ago was how Vick and receiver DeSean Jackson appeared to be on different planets. Even on the rare occasions when he had time to deliver the ball, Vick would throw the ball 10 yards away from where Jackson's route ended. This offense had developed a reputation for striking on the first series and setting the tone for the rest of the game. But the Vikings bullied Jackson near the line of scrimmage and then had Vick on the run. Part of that occurred because highly overrated left tackle Jason Peters couldn't handle Vikings Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen. It will be interesting to see whether Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has outside linebacker Clay Matthews lining up on Peters' side or across from right tackle Winston Justice. It's more likely that Matthews will line up over Peters and try to force Vick to his right.
Vick knows there's a fine line between keeping Jackson engaged in the game and trying to force the ball in his direction.
"Obviously, when he's involved in the game, our chances go up of scoring points, moving the ball down the field," Vick told reporters this week. "You've got to get the ball in his hands. If defenses are taking him away, you've got to find a way to get that done. It's tough. One thing you can't do in this league is force the ball to anybody. You'll have balls all over the place, incomplete passes and interceptions, obviously . . . You just have to play within the system."
When he played for the Falcons, Vick was the system. He used his brilliant athleticism to make plays, but he never achieved the type of consistency that leads to championships. Reid and especially Mornhinweg have done exceptional work with Vick over the past two seasons. They didn't try to curb his athleticism, but they did help him learn how to calmly go through his progressions and make accurate throws. It's hard to tell whether Vick has regressed over the past six games or if teams have simply caught up with some of the changes he has made to his game.
Tight end Brent Celek told me via phone Thursday night that the loss to the Vikings might have served as a much-needed wake-up call for this offense.
"We're as hungry as we've ever been," Celek said. "I think that loss could end up being a great thing for us. None of the confidence we gained while putting up the big numbers has gone away. We just need to get back to scoring early."
From talking to the Eagles this week, you get the feeling they quickly got over the lost opportunity to have a first-round bye. I can remember Giants players saying in 2008 that they hated the first-round bye because they loved how they built momentum with a wild-card win in 2007.
"Any time you make the playoffs, you're playing great teams every week," Celek told me recently. "I don't think it matters what seed you are because to win the Super Bowl, you have to beat a lot of great teams regardless of the seed."
This offense is certainly better than the one that made it to the NFC title game in 2008, but the defense has taken a step back. I think the Eagles need to score at least 27 points to beat the Packers on Sunday. And while that seemed automatic in the first half of the season, it's no longer a foregone conclusion.