IRVING, Texas -- It's amazing how a single game can change our perception of a team. We just spent almost an entire season watching the Eagles destroy teams with big plays, but now we're wondering if they'll score again this season.
That's what a 24-0 shutout loss will do to a team. One of the most prolific offenses in the league is suddenly having an identity crisis -- and it couldn't be happening at a worse time. I've been amused by the stories coming out of Philly this week about how Andy Reid needs to have a more balanced approach. Maybe he could mix in a run or two just to keep Wade Phillips' defense honest.
You may have heard that Reid ran the ball only 10 times against the Cowboys in Week 17. Once it was clear the Eagles weren't interested in establishing the run, the Cowboys were able to focus solely on harassing quarterback Donovan McNabb. In a perfect world, the Eagles would methodically drive the ball down the field while keeping Tony Romo and Miles Austin on the sideline. But this offense wasn't built for long drives and it would be silly for Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to try a different approach.
The Eagles rank second in the league with 16 touchdowns of 20 or more yards. And the key to those quick strikes has been the speedy legs of wide receiver DeSean Jackson. He's one of the most dangerous players in the league both as a wideout and a punt returner. But he's been relatively quiet against the Cowboys this season -- unless you count his tweets and Ustream videos.
Jackson has five catches for 74 yards and no touchdowns against Dallas. He normally has that many yards in the first quarter against the Giants and Redskins. He's the primary reason the Eagles have a league-leading 13 touchdown drives of four or fewer plays. As Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick explained to me earlier this week, Jackson reaches top speed a lot sooner than most receivers, which explains why he runs past so many safeties.
"[Jeremy] Maclin's more of a strider," Scandrick said. "It takes him a little bit to get to top speed. Jackson's at top speed right away -- and then he'll find another gear once he has the ball."
A lot of Jackson's big plays have come off double moves this season, so Cowboys defensive backs have worked hard in practice on not biting on fakes. Second-year cornerback Mike Jenkins has become a supremely confident player and he's spent hours watching film of Jackson. He told me Sunday that too many defenders get obsessed with Jackson's speed and forget to use their technique.
In each loss to the Cowboys, McNabb has had at least one look at a wide-open Jackson. Last Sunday, McNabb didn't put enough loft on a deep ball when Jackson beat cornerback Terence Newman. The Eagles can't afford to miss those opportunities Saturday night.
During the Cowboys' three-game winning streak, they've been able to score early and put opposing teams on their heels. On Saturday night, it's important for the Eagles to get off to a fast start. If they can turn the game into a shootout, I actually like Philadelphia's chances. There's no way Reid can plod along and hope that his defense holds Romo in check. I think the Eagles will be a lot more daring with blitzes in this game, but let's keep in mind that they've yielded a league-leading 15 touchdown passes when they bring pressure.
The Cowboys are generating pressure without having to blitz much. But the Eagles' offensive line should look a lot more cohesive in Saturday's game. I thought center Nick Cole did a pretty nice job against Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff last week. Now the Eagles must find a way to account for outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, who had two sacks in Sunday's game.
If McNabb has time to move around, he becomes a much more dangerous player. And he's done a nice job this season bouncing back after poor performances. We've all seen what McNabb can do when he gets in a good rhythm. He had some success Sunday getting the ball to tight end Brent Celek, and that should once again be a favorable matchup for the Eagles. Cowboys nickel linebacker Bobby Carpenter has had some good moments this season, but covering Celek in space is a tall order.
But again, the Eagles' best chance of winning this game is to get the ball in Jackson's hands. Mornhinweg, who took responsibility for the Eagles' failures on offense Sunday, has to create mismatch opportunities for his young receiver. Jackson has bristled at the notion that he's been shut down by the Cowboys. What he'd like to come out and say is that the reason he's been limited is because of McNabb's throws, but he's too smart to go that route.
"The best players in the NFL have great games, and you're going to have games that are not great games," Jackson told reporters in Dallas on Wednesday. "You have to accept that, being a special player in the NFL. It's not going to break me or make me. I'm still going to go out there and do everything I can to help my team win and be successful. ... That's all I care about. Anything else, I can care less about."
If Jackson isn't special Saturday night, I don't like the Eagles' chances.