Eagles can't afford to wait for playoff push

Andy Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles know their typical late-season surge might not be enough to reach the playoffs this year. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

On the surface, a 5-3 record puts a team in the thick of the NFC playoff race. But it's safe to say the Eagles are at a critical juncture in the season.

In the decade since Andy Reid took over, the Eagles have been notoriously slow starters. Even when they were making annual visits to the NFC title game, there were slow starts. In 2003, the Eagles began the season 2-3 before finishing 12-4 and losing to the Panthers in the NFC Championship Game.

The 2004 Super Bowl team was the exception with a 7-0 start, and that may have been the most talented roster top to bottom in the organization's history. (Joe Banner prefers the '09 team).

A lot of us predicted great things for the '09 Eagles based on the arrival of Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters and rookies Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy. But our point of reference -- an improbable trip to the '08 NFC title game -- is faulty at best. It's easy to forget that the '08 team dropped a road game to a bad Bears team and then had an embarrassing tie with the Bengals in November.

Controlling their destiny last December, the Eagles recorded a shameful loss to a Redskins team that had already imploded. That team needed a miracle on the final Sunday of the season, and that's exactly what the Raiders delivered with a win at Tampa Bay that put the Eagles back in playoff contention.

You think the Eagles might someday realize that wins in October and November might actually make life easier, but there are clear signs they haven't gotten the message. There's not a single excuse for how a team with this much talent can go on the road and lose to Tom Cable's Raiders.

Reid will finish his career as one of the winningest coaches in league history, but that doesn't cancel out the fact that his teams play with a remarkable lack of focus at times. Even with all of his West Coast genius, Reid still makes stunningly poor decisions in managing games. After losses, he always mutters something about needing to put his team in better positions to succeed. But he almost never offers actual explanations for why his teams seem to have at least one or two disastrous losses in the first three months of the season.

And because you can only beat your head against the wall so many times after Reid news conferences, let me float a theory that may or may not hold water. During all those runs to NFC title games earlier this decade, Reid had enough veteran leaders in the locker room who could seemingly flip a switch at the midway point and help lead the Eagles to NFC titles.

Players such as Bobby Taylor, Troy Vincent, Brian Dawkins and Jon Runyan helped Reid create an atmosphere devoid of panic. But you'll notice that two names from that list -- Dawkins and Runyan -- played their final seasons with the Eagles in '08. And longtime left tackle Tra Thomas was allowed to enter free agency, making room for the celebrated trade for Peters. A former team leader, Jeremiah Trotter, has returned to the team but a lot players in the locker room aren't familiar with his previous work.

The current leaders of this team -- Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Quintin Mikell -- are doing the best they can, but they find themselves surrounded by youngsters. Some of that's a good thing because it's obvious that DeSean Jackson, Maclin and McCoy are the future of this team. But because of injuries at some key spots, the Eagles are being forced to get even younger. We haven't seen cornerback Dimitri Patterson in weeks because of injuries, but he's probably about to become the nickel cornerback in the absence of the suspended Joselio Hanson.

The Eagles have had an abundance of injuries along the offensive line and at linebacker, but other teams are dealing with similar situations. I think, more than ever, the Eagles need a coach who constantly stays on top of his players. Is Reid that guy? Well, I don't think he has much choice right now.

I've heard former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson say that there are a handful of players in every NFL locker room who are capable of motivating themselves. Johnson says that coaches have to take care of the other 48 players on the roster each week.

It's not too late for the Eagles to make one of their patented runs toward the playoffs. But they can't afford to wait as long as they usually do.