ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- With 1:23 left in Sunday's game, fourth-and-inches to go from midfield and a seven-point lead, the Buffalo Bills had a choice. They could punt the ball away and force the Philadelphia Eagles to go the length of the field to tie the score, or they could go for it, knowing the game would be over if they picked up those couple of inches. They called a time out to talk it over and chose a third option -- let the Eagles make a critical mistake.
The Bills lined up as though planning to run a play, but quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick just sat behind center barking out his cadence. He barked and barked, and finally ...
"They got me," Eagles defensive lineman Juqua Parker said.
Parker jumped offside, and the penalty gave the Bills the first down that clinched a 31-24 victory that dropped the Eagles to 1-4. It was the Eagles' fifth penalty of the game and third of the fourth quarter. And while it was the mistake that ultimately decided the game, it had plenty of help from its friends.
In addition to the penalties, Philadelphia committed five turnovers -- four Michael Vick interceptions and one lost fumble -- dropped a couple of key passes, missed enough tackles that Bills running back Fred Jackson got 59 of his 111 rushing yards after first contact, and generally played the kind of loose, undisciplined game we've become used to seeing from the 2011 Eagles.
"There's nobody to blame but me," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "That's how I look at it."
Funny. That's how I look at it too. Reid has been an outstanding NFL coach since taking over the Eagles in 1999, but he's doing a lousy job coaching this season's team. The Eagles have electrifying talent all over the field, but the players play as though they haven't been coached on how to handle game situations. They don't take care of the ball in spots where it needs to be a priority. They don't make good decisions. They look like a team that either didn't practice or didn't pay attention in practice all week, and that's on the coaches, no matter what the players say.
"I think, at this point, it's out of the coaches' hands," said Vick, who rushed for 90 yards and threw for 315 but said he'll remember this game for those four interceptions. "Coaches can stress ball security all week, but the coaches are not out there in the moment. We've got to control it as players, in the moment."
There's a fair point in there, and Vick rightly took his share of the blame for this loss. But a head coach's job is to establish a team-wide culture in which the kind of sloppy play that's killing the Eagles is not tolerated. The players have to buy into the idea that the most important thing they can do is not beat themselves. They have to have it drilled into their heads, to the point where it becomes instinctive, "in the moment," to throw the ball away, to take a sack instead of throwing an interception. Jason Avant has to know, when he's in the defender's arms at the end of the 35-yard catch that gets the Eagles out of the shadow of their own goalposts, to go down, protecting the ball and not try to fight for extra yards with 20 minutes left in the game.
"Everyone took turns making mistakes," defensive end Jason Babin said.
And every player on the defense has to know, when the Bills are lining up looking as though they'll run a play on fourth-and-inches from midfield with 1:23 left on the clock, that the single most important thing they can do is not get caught offside. If the Bills run and pick up those inches on their own, at least they did something to beat you. But what you can't do in that spot is hand it to them, and that's something the coaches need to (A) make sure the team knows before the plane's wheels touch down on Saturday night and (B) expressly tell every single defensive player during the timeout just before that play.
"Every Saturday, we line up and practice it," Bills coach Chan Gailey said of that final play. "You don't think it's going to work, but the one time it does, it wins the game for you."
Asked if Fitzpatrick was planning to snap the ball, Gailey said, "I'll never tell." Everyone laughed.
There was no laughing in the visitor's locker room, where Parker said the receiver in motion made him think a play would be run and Reid and the rest of the players refused to lay blame at Parker's happy feet.
"I think guys are just trying so hard to make a play," Vick said. "We know what we're capable of, and guys all want to be the one who makes the play, want to be the game-changer. And I understand that. We're desperate for a win. So I can't fault guys for trying too hard."
No, but we can fault Reid and the Eagles' coaching staff for their failure to foster an environment in which their players prioritize smart decisions and sound fundamental football over the urgent desire to change the game. The game, by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, was going very much the Eagles' way. They were moving the ball at will on the Buffalo defense, Vick and DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy showcasing that game-changing speed that was supposed to propel the Eagles' offense to such great heights. Heck, their defense was even forcing the other team to punt for a change. All they had to do was avoid the game-changing mistakes, and they couldn't.
This Eagles team never does. No matter how good they look in stretches, they always find a way to screw it up. A holding penalty here, a face-mask penalty there, an offside penalty at the worst possible time. Well-coached teams just don't play that way.
If Reid really, truly, sincerely wants to take the responsibility for what's going on here, he's welcome to it. When you have this many players making this many inexcusable mistakes in this many critical situations, you have no choice but to seek the common thread. This season was to have been Reid's most glorious yet -- his best opportunity to win a Super Bowl. The front office gave him everything he needed and more to make it happen, and so far he has failed miserably.