Monday, December 22, 2008

The Butcher’s Bill

Sigh. Thus the 2008 Eagles season comes to an end. Booooo!

The nature of the NFL season is that, in the end, mediocrity is surely recognized as well as merit. It is real easy to slip into that snarl of outfits ranked, say, somewhere between eighth and twentieth- bobbing around at different levels depending on where you catch your recent slate among your immediate peers.

You can probably put the Eagles toward the bottom of that second quartile of teams. They are narrowly better than average. After all, they are a winning team in a tough division- probably would have been in the play-offs in NFC North or West. But, equally, their body of work is well short of the top five, six outfits in the NFL.

Look, the offense has real problems. Since the Eagles aren’t a bad team, they can- week to week- overcome their problems to pitch a good effort here and there: a week where they are healthy (Pittsburgh), the quarterback has an up game (Arizona), they gamble burning up Westbrook again and again (Giants).

But in the end, the butcher’s bill always come due. After three wins in “save the season” games, facing a short week, those three "get-by" tricks did not work. They weren’t healthy at wide out, the quarterback turned the ball over at an inopportune time, and Westbrook had little left. The intelligentsia bleats “run the ball”- and the Eagles use Westbrook real heavy for three weeks- and the invoice showed up this week.

Mind you, nothing surprising about that. The Eagles are yoked to a franchise back that categorically cannot handle a franchise load.

That is why all this talk about the Eagles run/pass mix misses the point. Is it a problem on a week to week basis? I guess… but, to that end, forgive me if I’m doubtful Sunday’s morass on offense could be cured by another dozen Buckhalter carries?

The real problem is the Eagles are playing pro-Bowl money to two guys- Westbrook and McNabb- who simply aren’t pro-Bowlers. They are declining assets who simply don’t produce week-to-week at a high enough level to justify their cap hit. Worse, their cap presence cascades down the roster: the lack of depth at running back, the organizational paralysis at the quarterback position. And before you know it, you’re always managing Westbrook (if he’s even available), Buckhalter is a key player on your roster- but one you don’t trust, and the offense comes down to “who do you place confidence in, other than McNabb, to handle the ball a lot?”

Each Sunday, the Eagles have a lot of trouble allocating the last 15-20 touches- and a lot of the time the default answer becomes let McNabb sling it. Sometimes it works- maybe McNabb is good or Westbrook can be pressed to absorb extra workload.

But sometimes it does not.

You can’t begin the off-season yet- as the game next week still counts. Oakland’s performance yesterday gives a slimmer of hope- at least they are still trying and Tampa Bay is in week-to-week decline. And at six or seven losses, this simply isn’t the mess from three years ago. But this problematic dichotomy- a quarterback and franchise back that simply don’t produce at an elite level- needs to be addressed.

The defense is fine. No matter what you think of the Eagles, the defensive rebuilding job after 6-10 three years ago is a success: a front seven littered with talent at affordable first contract prices, the emergence of Quintin Mikell has added some stability to the safety position. But they have two first round picks, plus a second rounder- and one needs to be spent on a running back. They need an answer for those aforementioned last fifteen touches ,due to Westbrook's contract, at a first contract price- and the draft is the only place to get it.