The unbelievable collapse of the Philadelphia Eagles
By PAT RALPH
College Contributor Network
As a Philadelphia Eagles fan, this is possibly the saddest column I have had to write. Standing at 9-3, leading the NFC East, and tied for the best record in the NFL after a huge Thanksgiving Day win over the Dallas Cowboys, the Eagles were well on their way to a second-straight playoff appearance and possible first-round bye under head coach Chip Kelly. Philly's explosive offense, led by Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy, had been one of the best in the league and the defense was getting better each week behind linebacker Connor Barwin's outstanding season.
Now, three weeks later and the Eagles are playing for nothing. No, not the "we've clinched a playoff spot and already know our seeding" version of playing for nothing. Philadelphia will be playing for nothing as in "the season is over" version, as the Eagles have dropped three straight games and played themselves completely out of the playoffs. The Eagles were officially eliminated this past Sunday after their rival Cowboys dismantled the Indianapolis Colts in Dallas to win the NFC East for the first time since 2009. Once thought to be the game which could decide the NFC East champion, the Eagles-Giants game this Sunday will merely be a battle for pride.
It's not that the Eagles aren't one of the six best teams in the NFC; I still think they are because whichever teams wins the terrible NFC South stinks. It's not even that Philly was completely dominated and outplayed in their three straight losses. Here's the deal: the Eagles have beaten themselves and only have themselves to blame for not making the playoffs. While the Eagles' incredible offense and special teams have been their strengths this season, Philly has three areas to point to as for why they will not be playing football in January: defense, penalties, and turnovers.
The Eagles' defense has been one of the worst in the NFL, especially the secondary which has been torn apart during the current losing streak. In the home loss two weeks ago against Dallas, which handed over control of the NFC East to the Cowboys, wide receiver Dez Bryant personally burned cornerback Bradley Fletcher to a crisp with three touchdowns in the contest.
In the home loss against the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, which commenced the losing streak and completely stalled the Eagles' offense, the Seahawks tripled the Eagles in passing first downs with 15 and accumulated 252 passing yards in the contest. During this past weekend's embarrassing loss on the road against the lowly Washington Redskins, former Eagle DeSean Jackson torched the Birds' secondary (once again, Bradley Fletcher) for some of his signature big plays which the Eagles certainly have missed this season.
During the offseason, there is no debate over whether or not the Eagles need to revamp their secondary. It's time for Fletcher and fellow cornerback Cary Williams to go, along with safety Nate Allen. The only bright spots in Philly's secondary have been safety Malcolm Jenkins, who came over from the New Orleans Saints last offseason, and nickleback Brandon Boykin.
While the Birds' front seven is very strong and deep, there's no question the focus of the Eagles' offseason and draft next May needs to be on the secondary. Opposing quarterbacks have just loved throwing against the Eagles' secondary; this cannot be the case if the Birds want to be a playoff team again in 2015.
The other reason for the Eagles' unexpected December collapse is because of an excess of penalties and turnovers. The Eagles rank in the top 10 in the NFL for most offensive and defensive penalties, as well as in the top 10 for total offensive penalty yards. In the loss to the Redskins this past Saturday, the Eagles were penalized 13 times for over 100 yards.
Even worse than the penalties, the Eagles lead the NFL in turnovers with 35 this season while the Birds also rank in the bottom five of the league in turnover differential with a minus-8 difference. In the loss to Dallas, the Eagles had all three of their turnovers in the second half. While the Eagles outran their turnover and penalty issues through the first three months of the season, these problems finally caught up with them when it mattered most. As everybody knows, you can't win if you continuously turn the ball over and get penalized.
The root of the turnover problem goes to the most important question the Eagles face this offseason: Who is the franchise quarterback? Both Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez have a problem of turning the ball over way too much, and the Eagles must decide this offseason if either are the answer for the franchise's future.
If neither are the answer, the Eagles will need to pursue a quarterback either through the draft or via free agency/trade. Foles has missed seven games due to injury this season, as the "Sanchize" has filled in at quarterback and shown what drove New York Jets' fans crazy about him for years. While Sanchez started off well with a 3-1 record, the veteran has struggled significantly during the current losing streak.
Since taking over as quarterback, Sanchez has thrown 10 interceptions including two in the fourth quarter in the home loss to Dallas and one in the final minutes against Washington this past weekend. But before he got injured, Foles was not playing well either and had garnered plenty of doubters that he could not be the franchise quarterback like Kelly and the Eagles' front office had expected him to be. As a result, many view the two quarterbacks as the problem, not the solution.
Due to the fact that the Eagles' collapse happened under Sanchez's watch, it is likely that the Birds do not see him as the answer for the Eagles at quarterback long-term and will either return to a backup role or let go this offseason. While Foles may also not be the answer, I do believe the Eagles will and should give him another chance to show that 2013 was not a fluke season. The Eagles have some of the best offensive weapons in the league; Philly just needs an efficient quarterback who can get them the ball to make plays.
There's no question that a promising 2014 season has become an utter disappointment for the Eagles. A team with Super Bowl aspirations just three weeks ago will not even play a meaningful football game in January, let alone Week 17.
What makes it even worse for Eagles' fans is to have to watch the resurgent Cowboys have an incredible month of December and snatch the NFC East title and a potential first-round bye. Along with re-signing wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, a vastly improving the secondary and making a clear-cut decision over who the quarterback will be going forward must be at the forefront of the Philadelphia Eagles' offseason in order to return to the playoffs.
Pat Ralph is a junior at Villanova University. He has a passion for Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies and Eagles, as well Villanova Basketball and the New York Knicks. Follow him on Twitter @Pat_Ralph