- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2006

A month ago, all was right in Philadelphia. After crashing from the Super Bowl in 2004 to the NFC East cellar in an injury-riddled 2005 season, the Eagles were 4-1 and leading the division. In fact, if not for a stunning late collapse at home against the New York Giants, Philadelphia would have been headed toward its fifth NFC East crown in six years.

However, three straight losses delivered a strong dose of reality to the Eagles, who at 4-4 will slip into a tie for the division basement again if they lose at home to the Washington Redskins tomorrow.

Philadelphia’s defense was carved up in New Orleans, and its offense churned out 510 yards but just 21 points at Tampa Bay. Both games were lost on last-second field goals, including the Buccaneers’ Matt Bryant kicking an improbable 62-yarder. Then two weeks ago, before last week’s bye, the Eagles never crossed the goal line and lost 13-6 at home to Jacksonville.

That loss left the normally stoic Andy Reid seething about his team’s lack of fire and prompted the local media to question whether the coach was no longer effective despite an 81-51 record, four division titles and another wild card berth, which easily make him the most successful leader in the Eagles’ 74-year history.

“I was embarrassed about that loss [to the Jaguars],” 11th-year safety Brian Dawkins said. “[Being 4-4] is definitely something that you didn’t expect to be.”

It’s especially not expected with the NFL’s most productive offense led by eighth-year quarterback Donovan McNabb, who’s on pace for career highs in touchdown passes, passing yards and yards per attempt.

“There’s no way that you can say that you played great when you’re 4-4,” McNabb said. “I know this team isn’t a 4-4 team, but that’s what we are.”

Falling from 4-1 to 4-4 isn’t the only evidence of the Eagles’ inconsistency. Philadelphia is fifth in the league in points but didn’t score more than 24 in five of its first eight games, including those last three defeats.

“We’ve got to come out and throw the first punch,” right guard Shawn Andrews said. “That’s one of the big things that we’re lacking. We wait to get behind and then fight back.”

And even though the Eagles have the NFL’s heaviest offensive line averaging 331 pounds, no other contender has as big a pass-run imbalance. McNabb has dropped back 297 times and handed off or run himself on just 189 plays. In the Eagles’ last game, Reid called 43 pass plays (McNabb ended up running on five of them) last game and just 15 runs despite winds that gusted as high as 40 miles an hour. McNabb passed for just 68 yards in the first 50 minutes, during which Philadelphia trailed by 10 points.

“We probably should run the ball a little bit more,” said running back Brian Westbrook, who’s averaging 5.2 yards a carry but has just 97 carries. “We have the guys who are able to do it. We just have to call the [run] plays. And when we do call the plays, we have to make them work. When we don’t make them work, coach kind of gets discouraged with it.”

The defense has its own issues. Five starters weren’t part of the 2004 NFC champions who capped a five-year run in which Philadelphia never finished below seventh in points allowed. In four of those five seasons, the Eagles gave up more than 17 points in a game just five times. This year, that already has happened five times.

But despite the ups and downs and a murderous final six games at unbeaten Indianapolis, 2005 NFC runner-up Carolina at home, the three straight NFC East road games and fellow contender Atlanta at home, Dawkins remains confident. After all, he was with the Eagles when they posted an NFC best 36-14 record in the final two months of the past six seasons.

“We were playing at a very high level [before the three straight losses],” Dawkins said. “We have enough of the guys here who remember what it takes to get back to what we need to be. What we have to do now is get everybody on the same page at the same time and get back to the level where we can make that run.”

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