Commentary

Did the Eagles fill the right holes?

Originally Published: May 8, 2009
By Sal Paolantonio | ESPN.com

Brian WestbrookRich Kane/US PressworeThe Eagles found a fullback to help their short-yardage game, but they still have no experienced backup to take the load off running back Brian Westbrook.

PHILADELPHIA -- The Eagles scored 416 points last season, setting a franchise record. And their defense finished third in the league. Then how in the world did they win only nine regular-season games and get into the playoffs in Week 17 due only to sheer, unadulterated luck?

Here's one answer to consider, something that has plagued them throughout the Andy Reid era: The inability -- either through lack of the right personnel, poor play-calling or poor execution -- to come through in the critical junctures of the game.

Remember, with non-Pro Bowl talent at most positions, Bill Belichick won three Super Bowls, each by only three points, because his teams know how to beat you at the critical juncture of the game.

That's a function of coaching, personnel and execution -- at critical times.

Eagles management is like the town council that only puts a traffic light at the street corner after a series of car wrecks:

• In 2005, Eagles management does not find a suitable backup to Donovan McNabb. After McNabb goes on injured reserve with a sports hernia, Mike McMahon is a disaster in relief. The Eagles finish 6-10.

• In 2006, they find McNabb's backup, Jeff Garcia, who leads the Eagles to the playoffs after McNabb goes down with a torn ACL. But poor play-calling and an inability to stop the running game and run the football themselves ruin the Eagles' playoff run, culminating in a loss at New Orleans in the divisional round.

• In 2007, the Eagles let Garcia go to Tampa Bay, where he leads the Bucs to the playoffs. Philadelphia trades its first-round pick to Dallas and takes QB Kevin Kolb in the second round, ignoring obvious weaknesses in the return game. And it comes back to haunt them, as they lose in Green Bay in Week 1 because of a muffed punt by Greg Lewis. They finish 8-8.

• In 2008, the Eagles draft punt returner and WR DeSean Jackson in the second round. He's a godsend, fixing their return game. But they fail to address the fullback position. They try to convert RB Tony Hunt and DL Dan Klecko. Doesn't work. Without a fullback, they lack a short-yardage running game, which hurts them throughout the season, especially as Brian Westbrook wears down. And the Eagles convert only 14 of 28 third-and-1 situations, the worst rate in the league. In the NFC Championship Game, Westbrook is a non-factor. The defense is ineffective in critical situations. Only some second-half heroics by McNabb give the Eagles a chance to win, but they lose another close championship game they were favored to win.

Well, some in the national media have been gushing about the Eagles' offseason moves and draft-day maneuverings.

But here's what they've done, and what they've failed to do.

They've fixed the offensive tackle problem that was of their own making. They signed Leonard Weaver, a real fullback. They drafted a speedy wide receiver who will eventually replace Kevin Curtis, who will be 31 when training camp opens, will make $12 million in the next two seasons and can't seem to stay on the field.

What has the town council forgotten this offseason?

The answer is two-fold: Running back and tight end.

• If Westbrook gets hurt, as he did last season, who will step in full-time, rookie LeSean McCoy? He's only 198 pounds and cannot handle the blitz. The Eagles have no experienced backup for Westbrook, who turns 30 a week before opening day and is on what Reid acknowledged is very close monitoring to see how his surgically repaired knee responds.

• The Eagles do not have an all-around tight end. Brent Celek proved he can be productive in the passing game, but his blocking is still not ready for prime time, and his red-zone production is still not good enough. The Eagles had only 27 red-zone receptions last year. That was in the bottom third of the league.

Conclusion for 2009: Again, it comes down to preparedness, which means coaching and personnel.

And it comes down to execution in the critical areas of the field and at the critical junctures of the game.

That's why the Eagles have been to five NFC Championship Games in the Reid era. But they have lost four of them, including three in which they were favored, two of those at home.

Breaking through this year means breaking with the past. Are they equipped to do it?

Sal Paolantonio is ESPN's bureau reporter based in Philadelphia.

Sal Paolantonio

SportsCenter correspondent / NFL reporter
Sal Paolantonio joined ESPN as a SportsCenter correspondent in August 1995, primarily reporting on the NFL. Beginning in 2004, he also served as host of NFL Match-Up, a weekly "Xs and Os" football show produced by NFL Films.