Eagles keep climbing the NFC charts

The Eagles are flying toward the top of the NFC despite a rash of injuries.

Updated: November 25, 2003, 12:33 PM ET
By David Weinberg | Pro Football Weekly

PHILADELPHIA -- If any NFC team should be struggling this season, it's the Eagles.

They lost their first two games and looked bad doing so. Their star quarterback was mired in a woeful slump for the first two months. More key players were wearing casts than cleats.

Now, they are in the midst of an amazing turnaround. The Eagles have won eight of their last nine games -- including six victories in a row -- and own a share of first place in the NFC East with an 8-3 record.

Sure, there is a lot of season left, but the Eagles are known for playing at their best down the stretch. Since the 2000 season, they are a combined 22-5 in November, December and early January, the point of the regular season that matters the most.

"It's very important not to peak too soon," Eagles offensive tackle Tra Thomas said. "You had a lot of 2-0 teams that were pretenders and a lot of 0-2 teams that were going to be contenders. This just goes to show that you've got to have patience. This is a good team and we know that. We're happy that it all evolved the way we wanted it to evolve."

Here are five reasons the Eagles are in contention to win their third division title in a row and perhaps make a third straight appearance in the NFC championship game:

1. Cooler head prevailing

Much of the credit belongs to head coach Andy Reid, both for his ability to recognize when it's OK to be flexible and when it's necessary to stay rigid.

One of the biggest keys has been the decision to rely on a more balanced offensive attack. Reid and offensive coordinator Brad Childress have shelved the pass-first offense in favor of a multifaceted game plan that has made running backs Correll Buckhalter, Duce Staley and Brian Westbrook almost as vital as quarterback Donovan McNabb. In the last nine games, the Eagles' offense has featured 262 running plays and 268 passes.

"You have to run the ball," Reid said. "It is part of the game. You have to mix things up. That's important in this (West Coast) offense."

More important to the turnaround has been Reid's refusal to allow the team to panic after the slow start. He refused to bench McNabb during his slump and has maintained the same high expectations even while the injury bug treated his lineup like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

"We've prevailed to this point," Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent said. "We certainly started off shaky. Going 0-2 with all the (preseason) expectations, the new stadium and all the hype wasn't a good feeling. But the key is that we didn't panic."

2. Miracle worker

Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has worked wonders. His unit has been riddled with injuries, especially on the line and in the secondary. Four linemen -- defensive ends Derrick Burgess and Jamaal Green, and defensive tackles Paul Grasmanis and Hollis Thomas -- are on injured reserve. Another, rookie defensive end Jerome McDougle, the team's first-round draft pick, missed the first eight games. In the backfield, All-Pro free safety Brian Dawkins returned to the field in Week 11 after an eight-game hiatus. Pro Bowl cornerback Bobby Taylor has been out for nine of the past 10 games.

Yet the Eagles' defense has remained almost as stingy as ever. Johnson's biggest goal for every game is to hold the opposing team to 17 points or fewer. His players attained that goal in seven of the first 11 games.

"Every year is a challenge," Johnson said. "This year it is just a different challenge. The key is that we knew we had some depth, and the depth has come through."

3. You gotta have hart

The starting offensive line currently features two guards -- Artis Hicks and Bobbie Williams -- who started the season on the bench. Other backups such as free safety Clinton Hart, wide receiver Greg Lewis, defensive tackle Sam Rayburn and cornerbacks Sheldon Brown, Lito Sheppard and Roderick Hood all have played pivotal roles at various points.

No one has come through bigger than Hart, who was forced to step in for Dawkins. Dawkins not only is considered to be among the best safeties in the NFL, but he also is the inspirational leader of the team.

As for Hart, he never played college football. He had a stint in the Arena League and was working at a juvenile detention center in Florida when the Eagles signed him to their practice squad late last season. In his spare time, he put his junior college degree to use.

"College is not for everybody, but once I was there, I had to find something I was good at," he said. "It took me 60 (credit) hours, but I finally got my barber's license. I can do it all. I can cut hair, do manicures and pedicures, all that stuff."

4. Behind the scenes

Hart is just one of the buried treasures unearthed by Eagles personnel director Tom Heckert and his scouting staff. The Eagles shocked the league at the start of the season by keeping six undrafted rookies -- Lewis, Hood, Rayburn, center Alonzo Ephraim, safety Quintin Mikell and running back-returner Reno Mahe -- on the 53-man roster. Those players not only made the team, but they have played well when called upon.

Heckert was instrumental in the decision to trade for middle linebacker Mark Simoneau, the Eagles' leading tackler, as well as sign outside linebacker Nate Wayne and fullback Jon Ritchie during the offseason. Heckert also added quality veteran depth to the defensive line by signing defensive end Marco Coleman, who was released by Jacksonville, and defensive tackle Jim Flanigan when Grasmanis and Thomas went down for the season.

"I have the final say on who we sign, but I always listen to what Tom and everyone else has to say," Reid said. "I trust them."

5. Little Jack Horner

For the Eagles to get a grip on the division, however, some problems needed to be fixed, starting with McNabb's left (non-throwing) hand. There hasn't been this much talk about a thumb since Jack Horner stuck his into that mincemeat pie and pulled out a plum.

McNabb had been nursing a bruise on his hand since the third game against Buffalo, but as his hand has healed, so have his stats. In the first six games, McNabb completed 91-of-190 passes for 854 yards with two touchdowns and six interceptions. His completion percentage (47.9) and passer rating (51.1) were both at the bottom of the league rankings. Chants for third-string quarterback A.J. Feeley could be heard in the stands at Lincoln Financial Field.

No one is calling for Feeley or No. 2 quarterback Koy Detmer to take over now. McNabb has been much better in the past five games, completing 93-of-142 passes (65.5 percent) for 1,224 yards with six touchdowns with only one interception - none in the past four games.

"I've always said that everything that happened early on never bothered me," McNabb said. "I just used it as motivation and inspiration and just continued to get better.

"It happens in life. But when things don't go as perfect as you want it, it pretty much comes down to how you overcome it. I'm not a quitter, and I never give up. Every time I step on the field, I feel like I can make that big play to win the game or possibly propel us in the right direction."

David Weinberg covers the Eagles for the Atlantic City (N.J) Press.

Jeff Reynolds is an associate editor for Pro Football Weekly

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