Jon Gruden is waiting to get back into the game. And those who have suffered through his sycophantic work on Monday Night Football would love to see him coach again. Bill Cowherâ€™s daughters are almost out of school, and that means he might want to leave the chucklefest that is CBSâ€™ pre-game show.
The candidates are there, and Jeffrey Lurie has made it clear that Andy Reid is on double-secret probation. That means one more 8-8 season, one more missed playoffs, and he has had it in Philadelphia. But Lurie isnâ€™t going to have as easy a decision as Dean Wormer did when he booted the Delta Tau Chi brothers off the Faber campus. The Eagles will be better than last yearâ€™s even-Steven campaign and will certainly start the year more successfully.
But they will not win the Super Bowl. Get that idea out of your head right away.
And that is Lurieâ€™s problem. Does a marginal improvement and maybe even a first-round playoff victory keep Reidâ€™s job? Has Lurie finally noticed that the high price of gold has made his previous â€śstandardâ€ť a little too low for todayâ€™s NFL reality? As long as people like Gruden and Cowher are out there, waiting for the right opportunity, there is always the chance that someone else will hire one of them. Does Lurie want to risk trying to find another assistant coach who can become a winner as boss by failing to act quickly to sign up a big name if Reid produces another good, but not great, season?
He will have that extremely difficult choice after 2012 concludes, because the Eagles will finish 10-6. That will probably be good enough to win the NFC East, but the Birds arenâ€™t capable of reaching the Big Game, or even sniffing it, for that matter. As has become customary, I consulted an NFC executive for his feelings about the season and was surprised by his relatively optimistic take. When asked what it would take for the Eagles to reach the Super Bowl, he said:
â€śThe left side of the offensive line has come together, the pass rush has gotten 60 sacks, [LeSean McCoy] has rushed for over 1,300 yards, and Vick has stayed healthy.â€ť
Thatâ€™s a pretty fair assessment, but it also represents an optimistic view, since of the four conditions, only one (McCoy rushed for 1,309 yards last year) has happened before.
Letâ€™s start with the left tackle situation. The King Dunlap/Demetress Bell tandem has done little to inspire great confidence this year, or in the past. Jason Peters had his best season as an Eagle in 2011, and his torn Achilles was a big blow, even if the left tackle doesnâ€™t protect Vickâ€™s blind side. Bell has been unable to grasp coach Howard Muddâ€™s line techniques, so the erratic Dunlap has to step in. Most believe Bell will be in the lineup before long, but neither player inspires great confidence, and each could require consistent help from a back or tight end to do his job, thereby stunting the offense somewhat.
â€śLeft tackle is going to be something to be concerned about,â€ť the executive says.
As for the front four, its pre-season performance certainly led one to believe that 60 sacks is possible, although last yearâ€™s pillaging group managed 10 fewer than that. But remember that opponents will be slowing down the pass rush by attacking what continues to be a vulnerable linebacking and safety corps. If the front four sells out against the pass, the Eagles could get hammered by the run, as it did at times last year.
McCoyâ€™s getting 1,300 yards is the best bet of the bunch, since he is clearly in the prime of his career. His spot in the Eaglesâ€™ defense is made easier by Reidâ€™s ability to spread defenses with his formations and create wide running lanes for the back. A healthy season for McCoy will most certainly lead to a 1,300-1,500 yards.
That brings us to Vick, clearly the biggest story on the 2012 Eagles, outside of Reidâ€™s future. The quarterback is under tremendous pressure to perform, because his contract is heavily front-loaded and makes it easy for the Birds to jettison him, if he doesnâ€™t perform well this year. Vick spoke during the off-season about how he would work more within the offense, and then proved himself a false prophet by absorbing a huge blow to the ribs after he refused to make the smart play in the Eaglesâ€™ second pre-season game, against New England.
â€śHeâ€™s a runaround guy,â€ť the executive says. â€śBut I think [the Eagles coaches] have done a good job of trying to teach him. But this is as good as heâ€™s going to get.â€ť
Thatâ€™s not good enough. In the end, even if Dunlap/Bell gets the job done, the D-line registers 60 sacks, and McCoy rushes for 1,500 yards, Vick will be the reason the Eagles donâ€™t reach the Super Bowl. His decision-making remains so clearly based on the immature, selfish â€śI was trying to make a playâ€ť school of football thought that he cannot possibly operate Reidâ€™s offense the way it was meant to be piloted. The play against the Patriots proved it. When he was flushed out of the pocket, Vick refused to throw the ball to the back open in the flat or toss it away. Instead, he wanted to go for the downfield kill shot and put himself at risk. Even if Vick stays healthy, his distaste for making the right choice will cost the Eagles in important situations and places their 2012 ceiling at 10 wins.
Forget the Super Bowl. The most interesting football action early next year will revolve around Lurieâ€™s verdict on Reid.
- Itâ€™s hard to argue that the Philliesâ€™ long-term commitment to laconic Jimmy Rollins isnâ€™t the teamâ€™s worst contract. But the $50 million shelled out to Jonathan Papelbon comes close. Papelbon simply canâ€™t pitch when he isnâ€™t in a save situation, and Sundayâ€™s meltdown was a crippling blow to the teamâ€™s flagging wild-card chances. The Phils have played better since jettisoning some of their problems, but they are stuck with Papelbon and his save-only mentality. He said after his ninth-inning failure that â€śWeâ€™ve had a lot of losses this year.â€ť With his four blown saves and six defeats, he has been responsible for 10 of them. Thatâ€™s a lot of dough for shaky production.
- Penn Stateâ€™s loss to Ohio Saturday should be extremely disconcerting to Nittany Lion fans, since scholarship restrictions and other realities of probation havenâ€™t set in yet. Give credit to coach Bill Oâ€™Brien for taking blame for the defeat, but itâ€™s clear the team isnâ€™t overly talented now, and things will only get worse in the coming seasons.
- Replacement referees will be on the field when the NFL opens for business this week, and there can be no greater argument that league commissioner Roger Goodell does not have the playersâ€™ safety as a high priority than their presence. Exposing players to unqualified refs who have no idea how to handle the speed and ferocity of a regular-season game could lead to serious injury â€“ not to mention possible game-changing gaffes. Goodell is about profits, and itâ€™s now clear that his goal in his player safety â€ścrusadeâ€ť is to create a strong defense against future accusations and lawsuits.