In Defense of The Defense
Castillo didn't have much to smile about this season, but doesn't deserve all the blame (Photo:GCobb.com)
Jeffrey Lurie announced earlier this week that Andy Reid will be the head coach for at least another season, and for purely academic reasons that debate still rages on. But soon the ire will be refocused back to the defensive coordinator. I wholeheartedly support hiring Steve Spagnuolo or another good veteran coordinator to replace Juan Castillo, since it would be an upgrade. However, it isn't completely fair to place most of the blame on the defense for the 8-8 season, since by every objective measure, the defense was better this year than it had been the previous two seasons under Sean McDermott.
Some may have forgotten how porous those defenses were, because the team won anyway, but that was largely a result of a dynamic offense. And while it certainly wasn't always pretty, the 2011 defense did exactly what most people predicted they'd do: start slow with a lot new players, and finish strong.
Going into this year, we all had questions about the linebackers and safeties, along with Castillo learning on the job and molding a defense that would have at least five new starters. But for those who predicted the Eagles to win 10+ games, the expectation was that the offense would need to carry the team until the defense gelled by mid-season.
So if the defense actually improved, why didn't it translate into more wins? Part of the answer is the offense. This team was built around the idea that its explosive offense would simply outscore teams. And this season the offense was just "pretty good," but not great. During a "juiced ball" kind of year for NFL offenses, where a record 11,386 points were scored, and the league had it's highest per-game scoring average since 1965, "pretty good" wasn't good enough.
The Eagles scored 396 points this season, down from the 439 in 2010, 429 in 2009, and 416 in 2008. It's the first time their offense has finished with less than 400 points scored since 2007. The 396 points scored only put them 8th highest in the league, bunched together with other offenses who have less talent, like the Giants (394), 49ers (380), Ravens (378), and Jets (377). The Eagles offense should have scored significantly more points than those offenses. The defense allowed 328 points this year, a number bested by only nine other teams, and only the 49ers and Seahawks in the NFC. The 328 points the Eagles allowed is also their lowest total since 2008, Jim Johnson's final season, when they gave up 289. And more notably, the defense improved in a year where there was a league-wide offensive explosion.
Points only tell part of the story, though. The NFL ranks offensive and defensive units by yardage gained and allowed, and the Eagles ranked well there, finishing 4th overall in offense and 8th overall in defense. The theory is you add those numbers together, divide by two, and that's roughly where your team should rank. By that measure the Eagles should have been the 6th best team in the league, which they weren’t.
Red Zone efficiency is certainly still an issue, but the real killer is that Eagles committed a staggering 38 turnovers, including 25 INTs by the QBs, which resulted in a giveaways/takeaways total of minus-14– tied for 2nd worst in the league. Turnovers hurt in two ways: They kill scoring drives, often after the team drives 50+ yards, which helps pad yardage gained stats, but doesn't translate to points on the scoreboard. And secondly, they often set up the opponent with good field position and allow points to be scored without the opposition needing to gain much yardage. Usually, when a team underperforms their yardage rankings, it's due to turnovers and/or poor special teams play. And with the Eagles, it was definitely the turnovers.
Finally, Michael Vick and the Eagles offense had ZERO 4th Qtr comeback wins this year, after notching four last season. Much has been made of the five 4th Qtr leads surrendered by the defense, but in each of those games the offense had a chance with plenty of time remaining to stage a game-winning drive, and they failed. Not all of that is Vick's fault, but the bottom line is most other top QBs engineer a few game-winning 4th Qtr drives every season.
To take one example in the division, Eli Manning had six such game-winning drives this year. In a sport where usually in half of the games the difference between winning and losing is getting or preventing one late score, game-winning 4th Qtr drives are almost a requirement for good QBs on teams with playoff aspirations.
So ultimately, yes, the defense was disappointing, overall, and changes are needed. But the main reason the Eagles aren't hosting a playoff game this weekend is because their offense scored fewer points and turned the ball over at a ridiculous rate, highlighted by the subpar performance of the franchise QB.
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