When the Philadelphia Eagles venture back down to Dallas for Saturday's Wildcard Playoff game, maybe, just maybe they will remember to pack their running game as a part of their luggage.
In the last episode of Eagles-Cowboys, the Birds apparently forgot to bring it and got too pass happy in their shutout loss to their hated archrivals. In what was a 24-0 debacle of a shutout to Dallas, the Eagles only ran the ball 10 times for 37 yards while quarterback Donovan McNabb was constantly harrassed by the Cowboys defense and was sacked four times.
For the game, McNabb completed 20-of-36 passes for 223 yards and zero touchdowns. When he wasn't being harrased by Dallas defenders, he was missing wide open receivers including an overthrown pass to DeSean Jackson midway through the first quarter. Eagles didn't have any consistent rhythm on offense. That tends to happen when you abandon the running game.
Coming into last Sunday's regular-season finale, the Eagles had won six straight. The common demoninator in each of those six victories was that they ran the ball at least 20 or more times--just enough to keep the opposing defense honest and to give their offense some sense of balance. In fact, they ran the ball for more than 100 yards in five out of six of those wins.
Granted, no one is expecting the Eagles with their pass-first West Coast offense to be the second coming of the 1972 Miami Dolphins or for the matter the 1984 San Francisco 49ers with Roger Craig. But during that winning streak that put them in position to possibly win the division, the Eagles showed that they were capable of running the football.
Guys like LeSean McCoy, who finished the regular season with 637 yards rushing, proved he was good enough to be that big workhorse that can pound opposing defenses, especially late in the game when you need to run the clock out. The rookie out of Pittsburgh averaged 4.1 yards on the ground this season.
When the Eagles gave versatile fullback Leonard Weaver the ball, he averaged 4.6 yards per rush and had some big games running the ball. Even Brian Westbrook, who missed most of the year with a concussion averaged over four yards rushing every time he touched the ball as a runner. Against Dallas, Westbrook carried the ball just five times for 17 yards including an eight-yard run, but the Birds inexplicably went away from the ground game.
"I think, to be an effective offense we have to continue to run the ball. In those past weeks even before I came back, we were running the ball effectively with (FB) Leonard (Weaver) and (RB) LeSean (McCoy) and we have to get back to that some way," Westbrook said during Tuesday's press conference.
The Eagles were able to get those big plays in the passing game--those long passes from McNabb to Jackson--because they were able to run the football enough to freeze the defense. Even head coach Andy Reid reluctantly had to admit that the Eagles probably went away from the running game too early.
"There are a bunch of things that we could have done better. I mentioned the play calling and I probably could have called a few more runs. In a game like that there are a lot of things we could do better," Reid said.
And Reid should have known better. Last year, in the aftermath of McNabb's benching in Baltimore, the Eagles incoporated the running game into their offensive game plan and they started winning. In a week 16 loss to the Washington Redskins, the Eagles went away from the run. When Philadelphia runs the ball, it makes things easier for McNabb.
If they're worried about incorporating Westbrook, who had missed most of the season, into the offense along with McCoy and Weaver, they should remember how well they ran the ball back in 2002 when they had Westbrook, Duce Staley and Correll Buckhalter.
So among the items the Eagles should pack on their next trip to Dallas along with helmets, shoulder pads, jock straps, jerseys, etc., the running game should be on the top of the their list.