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Eagles move the ball with best of them but don't score enough

EIGHTH IN TOTAL offense. Tied for second in the NFL in number of drives of 10 plays or more. Second in the league in yards per carry. Seventh in first downs.

These are some of the numbers the Eagles' attack has compiled this season, as it prepares to begin playing out the string this weekend at New Orleans. And here is one more number, the number that goes to the heart of the Birds' 6-8 record and their premature elimination from playoff contention: Nineteenth in scoring, at 20.1 points per game.

It's hard to match that final number with the ones before it, of course. This has been a strange offensive year for the Eagles - Brian Westbrook is closing in on one of the most productive seasons in franchise history, Kevin Curtis is about to become the second receiver in the Andy Reid era to catch 1,000 yards worth of passes, and many of Donovan McNabb's numbers compare favorably with his career averages.

And yet, the Eagles are out of the playoffs, mostly because they don't score enough points.

"It is a unique year in that way," Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said yesterday. "We've been preparing hard and working hard in trying to generate a few more points. You're right, our statistics are pretty good in other aspects. Throughout the season, there have been several times in which we just have to do the right thing at the right time. That's where we're at."

Do the right thing. Wasn't that a Spike Lee movie, quite a few years back?

McNabb was more concise, when asked the same question.

"Mistakes, mistakes," he said. "That's pretty much what it comes down to, just mistakes at the wrong time."

The wrong time tends to come in the shadow of the opposing team's goal posts. As Westbrook put it this week: " . . . the numbers are kind of deceiving . . . because a lot of times we moved the ball up and down the field and we didn't score in the red zone."

The red-zone issue has been flogged pretty thoroughly by now. The Eagles rank 25th in team offense inside the opponents' 20, which surely has a lot to do with the overall scoring problem. But the red-zone numbers have been better lately, up from memorably horrible early in the season. The Eagles have 13 touchdowns in their last 22 trips to the red zone, after starting the year 6-for-20.

The overall picture is complicated. It has something to do with field position - lately, many of the kick and punt returns have been decent, but early on, it seemed like the Eagles were always bogging down on the 12th play of an 85-yard drive, when the other team was never starting more than 60 yards from a touchdown. The longer a drive goes, the harder it is to sustain. It has something to do with the defense not priming the scoring pump with turnovers in enemy territory - in last Sunday's 10-6 upset of the Cowboys, the only touchdown of the game was set up by a Lito Sheppard interception, as the Birds enjoyed a rare 3-0 turnover edge. It has a little to do with poor playcalling. It has a lot to do with McNabb not being sharp when he most needs to be, and quite a bit to do, as well, with his receivers being nothing special, not being playmakers when faced with aggressive coverage.

Cue the Andy Reid quote here: "Everybody has a piece of the pie."

No startling breakthrough is likely to occur in the final two games, though for this week's purposes, it might be worth noting that the Saints' pass defense ranks 30th in the league. The best chance for improving next season is for Reid to bake the pie with better ingredients - adding an explosive wideout, maybe getting Mornhinweg some playcalling help, fortifying either the center or the left guard position (perhaps both), finding a tight end with the ability to do what L.J. Smith seemed poised to do a few years ago, what Jason Witten does for the Cowboys. And, as has been mentioned previously, the Eagles need to make sure they are on the same page with McNabb, that he is fully committed and engaged, if they really are going forward with him in 2008. Perhaps Pam Oliver could serve as a mediator.

"We could use a lot of big-play types of guys - on both sides of the ball, and special teams, as well," McNabb said. "But that's not my decision to make . . . They'll do whatever's needed for us to take another step further."

Against defenses engineered to take away the longball, the Eagles have been unable to make big plays.

"That's certainly part of it," Mornhinweg said. "When you play a defense like that, you have to be extremely efficient and consistent . . . and when you take your shots, you'd better get them. There were times when we had some opportunities, but we didn't get them. Last year, we got a bunch of them - I believe we led the league [in big plays]. So, it's quite a different type of feel."

The Birds scored just 10 points in Dallas, but the total was a bit misleading. Against a dominant defense, the Eagles should have had twice as much - remember, Westbrook stopped at the 1 so the team could run out the clock, and David Akers missed a 47-yard field goal try, the first miss of his career at Texas Stadium.

This week, they'll almost certainly need more than 10 - the Saints' passing attack ranks third in the league, behind just New England and Green Bay. Drew Brees is exactly the kind of quarterback that gives Jim Johnson trouble; he sees the field well and doesn't panic when you rush him.

"He's really a smart quarterback and has a good feel for the game," the Birds' defensive coordinator said. "He's right up there with [Tom] Brady and Peyton Manning, as far as seeing things, second, third, fourth receivers. He gets rid of the ball fast, has a nice, quick release. You can tell he's a student of the game."

Since Brees and the 7-7 Saints still have the playoffs to play for, and the Eagles don't, it's tempting to wonder if the Birds will summon last week's effort. Mornhinweg said he felt they would.

"That won't be an issue," Mornhinweg said. "This is what we do. It's that simple. We work hard, we play hard, and we get better every day." *