WHEN ANDY REID was affixing blame Monday for the Eagles' latest short-yardage implosion in Sunday night's devastating, 36-31 loss to the Giants, he zeroed in on two things: scheme and execution.
But Big Red conveniently overlooked the biggest reason why the Eagles couldn't make a yard Sunday, and haven't been able to make one most of the season.
For the second year in a row, Reid has made a major personnel gaffe that very well could cost the Eagles a playoff berth. And no, I'm not talking about his decision to pass on tight end Tony Gonzalez before last month's trading deadline, for which I've already admonished him. But while we're on the subject, did you happen to notice that Gonzalez had 10 catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns for the Chiefs on Sunday? You did?
Last year, for some inexplicable reason, Reid thought it would be OK to go into the season without an experienced punt returner. Two costly muffed punts in a three-point, Week 1 loss to the Packers made him realize it wasn't OK. Unfortunately, the damage already was done. The loss triggered a 2-4 start and the Eagles missed the playoffs for the second time in 3 years.
Reid corrected his punt-return blunder in April by selecting DeSean Jackson in the second round of the draft. But he has badly botched another position that is dragging the Eagles down.
You know the comical background. They let fullback Thomas Tapeh go because he couldn't play special teams. Signed defensive tackle Dan Klecko in March and moved him to fullback. Decided a couple of months later that maybe that wasn't such a good idea, after all, and moved him back to defense.
Couldn't find anybody they liked, so, 2 weeks before the start of the season,
Reid and his staff came up with an even dumber idea than making Klecko a fullback. That was switching running back Tony Hunt to fullback. That worked out about as well as Jessica Simpson's attempt at an acting career. Three weeks into the season, Reid gave up hope that Hunt would ever learn how to block, released him, and went back to Dumb Idea I (Klecko).
Klecko deserves some sort of award for the way he's been jerked around by Reid and the Eagles. At the very least, he probably will end up with an eating disorder out of it.
He is trying like hell to master the fullback position. But it takes time. A lot of time. Believe it or not, there's more to it than just being willing to run into somebody.
Which brings us to that fourth-and-1 play Sunday night. While right guard Max Jean-Gilles was primarily to blame for letting Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn slip past him and tackle Brian Westbrook for no gain, a more experienced fullback would have been able to see it coming and picked up Blackburn.
Same with that goal-line play in the Eagles' 23-17 loss to Washington when L.J. Smith and Tra Thomas both blocked the same guy and Redskins defensive end Andre Carter came in untouched and blew up both Klecko and Westbrook, who was nailed for a 3-yard loss.
Don't take my word for it. Ask one of the best blocking fullbacks in NFL history. Ask the guy who escorted NFL recordholder Emmitt Smith through holes for 10 years, former Cowboy Daryl "Moose" Johnston.
"It's not as easy as everybody thinks," said Johnston, a Fox Sports analyst who will be working Sunday's game between the Eagles and Bengals. "If you watched that fourth-and-1 play, Blackburn comes clean through the line.
"The fullback has to pick up a guy who goes unblocked. But Klecko's only been playing the position a few weeks. He's not going to react or anticipate as quickly as a fullback who's been playing back there most of his career. So Blackburn gets through, tackles Westbrook and the Eagles lose the game."
Last year, with Tapeh at fullback, the Eagles finished eighth in the league in rushing. They averaged 123.4 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry. This year, those numbers have shrunk to 98.3 and 4.0.
The absence of Pro Bowl right guard Shawn Andrews, who has been out since Week 2 with a back injury, certainly has contributed to the drop in run production. So has Westbrook's health. He missed one game with an ankle injury, another with fractured ribs.
But Reid's mishandling of the fullback position has been a big factor, particularly in short-yardage situations. Last year, with Tapeh leading the way for him, Westbrook converted 10 of 12 third-and-1 situations, which was the sixth best success rate in the NFC. So far this year, the Eagles are 7-for-15 on third-and-1, including 3-for-their-last-10. They are 0-for-their-last-7 when they've run the ball on third-and-1.
For a guy like Reid, who's been an NFL head coach for 10 years, to think he could get by with a converted defensive tackle or a converted running back at fullback boggles the mind.
"[Playing fullback] is a skill you develop," Johnston said. "It's very hard to ask a guy like Dan to do things and anticipate things a guy who's been playing that position for years can do.
"The other thing is, it takes time to get into a rhythm with how your running back runs. It took me a season-and-a-half to really get in sync with Emmitt. I would sit with him in the film room and find out why he did what he did on a play. What he saw. Why he ran that way instead of this way. Dan doesn't have that with Westbrook. He can't. Not in this short a time span. Not with as little experience as he has at that position."
A running back and a fullback are like a dance team. They have to be on the same page. They have to know what each other is thinking.
"When I played with Ricky [Watters], he knew how I was going to read a play," said former Eagles fullback Kevin Turner, who led the way for three of Watters' 1,000-yard rushing seasons in Philadelphia. "He knew how I would look at the [defensive] alignment and see whether the end was going to be stunting down and whether we needed to take it outside or inside.
"The more you play with somebody, the more familiar you are with each other and what they like to do and how they like to do it."
Turner, now retired and living in Birmingham, Ala., spent his entire career as a fullback. High school, college, 8 years in the NFL. He can't believe his old team is trying to get by with a defensive tackle at fullback. He was even more incredulous over its attempt to turn Hunt into a fullback.
"Trying to put a tailback who had sat back there in the 'I' and put him down in a fullback position at that late stage is next to impossible," he said. "No. 1, they don't really want to do it. They might say they'll do it because they want to make the roster. But you've really got to like it and want to do it."
Most NFL teams don't use the fullback as much as they did 10 to 15 years ago. The three-wide receiver, one-back, one-tight-end set has become the formation of choice for most coaches, particularly pass-happy ones like Reid.
Turner estimates he was on the field for as many as 80 to 85 percent of the offensive snaps when he played for the Eagles under offensive coordinator Jon Gruden. Johnston put his reps with the Cowboys at about 60 to 65 percent.
"Today, I'd be lucky to get 30-35 percent," Johnston said.
Klecko generally plays only about 30 percent of the Eagles' offensive snaps. On Sunday, he played 11 of the Eagles' 39 snaps in the first three quarters.
"It's a reflection of what has happened to the offenses in the league," Johnston said. "The main focus is on throwing the ball. The Rams' 'Greatest Show On Turf' was the worst thing that ever happened to fullbacks. It was all about trying to find mismatches in the passing game. Once [offensive coordinators] started going down the ladder trying to create those mismatches, the fullback was the first guy off the field.
"It's interesting that two of the teams that still put a high priority on the fullback and running the ball - the Giants and the Tennessee Titans - are the best teams in their respective conferences and are a combined 17-1. That's not bad." *
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