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Donnellon: Eagles need to remember how to play smart

IF BYE WEEKS are tricky science, then Andy Reid is an Einstein. He is now 16-2 in games played following byes, after the Kansas City Chiefs knocked off the Raiders in Oakland on Sunday, 26-10.

IF BYE WEEKS are tricky science, then Andy Reid is an Einstein. He is now 16-2 in games played following byes, after the Kansas City Chiefs knocked off the Raiders in Oakland on Sunday, 26-10.

In that game, they committed two penalties for 10 yards.

Doug Pederson is a Reid disciple, so it was reasonable to assume he had learned the secrets of the master. John Harbaugh, who jumped from Reid assistant to head coach of the Ravens in 2008, is 6-2 in post-bye games.

But Pederson's players have played as if their brains went right to the Super Bowl after that 3-0 start. In their first game back against the Lions, they were flagged 14 times for 111 yards, sabotaging their chance to rally from a 21-7 hole. On Sunday, they had 13 penalties for 114 yards, several of them excruciatingly costly.

The Eagles committed 12 penalties in their first two games. They were small ones, too - seven for 46 yards against the Browns, five for 34 yards against the Bears. Those broadcasting their games praised their crispness, lauded the coaching staff. Even when the number of penalties doubled the following week to 10, the victory over the then-undefeated Steelers, and the ease with which it was achieved, obscured that.

Then came the bye.

Since its return, this team has all the markings of Chip Kelly's final season. The players hold when they don't need to hold, negating big gains and thwarting their own drives. They hit the quarterback late, extending the other team's drives. They line up offside for no apparent reason. They turn too many incompletions into interference calls.

There were so many examples Sunday, but let's focus on two. Just before halftime, the score miraculously tied at 14, the Eagles defense had finally made a stop on third down. Or would have if Fletcher Cox didn't pile-drive Kirk Cousins to the ground after he released the ball, making contact with his helmet.

Rather than a short field goal, Washington scored a touchdown.

With six minutes left in the fourth quarter, down 27-17, the Eagles faced a third-and-4 from the 5-yard line. Darren Sproles churned down to the 1, but Brandon Brooks' false start negated it.

A field goal resulted. Another four-point swing.

Add 'em up, and you have at least a chance for overtime. Roll them in with some of the other scalp scratchers - again, the Eagles were flagged twice just for lining up offside - and they might even have pulled off another unlikely victory.And we might be hyping a clash of two strong teams when Sam Bradford's Vikings come to town Sunday.

That's my argument why this is not headed toward 6-10, or worse. Because the Eagles should have beaten the Lions two weeks ago and could have beaten Washington on Sunday, despite the missed blocks on offense and the missed tackles on defense. Football is a game of emotion, yes, but the trick has always been to employ it amid concentration.

Otherwise, to quote an old Ukrainian soccer coach of mine: "You run around like chicken with head cut off, you big kakuutz."

It all traces to a team that lost its focus over the bye, a team whose identity has quickly morphed from one that did the little things to win a game to one that does all the little and big things it can to lose them. You might recall, for example, that Cox negated a red-zone stop two Sundays against Detroit when he picked up an unnecessary-roughness penalty after Connor Barwin had sacked Matthew Stafford on a third-and-9 from the 18.

Instead of a field-goal try, the Lions scored two plays later.

Alone, that play was as lethal as Ryan Mathews' late fumble.

Reid has said often his only bye-week trick is self-evaluation. So I asked Pederson whether there were already things he would do differently, given what he's seen since.

"I'm not going to change anything that way," he said. "I think it just comes down to the communication from me to the team, to the staff. Disciplining ourselves in practice. Focusing on the little things. Little things will take care of big things. And those are all part of the game. Players know, the coaches know. We can't keep putting ourselves in these situations. It's unfortunate that it's happening now, but it's something we've got to address and clean up."

There has already been lots of talk about the tough lessons being learned by the rookie quarterback. There should be as much, or more, about the rookie coach's learning curve. He almost got Carson Wentz killed in the first half with fifth-round rookie right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai in full retreat against Washington's Ryan Kerrigan.

"There's risk every time you step on the field," Pederson said when someone asked whether he was putting his franchise quarterback in harm's way.

There's also risk every time you step in front of a moving tractor. Doesn't mean you should do it.

To his credit, and our hope, Pederson did say this finally, near the end of a session that lasted more than 22 minutes:

"There's enough (blame) to go around for everybody, me included. I beat myself up all the time as far as, 'Am I making the right calls?' Am I putting the guys in the right situations with play calls, by my design?

"There are problems and issues that we have to address with everybody."

He can start by beckoning their brains back.

Because, as Andy Reid will tell you, it starts and ends up there.