FOR MUCH OF THIS Eagles season, we have tried to ingest and itemize what has gone wrong.

Was the quarterback washed up? How about the defensive captain? Had the head coach's offense become as predictable as his unenlightened explanations? Was he picking the right players? The right plays?

Now here we are again, in December, amid one of those late runs that have defined and fueled Andy Reid's 10-year tenure as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Amid what has become a holiday tradition for Eagles fans.

Now we are trying to ingest and itemize what has gone right this December, why so many of Reid's Decembers turn out this way.

"Any idea?" Reid was asked this week.

"No," said the coach. "But I know there's an Ivy Leaguer out there somewhere that will figure it out."

The Eagles were 3-2 last December, 5-0 the one before, and will likely be 3-0 since Thanksgiving after tonight's game against Cleveland. Reid's teams don't always finish with a bang - they lost four of their last five in the 2005 season - but when they do, it starts with some dynamic change at quarterback.

It's not just that Jeff Garcia replaced Donovan McNabb in that 2006 run. The offense changed too, got simpler, got shorter. The same thing occurred when A.J. Feeley stepped in during the 2002 season. Last year McNabb, coming off his torn ACL of '06, seemed finally to be himself at season's end.

And McNabb's benching this season? Picking on the best player, or the team's focal point, is an old-school psychological ploy in any sport. The intent is to put everyone on warning, to get everyone's play to improve.

Both Brians, Westbrook and Dawkins, spoke last week of taking their games to "the next level" after that - but it's really more about the less-famous players stepping it up. The offensive line, for example, has played better. One reason, according to right tackle Jon Runyan, is that there is less to think about while running the ball, less chance for a missed assignment or holding call to hurt a drive.

Asked what he meant by "next level," Dawkins said, "When you flat-out stop thinking and you just play."

McNabb, on the other hand, seems to be thinking quicker, or at least not trying to make plays that really are not there. His 40-yard touchdown pass to Westbrook against the Giants was actually a short dump, a checkdown amid considerable pressure.

McNabb is managing the game better, trying to get first downs rather than touchdowns. He's also being asked to do less. Like his coach, he is loath to admit that. Asked last week if he was now being asked to help the team win rather than to win games on his own, he bristled.

"I've been asked to win the game every game," he said.

He also said, "Early on in the season, we were throwing the ball a little bit more and picking up big yards and scoring touchdowns. At this point in the season, it's important that you be able to run the ball, obviously due to weather. Teams now have to decide if they want to blitz or sit back in the zone. If they decide to sit in the zone, you have to be able to run the ball effectively."

So, cold, windy weather has helped them get hot? Like much of what he says each week, it is equal parts defensive and nonsense. He missed passes short and long during that dismal stretch of games that led to his benching. He was being asked to find and hit a slew of suspect route runners and pass catchers, some of them who have since disappeared from the play sheets.

"I think coach is taking some of the pressure off him," Westbrook said. "He's not throwing 50 passes a game. He's giving us an opportunity to run, and the offensive line is getting into it as well, other receivers and things like that. So, I think that just taking that pressure off him has kind of helped him out."

Since his benching, McNabb has run the offense much as Garcia did when the team finished 5-0 in 2006, beat the Giants in a wild-card playoff, and were within a play of making it to the NFC Championship Game. In their 20-14 victory over the Giants, for example, the Birds had five drives of eight plays or more, including a 15-play drive and a 14-play drive, both in the second half. Their longest play was that pass to Westbrook.

The Eagles began their 2006 streak with victories over Carolina and Washington. The total margin of victory was five points, a difference, literally, of one or two plays. They held halftime leads in all but the first game in that streak, managed the game at the end, managed to win. Garcia helped the team win. So did Westbrook, and Dawkins and Runyan.

"We look like a team right now," defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said after the victory over the Giants.

Like me, he's no Ivy Leaguer. But you don't need a genius to figure out that this team plays smarter and better when the coach doesn't try to be one, when he asks his quarterback to help the team win, and not the other way around. *

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