Six years ago my cousins in South Jersey told me a little joke:
"Why do the Eagles eat their cereal from the box?"
Answer: "Because they choke when they get close to the bowl."
It does seem that way, doesn’t it? Analysts argue endlessly about whether clutch performance actually exists in baseball, but it’s kind of hard to deny its existence in professional football. In baseball, postseason success is pretty much a random thing, but in football the words postseason and success are practically redundant. If you don’t win the big games, you’re not successful.
For instance, if I asked you which coach had the higher career regular season won-lost percentage, Andy Reid or Bill Belichick, you’d say Belichick, right? Well, you would be right, but could you guess by how much? Surely the man who has been to four Super Bowls and won three of them leaves the man with just one losing Super Bowl effort in the dust, right? In fact, Belichick’s career regular season is 138-86 for a W-L of .616%. Reid is 97-62-1 for .610%. It’s the postseason which makes Belichick a future HOFer: he’s 15-4 (.789%) to Reid’s 10-7 (.588%).
Last Sunday’s loss by the Philadelphia Eagles to the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC championship game doesn’t provide conclusive evidence that Reid is a choker, a label he’s been living with since the 2005 Super Bowl when his Eagles dawdled away precious time in the closing minutes of a 24-21 loss to Belichick’s New England Patriots. The truth is that the Eagles were solid underdogs in that game, that the Patriots were a much better team, and that Philadelphia actually beat the spread. But all most fans remember is that the Eagles had a chance to win and squandered it.
Whether the choke charge based on that game is fair or not, it does point out something important about Reid’s teams: they don’t ever seem to be prepared for the big games.
The blame for Sunday’s loss will fall, as it always does, on the shoulders of quarterback Donovan McNabb, but as usual that blame is unfair. McNabb was about the only thing on the Eagles that went right Sunday: he passed for 375 yards and three touchdowns, rushed for 31 more yards, and brought his team back from a 24-6 halftime deficit to a one-point lead late in the game. That should have been enough to win. At that point, it was time for someone else to make the big sack, the big kick, the big run – something – to pull the game out for the Eagles.
As usual, the big play never happened, at least a big play from anyone but McNabb, who threw three second half TD passes. Against a team they had beaten 48-20 just a few weeks earlier and whom they were favored to beat again even on the Cardinals’ home field, the Eagles could do almost nothing right in the first half. Arizona scored in their first four possessions while an Eagles defense that had ranked number one in the league in the previous seven games couldn’t make the right coverages or tackles.
On offense, the Eagles were stifled by blitzes they couldn’t identify until halftime, when someone must have informed Reid and his staff that "Hey, they’re running the same kind of blitzes" – two men to one side, right or left, usually an extra safety or linebacker in the package with one or maybe two guys faking from the other side – "that we’ve been running on everyone else." After that, in the second half, it was all Eagles; they won the third and fourth quarters by a score of 19-8 with McNabb leading the comeback charge. But when the defense was once again faced with the task of making the big plays on Arizona’s crucial fourth quarter drive, Albert DeSalvo couldn’t have produced a more perfect choke.
After the game, sifting through the stats, it was amazing how many little things Philadelphia had done to hurt itself. They outgained Arizona 450 yards to 369 but gave 60 of those yards back on kick returns and had 50 more yards assessed on penalties than the Cardinals. David Akers can take more than the usual kicker’s share of responsibility for the loss. He missed a 49-yard field goal try — not a hanging offense, but he sent one kickoff out of bounds, giving the Cardinals splendid field position at their own 40-yard line, and missed an extra point, forcing the Eagles to go for two after a later TD (which they failed to convert).
By contrast, the Cardinals did just about everything right, allowing only two sacks on Kurt Warner, committing just three harmless five-yard penalties, and even running the ball fairly well (102 yards overall to the Eagles’ 97 – though Philadelphia was playing most of the game in a comeback mode and thus had far fewer rushing opportunities).
Kurt Warner is, I believe, the best quarterback in football, and his great receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, who caught nine passes against the Eagles for 152 yards and three touchdowns, is the best wideout. But the Cardinals aren’t going to score three touchdowns against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first half of the Super Bowl, no matter how sharp Warner is. The Steelers’ defense is really no better than the Eagles’ — Pittsburgh gave up an average of 14.4 over their last seven games, 3.5 more than Philadelphia — but they don’t blow coverages, miss kicks, or otherwise underperform in big games. Well, at least they haven’t so far.
Meanwhile, we have to wonder whether the Cardinals are suddenly that good or whether they were just lucky enough to be playing the Philadelphia Eagles in a big game.