Breaking Down The Goal Line Debacle

Over on Brian Burke's Advanced NFL Stats site, you can see the live win probability for the Eagles-Cardinals game. Right at the end of the half, the Eagles were already down 17-0, and things weren't looking great. But with their final drive, they had a chance to tighten the score before halftime. A touchdown, narrowing the lead to 10, would have been positive — raising the team's win probability to 20 percent (and with this explosive offense, that might be a low estimate).

Of course, we know that didn't happen. Instead, the Eagles tried three times to stick the ball in the end zone, only to give up a 95-yard fumble return for a touchdown instead. That  self-destructive 14 point swing cost the Eagles any chance they had of getting back into the game (probability: four percent). So what was the problem?

Michael Vick deserves some of the blame. If you replace him with Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or Drew Brees, the Eagles probably score. But that's unfair. The play calling also wasn't perfect, but that wasn't the main issue either. The real culprit was the Eagles lack of red zone weapons. With only dwindling seconds to work with and no timeouts, the offense had to take their most effective option — the run — off the table. Everyone knew Vick had to throw, and the Eagles couldn't out-execute the Cardinals in the face of that knowledge.

Let me show you what I mean. Below is the first down play. Even though running is impossible, they line-up in the I-Formation to fake it. Vick's three receiving options are fullback Stanley Havili and two tiny wide receivers — Damaris Johnson and DeSean Jackson. Not exactly murderer's row.

Here are the routes pre-snap.

Here's what Vick sees when he first drops back. Not much there.

With DeSean covered, it's Havili or Johnson.

Havili looks open, but he's not in the end zone. If he gets tackled outside, you lose your shot. Inside, Johnson has broken free of his man, but there are multiple defenders in between him and Vick. Does he want to risk that pass? 

Vick almost throws to Johnson, pump-fakes instead.

Again, he had two options, but there were defenders in the way (and in his face). A perfect throw gets this done, but Vick is hesitant — and with two more chances, why risk it?

The defender in red probably would have gotten any pass to Johnson. Vick throws it away.

Alright, let's move on to second down. You're going to see many of the same problems.

Here's the pre-snap alignment. Jason Avant and Clay Harbor at the top. DeSean below.

Everybody is covered man-to-man, pressure coming up the middle.

Vick's best option is Harbor breaking free, but he can't actually see him.

A better quarterback lofts a ball to Harbor. Vick throws it away before taking another hit.

Finally, the ill-fated third down. Again, the Cardinals are going to bring pressure. They leave nearly all the receivers in man coverage.

McCoy decides to block the rusher at bottom.

Celek tangled with McCoy's blitzer, so Rhodes is coming free on the other side.

Again, Vick has nowhere to go with the ball. He's sacked so quickly.

Other than anticipate Harbor getting free on second down, I see little to fault Vick on here. The Cardinals knew passing was the Eagles' only option, and they didn't feel threatened by any of the receivers. Everyone received basic man coverage except for DeSean Jackson on the final play. Where was Vick supposed to go with it? And certainly Rhodes coming that free off the edge wasn't his fault — if anyone's it was McCoy.

I said on Twitter yesterday that this game reminded me of one of those "McNabb without weapons" classics. This is what I mean. Without Jeremy Maclin, the Eagles had no receiver whom they could count on to beat man coverage and get open for Vick in the end zone. So you had three straight tries, and a horrible, predictable result.

The New Normal

Zach Berman wrote a story yesterday about the efforts the Eagles took to evaluate Damaris Johnson's character:

A coach normally tasked with uncovering punt protections was tasked with determining why the NCAA's all-time leader in total yards would jeopardize his future, and whether that player was sincere in his remorse.

Johnson returned home to the New Orleans area, where April was also raised. April started to dig. He spoke to teachers and civic leaders, coaches and friends. He met Johnson's girlfriend and guidance counselor. And he spent time with Johnson, watching the 5-foot-8, 175-pound prospect catch passes from a machine and run across the Tulane practice field. Then, he looked Johnson in the eyes and heard his story.

Berman doesn't mention it, perhaps because he's only been on the beat for a short while, but (putting Michael Vick aside, a special case if there ever was one) the Eagles haven't historically been interested in players like this with serious character concerns. Even at the end of the draft and in free agency where the risk is lower, this indicates a clear change in strategy.

Moreover, this isn't the first time this year we've heard stories about how much the Eagles dove into the character of a draft prospect. First round pick Fletcher Cox predictably got this treatment from Jim Washburn. But the other time was with late-round flier Bryce Brown. So not only has the Eagles policy toward character issues changed, but they're willing to go into the weeds on figuring out if those issues are real even for fringe prospects. Good to know.

Throwing Cold Water on Dubious Roster Battles

Reuben Frank put out a list of the top ten roster battles heading into training camp. He hits on some of the biggest ones: Atogwe vs. Coleman, Rolle vs. Chaney, Hanson vs. Boykin. But he also lists a bunch of questionable ones:

  • Dion Lewis vs. Bryce Brown? I’m excited to see if Brown can make the transition to the NFL. He clearly has 5x the physical potential of Lewis. But I’m not really seeing the competition for backup running back. There’s just no way Brown is going to come in after sitting out nearly all of college and immediately pick up the complexity of the Eagles offense and the intricacies of pass blocking, other essential bits. Then again, don’t read this as an endorsement of Lewis, who seems like a poor backup to one of the best players on the roster.
  • Riley Cooper vs. Damaris Johnson? It’s unclear whether the Eagles will keep five or six wide receivers, but I don’t really see the big receivers competing against the smaller ones. Cooper and Marvin McNutt would serve similar roles on the roster, as would Johnson and Chad Hall. Those are the real one-on-one battles. Winners of each competition will be guaranteed a spot on the roster. After that, all they can do is hope the Eagles keep six guys.
  • Clay Harbor vs. Brett Brackett? With the Eagles using more two tight end sets, the question is really whether Brackett can play his way onto the roster — not whether he can beat out Harbor, a more experienced player and much better blocker.
  • Mike Kafka vs. Nick Foles? As with Lewis/Brown, this isn’t a ringing endorsement of Kafka. But Frank is the first person to suggest that Foles even has a shot to replace him in his rookie year.

Ahead of all of the above, I’d rate these battles: Demetress Bell vs. King Dunlap, Jaiquawn Jarrett vs. the Chopping Block, Derek Landri vs. Antonio Dixon vs. Cedric Thornton.

Small Fish in a Big Pond

Tommy Lawlor on UDFA Damaris Johnson:

Damaris is very quick and he has a good burst. He is able to gain initial separation. He just lacks the long speed you would ideally prefer. One thing I really like about him is that he plays fast. There is very little dancing and hesitation when Johnson gets the ball. That’s partly why he’s such a good KOR. He gets it and goes. That style of play actually makes him look faster than he is. One other thing about that…Johnson is able to make cuts at close to full speed. This is where his size is a benefit. He’s got good body control and is able to stop/start quickly and change directions on the move.

Damaris does look much faster on tape than his 40 time indicates — and he better be, considering his tiny stature. On a broader note, when was the last time the Eagles had so many potential contributors who were small in stature? I’m not sure anyone other than Barry Sanders did as much as Brian Westbrook at 5’8”, but this team has DeSean Jackson, Dion Lewis, and whoever emerges from the Johnson-Chad Hall roster battle. And that’s just on offense. Brian Rolle is one of the smallest linebackers in the NFL, and the slot corner competition is between two 5’9” players.