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The Anatomy of a Comeback: How the Eagles Blew Five Leads

Jan 11, 2012, 12:25 AM EDT

How did the Eagles blow five fourth-quarter leads this season? The simple answer many fans and those in the media have chosen to adopt is "Juan Castillo," but it glosses over the fact that in every case, there were other elements at work that were equally responsible -- maybe more so -- for the mark that wound up in the loss column.

How did the Eagles blow five fourth-quarter leads this season? The simple answer many fans and those in the media have chosen to adopt is “Juan Castillo,” but it glosses over the fact that in every case, there were other elements at work that were equally responsible — if not more so — for the mark that wound up in the loss column.

Michael.Turner.Falcons.Eagles

Week 2 @ Atlanta
Eagles led 31-21 with 1:59 remaining in third quarter; lost 35-31

Before the comeback
The Falcons started four drives at midfield or better, resulting in three touchdowns:
1) Following a three and out in the first quarter, a short punt and a 19-yard return gave Atlanta the ball at the Philadelphia 38-yard line.
2) With goal to go during the second, Michael Vick’s first-down handoff was disrupted on a botched trap running play, the ensuing fumble returned all the way to Philly’s 24, causing a potential 14-point swing.

3) Late in the second, Vick got careless with the football while scrambling, coughing it up at the 50. Two plays later, Matt Ryan was picked, but the series cost the Eagles a legitimate shot at putting additional points on the board before halftime.
4) Atlanta started from the Philly 49 early in the third when Vick’s pass was incorrectly ruled an interception after the ball hit the ground — a replay angle was not immediately available.

Vick sustained a concussion on the Eagles’ final scoring drive when his head inadvertently slammed into a teammate after the ball had been released. He would not return, leaving Mike Kafka to run the offense in his first NFL appearance.

The comeback
After holding the Falcons offense to several short scoring drives through the first 43 minutes, the defense gave up consecutive 80-yard marches that ate up nearly 10 minutes over the game’s next 12 total. The signature play on the game-winning possession was a 61-yard carry by Michael Turner to reverse field position from the ATL 13 to the PHI 26.

Last chance
With almost five minutes remaining, Kafka went to work. A holding penalty forced the Eagles to start from their own nine-yard line, but Kafka led them as far as Atlanta’s 22. On 4th and 4, Kafka found Jeremy Maclin open over the middle, but the wide receiver could not haul in a pass that hit him in the hands. Ryan knelt three times, and the Falcons actually punted to DeSean Jackson, but there was no magic at the end.

Overview
The defense clearly came unglued in the end, and the ability to lock it down an extra time or two on a short field would have gone a long way, but miscues on offense, special teams, and even the officiating crew directly contributed to 21 of Atlanta’s points, while erasing who knows how many for the Eagles’ cause. Perhaps the game never should have been close enough for the Falcons to steal in the first place.

Notes
The Eagles failed to convert on a pair of 3rd and 1 situations, including once inside the red zone to force them to settle for a field goal. The offense committed three turnovers.

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Week 3 v. New York Giants
Eagles led 16-14 with 11:37 remaining in fourth quarter; lost 29-16

Before the comeback
Steve Smith was playing volleyball on the Eagles’ opening possession. On 3rd and 6 from inside the red zone, Vick made a great play to avoid the pass rush, and was able to find Smith open beyond the sticks. The wide receiver tipped the ball in the air, allowing the Giants to come down with it to end the threat.

Individual mistakes, not schemes, led to each of New York’s touchdowns in the first quarter:
1) The Giants ran a play-action wheel route to Brandon Jacobs. Jacobs fakes like he’s accepting the handoff, then slips out of the backfield and heads up the sidelines. Casey Matthews is in man coverage, but remains frozen in the same spot he was standing when the play began, even after the fake. By the time he realizes his man is running free, there’s no catching Jacobs on a 40-yard pitch and catch.
2) On 3rd and 2, Eli Manning hits Victor Cruz on a short out pattern good for first-down yardage. Kurt Coleman comes up to stop the bleeding, but instead of delivering a big hit, or even pulling the ball carrier to the ground, Coleman hugs him ever so gently. As Cruz escapes, Coleman gives chase, but collides with Nnamdi Asomugha, ensuring neither man can end the play. A potentially harmless short gain turns into a 74-yard score.

The Eagles are forced to settle for field goals three times in the red zone:
1) With 1st and goal on the three-yard line.
2) After back-to-back false start penalties on Jason Peters and Kyle DeVan knocked them back to 2nd and 14 on the 26.
3) With 1st and goal on the two-yard line.

After failing to convert in short yardage throughout the contest, Andy Reid opted to go for it on 4th and 1 from New York’s 43. The handoff went to McCoy, who tried to bounce the play outside, and wound up losing three.

Vick suffered a bruised hand on a late-ish hit earlier in the game, and was not able to finish for the second consecutive week.

The comeback
Both of the Giants’ final touchdowns began at their own 44 or better:
1) Following the failed fourth-down attempt, the Giants began a seven-play drive that ended with Cruz out-jumping Asomugha in the end zone to haul in a 28-yard pass.
2) Kafka immediately went deep on the next snap and was intercepted. New York capped a 10-play drive — extended by a Jason Babin encroachment penalty on 4th and 2 — with an 18-yard screen to Jacobs.

Last chance
Down 13 with three-and-a-half minutes remaining and Kafka under center, not much of one. Kafka was eventually picked off, and the Giants ended the game with kneel downs.

Overview
First of all, a two-point lead isn’t very much of a lead at all. In any event, the Eagles only managed 16 points despite making five trips to the red zone, which would have been difficult for any defense to overcome. Some of the defensive personnel was exposed for big scoring plays, but not necessarily the coordinator.

Notes
The Eagles were still going with Kyle DeVan at right guard while Danny Watkins adjusted to the NFL, which was definitely part of the issue in short-yardage situations. The offense committed three turnovers.

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Week 4 v. San Francisco 49ers
Eagles led 23-3 with 9:30 remaining in third quarter; lost 24-23

Before the comeback
The Eagles committed two turnovers in the first half when they had favorable field position:
1) On the Philadelphia 48-yard line, Vick tr
ied to hook up deep with Jackson, but underthrew his speedy wide receiver, resulting in an interception.
2) On the goal line, Ronnie Brown was met in the backfield on an apparent halfback option. As he was being twirled to the turf, Brown attempted to throw the ball anyway, his momentum carrying the ball backwards. The result was a fumble, and the 49ers recovered the loose ball.

The Eagles were forced to settle for field goals three additional times in the red zone:
1) Failed to convert on 3rd and 3
2) After Vick was sacked on 1st and 10 from the 14
3) Failed to convert on 3rd and 6

The comeback
This was a two-fold collapse. The defense allowed three touchdowns on drives of 77 yards or more, and the offense would not score another point over the game’s final 24 minutes.

After Alex Henery’s last field goal, the Niners got two touchdowns back fast. They helped themselves to 80 yards on four plays, then after the Eagles went three and out, San Fran came back with 77 yards in five plays. The entire series happened over the course of about six-and-a-half minutes, and they had cut the lead to six before the fourth quarter was even under way.

Yet the Eagles had chances to make it a two-possession ball game again:
1) After a 22-yard Vick scramble was negated by a DeVan holding penalty, their next drive fizzled. Henery wound up missing a 39-yard field goal.
2) Following a defensive stand, the Eagles found their way into the red zone once more, but a holding penalty by Evan Mathis on 2nd and 7 stalled another drive. This time, Henery missed from 33.

Finally, the 49ers went 77 yards on eight plays to gain their first advantage of the game.

Last chance
The Eagles had three minutes to work with, and were moving the ball effectively. They had made it all the way to midfield without facing a single third down, but turnovers struck again. Vick hit Maclin on the wide receiver screen, and he took off down the sidelines. Defensive end Justin Smith tracked him down from behind and punched the ball free, and San Francisco recovered. The Eagles had timeouts, but the defense could not come up with the stop to force a punt.

Overview
This is probably the defense’s worst effort of the five games. It’s difficult to spin three quick touchdowns on four possessions. That said, the Eagles once again came up small in the red zone, settling for four field goal tries and turning the ball over once. And the fact is, if Brown doesn’t make that foolish mistake on the goal line, or Henery makes just more kick, they win this game.

Notes
For the record, David Akers also was not very good in this game — he was 1 for 3 on field goal attempts, including one blocked. The offense committed three turnovers.

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Week 9 v. Chicago Bears
Eagles led 24-17 with 5:52 remaining in third quarter; lost 30-24

Before the comeback
Surprise, the Eagles committed two turnovers in the first half that gave the Bears excellent field position:
1) Vick is intercepted in the red zone, and the ball is returned to Chicago’s 48-yard line. A Robbie Gould field goal results in a probable six-point or greater swing.
2) Jackson fields a punt deep in his own zone, and glides backwards. Besides losing yards, he has the ball poked out, and Chicago gets to start at Philly’s nine. To make matters worse, Babin is shoved into Bears quarterback Jay Cutler by an offensive lineman when the defense has them stopped on third down. Instead of taking three, the Bears are handed a fresh set of downs — and an easy seven.

Another matter of note would be the defense had a big hand in the Eagles scoring:
1) The defense literally scores in the second quarter. In a great individual effort, Brian Rolle gets to Matt Forte as he catches a short pass, knocks the ball out, and returns the fumble 22 yards to tie the game.
2) In the third, Trent Cole gets to Forte again. The play is ruled down on the field, but after review, officials determine it was a fumble, and the Eagles get possession at Chicago’s 41. Two plays later, McCoy goes 33-yards to give the Birds their first lead.

The comeback
The Bears settle for three after a long drive that started on their own six to go into the fourth quarter down by four.

Chicago’s final scoring drives are set up by special teams misjudgments:
1) The Eagles go three and out, then punt the ball to Devin Hester, who returns it to the CHI 49, setting up the five-play, go-ahead touchdown drive.
2) In what was actually a very clever play, the Eagles attempt a fake punt. Nobody is covering Colt Anderson in the gunner spot, so when punter Chas Henry takes the snap, he throws the ball for what likely would have been a touchdown — except the former high school quarterback short arms the pass horribly, turning the ball over on downs at the CHI 42. From there, they get into distance for another FG, creating a 10-point swing on the scoreboard.

Last chance
The Eagles get into Bears territory, but are held up and face 4th and 10. Vick hits Maclin coming over the middle, but the receiver loses his footing and falls a yard short of the sticks.

Overview
Interestingly enough, special teams were actually a big part of the problem these last two games, as they were increasingly so toward the end of this season. DeSean’s fumble and Henry’s botched fake attempt loom large when you consider how different the score would’ve been with a different result on either play. When you add the red zone turnover, and consider the fact that the defense gave a helping hand on one touchdown and scored another, it’s hard to pin this one on their unit.

Notes
Eagles offensive players committed two turnovers.

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Week 10 v. Arizona Cardinals
Eagles led 17-14 with 5:06 remaining in fourth quarter; lost 21-17

Before the comeback
Injuries and absences played a key role in this one:
1) DeSean Jackson was inactive due to his missing a special teams meeting, with the lame brain excuse he overslept. Considering special teams have emerged as a problem, and DeSean fumbled the week before, so this behavior is unacceptable.
2) Vick was apparently injured on the second play from scrimmage, suffering broken ribs. He plays through, but the Eagles have trouble keeping up a consistent offensive attack throughout the afternoon.
3) On the very next drive, Jeremy Maclin injures his shoulder. With Jackson out, Maclin eventually comes back in and gives a gutsy performance, though not at 100%.

The defense gets the scoring started for the second week in a row on Asante Samuel’s pick six.

On Arizona’s next possession, Eagles defenders are able to deflect three passes thrown to Larry Fitzgerald. The monster comes down with all three, including a touchdown. Drive was extended when Asomugha lined up offside on a third down stop.

Vick throws another interception in the red zone, this
time into the arms of a leaping defensive linemen.

John Skelton throws another interception in his own zone. The Eagles offense can’t move the ball from the Arizona 26, but receive an automatic three.

The comeback
Short and sweet — the explanation that is. Skelton leads the Cardinals 87 yards on the game-winning drive. The signature play was a 37-yard pass to Fitz to put Arizona on the goal line. It appeared Castillo’s scheme left rookie Jaiquawn Jarrett to cover an All-Pro receiver one on one, but as it turned out Samuel went gambling and left his teammate on an island.

Last chance
The Eagles have 1:53 to work with, but are effectively finished when LeSean McCoy commits a holding penalty on 3rd and 10. The next play, Vick throws a desperation pick, and Arizona is kneeling.

Overview
Points produced by Eagles offense: seven. Points produced by Eagles defense: 10. The three-point lead they had here was negligible, and when you consider the offense didn’t really do anything, it’s hard to blame the defense, since had they not created some scoring on their own, would have needed to hold the Cardinals to six points or less to win. It’s not a great sign a backup quarterback authored three drives over 80 yards, but you need to get something out of your offense against this team.

Notes
The Eagles went three and out on four possessions. The offense committed two turnovers.

Conclusion
The defense had its moments. Two eighty-yard drives in the fourth quarter against Atlanta. Three drives over 77-yards in the second half to San Francisco. Three drives over 80-yards against the Skelton-led Cardinals.

However, all five games were total team losses.

The offense scored THREE POINTS in the fourth quarter of these five games, and those are the three off of Skelton’s turnover in the Arizona game. Three!!!

In all, the Eagles committed 13 turnovers — five of those in the red zone, almost automatic points off the board in four one-possession games — missed two field goals, and turned the ball over on downs twice in non-endgame situations. They were miserable in the red zone and short yardage situations, and prolific at spotting their opponent great field position, and by extension, points.

Saying Juan Castillo’s defense blew five fourth-quarter leads is disingenuous at least, utterly absurd at most. It’s technically accurate as far as stat keeping is concerned, and it makes for an easy insult or story line to parade out there while taking cheap shots at the offensive line coach turned defensive coordinator. It’s also remarkably insincere given everything else that occurred prior to those lead changes.

In the NFL, you simply can’t win when you continuously give the opponent chance after chance to hang around.