Yikes. So far this season, when BadNFL predictions miss, they miss in a big way. Despite what seemed like a very well-reasoned and popular prediction last week, the Eagles came nowhere near covering -14 against the Raiders, losing in what one Eagles' blogger called one of the "most astounding upsets of all time." To be honest, when I witnessed the Eagles imploding over here at BadNFL headquarters, I was at a total loss to explain it. Now that we've all had a few days to digest what happened, I'll now take a moment to examine, upon further review, why this bet turned out to be such a poor one.
1. The Raiders controlled the line of scrimmage, and the Eagles' coaching staff failed to counter Oakland's defensive aggressiveness.
The NFL.com recap headline is almost as shocking as is the final score, declaring that the "Raiders dominate line of scrimmage." Indeed, the Raiders relentlessly went after McNabb in the pocket, amassing 6 sacks and constantly harassing the Eagles QB. Partly as a result of the pressure, and partly because of Oakland's conscientious 2-deep coverage, McNabb had little opportunity to kickstart the Eagles' preferred downfield passing attack. As such, the Eagles passing numbers were inadequate: McNabb completed less than half his passes, and the Eagles were a woeful 2 for 16 on 3rd down. LT Jason Peters's unfortunate 1st quarter injury certainly didn't help, but ultimately there is little excuse for such a shameful offensive performance through the air.
Given Oakland's aggressive, non-gap-conscious defensive schemes, one might have expected the Eagles to commit to the run. But, as nearly every NFL commentator has pointed out in the past few days, Andy Reid did no such thing. The Eagles drew up 46 passes and 14 runs, despite the fact that they ran the ball for a healthy 4.8 YPC. The failure to commit to the run is pretty much inexplicable, and Andy Reid is now under some pressure for that questionable piece of decisionmaking. But such weird offensive gameplanning is not a total shock, as Reid has endured intermittent repeating questions about his distaste for the run throughout his tenure as Eagles head coach. Yet nobody seemed to see it coming this week, and my breakdown of the Oakland defense was premised on the assumption that the Eagles could exploit Oakland's woes against the run game. They did not, and NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks flatly states to open his game breakdown that the Eagles' "failure to run the ball allowed the Raiders to pull off an unlikely upset." Thus, even though the Raiders were playing without their star cornerback, the Raiders shutdown the Eagles' vaunted passing attack.
2. There were a lot of ingredients in this recipe of Eagles incompetence, but more than Oakland playing well, the Eagles played an incredibly sloppy, mistake-saturated game. But fundamentally, the Eagles seemed unmotivated and unprepared. The Eagles' faithful are up in arms this week, claiming that they've seen this before, as McNabb's frantic miscalculations and Reid's lack of adaptations have sporadically but routinely characterized their tenure in Philadelphia. But there was something particularly abysmal about the Eagles' performance this week. Two missed field goals, shoddy offensive line plan, errant throws, lackluster defense--this game had it all. Ultimately, that's what it seemed this game was about: a total absence of focus and intensity on the part of the Eagles.
Of course the "trap game" phenomenon lingers on the consciousness whenever an aspiring blogger picks a big favorite. I even linked to an article in the "counter-argument" section of my prediction pointing out the potential dangers of a trap game. But of course neither that article nor I actually thought the Eagles would come out so flat. Why did they, and how might it help us look out for the dangers of the trap game in the future? Because remember, the Eagles had made a habit of destroying bad teams, both this season and previously.
The best explanation I've come up with is that the Eagles were mired in a series of games against bad opponents. The Eagles had played 3/4 of their games against terrible opponents, and perhaps more importantly, at the time of the Oakland game, it had been 4 weeks since their last game against a team with a winning record. My theory is that the Eagles had been conditioned, by recent experience, to think that Oakland would simply rollover. And why wouldn't they? Every analyst seemed to be predicting, like this one typically did, that all the Eagles needed to do was show up in order to totally blow the Raiders out of the water. They also claimed that the game was likely to be so one-sided that success would be measured by whether McNabb was still playing in the 4th quarter. The Eagles obviously subscribed to the same belief, and when Oakland came out with a modicum of intensity and displayed some moderate capacity for execution, the Eagles wilted and never even threatened a blowout.
There were two factors here that, in retrospect, might have served as warning signs. First, as previously mentioned, the Eagles hadn't played anyone in about a month. As such, perhaps their approach to the game had become so routinized by mediocrity that they came out on autopilot. Perhaps this observation, let's call it the "Danger of Four" rule (that teams struggle when it's been 4 weeks since playing a decent team) could also somewhat account for the Giants' dismal performance against New Orleans. Second, and this is more Eagles specific, but I should have known better when arguing that Andy Reid would exploit the Raiders' rush defense. Perhaps the Eagles struggle to cover against teams with decent pass defenses and terrible rush defenses.
Finally, there is a danger in relying on psychology when making picks, just because those of us who lack access to locker rooms have woefully imperfect tools for assessing the psychology of the teams involved. The Raiders certainly seemed like they were done before this game. But it's important, thinking back on this game, not to catch teams after they've reached rock bottom, but instead to catch them when they're on the way down. Perhaps last week the Antonio Pierce comments served as a cathartic moment for the Raiders; after all, they came out with an undeniable intensity, and afterward the Raiders claimed that the persistent and overwhelming criticism inspired them to play their best game of the season.
The lesson is this: you should beware betting on (1) a heavy favorite, (2) playing against a team that has already hit rock bottom, where there has (3) been some catalytic event (here the Pierce criticism) that might serve to inspire them, and (4) where that favorite has not played a good team in several weeks. While this seemed like a great bet, perhaps those are the warning signs that BadNFL should have heeded.