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Should Eagles play their starters or backups?— I say play both….

Twelve of the sixteen games being played this weekend in the NFL have playoff implications… but Redskins at Eagles is not one of them…

Recently I commented to Dave Spadaro that my ideal wish for this game in Philly would be for the Eagles and the Redskins to start their #1’s… after all, people who are attending this game have paid top-dollar to see the best football product, even if it is Game 16 and both teams are out of the race.

But my caveat was: If the Eagles can get up early and big on the Redskins by the start of the 3rd quarter, then by all means put in the second and third team guys… and most importantly, allow us to observe Mike Kafka in action at QB.

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I’d love to see what Kafka could do given an entire half of clock to work with…

But Spadaro said “No, this game is still meaningful to the organization, and the regulars need to finish it out…”

I actually understand and see Dave’s point. To be fair, most of the regulars don’t want to sit this one out…and, in fact, we already have Jarrett at strong safety filling in for the injured Kurt Coleman, DRC taking the hamstring-stressed Asante Samuel’s place at CB, and most probably Dion Lewis being brought in early to spell the sore ankle of Shady McCoy at RB…

So I will defer to the Gold Standard and accept the seriousness of the approach taken to this game by the Eagles…

“We’re in this thing to play the best football we possibly can,” Andy Reid said. The Eagles, who recently handed Dallas a 20-7 loss on Christmas Eve, are out of the playoff picture for the first time since 2007, when they last finished with an 8-8 record. They have the momentum on their side in this matchup after beating the Redskins by a 20-13 score on the road back on Oct. 16.

Reid is 16-9 versus the Redskins since taking over in 1999. Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan is 3-3 lifetime against Philadelphia, with the first two wins and the initial loss coming during his 14-year reign with the Denver Broncos from 1995-2008. Shanahan is 2-2 against Reid head-to-head, having also bested the Eagles by a 49-21 count in Denver back in 2005, but has lost two of three bouts against Philly since being placed in charge of the Redskins prior to last season.

Here’s how the “official” Sports Network NFL Preview sees it:

WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL

Grossman (2,895 passing yards, 15 TD, 19 INT) was intercepted four times and passed for 143 yards in the first meeting with the Eagles before giving way to backup John Beck (858 passing yards, 2 TD, 4 INT), who made a few starts this season and completed 8-of-15 passes for 117 in relief of Grossman against Philadelphia. Washington had 287 total yards in that game, including just 42 rushing. Rookie running back Roy Helu (635 yards, 2 TD) was held to six yards on two carries by the Eagles, but wasn’t a starter back then with Tim Hightower the main back before an injury cut his season short. Veteran Ryan Torain was ineffective as Hightower’s first replacement and was just released after losing time to Helu, who did not play against the Vikings because of toe/knee ailments and could miss the season finale. Fellow rookie running back Evan Royster (215 yards) made his first start in Helu’s place and lifted some eyebrows with 132 yards on 19 carries against Minnesota. Royster, who patiently waited his turn while on the practice squad earlier in the year, averaged 6.9 yards per carry and had a 28-yard run in the third quarter that led to a 25-yard Graham Gano field goal. Royster and Helu are the only two rookie backs in team history to run for 100 yards or more in a game in the same season. Wide receiver Jabar Gaffney (64 receptions, 919 yards, 5 TD) is enjoying a career year and is nearing his first-ever 1,000-yard campaign.

Eagles defensive end Jason Babin (38 tackles, 18 sacks) is having a career year for a team that will not make the playoffs. The offseason acquisition has thrived under defensive line coach Jim Washburn’s wide-nine philosophy and also benefits from having Trent Cole (43 tackles, 10 sacks) playing on the other side. Babin’s 18 quarterback takedowns is the third-most in a season by an Eagle, trailing only Reggie White (21 in 1987) and Clyde Simmons (19 in 1992). The Eagles are 14th against the rush this season, 12th in points allowed and eighth in both pass defense and total yards given up. Cornerback Asante Samuel (34 tackles, 3 INT) did not play against the Cowboys with a hamstring strain and was replaced by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (25 tackles, 1 sack), a former starter in Arizona who came to the Eagles in the Kevin Kolb deal over the summer, and the ex-Cardinal will get the nod again this week with Samuel still bothered by the injury. Fellow cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (37 tackles, 3 INT) struggled at first under Castillo’s defensive scheme, but has picked it up over the latter part of the season and gives the team a proven cover man. Philadelphia’s linebackers were another sore spot until also stepping up their play recent weeks. Safety Kurt Coleman (78 tackles, 4 INT) suffered a biceps injury in Dallas and was placed on injured reserve, while linebacker Brian Rolle (51 tackles, 1 INT) is hampered by an ankle strain and also may not play on Sunday.

WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL

Eagles running back LeSean McCoy (1,309 rushing yards, 17 TD) is Pro-Bowl bound and diced Washington’s defense for 126 yards and a score on 28 carries back in October. He only had 35 yards on 13 carries in last week’s win over Dallas, however, and suffered what appeared to be an ankle injury. Reid said the starters will play this weekend and McCoy could cut into Wilbert Montgomery’s single-season team rushing mark of 1,512 yards set back in 1979, as he’s considered probable to go. McCoy is first in the NFC, second in the league and fourth in team annals for a single season with 1,309 rushing yards, and will be looking to close out a career year with another outstanding performance. Philadelphia needs 235 total yards to set a single-season team record in that category and is third in the NFL with an average of 399.7 yards per game. The Eagles are on pace to become just the third team in NFL history to have five players catch 50 or more passes in a single season. Wide receiver Jason Avant (48 receptions, 1 TD) and McCoy (48 receptions, 3 TD) each need two receptions to join tight end Brent Celek (56 receptions, 4 TD) and wide receivers Jeremy Maclin (55 receptions, 5 TD) and DeSean Jackson (54 receptions, 3 TD) in reaching that mark. Jackson had a down year while battling with the organization over contract issues and could be playing his last game for the Eagles, though the team could slap the franchise tag to retain his services.

The Redskins had trouble stopping McCoy in the first meeting and are 19th against the run this season, allowing 120.6 yards per game on the ground. Eagles quarterback Michael Vick also hurt the Redskins with both his scrambling ability as well as through the air, and Washington will need rookie Ryan Kerrigan (62 tackles, 8 sacks) and fellow outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (57 tackles, 7 sacks) to step it up in the season finale and apply pressure from either end. Getting in the quarterback’s face and moving Vick around the pocket will be key in setting up turnover chances and incompletions. The Redskins are 11th against the pass (215.9 ypg) and will have their hands full once again with the Eagles. Crossing patterns by Celek, Maclin or Jackson will be difficult to defend, while McCoy coming out of the backfield is never a settling sight. London Fletcher (163 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) is having another monster season at inside linebacker for Washington and posted a game- high 12 stops in the first encounter with Philly. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall (87 tackles, 3 INT) and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (57 tackles, 2 INT) each had an interception against the Eagles in the first matchup, one thrown by Vick and other by backup Vince Young. Washington was tagged for 241 rushing yards and 389 total yards against the Vikings last Saturday, one week after intercepting three passes and holding New York in check.

KEYS TO THE GAME

Grossman could be playing for his job next season for the Redskins, who may address the position in the draft or via free agency. The franchise hasn’t enjoyed comfort at the quarterback spot for quite some time, as neither Grossman and Beck failed to solidify the position, but will need effective play under center to come out on top this week.

Will this be the final game for DeSean Jackson in an Eagles uniform? That remains do be seen, but if the speedster can stretch the field and loosen up the Washington defense, that should enhance Philadelphia’s chances of continuing its winning streak…and maybe persuade Eagles management to ante up a decent payday contract for Jackson.

No team wants to finish with a losing record, and Philadelphia will likely try hard to break even at 8-8 with a win over the rival Redskins. Washington is also playing for pride and would like nothing more to ring in the new year with a positive result.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 30, Redskins 20 (assuming the #1 starters play the whole game)…

But here’s the flip side of the argument about going all out in Game 16 to salvage an 8-8 record, and this is from our good buddy in Delaware, Dave Stoessel, who deserves to be heard on his point:

“Why risk the 2012 season just to get a completely meaningless win? Is watching Michael Vick take brain-rattling hits worth it? Do we want to see McCoy get carted off again but have it be more serious this time?

Again, it’s not worth it. If the Redskins had anything riding on this game then, yes, you play the starters and compete to the best of your ability. But they don’t, and neither do the Eagles.

And don’t give me any hogwash about “finishing strong” or “not having a losing season” or anything about carrying momentum into next season. Because that’s what all that is—hogwash.

That is why Andy Reid should be playing the backups this week. This season is over—it’s time to think about 2012.

If anyone can give me one good reason why the starters should play, I’m all ears. I’ll even stand up and give you a little golf clap. But remember, it has to be a good reason.

There is absolutely no value in playing the starters this week. Sure, the players are competitors and they want to compete, that I can understand. However, they’re supposed to be like that.

The coaches are the ones who should be thinking about the future, not the players.

There is no value in playing Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Trent Cole, Jason Babin, Jason Peters and Brent Celek.

We all know what those guys can do. Plus, there is the inherent risk of injury to a star player in a meaningless game that, at this point, would impact their 2012 season.

If you want to be realistic here, the only thing that is riding on this game is draft positioning. Therefore, losing this game actually has more value than winning it.

As things stand right now, the Eagles have the 13th overall pick in next April’s NFL draft, according to Mike Sando of ESPN.com. If they lose against Washington, they won’t end up with a lower pick. In fact, if the Eagles lose and the Cardinals, Chiefs and possibly the Bills all win, they could jump as high as the 10th overall pick.

However, if the Eagles win and finish 8-8, they could drop from pick No. 13, all the way down to the 17th or 18th slot. That might not sound like much, but four slots in the first round of the NFL draft is significant. It could mean the difference between getting the impact player you covet or deciding to trade down, or even out of the first round altogether.

Furthermore, if the Eagles decide that they want to use their extra second-round pick in a trade package to move up, it would be better value and easier to do from slot No. 13 (or higher) than it would be from slot No. 17 (or 18).

My last, but not least, reason for playing the backups this week is simply for roster evaluation. Let’s see what these guys have. Let’s get some tape on them so that the coaches can make better judgements about them.

How far has Mike Kafka come? Is he ready and/or capable of being the No. 2 quarterback next year?

Can Dion Lewis contribute more in the running game? It would be good to see him for a full game in the backfield because his kick-return skills are horrible. Seriously, it almost seemed as if he would average more yards on a return just by downing it in the end zone.

Is Jaiquawn Jarrett the strong safety of the future? He needs more playing time because he might be heavily counted on for next year.

How far has Curtis Marsh come this season? He was a third-round pick, so he needs to start seeing the field to see what kind of potential he has. Asante Samuel will likely be gone, so Marsh could be counted on to play a more significant role next season.

Other players like Winston Justice, King Dunlap, Phillip Hunt, Riley Cooper, Clay Harbor, Cedric Thornton and any of the young linebackers would also benefit from playing time.

All of these guys would certainly “compete,” and if they play well enough, they could still win the game anyway.

Reid has already stated that the starters will play this week. He keeps saying the same old things about getting better as a team and only focusing on this week.

The only reason to play the starters and go all-out for the win is to “save face,” as if they actually can. I guess 8-8 sounds worlds better than 7-9.

A win or loss this week will not have any bearing on Reid’s job security. For the record, I believe he’ll be back next season regardless.

If it’s acceptable for teams to rest their starters before the playoffs start, it should be acceptable for a team to play their backups in a game that has no impact on anything related to the 2011 season.

For the Eagles and Reid to jeopardize the 2012 season by way of injury to a prominent player or acquiring a stud player in the draft, it’s extremely short-sighted and egotistical.

Play the young guys and let them get some much-needed experience. There are no negatives in doing so, only positives. Likewise, there are no positives in playing the starters, only negatives.

Maybe Reid will only play the starters for a little while before putting in some backups. It would actually be the only thing that would make this last game interesting.”

And we come full-circle….That’s what I said all along… start your #1’s… then turn the second half over to your backups… Maybe even strike a gentleman’s agreement with the Redskins HC Mike Shanahan to do the same?… Now everyone’s happy!

Thomas Jackson

About Thomas Jackson

Jax Sports Media has been reporting on NFL teams in the mid-Atlantic region since 2006. Thomas Jackson is its senior writer. Tom started covering the Philadelphia Eagles for the MVN Network in 2007. In 2009 he joined the Bloguin Network. He now also covers the Baltimore Ravens.

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