The Eagles saved their season — seemingly — and rallied to defeat the flailing, yet pesky New York Giants, 23-17, in overtime Monday night at Lincoln Financial Field.
Here’s what we learned:
1. The rest of this season is all about Carson Wentz (as is this “What we learned”). The Eagles might be good enough to make the playoffs in a down year for the NFC East, but they’re not good enough to make a run should they get that far. Anything is possible, of course, and those words might come back to haunt me, but I don’t believe I’m inching out on a dangling limb.
Make the playoffs because you can, but more than anything, make it because your quarterback needs it. Big picture, the Eagles roster is full of holes. There will likely be significant overhaul no matter the results in the last three games. But Wentz isn’t going anywhere. The last three games have to be about restoring his confidence — not only his, but the entire milieu surrounding the 26-year old — so that the offseason won’t be all about his 2019 regression, or his uncertain future.
If the Eagles can somehow qualify for the postseason, no matter how paper-thin, all the better. Wentz needs to know what it’s like to play under that kind of pressure. His best performance this season came Monday night with the season seemingly on the line and most of his supporting cast nameless. (More on that later.) It was a signature win. (More on that later.) But another tepid first half can’t be forgotten. (More on that later, too.)
Wentz hasn’t been as underwhelming as some of his critics have suggested, especially when you consider personnel and injuries. But he hadn’t really lifted those around him until Monday night. It could springboard him into this final stretch.
And he needs it. When Wentz takes his first snap at the Redskins on Sunday, it will be the deepest he’s played into December since his rookie season. Think about that for a second, and then consider how much more there is to learn about him. And for him to learn himself.
I’m not suggesting that Wentz will become an elite, Super Bowl-winning quarterback. I’ve had my doubts — really, for the first time since he’s been drafted — over the last month. But why must there be a rush to define a career after only 50-plus starts?
The final stretch of the season will say a lot about Wentz moving forward, but maybe not in some on-the-field tangible way. It’s possible he fails, and the Eagles fall short of supplanting the Cowboys. The injuries on offense might be too crippling. But Wentz needs this experience and Doug Pederson and company need to do everything within their power to empower the quarterback. Yes, the season depends on it, but more importantly, the future does.
2. Wentz can deliver a signature win when it matters. In 2017, Wentz had several games in which he strapped the Eagles on his back and helped will them to victory. The wins over the Panthers, Redskins and Rams (before his tore his ACL) spring immediately to mind.
But none were of the rallying kind. He tallied a fourth-quarter comeback over the Giants, but that dramatic win had more to do with Jake Elliott’s remarkable 61-yard field goal than anything. But the opportunities hardly ever arose for Wentz to have to drive his team into the end zone because the Eagles were ahead in so many games that season.
But there have been other chances in his first four years, and frankly, his record hasn’t been good. In 15 games in which he had an opportunity to lead the Eagles to a game-winning drive with less than two minutes left, Wentz had been successful only twice, leading the Eagles to field goals against the Giants (in 2017 and last season). Coming up short in the losses wasn’t all his fault. He would have likely had three game-winning or game-tying drives this season alone had his receivers caught late passes. But those are the moments that can often define quarterbacks.
Wentz seized that moment Monday night. After a rocky first half, and a shaky early third quarter, he flourished in the final 25 minutes or so. Wentz completed 21 of his last 28 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns. He was without receiver Alshon Jeffery and right tackle Lane Johnson, who left earlier with injuries. He was already without running back Jordan Howard and receiver Nelson Agholor. Receiver DeSean Jackson has long been gone. But with former practice-squad players such as receiver Greg Ward, running back Boston Scott and tight end Josh Perkins, Wentz was heroic.
“I’ve got no choice but to trust these guys,” Wentz said. “Some of these routes I’ve never even read before in those situations, but they stepped up and made plays.”
He was down to one receiver (Ward) after J.J. Arcega-Whiteside left during the final drive in overtime. Ward, who normally plays in the slot, was moved to the outside. Perkins played some slot. Tight end Zach Ertz lined up as a receiver. Scott took on a more prominent role when starting running back Miles Sanders briefly left. Backup quarterback Josh McCown was warming up on the sideline as a receiver just in case he was needed. It was a fire drill with Wentz calmly at the controls.
“It’s not easy when you have that many new faces out there playing in a must-win game against a division opponent,” Pederson said. “That’s tough. It’s not easy to do. Carson does get a lot of credit.”
The Giants weren’t a great test. Their defense has struggled the entire season and that needs to be factored into the equation. But that doesn’t dilute Wentz’s steady hand down the stretch.
3. Wentz can lead and do so without ego. Reporters pressed Wentz to explain what the comeback meant to him personally. He knows the narratives out there that he isn’t clutch enough. He probably knows the above numbers, as well. But he didn’t bite. He stayed in true franchise-quarterback mode and credited the entire team.
“It’s big for me and for all of these guys,” Wentz said. “The emotional roller-coaster of the day and obviously realizing how poor we were in the first half and just how it spring-boarded us into the second half. We just made plays and kept making plays. Winning late in overtime like this, it’s been a while. Shoot, I don’t think I’ve had an overtime win.”
Wentz’s teammates spoke of his unwavering positivity down the stretch, and even at halftime when all seemed lost. The Eagles were booed vociferously as they walked into the locker room at halftime. Even though the Linc was half full at the time, it was the probably the loudest the players had been booed since Chip Kelly’s last season four years ago. It was justified.
But Wentz found his footing as the defense settled down and nullified Eli Manning and the Giants offense in the second half. The rain eased off and the better conditions seemed to help Wentz, who was uncharacteristically wearing a glove on his right hand. There weren’t any dramatic speeches. Wentz just stayed true to himself and kept plugging away despite the setbacks — a sack there, a missed field goal there, dropped passes everywhere.
“That is,” Sanders said of Wentz, “a bad man right there.”
He meant it as a compliment.
4. Doug Pederson and the Eagles offensive coaches need to scheme better for Wentz. The starts have long been dreadful for Wentz and the offense. We’re talking about two seasons now. And that falls on Pederson and offensive coordinator Mike Groh. They script those starts.
Wentz certainly needs to execute, but his coaches aren’t putting him in the right situations often enough. Tempo has always been a jump-starter for the quarterback, but it’s been many games since the Eagles have opened with a steady stream of no-huddle.
Wentz likes to get to the line, read the defense, and make checks accordingly. And to no surprise, he had his most success Monday night when he seemingly was drawing up plays in the dirt and moving up-tempo. Wentz has a bit of backyard brawler in him. His best moments often come when he’s out of the pocket, extending plays. He needs to throw from the pocket, and he can. But some of the Eagles’ best plays came when he improvised.
And with bottom-depth receivers likely the rest of the way, Wentz’s best chance to complete throws down the field might have to come in scramble mode. Oddly, he didn’t get hot until Jeffery left. Their lack of chemistry returned in the first half. Last week, Jeffery caught 9 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. But there were still missed opportunities. For whatever the reason, Wentz and Jeffery just haven’t been in sync for most of the last three seasons.
5. Wentz still had his shaky moments. He’s yet to deliver a great 60 minutes this season. He completed 11 of 19 passes for 97 yards in the first half, but there were more cons than pros before the break. Wentz missed Ertz in the flat. He was late to Jeffery on third down. He eyed an open Dallas Goedert before looking away. He fumbled again. He had another pass batted. And he threw the ball away rather than run for one yard and a first down.
There were a few more errors in the second half. Wentz had another fumble when a Jason Kelce snap sailed through his hands. He had another pass batted at the line late in regulation that was nearly intercepted. And he was errant on a few other third-down tosses. But the restrictions he faced at receiver clearly affected his performance. That can’t be overstated. He’s gotten used to it, to some extent, but with Jeffery’s availability in doubt, and Howard’s readiness still uncertain, he needs to prepare for a final three games with the skill-position players at hand.
“If that’s the case,” Wentz said, “the confidence that each of these guys gained from tonight, kind of with our backs against the wall, was huge for us, for me to trust in them and keep believing in them, and this whole team to kind of rally behind those guys going forward.”