The surest sign that the Eagles are and will remain a losing team isn’t Doug Pederson’s decision to punt the ball rather than attempting to kick a 64-yard field goal or convert a fourth and 12. It’s that we’re sitting here blaming him for it. Hell hath no fury like a fan base that has arrived at the sudden realization that its football team isn’t any good. And while hell might be hot, it couldn’t hold a candle to the blaze of rage that surged through Twittersphere in the wake of the Eagles coach’s decision to keep his offense on the sideline and pull his field-goal unit after a 5-yard false-start penalty knocked Jake Elliott’s woulda-been attempt from 59 yards to 64.
Here’s the thing: According to the math, Pederson’s decision was pretty close to inconsequential. And while math might not be perfect, it’s the best system we have for determining the probability that an event will occur. Over the last three seasons, the Eagles are 1-for-18 on third-and-12 or fourth and 12. They’ve taken two sacks in those situations. According to those numbers, if the Eagles run a play on fourth and 12 with 19 seconds in overtime, the Bengals would have had a 95% chance of getting the ball at their own 46-yard line (or closer) with 10-plus seconds left, enough time to gain the 13 yards they would have needed to attempt the same 59-yard field goal the Eagles had tried to kick before Matt Pryor flinched and drew a flag. Sure, the odds of the Bengals walking out with a win would have been nearly as long. But that’s the point. Look at what we’re arguing about.
The reality is the Eagles fell to 0-2-1 long before Pederson elected to play for the tie. It happened long before Carson Wentz overthrew Miles Sanders for a sure touchdown, or underthrew Zach Ertz instead of giving his tight end a chance to make a play. The Eagles are a winless football team because they entered the season with no dependable wide receivers, and a suspect offensive line, and a defense that got rid of Malcolm Jenkins without getting a replacement. They are a winless football team because they have a roster that has been hollowed out by years of poor drafting, and an overreliance on veteran players who are clearly on the downslope of their careers. They are a winless football team because the capital that they invested in their defense has not yielded commensurate returns. They are a winless football team because they have a backfield that lacks a between-the-tackles complement to Miles Sanders, and a fleet of pass catchers that creates less separation than a Puritan divorce court. The Eagles are a winless football team in the concrete sense because they are a winless team in the abstract sense. They simply are not very good.
“We couldn’t get off the field on defense," Pederson said. “Offensively, we didn’t execute well enough. We had some injuries, but that’s going to be part of the game. Just not a smart football team right now. That’s on me. We’ll get that fixed as we get ready for this next week."
Wentz and Pederson are not blameless, of course. The quarterback is struggling. The coach can’t figure out how to get him right. But that sort of thing happens from time to time. Going all the way back to Randall Cunningham, this town has existed in some weird alternate reality where there are only two types of quarterbacks: There are guys who are The Guy, and everybody else. The Guy is someone who can win a Super Bowl with a Pac-12 defense and three one-armed receivers. There are the Peyton Mannings and Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilsons of the world, and there are the Jake Lockers and Christian Ponders and JaMarcus Russells. At one point, it was fair to wonder whether Wentz was on the verge of reaching that first category. But while he has failed to live up to the promise of his 2017 campaign, the last two-plus seasons have shown that he is a perfectly viable first-division starter. Three uneven games do not trump a sample that is 10 times as large. There were plenty of moments on Sunday where we saw a very good quarterback reemerge. If Jalen Hurts is Russell Wilson or Lamar Jackson, then, sure, let’s move on. But — again with the probability — history says he’s much more likely to be DeShone Kizer or Paxton Lynch.
Everybody is right to be asking what happened to Wentz. What they are wrong about is their conclusions. Sure, it’s possible that Wentz is showing lasting effects from the knee and back and head injuries he’s suffered. But none of what we saw on Sunday suggests that is the case. There he was, spinning out of sacks, throwing on the run, lowering his head and bulling his way into the end zone for a game-tying touchdown. He threw a couple of dimes to Ertz with the same zip and location that we saw when he was at his best. Frankly, from the standpoint of physical health, Wentz’s afternoon against the Bengals was overwhelmingly promising. Beyond that, is it likely that he has experienced a sudden regression in hand-eye coordination or muscle memory or mental acuity? Or is it more likely that he has become an uncomfortable quarterback because the situation around him does not allow him any comfort?
“Really, that’s every game. You’re going to miss a couple, and you’re going to make some plays," Wentz said. "Things happen. Obviously, I just have to be better and handle some of these. Some of them are communication, just making sure we’re on the same page with everybody, and some are just poor throws. I have to be better, and I will. We’re still meshing and jelling as a team and building the chemistry. [There were] a lot of moving pieces today, not as an excuse, but guys will continue to get this experience and learn from it. We’ll all be better, including myself.”
I won’t blame you for nitpicking the sentiment. Wentz has always betrayed an unhelpful level of sensitivity to criticism. Better for him to stand tall at the podium and say, “I’m the quarterback, it’s on me, I need to make these throws." Nevertheless, the sentiment is correct. All quarterbacks miss throws. All quarterbacks make poor snap decisions. These hiccups are simply easier to remember when nobody else on a team is making plays.
Right now, the Eagles do not have anybody outside of the quarterback and the tight ends who are capable of making the sort of singular play that can erase a handful of bad throws. The problem isn’t that the quarterback and coach aren’t perfect. It’s that the Eagles have built a team that requires them to be.