CLEVELAND -- The Eagles are broken and Doug Pederson can’t seem to figure out how to fix them.
Last week, he agreed that maybe some tinkering on offense was in order. He said that he could roll quarterback Carson Wentz outside the pocket more. He said that he could take Wentz off the field when Jalen Hurts was under center, perhaps sarcastically, but he said it nonetheless.
He said the Hurts plays, the screen game, and Wentz’s decision-making could all improve.
But in Sunday’s 22-17 loss at the Browns, Wentz hardly ever threw outside by design. Hurts took the field for one play -- another unimaginative zone- read -- while Wentz was still split wide. The screen game was abysmal. And Wentz, who added two more turnovers to his NFL high of 17, continued to make questionable decisions.
Pederson’s messaging and actions have also backfired on him. He said last week that he wouldn’t make personnel changes just for the sake of change. He stood by Jason Peters. He defended activating Alshon Jeffery and said that he would even have an increased role.
But Peters, even though he didn’t have to face the quarantining Myles Garrett, had a brutal day at left tackle. And, yes, Jeffery had an increased role. The wide receiver was targeted twice, compared with once last week. But he dropped the first pass, and on the second he jumped too soon and Wentz was intercepted.
The argument Pederson fought back against last week -- that he hasn’t run the ball enough -- ended up being the one change he implemented. The Eagles sure ran the ball, especially early. And it was working, until, of course, there was a mistake -- Miles Sanders’ fumble at the Browns’ 4.
Pederson can’t run the ball for Sanders, but the mounting errors are an indictment of his coaching and preparation. The Eagles committed 11 penalties in last week’s loss to the New York Giants, four of them pre-snap.
The message from Pederson and leaders like defensive end Brandon Graham was that mistakes in practice wouldn’t be tolerated, because they carry over into the games, and that there would be accountability.
But the defensive line went out and had three pre-snap penalties in the first half. Whatever it says about Pederson and his staff, it isn’t good.
“It says we got to coach better. It says we got to play better,” Pederson said. “It says we have to pay attention to our jobs, plain and simple. These games come down to three or four plays, and this is kind of what this game here today came down to.
“It was about four plays that were mistakes by us -- the turnovers, costly penalties. So we have to fix it.”
The Eagles went 0-for-9 on third down last week. How could it be worse? Well, it wasn’t, but at 2-for-12 Sunday, Pederson’s offense came close. Running the ball was nice, but after the Sanders turnover, the Eagles abandoned it.
Sanders said the Browns adjusted by shooting the gaps with linebackers. But where were Pederson’s adjustments? The Eagles offense lacks any coherent structure. Receivers are hardly ever schemed open. Mostly, Wentz drops and waits for his receivers to win one-on-ones they often lose.
The Eagles are clearly tipping off their screens. The first, to tight end Dallas Goedert, was read and blown up by Olivier Vernon. The second was set up by having receiver Jalen Reagor run the same flat route he ran out of the backfield on the previous play. But the Browns weren’t fooled and Wentz had to throw the ball into the ground.
The Browns’ pass offense isn’t great. But you can at least see what they’re trying to do. Run, run, run, set up play-action, which is what they did. Use your personnel to exploit mismatches, which is what they did against safety Jalen Mills.
“It is hard to put my finger on exactly what went wrong,” Wentz said of the Eagles’ offensive inefficiency.
For the second time in the last three games, Pederson was asked by reporters about benching his quarterback.
“No questions about it, he’s our starter,” Pederson said.
The Eagles likely won’t bench Wentz for Hurts because what would that say about everything they’ve previously done with him, from forfeiting numerous picks to draft him to giving him a franchise contract extension after just three seasons?
And what would it say about the job Pederson has done with Wentz?
“I’m confident in whatever Coach wants to do and in whatever they figure out on the offensive side,” Graham said when asked about questions regarding a possible Wentz benching and his own confidence in the quarterback. “That ain’t got nothing to do with us, other than keeping it tight on defense. I know Coach is going to make the right choice regardless of what happens.”
While Graham’s response didn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement for Wentz, it does sound like Pederson still has locker room support. But the coach’s in-game decision-making continues to confound.
Late in the second quarter, defensive end Josh Sweat sacked quarterback Baker Mayfield at the Browns’ 16 with 1 minute, 54 seconds left before the half. But Pederson inexplicably didn’t call a timeout as 39 seconds ticked off the clock before the Browns called one of their own.
Didn’t he want as much time on the clock as necessary? The Browns faced third-and-14 and the Eagles were sure to get the ball back, trailing, 7-0. Asked about the scenario, Pederson said he couldn’t recall.
“I know we were trying to save timeouts to get the ball back,” he mused. “Possibly to use the timeouts on offense. … There was a reasoning, but I honestly can’t think of the reasoning right now.”
Pederson may have figured that 58 seconds and one timeout was enough time to go 62 yards for a touchdown. But with this offense?
Was Pederson’s winning a Super Bowl all a mirage? Was the coach who pushed every right button in 2017 an illusion? He hit every right note in his messaging that season, and last week he was emphasizing the Eagles’ near-meaningless division lead.
The Eagles have to compete for a playoff berth, but the future of the franchise is in peril. Pederson can’t be the remain-calm, all-is-well front man anymore.
“The message to the team basically is pretty simple: We are where we are because of the mistakes that we’ve been making, coaches and players. That’s everybody included,” Pederson said. “But this will be a great test for our football team. This will be a great sign to see, really, who’s in and who’s out.”
And to see if Pederson can salvage some sort of respectable finish.