Even if the Eagles had played well in the first half of the season, it’s possible they could have entered the bye week with a 3-4-1 record. Before the season, many had predicted a 4-4 start. Memories fade in today’s fast-paced world, but expectations weren’t exactly high for the 2020 team.
But few saw what lay ahead: Choking away a 17-0 lead at Washington. Getting smoked by the Rams. Tying the rebuilding Bengals. Beating the battered 49ers. Nearly upsetting the Steelers and Ravens. And squeaking by the Cowboys and New York Giants in the ugliest of ways.
The Eagles lead the NFC East by 1½ games at the bye, and, if just awakened from a deep, two-month sleep, most would have been quite all right with that. But expectations for the rest of the season, and more important, beyond, are dim after some of the worst football the Eagles have played since pre-Doug Pederson.
Carson Wentz is a hot mess. The linebackers have been exploited. Draft pick after draft pick has yet to meet expectations. Key veterans like Zach Ertz and DeSean Jackson have contributed little. Injuries are rampant. And Pederson’s decision-making and play-calling have been dubious.
The coach has a track record of success when things are seemingly at their worst. In 2016, the Eagles won their last two following a five-game losing streak. In 2017, they survived Wentz’s season-ending injury and won the Super Bowl. And in 2018 and 2019, they staved off postseason elimination by winning their final three and four games, respectively.
Claiming one of the worst NFL divisions in recent memory won’t likely be enough to satisfy the masses, and likely, owner Jeffrey Lurie. The Eagles need to show overall improvement, especially Pederson and Wentz, if they can salvage the season and hope for their futures in Philadelphia.
But first, a look back at one of the more disappointing first eight games in recent memory:
Biggest disappointment: Carson Wentz
The Eagles quarterback has never played so poorly. Only two other starters have a passer rating lower than his 73.1. His 12 interceptions and 16 turnovers overall are most in the NFL. But statistics tell only part of his regression. Wentz’s throwing mechanics have been shaky and his decision-making careless. He’s shown glimpses of his former self, both the breathtaking 2017 version and the consistent 2018-19 ones. But the 27-year old was supposed to be entering the prime of his career and the elite level of quarterbacks. Now there are legitimate questions as to whether the Eagles should turn the page toward Jalen Hurts this season or next.
Runner-up: DeSean Jackson. Zach Ertz could have easily been the choice here. The tight end, who expressed frustration with his contract situation before the season, had just 178 receiving yards at 7.4 yards per catch before a Week 6 ankle injury. But Jackson gets special notice because his return before last season has been an abject failure. For about $18 million, the Eagles got 22 catches for 314 yards and two touchdowns in seven games over two seasons. Jackson could be back by December, but expecting the aging receiver to contribute much or stay healthy would be as foolish as bringing him back was in the first place.
Most pleasant surprise: Travis Fulgham
After he scored the game-winning touchdown against the 49ers and caught 10 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown the next week, many were expecting Fulgham to return to earth. But the second-year receiver showed over the subsequent three games that he’s the real deal. The Eagles stumbled upon Fulgham, of course. Signed late in training camp and released before returning to the practice squad, he got his chance only because of injuries. But he has capitalized on his opportunity and out-shone high-priced veterans and high-draft youngsters. Fulgham should stick around for some time.
Runner-up: Brandon Graham. His season so far doesn’t qualify as a bona fide shock. Graham has long been a productive mainstay on the Eagles' defensive line. And to some degree an underrated one. But that he would be on his way to setting a career high in sacks and possibly his first Pro Bowl nod in his 11th season does come as a bit of surprise. With apologies to Darius Slay, Graham has been the Eagles' most consistent defender, and that the team didn’t fold following a disastrous start can likely be partially attributed to his leadership.
Stock down: Zach Ertz
As mentioned above, Ertz has been a disappointment in his eighth season. His struggles before the injury had a lot to do with Wentz’s inaccuracy. But even when fellow tight end Dallas Goedert went down, Ertz couldn’t fill the void in the middle of the field. He’s been arguably one of the top three to five tight ends in the league in recent seasons, but Ertz’s argument for a new contract lost some traction after a slow start. The ankle setback has only weakened the case for extending the 29-year old. Goedert could make him expendable via trade this coming offseason.
Runner-up: J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. The Eagles touted the receiver as he headed into his second season, but his lack of playing time in recent games is all that needs to be said about their opinion of the former second-round pick. Arcega-Whiteside dropped an early third-down pass against the Rams and has been virtually absent since. Adding insult to insult is the meteoric rise of DK Metcalf -- whom the Eagles passed over for Arcega-Whiteside -- to the upper echelon of receivers.
Stock up: Josh Sweat
There were glimpses of potential in his first two seasons, but Sweat has become a legit, top-of-the-rotation defensive end. He has three sacks, six tackles for losses, five quarterback hits, and two forced fumbles, and has arguably made more of an impact than starter Derek Barnett.
Runner-up: Jordan Mailata. He had struggles in his last two starts -- one at left tackle, the other on the right. But the Mailata experiment could be deemed a success based on his first three games alone. That the Eagles could take the former rugby player and turn him into a potential starting left tackle in the NFL in just over two years is remarkable. There was some speculation that he would stay at left tackle even after Jason Peters returned from injury, but Pederson went back to the veteran. As for next year, Mailata may have a leg up on injured former top pick Andre Dillard.
Worst personnel move: Not bringing in an established linebacker
The Eagles have long devalued the position, and understandably so considering their scheme. But they’ve always had at least one or two competent linebackers. The 2017 unit led by Nigel Bradham, Jordan Hicks, and Mychal Kendricks is like the 1986 Giants linebackers compared with the current group. Bradham was the last to leave this offseason, and while it was expected, replacing him with Nate Gerry as the No. 1 linebacker was egregious. T.J. Edwards, Duke Riley, and Alex Singleton have been fine in spurts, but they haven’t been able to compensate for third-round pick Davion Taylor’s lack of readiness.
Runner-up: Re-signing Jason Peters. The decision to bring back Peters to fill in for the injured Brandon Brooks at right guard wasn’t a poor one, but to not include contingencies in the contract in case a move to left tackle was necessary was an oversight. Dillard, of course, suffered a season-ending biceps injury in camp, and when the Eagles went to Peters about a move back to his old position, he balked. He wanted more money and for 10 days held the Eagles captive as they unsuccessfully tried one option after the other. Pederson made it seem as if Peters had unselfishly agreed to move to left tackle, but he got his money and has played nowhere near the level he once did. General manager Howie Roseman has a history of having a hard time moving on from certain Eagles, and it was probably time to move on from Peters two years ago.
Best personnel move: Darius Slay
The Eagles have desperately needed a top-flight outside cornerback, and because they’ve done poorly in drafting one -- see: Sidney Jones -- had to go the trade-and-sign route with Slay. Roseman, if anything, has done well in trades. He’s done so well, many have covered his drafting mistakes. Slay would qualify so far. He’s given Jim Schwartz a man-cover corner who can follow top receivers. Playing more man defense to account for Slay created some early problems in coverage, but he has yet to allow a receiver to beat him over top.
Runner-up: Rodney McLeod. When the Eagles decided to release safety Malcolm Jenkins, they wouldn’t have done so without knowing that McLeod was returning. It could be argued that parting with Jenkins at the age of 32 was prudent. But he brought much more to the team -- versatility, leadership, knowledge, tenacity -- than his ability to play safety. There were clear hiccups in the secondary in the early going. And Jalen Mills has yet to settle in as the other safety. But McLeod has been steady and has matured into filling Jenkins' vacant leadership role.
Worst coaching decision: Punting in overtime vs. the Bengals.
Pederson has increasingly lost his nerve, and that was never more apparent than when he opted to punt with seconds left against Cincinnati. The then-0-2 Eagles needed a spark, but Pederson thought only of the negatives of attempting a 64-yard game-winning field goal or going for it on fourth-and- 12. Both were long shots, but wouldn’t you rather go down fighting? Pederson would admit the next day that upon reflection he would have gambled on fourth down.
Runner-up: Two-point try vs. the Ravens. The Eagles valiantly trimmed the Ravens' lead to two points after trailing by 16 points in the fourth quarter. Pederson knew all along that he would need two two-point conversions if a comeback was possible. The first succeeded, but the second was a disaster. The play took forever to be relayed to Wentz. By the time the offense got to the line, the snap was rushed. With Miles Sanders out after injuring his knee, and Boston Scott in at running back, Pederson called for an inside zone-read. Wentz kept and was buried behind the line after tight end Richard Rodgers missed a block. But even if the quarterback handed off, or Rodgers completed his block, the Ravens were ready.
Best coaching decision: Two-point conversion early vs. 49ers
The Eagles scored first and went for two and converted and had San Francisco chasing that extra point throughout their matchup. And when the 49ers failed to get two to cut the margin to three points late, that extra point meant they would need to score a touchdown in the last seconds. They came up short.
Worst play: Fourth-down fade to Hakeem Butler
The Eagles somehow rallied to beat the Giants. But if they had lost – and they had every right to – the fourth-down corner fade to Butler in the end zone would live in infamy. The tight end had previously never played an offensive NFL snap, and yet, on the most important play of the game until that point, Pederson decided it was time to throw to him. Butler didn’t even know where to line up. But as he ran to the other side pre-snap, the Giants didn’t initially cover him. Butler was the first read, but Wentz seemingly rushed his throw and the low arc allowed safety Logan Ryan to recover and knock the ball away.
Runner-up: Chase Claypool’s game-clinching touchdown. The Eagles should have at least called timeout when they saw that Ben Roethlisberger was changing the play at the line after noticing Gerry opposite the Steelers receiver. It could be argued that Jim Schwartz should have played man defense on that third down, since he had under similar circumstances earlier in the game. But the Eagles were trying to hold Pittsburgh to a field goal and a one-score lead. The ultimate blame, though, rests with Gerry. He was mismatched against a Claypool deep route, but his technique was shoddy and the receiver was open by a country mile.
Best play: Boston Scott’s game-winning catch vs. the Giants.
Wentz, naturally, gets the assist. His pass was perfectly placed as the running back released down the sideline against tight coverage. But Scott, despite his lack of length, pulled the dart in and managed to dance inside the pylon to cap the comeback.
Runner-up: T.J. Edwards' strip-sack, Rodney McLeod’s fumble return for a touchdown vs. the Cowboys. Schwartz blitzed Dallas rookie quarterback Ben DiNucci more than a dozen times, many of them successful. But the best result came on a third-down, triple A-gap blitz that sprang Edwards free. The ball popped free after a scrum and McLeod seemed to be the only one who realized the play wasn’t dead. He scooped it up and went 53 yards the other way to end Dallas' late threat.