In the days following the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory over the Patriots two years ago, Doug Pederson suffered two major setbacks.
First, he lost his quarterback whisperer, John DeFilippo, who took the offensive coordinator’s job in Minnesota. Then, his own offensive coordinator, Frank Reich, accepted the Indianapolis Colts’ head-coaching job.
Rather than go outside for replacements, Pederson promoted from within. He moved wide receivers coach Mike Groh into Reich’s job and bumped up 30-year-old Press Taylor, who had been DeFilippo’s assistant, to quarterbacks coach.
In a disappointing season in which the Eagles’ offense has struggled and its young quarterback, Carson Wentz, has regressed, those two moves are coming under scrutiny, both inside and outside of the NovaCare Complex.
Wentz, who probably would have been the league MVP in 2017 if he hadn’t torn an ACL late in the season, is 18th in the league in passing (90.0), 17th in touchdown percentage, 24th in completion percentage (.624) and 30th in yards per attempt (6.5).
His nine fumbles are tied for seventh in the league, and his five lost fumbles are tied for fourth.
These are not the kind of numbers you expect or want from a quarterback to whom you’ve just given a $128 million contract extension.
Wentz has been hamstrung by an underperforming wide receiver group that has just one guy – Nelson Agholor – capable of getting open on his own. And that’s negated by Agholor’s suspect hands and inability to track deep balls. He’s averaged a puny 24.4 receiving yards per game since Week 4 and has caught just three of 14 targets of 20 yards or more.
“They have to scheme to get guys open,’’ said a coach for an NFC team that has played the Eagles this season. “Zach Ertz is the only guy other than Agholor who can get open on his own.
“The rest of them are like basketball players who can’t get their own shot. They’re a bunch of possession guys. They don’t have a guy who can create in a one-on-one situation, and that’s a big problem for them.’’
They have Alshon Jeffery, who has made a pretty good living catching 50-50 balls in his career. The problem is, Wentz doesn’t like throwing 50-50 balls. He prefers to rely on his arm rather than put balls up for grabs and have to rely on a receiver to make a contested catch, which is unfortunate considering that the strength of two of the four wideouts on the Eagles’ roster is making contested catches.
The Eagles have bet both the present and the future on Carson Wentz. He has the talent to be one of the league’s top quarterbacks. He’s not there yet, but the Eagles treat him like he is, and that is part of the problem.
Some observers both inside and outside of the organization think Wentz needs a little more tough love than he’s currently getting from Pederson, Groh, and specifically Taylor.
“Carson played his best ball when DeFilippo was coaching him,’’ a personnel executive for an AFC team said. “Because John would get in his [butt]. John and Reich had a good-cop/bad-cop thing going on. Reich would be the good cop and pat Carson on the butt, but Flip would stay on Carson and kept him on point and had him playing his best football.
“Personally, I think that’s what he needs right now, what he’s been lacking since [DeFilippo] left. Hard coaching. Right now, he’s got everybody there kissing his butt and that’s not helping him become a better player.’’
DeFilippo had spent nine years as an NFL assistant before becoming the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach in 2016. He had been Derek Carr’s position coach in Oakland and had been the offensive coordinator in Cleveland. He wasn’t afraid to tell Wentz what he didn’t know or what he was doing wrong. And he told him in no uncertain terms.
He had a good relationship with Wentz but was hard on him. They were student and teacher, and the teacher wasn’t afraid to take out the ruler when it was necessary.
DeFilippo’s hard coaching paid off in 2017 when Wentz threw 33 touchdown passes and led the Eagles to an 11-2 record before that fateful December dive into the end zone at the LA Coliseum.
Taylor was a quality-control coach with the Eagles for three years before becoming DeFilippo’s assistant in 2016. By all accounts, he is a talented coach with a promising future. But he has more of a buddy-buddy coaching relationship with Wentz than DeFilippo did.
“They’re different personality-wise,’’ Wentz said this week. “You’d need to mic them up to see [the difference] in how they conduct their business.
“But at the same time, I feel like I’ve worked really well with both of them. Press has been awesome to really grow together with, and just talk a lot of football. We’re in there watching tape and we both have lots of ideas. It’s been fun working with him. A lot of positives have come out of it.’’
Wentz has much more input into the Eagles’ offense and the weekly game plans now than he did two years ago. He’s two years older, two years more familiar with Doug Pederson’s offense, and, well, for better or worse, the $128 million they’re paying him has bought him a seat at the decision-making table.
“He’s got a lot of input into [the game plan],’’ Groh said. “We obviously want to put the right plan together, and use plays that he feels comfortable with.’’
The problem there is if your best receiver is a 50-50-ball guy like Jeffery but your quarterback doesn’t feel comfortable throwing those types of passes, and you don’t have a coach telling him he needs to get comfortable throwing them, well, that could be a problem. Same with run-pass options, which Wentz also doesn’t love but have been very effective in the past for the Eagles.
“I think as our relationship has grown and he’s gotten to know me and I’ve gotten to know him, I think we can be hard on each other,’’ Pederson said. “I can be hard on him and he can be hard back on me.
“I think that’s the dynamic of a good quarterback/head coach/play-caller relationship. I look at Sean Payton and Drew Brees and their relationship. It’s one of those give-and-take type relationships.’’
The difference is that Brees has played 15 more years and made 218 more starts and thrown more than 8,000 more passes than Wentz.
He doesn’t need tough love.
--The Eagles have 34 sacks through their first 12 games, tied for 11th in the league. Fifteen have come on third down, nine on second down and 10 on first down. Of Brandon Graham’s team-high 7½ sacks, 5½ have come on third down.
--Eleven of the Eagles’ 34 sacks have come on blitzes, including eight in the last four games. That equals the most blitz-produced sacks they’ve had in the Jim Schwartz era. Eleven of their 38 sacks in 2017 came on blitzes. They had nine (of 44) last year and nine (of 34) in 2016.
--In the last five games, opposing quarterbacks have just a 40.5% completion rate when the Eagles have blitzed. But they also have thrown three touchdowns against the blitz – Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 43-yarder to DeVante Parker on fourth-and-4 last Sunday, Russell Wilson’s 33-yard first-and-10 flea-flicker to Malik Turner in the loss to Seattle, and Bills running back Devin Singletary’s 28-yard catch-and-run on third-and-13.
--Carson Wentz’s completion rate has dropped from a career-high 69.4% last year to 62.4% through the first 12 games. It has fallen at every distance. His completion rate on throws of 20 yards or more has dropped from 36.9% last year to 34.0% this year. On 11-to-19-yard throws, it’s dropped dramatically, from 63.1% to 55.4%. On 0-to-10-yard throws, it’s fallen from 75.8% to 71.1%. And on throws behind the line of scrimmage, from 91.0% to 87.0%.
Running back Jordan Howard likely will miss his fourth straight game Monday night with a stinger. The dirty little secret is that the Eagles have known since shortly after he suffered the injury in their Nov. 3 win over Chicago that he probably would be out this long, even though Doug Pederson has been telling us since mid-November that he’s “progressing nicely’’ and “trending’’ and, my personal favorite, “day to day.’’
“Almost every game, somebody gets a stinger, but it usually goes away quickly," said Dr. David Chao, an orthopedic specialist and a former team doctor for the Chargers. “Quite honestly, most times, when you get a stinger, you don’t even tell the [training] staff about it. You shake it off and go.
“But the ones that don’t recover quickly recover slowly. Stingers either go away in seconds or minutes or they tend to linger. Once it goes to days, it often goes to weeks. And once it goes to weeks, it’s a slow sunrise. It’s not a light switch that’s going to happen.’’
Chao said stingers like Howard’s that don’t heal quickly typically are 4-to-6-week injuries. Sunday marked five weeks since the injury.
Pederson clearly is hoping to get Howard back at some point. The Eagles haven’t put him on injured reserve, and when asked late last week whether it could be a season-ending injury, Pederson said, “I don’t believe so.’’
Howard needs to be cleared for contact by the team’s medical staff before he can return to play and that hasn’t happened yet, which likely means he hasn’t yet regained his strength and/or normal range of motion in his shoulder.
A stinger is a stretch or concussion of the nerves, usually at the brachial plexus, which is a network of nerves that extends from the spinal cord through the Cervicoaxillary canal in the neck, over the first rib, and into the armpit.
Chao said the Eagles have been doing Howard a disservice by suggesting for the last few weeks that he’s day to day, and listing him as questionable on the injury report two days before games.
“It makes it look like the player’s soft,’’ he said. “The reality is, while you’ve spent 2-3 weeks saying Jordan Howard might be close, they knew he wasn’t close at all.
“If you don’t know on Friday if he’s going to play on Sunday, that means he’s not going to play. If the nerve injury has been there for two or three or four weeks, two more days isn’t going to make a difference.