Just win ugly, baby.
If the Eagles hope to salvage a playoff berth, then they need to come to grips with who they are, and, more significantly, who they are not.
They are, at this moment, a defense-first team with a stable of backs and blockers who can win ugly games.
They are not, at this moment, a viable passing team. Not when practice-squad lifer Greg Ward is far and away the most productive wide receiver in his first real chance to play. Not when Carson Wentz is the worst player on the team. Not when Doug Pederson keeps calling plays as if Carson Wentz were Joe Montana.
The defense realizes this, and is begging for the chance to prove itself. The defense also knows that, if the head coach and the quarterback don’t recognize it, the season is lost.
“We’ve got to get comfortable as a team to win those games that are 12-9, or 9-6, without getting frustrated,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said after the Eagles lost, 17-9, to the Seahawks on Sunday.
Translation: Run the ball, bleed the clock, trust the defense and, most important, don’t give Wentz a chance to lose another game. The Eagles turned the ball over five times Sunday. Four of the turnovers happened on passing plays. Wentz gave it away four times.
Meanwhile, this defense has allowed a total of 61 points the past four weeks, an average of 15.25. The two winningest quarterbacks since 2016, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson, needed trick plays to beat this defense the past two weeks. Brady’s and Wilson’s combined passer rating was 70.1. Wilson ranks second in NFL history, at 101.5. Brady is fourth, at 97.2.
What more can the defense do?
“Create more turnovers,” middle linebacker Nigel Bradham said. “And get points.”
It’s come to that.
Wentz’s bafflingly bad play the past two weeks cost the Eagles wins over both the Patriots and Seahawks. He took eight sacks, half of which were completely his fault. He turned the ball over seven times by himself.
The solution is simple: Diminish him. Leave their fates in the hands of whatever running backs are healthy enough to play, and in the hands of a defensive attack that ranks fifth against the run and 12th against the pass, and is getting healthier by the day. In the past four weeks, the defense has seen the return of the top three cornerbacks -- Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby, and Avonte Maddox -- as well as defensive tackle Tim Jernigan and Bradham.
As a result, coordinator Jim Schwartz has become more daring in attacking passers, and the defenders are more cohesive.
“At the beginning of the year, we had a lot of people trying to do too much,” said Nate Gerry, who replaced Bradham in the middle then moved back outside Sunday. “The past four weeks, we’ve known our roles and stuck to them.”
What was their greatest weakness — the defense surrendered at least 27 points in five of the first seven games — has become the sort of strength Wentz has been, and, until recently, still was.
Wentz showed a talent level in 2016 and 2017 to challenge Brady and Wilson. Further, his play in the first nine games this season showed remarkable maturity and polish. However, for whatever reason, he has become the team’s biggest weakness. Bigger than the tidal wave of injuries. Bigger than the underperforming receivers.
Wentz is the quarterback of a team that needs to win its last five games to have a path to the postseason. Whether it’s the ghost of Nick Foles, the pressure of the new $128 million contract, or just a normal slump, he is at the moment the biggest obstacle in that path: ignoring outlet receivers, locking on a target.
Most infuriating, he’s refusing to throw the ball away and trying to escape, and he’s taking sacks because of it. He thinks he’s Lamar Jackson but, after knee surgery and a back fracture, he’s much closer to Jesse Jackson.
Everybody knows it. Even he.
"Our defense played great, and gave us a fighting chance again and offensively we let them down,” Wentz said. “These last two weeks when the defense plays good football, and complementary-wise we didn’t help them out. ... I have to be better. I have to lead this team better. I have to protect the football better.”
Maybe he can. Maybe he can’t. Maybe he shouldn’t be asked to.
This seems to be dawning on pass-happy Eagles coach Doug Pederson, who stammered like he was having his favorite toy confiscated.
“Right now, where we are, that’s a realistic approach,” Pederson said Monday of Jenkins’ suggestion -- then hedged: “That doesn’t mean we’re going into conservative mode.”
Wentz was the MVP favorite when he was injured in 2017, but the Eagles still went to the Super Bowl on the strength of the No. 3 rushing attack at 132.2 yards per game — an attack that lacked a true No. 1 running back, and had to shuffle the left side of the offensive line. Those Eagles averaged 4.5 yards per carry nonetheless.
The Eagles currently average 121.2 yards per game, which ranks 13th, and 4.2 per carry, which is a respectable 19th. Certainly, it’s more respectable than the 23rd-ranked passing attack, which gains 217.2 yards per game.
The defense sees all this. It sees that the third-down conversion rate, which, at 34.9% over the last three games, has undercut chances to win. The Eagles have scored 41 points in their last three games, and that is inflated by a hollow, last-minute touchdown in Sunday’s loss.
All of which points to this reality: To succeed, the Eagles must become more like the Baltimore Ravens of 2000, who won the Super Bowl on the backs of linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Rod Woodson, and running back Jamal Lewis.
Bradham isn’t Lewis, and Jenkins isn’t Reed, but at this point the Eagles are simply trying to beat Ryan Fitzpatrick’s Dolphins and Daniel Jones’ Giants, not Bob Griese’s 1972 Dolphins or Lawrence Taylor’s 1986 Giants. Now 5-6, the Eagles have to beat two-win teams if they hope to be a 10-win team, and that’s probably the only way they’ll reach the playoffs.
They’ve got to be perfect, and that won’t happen with a self-destructive offense, no matter how well the defense plays.
“We try not to get too frustrated because that can take you out of your game a little bit. All we can control is what we do,” said Brandon Graham, who has collected 3½ of his team-high 7½ sacks in the last four games.
Like the rest of the defense, Graham is pulling his weight. The other side of the ball is not.
“The last two weeks, the defense has stepped up and we have done nothing to help them. We didn’t do anything today, and we didn’t do anything last week,” left tackle Jason Peters said Sunday. “We have to do more on offense. Our defense has been balling out the last two weeks."
Which made for two ugly games.