Every September, NFL reporters caution fans not to make too much of the season-opener, for better or worse. It’s a long season, with many twists and turns, yadda, yadda, yadda.
But as the Eagles travel to face the Washington Redskins team that visited Lincoln Financial Field back in Week 1, a review of that 32-27 Eagles victory provides a surprising amount of insight into how this 6-7 season evolved. So, in retrospect, if you disregarded warnings and read a lot into this season’s opener, you daredevil you, congratulations.
The Eagles, counted among the NFC elite, went in reasonably healthy and were 10-point favorites at home. Somehow they fell behind 17-0, and trailed 20-7 at the half, whereupon they were booed down the tunnel.
Some of the national media on hand found this extremely noteworthy, because as we all know, only Philadelphia fans boo; fans in other cities blow kisses and toss bouquets when their teams are getting annihilated as double-digit favorites, apparently.
Terrible starts and big, inexplicable deficits became part of the Eagles’ identity for the first half of the season, and then again in Monday night’s overtime victory over the Giants.
But at halftime of the opener, old/new weapon DeSean Jackson gave a speech in which DJax pointed out that he’d spent three years with the Redskins and he knew they were self-satisfied in the visitors’ locker room, knew they would be thinking they’d already won the game. He was vehement in his belief that the Eagles would have every opportunity to come back and win.
They did. Jackson ended the day with eight catches for 154 yards and touchdowns of 51 and 53 yards. Carson Wentz was 28-for-39 for 313 yards and three touchdowns overall, 16-for-21 for 201 yards and two TDs in the second half. Wentz was 12-for-13 on third down, for 197 yards and all three TDs.
All this with the same footwork and the same vision that his critics have found so lacking in subsequent games, without Jackson. Wentz’s 121 passer rating was his highest of the season.
“DeSean came in and said what he needed to say, and got us back on track, really almost single-handedly,” right guard Brandon Brooks recalled. “The second half we became the team we knew we were.”
Fletcher Cox said this past week he saw a common thread with the opener in that the Eagles have been resilient, have kept bouncing back, the way they did that day.
“It was crazy. We were down; most people probably had counted us out,” Cox said. “We just keep swinging, man, until we can’t swing anymore.”
Brooks wasn’t sure that was what he saw when he looked back.
“If you want to be that ’17 team again, man, you got to start fast and finish strong,” Brooks said. “You can’t start slow and keep fighting, because not all the time will it turn out in your favor.”
As the Eagles were rebounding to take a 32-20 lead before Washington scored a meaningless final-seconds touchdown, defensive tackle Malik Jackson rode a cart to the locker room. Jackson had suffered a Lisfranc injury that would require surgery and end his season – the same injury Alshon Jeffery suffered Monday night against the Giants.
“It just seems like this is kind of our injury this year,”Doug Pederson said Friday.
Jackson was the Eagles’ most significant free-agent signing, for $30 million over three years, the guy who was going to pair with Cox to push the pocket from right up the middle. Cox spent the offseason rehabbing his own foot injury, so he and Jackson never really practiced together until the week of the opener.
“We can be real special,” Cox said that week.
No, not so much.
Malik Jackson said this week that he remembered the offense had just driven for a touchdown, and he took the field thinking, “ ‘OK, now it’s time to get a sack.’ I made an inside move, felt a little pop, and that was it.”
It was the first serious injury of Jackson’s eight-year career. He said he didn’t think right away that he would be out for the year.
Nobody envisioned that this would be the only full game of DeSean Jackson’s season. His Week 2 core muscle injury, and his attempts to rehab and return without surgery, would prove disastrous to the offensive plan the Eagles took into the season.
After the game. Pederson opined that “It’s good to have a quarterback that has the confidence that at any given time, the playmakers we have on this offense, he can come to the line of scrimmage and basically call whatever he wants because of the playing style we have, and the players we have in our huddle and in our locker room.”
Sunday, Wentz is set to take the field without his three starting wide receivers from the opener – Jackson, Jeffery, and Nelson Agholor, plus running back Jordan Howard. In their places will be rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and some former practice squad guys – Greg Ward and Rob Davis at wideout, Boston Scott at running back.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai played 20 opening-game snaps for Brooks, who was on a “pitch count” in his first game back from Achilles surgery in January. On Sunday, Vaitai will be filling in for right tackle Lane Johnson; Big V’s efforts in relief at guard and tackle this season have been up and down, to be charitable. In the opener he took two holding penalties on one drive.
Even though Wentz was extremely productive with Jackson to throw to, the Eagles offense didn’t really drop into gear until the drive that opened the second half – on which the Eagles ran on 9 of 12 snaps. Needing the run game to jump-start the offense has been another consistent theme of the season.
Against a lightly regarded Washington offensive line, the Eagles got just one sack, from defensive tackle Tim Jernigan – who would suffer a foot injury the next week at Atlanta and miss six games.
The Eagles defense generated no turnovers that day. This has been a struggle all season; the Birds have 10 interceptions and five fumble recoveries, ranking them 15th and 13th, respectively, in those categories. They generated no turnovers Monday night against the Giants.
The Eagles started the season missing two of their best corners – Jalen Mills was still rehabbing last season’s Lisfranc injury, and Cre’Von LeBlanc was on injured reserve after suffering a Lisfranc sprain on the first day of full training camp practice. As in 2018, they would spend much of the season mixing and matching and scouring the waiver wire for corners.
Craig James, who joined the Eagles’ practice squad the week of the opener, found himself making a game-saving deflection on an Aaron Rodgers pass three weeks later.
Tight end Zach Ertz, asked about the opener, said: “At the end of the day, we found a way to win.”
The Eagles are hoping that, too, will be a theme of their season.