Now that it’s all over, the usual questions arise:
Did it need to be over? Were there actions the Eagles might have taken to extend their season past wild-card weekend?
An undermanned, overmatched bunch of Birds won the hearts of the region when they won their last four games and snatched the NFC East title from a dysfunctional Dallas team. Then -- with their quarterback reeling from a nasty tackle -- they lost by eight points to a superior Seattle team. The Seahawks, not the Eagles, travel to Green Bay to play Sunday. What other roads might have gotten the Birds closer to Wisconsin?
There were three distinct moments that made a deep playoff run less likely.
The Eagles lost two home games to Seattle. Both of those losses might have been averted had DeSean Jackson agreed to have his sports hernia repaired immediately after he suffered it early in Game 2 on Sept. 15 at Atlanta. Instead, Jackson -- who had never undergone surgery and shrank from the thought of it -- chose to rehabilitate the injury. He returned for just four snaps in Game 9 against the Bears. Had he opted for surgery, he likely would have been healthy for the Game 10 loss to New England, which was followed by a Game 11 loss to Seattle.
The Eagles lost to the Patriots by a touchdown. They lost to the Seahawks by eight both times. Would Jackson have made enough of a difference? Absolutely. Anyone who watched the Eagles score 37 points in the opener against Washington understands that Jackson changes everything. Jackson caught touchdown passes of 51 and 53 yards in that game.
Maybe the Patriots would have stifled Jackson, but that would have freed his teammates. Bill Belichick had the best defense in the league, his teams have never allowed a Jackson TD catch, and they’ve allowed Jackson only 7.76 yards per target, fourth-best among teams he’s faced at least three times -- all three losses, by the way. Then again, Jackson never faced Belichick while playing for Doug Pederson.
Jackson has enjoyed plenty of success against Pete Carroll, and he might have feasted against this mediocre Seattle defense in particular, which ranked 27th against the pass. That was one spot ahead of Miami, where the Eagles offense stalled in the second half in Game 12.
A healthy return from Jackson, the biggest what-if of 2019, easily could have meant two more wins. An 11-5 record still would have made the Eagles a No. 4 seed -- the other division winners won 13 games apiece. But if they’d had 10 wins by the final week, they would have locked up the division, which would have kept them from playing their starters in Game 17, when Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks injured his shoulder and standout rookie Miles Sanders injured his ankle.
The Eagles receiving corps last Sunday was training-camp fodder: Robert Davis, Deontay Burnett, Greg Ward, and Sheldon Gibson, whom they signed off his couch last week. Gibson’s the only fast one. He drew a key pass-interference penalty on one of his two snaps.
Even with Carson Wentz’s departure with a concussion, a healthy DeSean Jackson would have changed everything.
In Games 11 and 12, against the Seahawks and Dolphins, retread running back Jay Ajayi got eight carries. He gained 25 yards. In Games 11 and 12, Boston Scott -- who had 23 carries and a 4.09 yards-per-carry to that point -- got no touches. Zero. The next week, Scott gained 128 yards from scrimmage on 16 touches and scored a touchdown; 120 of his yards, 15 of his touches and the TD came in the second half of that season-saving, overtime, comeback win against the Giants. Ajayi gained 5 yards on two carries that game, which were his last touches of the season.
Over the final five games, including the playoff loss, Scott, who spent the first five games on the practice squad and most of 2018 there, too, gained 398 yards from scrimmage on 70 touches and scored four touchdowns. That’s more than Ajayi gained in his last two seasons combined (224 yards, 3 TDs). It’s also more than Darren Sproles gained in his last two seasons, combined (370, 3 TDs).
Those aren’t even the most-damning stats among the what-if crowd.
In the last seven games, counting the playoff loss, converted college quarterback Greg Ward -- who’s been on and off the practice squad for three years -- caught 31 passes for 278 yards and a touchdown.
Second-round rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, special-teams darling Mack Hollins, and nostalgia pickup Jordan Matthews combined for just 24 catches, 327 yards, and 1 touchdown. All season.
The Eagles had better players in their backyard, but they had no idea how good they were. Would it have mattered? Would more Scott and Ward have meant more wins? Probably, against Atlanta in Game 2 and Detroit in Game 3. Maybe against New England, Seattle, and Miami. But maybe both would have become even better weapons by last Sunday.
How do you keep Jadeveon Clowney from clobbering Carson Wentz in January?
You trade for him in September.
The most egregious mistake general manager Howie Roseman made last year wasn’t overpaying for diva cornerback Jalen Ramsey, and it wasn’t drafting Arcega-Whiteside seven spots ahead of DK Metcalf, who burned the Eagles for 160 yards and a touchdown last Sunday.
Roseman’s biggest mistake was refusing to trade a third-round pick and a couple of non-impact players for Clowney, whose former team, the Texans, paid almost half his salary.
He’d have cost just $8 million to rent. He finished with just three sacks, but in his 13 games, he graded out as the No. 11 overall edge rusher, according to profootballfocus.com. That was five spots better than Brandon Graham, the Eagles’ highest finisher. But, much more significant, he graded out 85 spots higher than Derek Barnett, who played 14 games.
Yes, it’s coincidence that it was Clowney whose vicious hit knocked out Wentz and cost the Eagles their best shot at reaching the divisional playoff game.