MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The Eagles suffered one of their more embarrassing losses in recent seasons, falling to the woeful Dolphins, 37-31, Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium.
Here’s what we learned:
1. The Eagles are a shell of the team that won the Super Bowl two seasons ago. It happens to the best of teams. And it can happen rapidly in the NFL. The salary cap and protocols having to do with scheduling and the draft help keep the competitive scales balanced.
But there are teams that can maintain a high level of play after winning a title, and it often has to do with coaching. There are other necessary pieces. An elite quarterback helps. A personnel department that is proficient in scouting talent and is in accord with the coaching staff is imperative. Stable, patient ownership is as important, because a resetting of the table after roster turnover, particularly at the quarterback position (see: the Ravens), might be required. But a great coach (see: Bill Belichick) can compensate when a team is lacking in one area or another.
Doug Pederson hasn’t suddenly turned into a bad coach. He won a Super Bowl and did so by outsmarting arguably the best coach in NFL history with his backup quarterback. There isn’t anything fluky about that.
The Eagles floated through most of last season as if hung over from their championship. But Pederson’s 2018 team overcame injuries and various personnel misses to salvage a respectful ending. Howie Roseman seemingly reloaded in the offseason for another title run. But many of those moves have backfired, and Pederson’s coaching hasn’t offset the failures of the general manager and his staff.
The Eagles haven’t been properly prepared for many games this season, but Sunday took the cake. The Dolphins, at 2-9, had nothing at stake, and those teams can be dangerous if they play aggressively. They dialed up trick plays such as the fake field goal, tossed in some change-of-pace plays such as the Wildcat, tried an onsides kick, and rolled the dice three times on fourth down. Aside from the onsides kick at the start of the second half, each play was successful.
The Eagles weren’t ready for the fourth-down fake, and while Miami gets most of the credit for execution, a timeout in that situation would have made sense. The Eagles didn’t adjust to the Wildcat and were gashed for 28 yards. And on one of the other fourth-down conversions, the Dolphins attacked with a deep pass that turned into a 43-yard touchdown.
The Eagles, meanwhile, plodded along for long stretches. The offensive game plan was actually better than it had been the two previous weeks. But the inability to strike with big plays continues to stunt the offense. The Eagles’ one deep shot — aside from the last-second Hail Mary — was a third-and-14 pass to a double-covered Alshon Jeffery. Where’s the imagination?
Jim Schwartz’s defense was also ill-prepared, and when the Dolphins made it clear that they would air it out, the coordinator couldn’t make the necessary adjustments.
But the most disappointing aspect of the loss had to be the penalties. The Eagles committed 10, and nearly every one negated a positive play. An undisciplined team reflects the coaching staff.
Defensive tackle Tim Jernigan was flagged twice for roughing the passer, and for good measure was also offsides on the second. Guard Isaac Seumalo wiped out a Jay Ajayi 8-yard rush with a hold. Receiver Mack Hollins brought back a Nelson Agholor 11-yard catch with an illegal block.
Tackle Jason Peters false-started and denied Agholor a fourth-down conversion. Defensive end Derek Barnett was offsides on an incomplete Miami pass. Cornerback Jalen Mills drew two pass-interference penalties on third down. An Agholor pass interference came on third down.
The officiating was at times dubious, but welcome to the NFL. The Eagles mostly shot themselves in the foot, and that starts with Pederson.
For comparison of how far the Eagles have fallen in two years, look no further than penalties. The Eagles committed a total of 14 in three games during the 2017 postseason.
2. Pederson will have to make changes to his coaching staff this offseason. Barring something unforeseen, Pederson is unlikely to be fired. I just can’t imagine that owner Jeff Lurie would pull that trigger so soon after the coach led his franchise to its only Super Bowl crown.
If he is really honest with himself, Lurie would have to assign blame to more than just Pederson, namely to Roseman and Schwartz. Let’s also see how the final four games play out. Pederson’s teams have often shown resiliency, and the players have yet to show that they’ve tuned the coach out.
But if the Eagles ultimately fail to make the playoffs — and, yes, the postseason is still a reality, no matter how many fans have given up on the prospects — there will likely be changes made to the coaching staff.
Offensive coordinator Mike Groh probably would be first on the list of potential sacrificial lambs. I’m not sure how much culpability he has for the offensive regression since his predecessor, Frank Reich, left, but the optics aren’t good. He had zero NFL experience as a coordinator and Pederson might be forced to acquire someone with a greater pedigree.
Quarterbacks coach Press Taylor has to be placed under a microscope, as well. Why isn’t Wentz playing near his 2017 level? It can’t be just the knee and back injuries and substandard receivers. Speaking of receivers, Carson Walch probably shouldn’t look into planting roots in Philadelphia. It seems all but certain that the Eagles will be on their fifth receivers coach in the last five years when the offseason rolls around.
Schwartz might have his critics, but Lurie doesn’t seem to be one. The owner holds the defensive coordinator in high regard. And while Schwartz didn’t have his best game by any stretch Sunday, his unit had improved in midseason and his game plans were often partly responsible for victories.
3. Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby are serviceable, but when they struggle, it can get ugly. As it did Sunday. Mills, in particular, had a brutal day. He had been the Eagles’ most consistent cornerback over the previous four games and had been credited for the defensive turnaround. But he regressed against the Dolphins.
What had to be most frustrating was that Mills was victimized repeatedly in the red zone. When given a lot of ground to cover, he can struggle because of a lack of long speed. But Mills typically clamps down inside the 20. That wasn’t the case Sunday.
His first pass interference came in the end zone vs. DeVante Parker. I didn’t think Miami’s challenge would overturn the original call on the field, but Mills did grab the receiver around the neck as he tried to turn back for the ball. Parker later caught a corner fade for a touchdown over the falling Mills. And tight end Mike Gesicki scored when he easily got behind the cornerback.
That’s 21 points the Dolphins scored with Mills playing a key role. But that wasn’t the end of the carnage. He committed another pass interference. And the icing on the cake was a 34-yard Parker grab over Mills.
Darby was only marginally better. He had tight coverage on the fourth-down conversion. But he got beaten again deep on another 50-50 ball to Parker, and when he started playing soft, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick took advantage with underneath throws.
Schwartz, of course, must shoulder some responsibility. He keeps his corners on islands a lot, and while that might have been a working recipe in previous games, it wasn’t Sunday, and by the time he adjusted with some safety help, it was too late.
I don’t know what the Eagles will do at the cornerback position this offseason. Mills and Darby will both be free agents, and while neither will be sending Sunday’s film to prospective employers, they’re still better options than Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones. Douglas didn’t play a snap on defense Sunday, and Jones was a healthy scratch for the second time this season. It is an indictment on the personnel department when second- and third-round draft picks can’t contribute on defense in any way.
4. Carson Wentz can play with a competent supporting cast. With tackle Lane Johnson, guard Brandon Brooks, and Jeffery and Agholor back in the lineup, Wentz looked more like the quarterback we saw through the first nine games of the season. He mostly had time to throw and open receivers to throw to. His passing numbers — 28-for-46 for 310 yards and three touchdowns — reflected as much.
Jeffery had his best game of the season with nine catches for 137 yards and a touchdown. And while tight end Zach Ertz didn’t play up to his standards, partly because of a hamstring strain, the Eagles scripted enough plays that involved moving the pocket and getting the ball out of Wentz’s hands in less than three seconds.
Wentz missed a few throws. He threw high of Agholor early on. Missed him again when he had space in the flat. And most egregiously, overshot an open Jeffery down the sideline in the third quarter. But Ertz dropped a gimme that would have at least had the Eagles inside the Dolphins’ 5. Receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside couldn’t hang onto a third pass that hit him in the hands. And Ertz had a would-be touchdown ripped from his hands in the end zone late in the fourth. Wentz had other accurate throws that would be caught, and he extended plays that resulted in completions, the best a 15-yard touchdown pass to Arcega-Whiteside.
If there’s a valid criticism to be made, it’s that Wentz again held the ball too long before taking ill-timed sacks. He was dropped for a 10-yard loss on third down, forcing Jake Elliott to try a 49-yard field goal that he booted wide left — his first miss of the season. And Wentz was sacked on second-and-10 at the Dolphins’ 13 late in the game, which set up a low-percentage long third down. Wentz fumbled again but was able to recover.
There will be some hand-wringing about his inability to guide the Eagles to a comeback victory, and while that has been a valid critique over his first four seasons, this loss rests primarily on the coaches and the defense.
5. The season is on life support, and the last four games will say a lot about which players survive this offseason. The Eagles are only a game behind the NFC East-leading Cowboys, so the postseason still remains a reality. Some fans might not care, but the players should, and anything less than 100% effort will say a lot about said player.
The Eagles front office has already started making plans for 2020 and beyond. Recent contract extensions to Johnson, Brooks, Elliott and long snapper Rick Lovato secured their futures in Philly. Ertz is likely next. Wentz isn’t going anywhere. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham have high cap numbers, but should return.
Youngsters such as defensive end Derek Barnett, tight end Dallas Goedert and slot cornerback Avonte Maddox have done enough to remain in the Eagles’ plans, although they each need to step it up. Andre Dillard is set to replace Jason Peters at left tackle. And Miles Sanders will become the lead running back.
But the Eagles have holes at receiver and cornerback and significant changes should be made. Jeffery might be immovable because of his guaranteed salary for 2020, but Agholor is likely gone. Can DeSean Jackson’s health be counted upon? Roseman could blow up the entire outside cornerback corps and few would argue.
There is some uncertainty at other spots. Do you trust Seumalo to take over at center if Jason Kelce were to retire? Do you extend safety Malcolm Jenkins or move on without the cap hit? What about Rodney McLeod, who is also set to become a free agent? Can you trust Malik Jackson to be the complement to Cox at defensive tackle?