A week ago, Josh McCown had spent his first day on ESPN as an analyst. He was back on the sports channel Thursday night, but this time in an Eagles uniform, and after the quarterback had a highlight-reel second half against the Ravens at Lincoln Financial Field.
McCown needed a few drives to get his bearings. Considering that he had only three practices this week, it was more than understandable. But the 40-year-old veteran got cooking in the second half and led the Eagles on two touchdown drives.
“It’s like an old ’79 Chevy. It takes a little while and you get it cranked up and then you get going," McCown said. "I hate how we started and how I started. But finally got some good things going.”
The Eagles would eventually fall to the Ravens, 26-15, in a lightning-shortened game that was canceled with 11 minutes and 43 seconds left in the fourth quarter. But not before McCown gave the strong indication that he will be Eagles’ backup even after Nate Sudfeld returns from a broken left wrist.
“It’s a challenging decision, obviously,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “The beauty of it is we have one more [preseason] game.”
McCown completed 17 of 24 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns for a 122.2 rating. His two touchdown throws were beauties. He hit wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside on a 20-yard corner fade for the first and found tight end Alex Ellis for 9 yards in the back of the end zone, even though he endured a late hit.
Working with a limited playbook, McCown completed a variety of throws. Most were in the short-to-intermediate range, but he got into a rhythm with Arcega-Whiteside, who had eight catches for 104 yards.
“My plan all along was to get him two-plus quarters in this football game and kind of let him get his feet back into the game," Pederson said, “and he did a nice job.”
McCown spent most of the night with the second offense, but he had a series with the first unit, and it wasn’t pretty. He dropped a snap from center Jason Kelce and tossed a third-down bubble screen to receiver Nelson Agholor that could have been intercepted.
“We sputtered a bit,” McCown said. “I got to get on the same page and do a better job of handling that first group.”
But McCown hadn’t worked with the starters in practice. That’s Carson Wentz’s unit, and Pederson, to no surprise, sat Wentz. He will not play before the opener on Sept. 8.
Injuries to Sudfeld and Cody Kessler (concussion) in the first two preseason games only emphasized the risks of playing Wentz. And with how poorly Kessler and rookie Clayton Thorson have looked, acquiring McCown became imperative.
McCown was in Charlotte last Friday, coaching his sons’ high school football team, enjoying the fruits of retirement, before the Eagles lured him back to the NFL on Saturday. Pederson said that a decision about the No. 2 spot hadn’t been made, but it’s become increasingly clear that McCown’s experience will likely win out.
He played with such ease that it only amplified the differences with Sudfeld, Kessler, and Thorson.
“It is surreal to a degree," McCown said about his journey this last week, "but at the same times it’s just about execution. And that second group, after we started slow, we made up our mind to do it.”
McCown made his Eagles debut with three minutes and 58 seconds left in the first quarter. As far as unveilings go, it was hardly memorable. But after two drives – or more like after several months of Kessler – it was a welcomed change of pace.
Kessler started at quarterback for the second straight game, and just getting to the second possession was a worthy achievement, considering how last week went. Coincidentally, he was blitzed again on the seventh play from scrimmage, but he was late to recognize the extra rushers and took a sack on fourth down and three.
Fortunately for Kessler, he didn’t suffer another concussion. Unfortunately for those watching, he played another series. His first throw was a good one. He hit Arcega-Whiteside over the middle off play action, and, after a broken tackle, the receiver gained a total of 18 yards.
But, when the blocking on a misdirection screen was botched, Kessler recklessly lofted a pass to Corey Clement that was behind the running back for lateral. Clement picked it up to avoid a turnover, but the play resulted in a 10-yard loss.
A 3-yard bubble screen to receiver Nelson Agholor on the next play and a throwaway on third-and-long would be Kessler’s last snaps. He finished with 3-of-5 passing for 34 yards, but with three-fourths of the starting offensive line and several skill-position regulars in action, it was another disappointing outing.
Kessler will likely play out the preseason next week before an inevitable release. The Eagles didn’t have many attractive veteran options in the off-season, but the evaluation behind his signing was misguided.
It’s easy to say now that the Eagles could have saved themselves the aggravation by signing McCown in March. But the backup situation was different then. The Eagles had all but handed Sudfeld the job, and a veteran like McCown wasn’t going to commit to a contract that hinged on a possible competition.
McCown ultimately retired in June and was hired by ESPN. But the allure of returning to the NFL was too great, especially considering the Eagles’ situation. Sudfeld had broken his wrist and hadn’t exactly put his stamp on the backup spot. And Kessler clearly wasn’t the answer.
Thorson rebounded after his first ever preseason game. He more-than-held his own against the Jaguars last week and took the confidence he gained from that game to the practice field. But he is a work in progress, one the Eagles will likely have to stow on the practice squad if they want to follow through on their draft investment.
It was a fifth-round pick, so it’s not as though they dug deep into their savings. But the Ravens drafted Trace McSorley a round later, and while it would be foolish to draw conclusions from one preseason game, the quarterback from Penn State appears to have a greater upside.
McSorley had a brutal showing during Tuesday’s scrimmage against the Eagles. He tossed three interceptions in a five-pass span. But on Thursday night, he hung tough against the Eagles’ first-string defense for three drives – with two resulting in field goals – and lit up the second unit. McSorley completed 19 of 28 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.
But McCown, who was equally as good, didn’t have months of preparation. He admitted after the game that something as seemingly simple as remembering the names of his teammates has been a struggle.