The Eagles had their chances, but they fell short of toppling the ripe-for-the-taking Patriots and lost, 17-10, Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
Win, lose, or draw, here’s what we learned:
1. Despite the excruciating loss, the Eagles are still status quo. Few predicted the Eagles would win this game, from the day the schedule came out right up until kickoff. That doesn’t make falling to the Patriots, considering how closely contested the game was, any less frustrating for the team. But the Eagles went toe-to-toe with Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the perennial Super Bowl contenders. There’s something to be said for that. There’s really no such thing as a moral victory in the NFL, but the Eagles would have had valid excuses if they lost by more than just seven points. Of their top three at receiver and running back who played in Week 1, they had only Nelson Agholor and Miles Sanders Sunday. And then they lost right tackle Lane Johnson in the second quarter. Their offensive inefficiency is a major problem and one that could ultimately keep the Eagles from reaching the playoffs. But Jim Schwartz’s defense has now strung together three straight standout performances. Will the improvement be enough for the Eagles to hang their hats on in the final six games?
They could lose next week to the Seahawks and still be on track to win the NFC East. They just have to take care of business vs. the 2-8 Dolphins, the 2-8 New York Giants (twice), the 1-9 Redskins and beat the Cowboys on their home turf in Week 16. While that isn’t a foregone conclusion, considering the Eagles’ mediocrity, it is certainly possible. And when you consider the 6-4 Cowboys’ inconsistency and their remaining schedule – their last six opponents have a .548 winning percentage vs. the Eagles’ opponents .300 combined record – there is a conceivable path to the postseason. Some fans have already written off the season and some would have low expectations even if they played into January. But the coda on the 2019 season has yet to be written. There’s still plenty of football left.
2. The Eagles front office has brought back too many of known quantities. From March to mid-July, just before the start of training camp, the Eagles either re-signed, added or traded for 15 veterans. Of that 15, ten had previously been on their roster, and in many cases had significant roles for years. But bringing back many of those familiar faces hasn’t worked. It could be argued that re-signing defensive end Brandon Graham to a three-year contract before he hit free agency was the only sound move. The others – tackle Jason Peters, receiver DeSean Jackson, cornerback Ronald Darby, defensive end Vinny Curry, tight end Richard Rodgers, defensive tackle Tim Jernigan, safety Blake Countess, guard/center Stefen Wisniewski and running back/returner Darren Sproles – have either been injured for extended periods, underperforming or released.
It’s almost as if Howie Roseman and his staff forgot how to evaluate players they never saw in the Eagles’ systems. There is something to be said for familiarity. But it seems as if there was too much emphasis placed on nostalgia. The Eagles went back to that well when in a pinch last week. With injuries to receiver Alshon Jeffery and running backs Jordan Howard and Darren Sproles, they brought back Jordan Matthews (a second time) and Jay Ajayi. I can’t fault the Eagles as much for heading down those roads again. It’s difficult to immerse new players mid-season. But Matthews caught only 1 of 6 targets for 6 yards against the Patriots and Ajayi never took a snap. And when you compound that with the offseason decisions, the Eagles look like a team hesitant to assimilate new faces.
3. Lather, rinse, repeat: Eagles’ receivers, especially Nelson Agholor, are stunting the offense. The numbers are damning: Eagles receivers rank last or second to last in the NFL in receiving yards, catches and yards per catch – and that’s with DeSean Jackson’s excellent first game before suffering an abdomen injury. Agholor, Jeffery, Mack Hollins, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Matthews have caught only 84 of 154 targets (54.5 pct.) for 899 yards. To put those numbers into perspective, Saints receiver Michael Thomas alone has caught 94 of 114 targets (82.5 pct.) for 1,141 yards.
Thomas makes a lot of his grabs within ten yards of the line of scrimmage, but it’s not as if Carson Wentz is throwing downfield to his receivers a lot. And when he is, the passes aren’t being caught. Eagles receivers aside from Jackson have caught only 5 of 30 passes that have traveled over 20 air yards, per Pro Football Focus. Agholor has caught only 2 of 13 targets himself. He has the necessary speed, but has difficulty tracking balls and reeling them in. He had a chance to make a memory-making grab late in Sunday’s game. Wentz somehow hit him in the hands in the back of the end zone on a fourth down heave. Agholor said the wind altered the ball’s path and he had to adjust. While that may be true, it still hit him in the mitts. It would have been a tough over-the-shoulder grab, but did anyone think for a moment that an Eagles receiver would bail Wentz out? Agholor, of course, couldn’t make the play.
He has some technical liabilities, but I think Agholor’s biggest problem is a lack of confidence. He had that problem early in his career and for various reasons – he’s in a contract year and has been asked to do more since Jackson’s injury – his lack of conviction has returned.
4. Carson Wentz is still lacking a signature comeback win. I have, on many occasions, been called a Wentz apologist. I believe wholeheartedly that his struggles over the last two years have had more to do with injuries, his supporting cast, and play-calling than with his abilities as a quarterback. But he needs to play better, plain and simple. The Eagles are 10-11 when he starts over the last two years. They’re 28-22 (.560 pct.) in his first 50 career starts. That’s not bad, but it’s not good enough when you’ve just been given an elite quarterback contract extension.
Wentz needs more explosive weapons. The Eagles front office has failed him in that regard. But they’ve also given him one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. He’s not out there on an island. The quarterback has ultimate responsibility for offensive production. He touches the ball on every play. But Wentz can’t be expected – and Doug Pederson alluded to this Monday – to carry the team on his own. He’s pressing, according to the coach. I suggested in my column off the game that Wentz can be expected to shoulder some of that responsibility. But they are two different things. Doing it vs. forcing it aren’t the same.
And Wentz didn’t get the job done late in the game. He has led the Eagles to four fourth quarter comebacks and five “game-winning drives,” per Pro Football Reference, in his career. But only two of those game-winning drives – twice against the Giants -- came with under two minutes remaining. Circumstance has played a part in that small number, but in 12 other opportunities, when the Eagles had a chance to win with under two minutes left, Wentz wasn’t able to get the job done.
You could certainly point the blame at others. This season alone, Eagles receivers dropped three catchable passes that could have potentially been game-winning scores. But the bottom line is that Wentz is now 2 of 14 in such situations.
5. Jim Schwartz’s defense provides some hope for the home stretch. After allowing 26.6 points in their first seven games, the Eagles have allowed just 14.7 points per game over their last three contests. What changed on defense? You could certainly point to the personnel at cornerback. Jalen Mills and Darby have their detractors, but they’re clearly better than Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas. And with defensive tackle Fletcher Cox nearing form, as is the pass rush, Schwartz has pieces to work with.
The Patriots offense is a shell of its former self. The line is battered, and Tom Brady never looked comfortable in the pocket. He may have a lesser collection of skill position players than even Wentz. But we’re still talking about Brady and the Patriots here. And the Eagles kept them off balance, with a variety of looks and pressures, for most of the day. It took a trick play – Julian Edelman throwing to Phillip Dorsett – for them to reach the end zone. But Schwartz’s group should have some momentum heading into what could be their stiffest defensive challenge of the season.
Russell Wilson and the Seahawks present their own peculiar set of problems. Wilson is always a tough out for aggressive defenses like the Eagles. He can find multiple ways to take advantage of a penetrating front. But he’s having maybe his best season and is working with a diverse supporting cast. The Seahawks have a balanced offense that can either grind out long drives behind running back Chris Carson or hit you deep with an assortment of long ball options, leading with rookie D.K. Metcalf. But I like Schwartz’s chances. He seems to have a found a winning formula, much as he did late last season after enduring countless injuries in the secondary.