Who are the Eagles on the offensive side of the football? In a perfect world, what are they supposed to be doing out there? Whatever it is, do they have the talent to do it?
These are the questions that matter most as we turn our attention to the next 14 games of this 2020 season. In a 37-19 loss to the Rams on Sunday afternoon, Doug Pederson was outcoached. Carson Wentz was outplayed. The Eagles fell to 0-2 and they did it because the team that they played was the better one. But the most disconcerting thing about the performance was their lack of identity. We keep hearing about how this offense finally has the tools it needs to be the offense that all of us know it can be. Well, what, exactly, is that supposed to look like?
That probably sounds like a convoluted way to dive into a dissection of Sunday’s events, so maybe it will help to start with all of the things that we heard the Eagles say about the Rams' offense as they attempted to explain why their high-priced, re-engineered defense never seemed to be able to guess right.
“It was identical to what we practiced,” safety Rodney McLeod said. “This was one of those games where you had to play fundamentally sound, disciplined ball, trust in one another . . . understanding how they are going to attack us in what areas and where we needed to be.”
Defensive end Brandon Graham: “We knew how they were going to play us. We knew they like to play left and right ... They’re the best at having a lot of distractions out there.”
More McLeod: “The Rams, what they do, they hit you with the stretch, and they convert it with a boot, and then they hit you with a screen ... just an unconventional style of offense in this day and age and where we are, and we knew that coming in.”
No doubt, that’s the offense the Eagles tried and failed to stop. It was an offense that knew the Eagles had an inexperienced linebacking corps, and that they were playing their second game without longtime safety Malcolm Jenkins. Those two things happened to play right into the things that Sean McVay’s offenses have long done well: get defenses moving left to right, overwhelm them with moving parts, force them to contend with a deep cast of characters that features no obvious leading role.
Look at the Rams' chunk plays and count how many of them even the worst version of Wentz would have failed to make. The 40-yard run by Darrell Henderson that flipped the field with 12:07 left? Wentz would have made that handoff. The ensuing 28-yard touchdown pass to Higbee? McVay himself could have made that play because it was pure scheme, or -- depending on your point of view -- pure defensive breakdown. A misdirection fake, a tight end running a serpentine route downfield with no defender in the same camera frame -- game, set, match.
Both of these plays came after three quarters in which McVay and his weapons kept the Eagles off-balance with a variety of perfect calls that featured perfect execution. The 5-yard end-around touchdown run by Robert Woods. The 24-yard completion to Cooper Kupp in which the middle of the Eagles' defense suddenly ceased to exist. Nearly a third of the Rams' 449 yards of offense came on seven plays. They finished the game with 10 plays of 18 yards or more. The Eagles finished with two.
Is this play-calling? Is it game-planning? Is it assignment-level coaching? Or is it talent?
“We do feel we have the pieces, we have the guys, we have the talent to be an elite offense,” Wentz said.
But doesn’t every team believe that of itself? At the moment, we have a 37-game sample that suggests the Eagles are far short of that. Compare this team to the one that surrounded Wentz when he lit the NFC on fire in 2017. The offensive line hasn’t added any talent. Jason Peters and Jason Kelce are two years further into their physiological decline phases. Brandon Brooks isn’t here. Lane Johnson and Isaac Seumalo are roughly what they were. On the outside, the Eagles have not replaced the big-bodied target that Wentz had in Alshon Jeffery. Miles Sanders clearly has talent, but NFL running games are largely a function of their offensive lines. And the Eagles are clearly missing the between-the-tackles element they’ve previously had in LeGarrette Blount and Jordan Howard.
There will be plenty of focus on Wentz this week, and it will be deserved. The final margin probably does not reflect the extent to which Wentz’s two interceptions resulted in the Eagles' downfall. But as you listened to Wentz rue his performance in the wake of the loss, it should have jumped out at you the number of times he spoke of his errant desire to “force a play.” Without question, he made a disastrous miscalculation in attempting to muscle a throw between two defenders in the end zone in the third quarter. But isn’t the bigger concern that he felt the need to do so?
Whether it was Dallas Goedert on a high throw over the middle or DeSean Jackson on a ball that was slightly right of target -- can you think of a single instance in which anybody outside of Wentz looked like they would be the one to make a differentiating play?
Afterward, Pederson and his players focused on the turnovers. Take away the two interceptions, and the fumble by Miles Sanders, and the outcome might be different. But there’s an inescapable circularity when it comes to evaluating a football team. Take away the Sanders fumble and you have to take away the Rams' muffed punt. Which leaves us with the interceptions, which have never been a serious concern in Wentz’s game.
I’m not sure what the answer is. I do know this: In the NFL, synergy is what ultimately prevails. The offenses that sustain success are the ones that draft and develop talent that fits their coaches' schemes, and whose coaches use schemes that complement the capabilities of the quarterbacks at their helm. Look at teams like the Steelers, the Patriots, the Chiefs – you know what they do. McVay’s Rams might reach that point. Same goes for the Ravens in the Lamar Jackson era.
As for the 0-2 Eagles: What, exactly, are they?