There isn’t just one easy reason the Eagles are 5-6 heading into their encounter Sunday with the host Miami Dolphins. Sometimes it’s more the offense, sometimes it’s more the defense. But if you had to pick one group that has consistently failed to meet expectations, week-in and week-out, it would be the wide receivers.
Nobody seems to have a clear idea of why that has been, beyond the core muscle injury that took away DeSean Jackson, basically after one amazing, season-opening game.
Not one Eagles receiver has improved his performance over last season. Alshon Jeffery is averaging a career-low 10.4 yards per catch. Ditto Nelson Agholor, at 8.9 yards per catch. And Jeffery seems unhappy, despite the Eagles’ having guaranteed his $9.91 million 2020 salary.
The second-round rookie, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who apparently will finally assume a prominent role in the offense, has developed at a glacial pace. Mack Hollins, a 2017 fourth-round draft pick, might as well be a mannequin from a pass-catching standpoint (10 catches, 125 yards, 202 snaps since September without a catch).
The fans clamored from the preseason for Greg Ward, the converted college quarterback, to get a chance. For that to happen, Jackson had to go on injured reserve, Jordan Matthews had to prove he couldn’t add much after being signed off the street for a third look, and Agholor (knee) and Jeffery (ankle) had to miss last week’s game against Seattle.
Lo and behold, Ward caught six passes on seven targets. The catches netted just 40 yards, but compared with Hollins, Arcega-Whiteside, and the 2019 version of Matthews, Ward looked like Jerry Rice. The Eagles released Matthews the next day, and on Wednesday, Doug Pederson talked about giving Ward a more extensive role, along with Arcega-Whiteside.
Offensive coordinator Mike Groh was asked why Ward didn’t get an extensive look earlier.
“I can’t speculate on that, but I can just say that he did take advantage of his opportunity. Did a heck of a job,” Groh said. “I think everybody in the locker room and certainly the coaching staff has confidence in him moving forward.”
None of this reflects well on Jeffery and Agholor, the presumed veteran leaders of the group, or on the coaching staff.
Pederson acknowledged Friday that he ponders what has happened with his wideouts, just as the fans do.
“I think about that a lot with that group. I know DeSean was a big part [of it]. When we signed him in the offseason, he was going to be kind of the leader of that group, and really take that room over. He’s the veteran player,” Pederson said.
Pederson said Jeffery’s injuring a calf, then the ankle, helped prevent him from taking charge. But Jeffery has always been soft-spoken and reticent. Agholor, next in line, has always struggled with the critical voices in his head, with confidence and poise.
“You wanted Alshon to be that guy, and then things didn't work out with him and some injury there, and Nelly,” Pederson said. “I look back to even last year with the defensive backs. When you start losing players [to injury] and a lot of times you start losing those vocal leaders in that room, it can affect the whole group.”
This analysis cast a different light on the signing of Matthews, who had been cut by the 49ers. Had Matthews still been capable of holding down a prominent role on the field, he might have emerged as the vocal leader. He gathered the group and tried to fire everyone up before the Seattle game. But he seemed to have lost several steps.
The next part of Pederson’s answer Friday could be read as an indictment of Groh and wide receivers coach Carson Walch – or at least, as a challenge to them in the final month of the season.
“But this is why I lean on Carson Walch, and I lean on Mike Groh to really kind of take those rooms over and to take charge again,” Pederson said. “Now you're starting to deal with younger players, who really don't know how to necessarily lead yet at this level. So we, as coaches, have to continue to put our handprint or footprint in those rooms, just like mine has to still be in the quarterback room. I think that's where it starts, and then we can begin to coach and educate our players to lead more by example.”
After the Seattle loss, former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky and former Eagles wide receiver Bryce Treggs pointed out on social media how what looked like terrible passes from Carson Wentz actually were poorly detailed routes, or at least routes on which the quarterback and receiver weren’t in sync. Maybe Ward and Arcega-Whiteside haven’t worked that much with the starters each week, but it’s December. How do such problems persist?
Groh, who seemed to have redeemed Agholor’s promise as the wide receivers coach for the Super Bowl LII team, was asked this week about coaching wideouts. He defined the essence as “teaching them what to do, how to do it, and then why we’re asking them to do it a certain way. Once they kind of know those three things, then they can really play freely and let their ability take over.
"You hear a song that you really like, but you don’t necessarily know all the words. You have the beat down or the hook or whatever, but you have to be fully immersed in not just what to do, but how to do it and why you’re doing it that way.
“Then you have to have a plan each and every down, because it’s changing -- the landscape in front of you is changing. It’s a different coverage. It’s a different guy in front of you, so to take all of that into account.”
Eagles position coaches are available for interviews about once a month. The last time Walch talked was coming out of the bye week. His message then was that the group was steadily improving. The losses since, to New England and Seattle, certainly have not reflected that.
Asked about the Eagles’ extraordinary inability to complete a deep pass to a wideout – they have five 40-plus-yard receptions this season, two of them to running back Miles Sanders – Walch said: “I think it’s just a work in progress. I truly believe that. We have hit some deep balls down the field. Have we hit every one? No. Have we hit all the ones we wanted to hit? No. But all we can do is continue to go back to the drawing board each week, continue to rep it, get more throws with our guys with the quarterback, and we’ll get it done.”
That was the media session in which Walch famously contended that Hollins is “one of our top graders every week, because he aligns right, he assigns right, and he plays with great effort.”
When Walch spoke, Hollins had played 59% of the snaps against Buffalo and 47% against Chicago. In the two games since, those figures are 17% and 5%, despite the injuries to Jeffery and Agholor. Hollins’ grades must have dropped.
Asked about the impact of losing Jackson, Walch described a reaction from his group that would seem at odds from what has occurred.
“They’re not going to go in the tank because one guy can’t play for the weeks to come,” Walch said. “I think it’s a challenge to a lot of guys in the room, saying, ‘Hey it might be my time now, to step in and do the job that [I’m] prepared to do.’ ”
The Eagles have had a different wide receivers coach each year of Pederson’s tenure. In Groh’s case, he left the wideouts after the 2017 season to become offensive coordinator. Greg Lewis (2016) and Gunter Brewer (2018) were dismissed. Brewer was Groh’s choice for the job, a friend who had played for Groh’s father, Al, at Wake Forest.
If Walch can avoid Brewer’s fate, it might be by having Arcega-Whiteside step up down the stretch.
“The more J.J. gets on the field, the more you’ll see him excel,” Walch said.
Arcega-Whiteside, asked about Walch, praised his tough-love teaching.
“He’s not easy on me. He told me from the time I got here, he said he’s going to be demanding … because he wants to get me to where I need to be, and where he knows I can be,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “Ever since I got here, every day, he’s held up to that. To have a coach like that, to just be on you and make sure you’re on your P’s and Q’s at all times, doesn’t do anything but benefit me as a player.”
Walch indicated he wasn’t oblivious to the scrutiny, which has only gotten harsher since he spoke.
“At no point will I say in front of anyone that our group is satisfied with where we’re at. Every day we come in with a plan of how we’re going to get better,” Walch said.