As Eagles coach Doug Pederson noted after his team’s infuriating, exhilarating 32-27 season-opening victory over the Washington Redskins, “You don’t ever want to see that, [down] 17-0 at home.”
Pederson was forced to see that Sunday, though, as he scowled at the Lincoln Financial Field scoreboard from beneath his visor on a sunny, perfect South Philly afternoon. Pederson’s demeanor improved as he discovered how nice it was to have Carson Wentz and DeSean Jackson on hand to turn things around.
Wentz’s 51- and 53-yard touchdown bombs to Jackson eased the task of erasing 17-0 and 20-7 deficits to the lightly regarded Redskins, picked by many observers to be the worst team in the NFC East this season, and 10-point underdogs Sunday on the road.
The Eagles talked all offseason about avoiding 2018’s habit of slow starts, of how they didn’t want to be the NFL’s lowest-scoring team in the first quarter (41 points) again. Then they went out and started horribly, making the first the only quarter Sunday in which they didn’t score.
“Maybe we need to use some reverse psychology,” right tackle Lane Johnson said. “[Think] ‘Don’t go out there and start fast!’ We’ve been wanting to start fast for about a year and a half, and it hasn’t happened.”
Wentz, who didn’t play in the preseason, might have looked a little check-down-happy early, but he authored a nearly perfect second half. The Eagles scored on every third- and fourth-quarter possession, three touchdowns and a field goal.
The field goal, at the end of a 19-play, 74-yard drive that took nearly nine minutes, might have been a TD had sub right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai not earned a pair of holding penalties, one on second-and-7 from the Washington 7.
Wentz’s 28-for-39, 313-yard, three-touchdown, 121-passer-rating day went as follows: 3 of 5 for 20 yards in the first quarter; 9 of 13 for 92 yards and a TD in the second quarter; 9 of 11 for 138 yards and two TDs in the third quarter; 7 of 10 for 63 yards in the fourth quarter. So that’s 16-for-21 for 201 yards and two TDs in the second half.
Wentz was 12-for-13 on third down, for 197 yards and all three of his touchdowns.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins said that for a defensive player, “it’s very, very convenient” to watch seven points worth of deficit disappear in a snap of Wentz’s wrist, twice. “Especially in a game like this, where you start out slow.”
Johnson, who came to the Eagles as a first-round pick in 2013, said watching Jackson running free behind the secondary "was a little bit of a memory of my rookie year."
“I love his emotion and his attitude,” Wentz said of Jackson. “What he brings to the game mentally, he’s a fighter. He wanted to show it today.”
Jackson is the sort of weapon Wentz hasn’t had before, and Wentz might be the sort of quarterback Jackson hasn’t had in five years of wandering through Washington and Tampa Bay, since Jackson and Nick Foles collaborated for the best of Jackson’s 11 NFL seasons, back in 2013, before the much-lamented Chip Kelly exile.
“This is his show,” Jackson said of Wentz, after Jackson’s much-anticipated return to the Linc netted eight catches for 154 yards and those two long touchdowns. “He’s driving the car. It’s good to have a quarterback that has the confidence that, at any given time, the playmakers we have on this offense, he can come to the line of scrimmage and basically call whatever he wants because of the playing style we have, and the players we have in our huddle and in our locker room.”
Washington corner Josh Norman said the long TDs were coverage busts, and “you take those points off the board, we’re talking about another game.”
But really, the Eagles dominated the second half. The Redskins didn’t score and didn’t manage a second-half first down until they mounted a meaningless touchdown drive in the final three minutes. Until that drive, second-half net yards were 302-45 in the Eagles’ favor.
“We never had the ball,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said, when asked about the second half.
As incendiary as the Wentz-Jackson connection was, it was actually the running game that got the Eagles offense working consistently. The home team got the ball to start the second half and ran it nine of the 12 plays it took to mount a 75-yard touchdown drive, including a fourth-and-1 Wentz sneak.
Wentz’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery was a subtle beauty, Wentz stepping around pressure and finding Jeffery in the back of the end zone on third-and-goal.
Pederson said he had no hesitation about the fourth-down sneak, from the Eagles’ 34, down 13 points. “None. It was about half a yard, so there was no hesitation. I was going for it there,” he said.
It was a bit of a surprise that 36-year-old running back Darren Sproles got nine carries for 47 yards and caught three passes for 16 more, in addition to his four punt returns (11.5-yard average). Early in the game, Sproles wasn’t getting much blocking, and fans on social media, hungering for new faces Jordan Howard (six carries, 44 yards, two catches, 11 yards) and Miles Sanders (11 carries, 25 yards, one catch for two), thought Pederson had lost his mind.
Pederson said they have certain plays for each of the backs, and the Sproles plays were clicking. Sproles looked exactly like the No. 6 player on the NFL all-time all-purpose-yardage list in the second half, especially on a twisting, churning two-point conversion run that didn’t count as one of his 16 touches.
“It’s been a little bit” since he got that sort of workload, Sproles said. He had 16 touches in the Chicago playoff win last season, but in a regular-season game, Sproles hadn’t had that much work since Oct. 30, 2016 against Dallas.
Jackson spoke to his teammates at halftime, drawing upon his 2014-16 tenure in Washington.
“I’ve been over there before in that locker room and I just know how they are. I just stressed to my teammates that I felt at halftime they probably thought they had the game sealed and won,” Jackson said.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said there was no panic over the deficit because “we have a veteran group, man. … This group has been together a long time. We know things happen in a football game.”