Plausible deniability is the best of the fringe benefits. Find yourself a job that provides it and you can be anything you want.
For instance, you can be the architect of a Super Bowl team. Or, you can be the guy whose football team is 0-2 because the quarterback stinks.
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But the best part about having a job as Eagles general manager is that you can be both of these things at the same time. All of the wins, and none of the losses. It’s great work.
Problem is, jobs with plausible deniability are tough to find. By nature, they do not open up often. Again, we submit to you the Eagles' general managership. The current man in the role has been the team’s top personnel-side decision maker since 2012, with a one-year hiatus. In those eight seasons, the Eagles have won 63 games and lost 58. They’ve advanced past the wild-card round of the playoffs twice, and beyond the divisional round once. They have been the definition of mediocre. Save for one magical season.
Granted, that season means something. You can trace a direct line between the results of that postseason and the personnel moves that the Eagles made. The trade up for Carson Wentz. The signings of Nick Foles and Alshon Jeffery. The trade for Jay Ajayi. Take away any one of these players and that night in Minneapolis might have gone much different. In case you have forgotten, the margin was slim.
But we are going on three years removed from the events of that season. If we’re going to assign credit to Howie Roseman for all of its moves, isn’t it fair to do the same for all of the ones since? For an offensive line that has struggled to integrate a new generation of talent? For a receiving corps that is in the midst of its second season as one of the worst in the league? For whoever spilled coffee on the plan at linebacker?
When people say that Roseman is a salary cap genius, they are correct in spirit. The salary cap is something he is very good at. But he is also remarkably adept at finding himself in situations where people do not finger him for blame.
In 2012, Andy Reid was clearly the prime mover in the personnel department. By 2014, that title had gone to Chip Kelly. Then, in 2016, Joe Douglas came along. Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, Andre Dillard, JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Were they his or Roseman’s picks?
Now, it is 2020, and Douglas is with the Jets, and the Eagles are a team whose season is teetering on the precipice of being something worse than mediocre. Yet, here we are, the same guy in charge, and the city seems convinced that Carson Wentz is to blame.
Realizing that my own appraisal of Wentz’s play during the Eagles 0-2 start has put me in a distinct minority, I spent some time this week poring through the tape of the two games that best capture the regression that the one-time MVP candidate has allegedly suffered.
Conveniently, both of these games involve the Rams. The first was that 43-35 thriller in December 2017 that both sealed the Eagles' postseason home-field advantage and ended Wentz’s season (and, some would argue, career). The second game needs no introduction, because you can probably still taste it in your mouth, a 37-19 stinker in which Wentz threw a pair of interceptions and misfired on several other throws.
To aid the naked eye, I watched these games back-to-back, and tried my best to set aside any preconceived notions about Wentz’s current state. With the hope of building some good faith, I’ll begin by acknowledging that I saw plenty to justify some level of concern about Wentz’s present and future.
The quarterback who was on the field three years ago against the Rams was a guy who flashed the tools of potential all-time great. Watching Wentz command the offense was like watching Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers, mostly in the way he used his lower half to navigate the pass rush and put himself in position to make throw after throw.
Therein lies the biggest difference in the quarterback we saw last weekend. His feet looked heavier, his reactions slower, his mechanics less sure, his attention less undivided by the pass rush.
There is a legitimate concern that the knee and the back and the concussion have taken an irreversible toll. I would probably dismiss it if the Eagles hadn’t spent a second-round pick on a quarterback whom they apparently selected strictly for his potential at that position. There’s that plausible deniability creeping in again.
But I’m not sold that the Wentz we saw Sunday was any different from the one we saw late last season, when we saw that he was still a quarterback capable of putting a team atop his shoulder pads and carrying it to the postseason. We might never again see him play at the level we saw in 2017. But his biggest problem now might be our expectations.
Here’s what else I saw back in 2017. I saw three different tight ends making huge plays. Today, Wentz has two. I saw Alshon Jeffery catch a touchdown pass, convert a big third down, and draw a long pass interference penalty. Who is that big-bodied security blanket on this year’s team?
I saw Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount combine for 22 carries. I saw an offensive line that was three years younger. I saw a unit that was operating with an unmistakable rhythm. I also saw Wentz throw an early interception, and several off-target incompletions, including an inexcusable one in the red zone that should have been picked off by one of three Rams defenders.
Maybe that version of Wentz would have led this year’s Eagles to the 21-7 early second-quarter lead they held in 2017. But that’s not what I saw as I watched this year’s Rams race ahead, 21-3. Instead, I saw an offense that has no go-to receiver and no physical runner, and an offensive line that inspires perpetual worry.
I saw a quarterback whose discomfort and stiffness could easily have stemmed from all of these things. I saw a roster that has been hollowed out by years of subpar drafts and overreliance on aging veterans. I saw a defense without linebackers, and an offense without an identity.