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Eagles’ expectations for wide receivers were wildly unrealistic, it seems; now the offense grinds it out

The passing game seemed to be built around DeSean Jackson's game-breaking ability. With Jackson out, no one seems capable of picking up the slack.

Eagles wide receiver Mack Hollins (16) has played 185 offensive snaps in the last five games, with no catches.
Eagles wide receiver Mack Hollins (16) has played 185 offensive snaps in the last five games, with no catches.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

It was just three months ago that Eagles offensive coaches sounded giddy, talking about game-planning for such an embarrassment of riches. The questions were about how they were going to keep everyone happy on such a talent-laden unit.

Somehow we’ve gone from that to hey, maybe Jordan Matthews can save the season, in his third Eagles stint.

This is not the Eagles offense anyone envisioned. It is functional — the last few weeks have shown that a focus on between-the-tackles running and efficient passing can produce dominant time of possession, helping the porous pass defense by keeping it off the field, grinding out wins. But anyone who thought the Eagles were going to outscore any problems in 2019, the way they did in Super Bowl LII, was badly mistaken.

The week before the season opener, offensive coordinator Mike Groh was asked if it was going to be hard to keep everyone involved.

“I wouldn't call it difficult, but we have to be mindful of it, for sure,” Groh said. “We don't want to just subjectively just pick plays and then say, all of a sudden, ‘Well, he disappeared in the game. He didn't get a chance to impact the game.’ We're certainly very mindful of that.”

Here we are, though, with wide receiver Mack Hollins totaling 185 offensive snaps in the last five games, with no catches. Hollins’ return from a year lost to abdominal injuries was going to help make this the deepest Eagles wide-receiving corps in memory.

And here we are with second-round rookie wideout J.J. Arcega-Whiteside having caught exactly two passes in nine games, for 14 yards. Arcega-Whiteside, touted as a red zone/contested-catch weapon, has played just 44 offensive snaps in the last six games, in which he has no catches, contested or otherwise.

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This lack of production from the youngest wideouts would be less of a problem if DeSean Jackson hadn’t just undergone abdominal surgery that will sideline him for the rest of the regular season, with a grand total of nine catches; if Alshon Jeffery weren’t averaging a career-low 10.4 yards per catch, on 34 catches in eight games; and if Nelson Agholor weren’t doing the same thing, 8.8 yards per catch, on 32 catches in nine games. Jeffery and Agholor rank 68th and 78th , respectively, among NFL wideouts in yards per catch.

No Eagles wide receiver is having a good year. Why? As training camps opened, Pro Football Focus ranked the Eagles’ wideout corps the best in the league. Instead, it is among the least productive. The Eagles rank 21st in NFL passing.

The biggest problem might be that the whole thing was designed around Jackson, who has played one really great game and tiny parts of two others in his return to the Eagles after five years in exile. Jackson, who will turn 33 on Dec. 1, was going to provide the speed the offense lacked, was going to score a bunch of touchdowns, and open up the field for everyone else. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone in management or coaching that if Jackson got hurt, the Eagles would be pretty much back where they were last season, without a quick-strike capability.

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Maybe they thought Hollins could give them a little of that; he was effective as a long-ball weapon in college at North Carolina. Or Jeffery, still just 29 years old, who has averaged more than 15 yards per catch three times in his eight-year career.

But nine games into the season, the coaches seem to have given up on Hollins as anything other than a big guy who can get in the way of defensive players while someone more adept, such as tight end Zach Ertz, tries to catch a pass. And Jeffery, bothered early in the season by a calf injury, seems to have aged 10 years since Super Bowl LII.

Maybe the thought was that Agholor, a dependable weapon in 2017 and 2018, would rise to the occasion in his fifth season since arriving as a first-round draft choice. Instead, he is more like the Agholor of 2015 and 2016: unreliable, seemingly lost inside his own head, but making the $9.387-million-a-year salary of a star.

No one seems able to explain why the entire group has been so disappointing. There is yet another wide-receivers coach this season, Carson Walch, the Eagles’ fifth person in that post in the last five years. Walch, 41, was coaching the Edmonton Eskimos’ wideouts when the Eagles brought him aboard as assistant wide-receivers coach in 2018. He was an entry-level assistant with the Bears when Groh was there in 2013-14.

Groh was the wide-receivers coach for the Super Bowl season, the guy who turned Agholor around. One would think he could still exert some control over the unit. But Groh speaks ambiguously of the ball “not finding” receivers, as if it controlled its own flight. Is he saying that Carson Wentz won’t throw the ball to, say, Hollins? Pederson has made it seem more a problem of where receivers rank among the options on a given play.

“When you're the sixth, possibly seventh guy in the progression, or in the scheme of things, sometimes it's hard to get the ball going in that direction,” Pederson said Monday, before Jackson was placed on injured reserve. “We go in thinking the Alshons and DeSeans and Nellys and the tight ends, backs and stuff like that, and we ask a lot of those other guys, too, in the run game, and they do some great things there.”

Maybe they need to look at that, expand the process to get targets for more receivers. We’ve seen them have success by minimizing the wide receivers, emphasizing the run game and the two productive tight ends, Ertz and Dallas Goedert. But it isn’t clear this approach will stand up against teams with top-notch firepower, which don’t need to grind out 14-play drives to score.

So much about the way they set up the group seems odd: from picking up Agholor’s very expensive option, instead of spending that money elsewhere; to drafting Arcega-Whiteside, instead of someone with game-breaking speed; to guaranteeing Jeffery’s 2020 salary, after they seemingly had drafted his replacement in Arcega-Whiteside.

Then, last week, they let the trade deadline slip past, seemingly counting on Jackson’s returning and picking right up where he left off, which flies in the face of what we know about core-muscle injuries.

Just before the season, someone asked Pederson if he was excited to figure out how to use all his new “toys.” Pederson pretended to take offense at the word “toys.”

“They’re well-oiled machines,” he said.