A year ago at this time, Greg Ward was languishing on the Eagles' practice squad, wondering whether NFL opportunity ever would knock on his door.
Three weeks later, it did, and the wide receiver has made the most of the chance he waited more than three years for.
Last year, he had 28 catches in six games and helped save the Eagles' season.
He had six catches in his first game. He had seven, including the game-winning touchdown, in a playoff-saving Week 15 win over Washington, and six in a division-clinching Week 17 win over the Giants.
This season, he’s become an even more valuable part of the offense as the Eagles' slot receiver. The former University of Houston quarterback leads the team with 29 receptions, has become Carson Wentz’s go-to guy on third down, and is a mentor for the Eagles' young wide receiver corps.
“Greg has been helpful to me in every aspect on and off the field,” rookie receiver John Hightower said. “Without Greg, I definitely wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today. So I tip my hat to him.”
“The way he 's been helping some of these younger guys understand the game and get lined up, and just the communication that he brings and the mindset of a quarterback from having played the position in college, he understands the game differently,” said Wentz. “He’s done a great job of educating these guys and really helping the offense all-around. I can’t say enough good things about Greg. He’s a big piece of what we do offensively.”
Ward is tied for ninth in the NFL with 11 third-down catches, nine of which have resulted in first downs.
While Boston Scott’s 19-yard game-winning touchdown catch with 40 seconds to go last week was the most vivid memory of the Eagles' comeback over the Giants, it was Ward who made it a one-score game with 4 minutes, 38 seconds left when he caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Wentz.
“He’s reliable,” said Eagles radio analyst Mike Quick, a five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver. "If you want to describe him in one word, that’s the one. He’s reliable.
"When the play is called, if it’s zone [coverage], and he has to fit into a specific window, he’s there. [If it’s man coverage], he knows how to lean on a guy and get away from him. He just knows how to play the position. His experience as a quarterback really helps him to see things better at that position. He sees what’s going on with the defense.”
Ward had a 70.0 catch rate last year. Eighteen of his 28 receptions resulted in first downs. This year, he has a 72.5 catch rate. He’s tied with Travis Fulgham for the team lead with three touchdown catches.
The Eagles have struggled on third down the last couple of games. They converted just 3-of-12 third-down opportunities against Baltimore two weeks ago and were 3-for-12 last week against the Giants.
Two of those three third-down conversions last week came on Wentz passes to Ward: a 14-yard completion on a third-and-10 on a drive that resulted in a Jake Elliott field goal, and an 11-yard catch on a third-and-1 late in the third quarter.
“Consistency,” Ward said when asked for the key to being a dependable third-down receiver. "Just trying to be an open target for the quarterback. Get open as fast as possible, because on third down, defenses like to do crazy things like bringing blitzes and all this other stuff. So my main focus is playing fast and getting open and making the play whenever the ball comes to me.”
Aaron Moorehead, the Eagles' first-year wide receivers coach, wasn’t with the team last year when Ward was promoted from the practice squad and became one of the keys to their late-season resurrection. But it didn’t take him long to gain an appreciation for Ward’s play as well as his leadership ability in the wide receivers room.
“Greg has been a stable piece of this offense since I got here,” Moorehead said. "I know that’s been a short time. I know his time here playing has been a short time. But you would never guess that. He’s just a mature guy that understands football, understands spots, understands leverages.
"I think that when you look at Greg’s body of work, he’s been a guy that Carson can rely on in tough spots. Especially with Zach [Ertz] being out and Dallas [Goedert] being out, guys have to step up and be that safety net for Carson, and I think Greg’s providing that right now and really has the entire season.”
Ward has played in only14 NFL regular-season games. At 25, he’s really not that much older than the rest of the Eagles' young receiving corps, which includes the 24-year-old Hightower, the 21-year-old Jalen Reagor, and Fulgham, who is just two months younger than Ward.
Nevertheless, he has become the guy the others go to with questions. He has become the guy the others follow and respect.
“He’s been a quarterback, and I think that helps,” Quick said. “They know that he understands the offense and the little things you have to do in this offense that are going to make a difference. I remember early in my career, I always had somebody like that. Somebody like a Greg Ward that could tell you little things that you didn’t see or that I didn’t quite understand yet.
“You need people like Greg Ward in your room who can help you to see the things you can’t see.”
Said Moorehead: “Greg does things the right way. He’s a guy that, when guys in the room have questions, they ask him, and that’s good. That’s what a leader should be.”
Carson Wentz is airing it out. Despite the Eagles' injury problems on the offensive line, despite the fact that he’s been sacked a league-high 28 times, Wentz already has thrown, according to my records, 35 deep balls – pass attempts of 20 yards or more – this season, including 20 in the last three games.
Pro Football Focus has him listed with a league-high 40, which is one more than the Bucs' Tom Brady and two more than the Packers' Aaron Rodgers.
Wentz threw six deep balls in last week’s come-from-behind win over the Giants, including one for a 59-yard fourth-quarter completion to rookie John Hightower.
He also had a pivotal 30-yard completion to tight end Richard Rodgers on a 20-yard throw on the Eagles' game-winning touchdown drive, and an earlier 40-yard completion to wide receiver Travis Fulgham on a 22-yard throw.
What’s interesting is that Wentz is throwing all of these deep balls not only without much protection from his patchwork line butwithout the offense’s top two deep threats, DeSean Jackson and Jalen Reagor. Jackson missed three of the Eagles' first six games with a hamstring injury, and suffered a possible season-ending ankle injury last week.
Reagor missed the last five games with a thumb injury. He returned to practice this week and may play Sunday night against the Cowboys.
Hightower, a fourth-round rookie, and Fulgham, who was elevated from the practice squad only four weeks ago, have become Wentz’s favorite deep-ball targets. Hightower has been targeted 10 times on 20-plus-yard throws (two catches). Fulgham has been targeted eight times (five catches).
“When this team talked about having a more explosive offense at the outset of the season, if they’re going to be an explosive team, all of these guys who have the ability to create big plays, explosive plays, you have to give them opportunities,” said Mike Quick.
Wentz is on pace to throw 80 deep balls this season. That would be the most by the Eagles in a single season in the Doug Pederson era. Their previous high was 76 in 2017 when they won the Super.
Wentz has completed 13 of his 35 deep throws this season (37.1%). He completed 37.7% last year (26-for-69). He and Nick Foles combined for a 37.1 deep-ball completion percentage in 2018.
'You don’t need to complete it all the time for it have an effect on the defense," Quick said. "We haven’t seen the deep ball thrown as much as it’s been thrown this year. I’m really happy to see that because I know the effect it has [on a defense].