Up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the Packers and the Raiders were playing on an 80-yard field. Over in New England, Cam Newton was limping to the sideline with some sort of injury to his foot or ankle. Here in Philadelphia, we got a weather-shortened game where the starring role was played by a 40-year-old quarterback who was coaching high school football at this time last week.
It’s possible that all of this is just some big social experiment. Maybe somewhere out there in those places that the billionaires are taught to hide from public view, there is a television channel available only to those with a certain net worth, and maybe the rest of us are the stars of a reality show where the NFL’s 32 owners gradually dial up the absurdity of their annual four-game money grab and then chuckle to each other as we continue to watch. If that is indeed the case, then there might be some hope that the powers that be will someday do us all a favor and acknowledge the complete waste of time that their precious preseason has become. Otherwise, multiply 60,000 by the average face value of a ticket and you’ve got the number of reasons nights like Thursday aren’t going away.
In meantime, let’s try to turn our focus away from what wasn’t on the field — Carson Wentz, Lamar Jackson, actual NFL-caliber football — and toward the few bits of actionable intelligence that we saw.
First, we saw several pieces of evidence supporting the Eagles’ belief that J.J. Arcega-Whiteside has a future in Doug Pederson’s offense. The first came on an 18-yard catch in traffic on a crossing pattern he finished by absorbing a blow from a would-be tackler and plowing forward for a handful of extra yards. The second came on a crisp dig pattern where the rookie second-round pick got himself open against tight man coverage by Ravens cornerback Anthony Averett. Josh McCown’s pass was a tick late and ended up bouncing off his back shoulder pad for an incompletion , but it was a nice professional piece of route running at a position that has seen a tremendous amount of flux during Pederson’s first three seasons at the helm. The third instance came in the third quarter, when Arcega-Whiteside made an over-the-shoulder catch of a perfectly thrown ball from McCown in the corner of the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown.
If you squint, you can see elements of Larry Fitzgerald in Arcega-Whiteside’s frame and game. That might not matter much for 2019, when he’ll enter the season trailing Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Nelson Agholor and Dallas Goedert on the depth chart of mouths that Carson Wentz will be feeding. But he led the Eagles in targets on Thursday night, and it isn’t hard to envision a future in which he does that in more meaningful games.
What else did we see?
We saw Corey Clement has finally recovered from the knee injury that hampered him last season and kept him sidelined until recently. We also saw plenty of reason to wonder what the Eagles have planned for him and the rest of the depth chart at running back. It seems notable that Clement was the only running back on the field for much of the first half, especially when you consider that none of the three ballcarriers who are locks for the roster saw a snap. One could certainly read into this a hope on the front office’s part that some running-back-needy team would watch Clement run and have visions of the rookie who averaged 4.3 yards per carry and helped the Eagles win a Super Bowl a couple of years ago. If so, one would also have to note that Howie Roseman and Co. did not have similar hopes for Wendell Smallwood, who is competing with Clement, Josh Adams, and rookie Boston Scott for the final two or three spots behind Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, and Darren Sproles.
Clement was one of the bigger disappointments last season, averaging just 3.8 yards per attempt on 6.2 attempts per game. The numbers say he didn’t do any better on Thursday, when he carried seven times for 25 yards, but he showed a good burst on an 11-yard run around right tackle on a 3rd-and-6 play and generally looked a lot like the guy who won a roster spot as an undrafted rookie in 2017.
“I wanted to keep going,” Clement said after his outing. “I was hungry for more.”
But most portentous development we saw in this third preseason game was the one that we saw under center. There, we saw that a 40-year-old quarterback who was a retiree until last weekend really might offer the Eagles a shred of hope that they can withstand another injury to Wentz. We saw it on a completion late in the second quarter when Josh McCown turned toward the back side of the play and, with two Ravens defenders a step away from his facemask, tossed a 14-yard dart to Carlton Agudosi on the left sideline for a first down. We saw it on the numerous occasions that he calmly navigated traffic at his feet or escaped outside the pocket. And we saw it on that 20-yard touchdown pass to Arcega-Whiteside, a beautiful rainbow placed where only one player could get while still allowing that player to establish possession with a couple of steps inbounds.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “He’s been here, what, a week, and he’s commanding the huddle, and the way he talks, and his expression on the field, it just give you the sense that the guy who is leading the charge right now is definitely the right guy.”