Jordan Matthews kept half an eye on the Eagles’ wide receiving situation from afar, as the planets began to align for his third stint with the team, which began with practice on Monday.
Afterward, as he settled into the third locker stall he has occupied at NovaCare, this one next to tight end Zach Ertz, Matthews noted that “unfortunate things have happened” to the team’s receiving group.
Well, that would be one very diplomatic way of putting it, Jordan.
To bring a guy back after sending him away twice, you have to be pretty desperate, and this team certainly is, in the wake of DeSean Jackson’s regular-season-ending abdominal surgery, which surprised pretty much no one except, apparently, an Eagles management team that made no WR moves at the Oct. 29 trade deadline.
Jackson, by the way, was exiting the training room Monday as reporters filed past, en route to the locker room. Jackson didn’t stop to chat, he seemed to be concentrating on each halting, painful-looking step. Metaphorically, he had never seemed a closer fit with the rest of the 2019 Eagles wide receiving group.
When Jackson went on IR, the Eagles reached for Matthews, though his signing wasn’t made official until Monday.
“I’ve heard of guys going back to the team that drafted them once, but twice? It was just crazy,” said Matthews, who is still just 27. He had a photo of himself and his wife, Cheyna, in Eagles gear, already propped on the locker shelf. “I was texting all the guys, like, ‘Guys! It’s happening! It’s happening!’ I was like a kid in a candy store. It was like getting drafted all over again. I was just so happy … I picked up my son and ran around the house like he was Simba.”
Let’s recap what brought us to this point: The Eagles’ most productive wide receiver, Alshon Jeffery, came out of the bye weekend tied for 74th in NFL receiving yardage, at 353 yards, on 34 catches. The second-most productive Eagles wide receiver, Nelson Agholor, ranked 95th, at 282 yards, on 32 catches. Mack Hollins has played 185 snaps over the last five games without catching a pass. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, a second-round rookie, has two catches all season, for 14 yards.
The Eagles held one of their occasional media sessions with position coaches Monday, and someone brought up to wide receivers coach Carson Walch that his group is 32nd in yards per target, 31st in yards per catch. The reporter was looking for Walch’s reasons as to why this might be the case. He did not receive enlightenment.
“I don’t know those numbers. I don’t look at individual statistics,” said Walch. “All we talk about is winning football games. That’s A-1 for us, how do we find ways to win football games. We’ve done that the last two weeks against two very good defenses.
“At no point will I say in front of anyone that our group is satisfied with where we’re at. Every day we come in with a plan of how we’re going to get better. Our guys own it. I own it as a coach.”
Matthews, meanwhile, played one game in a 23-day stint with the San Francisco 49ers this season, his sixth year in the NFL, before he was released. He had no catches and no targets. Unless Matthews compiles an amazing final seven games with the Eagles, his catch totals will have declined four years in a row, since he caught 85 passes for 997 yards for the Chip Kelly Eagles in 2015, the year after the Eagles drafted him in the second round out of Vanderbilt.
And yet, given the output of the group he is joining, Matthews clearly is a welcome addition. He knows the offense, was in Carson Wentz’s wedding, and he caught a 37-yard touchdown pass in the playoff loss at New Orleans last season. With 270 career catches, all but 25 of them with the Eagles, and 22 career touchdowns (21 with the Eagles), he has a better resume than any healthy Eagles wideout except Jeffery.
“Oh shoot, we can just pull up his highlights,” offensive coordinator Mike Groh said Monday, when asked what Matthews will bring. “The guy has made a lot of plays for the Eagles over the years. He has excellent football intelligence. He knows our system. He has familiarity there. I think there's great comfort with him in the huddle. There's rapport and chemistry with he and Carson, which is important, so certainly nice to get him back.”
Matthews, 6-foot-3, 215, has never been a speed receiver. He isn’t going to help replace Jackson in that way. But he can help. Walch said Matthews made it clear he hasn’t forgotten anything about the Eagles’ system.
“Right as he walked in the door, these buzzwords come out, and he knows what this offense is. I don’t think it’s going to take Jordan Matthews long to be up to speed in what we’re trying to get done offensively,” Walch said. “He’s a good guy. He works hard. He knows how to technique DBs in this league. He’s just done it a longer time than some of the other guys maybe have at this point.”
Matthews, Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, A.J. Green, and Randy Moss are the only players in NFL history with more than 65 catches and 800 receiving yards in each of their first three seasons. The ensuing three seasons have not kept Matthews on that sort of path.
It was a surprise when Matthews, one of Wentz’s closest friends, was dispatched along with a third-round draft pick to Buffalo for cornerback Ronald Darby during training camp in 2017.
With the Bills he suffered a broken thumb, then had knee surgery that he felt arose from a misdiagnosis by the Eagles’ medical staff. The Eagles won the Super Bowl, Matthews wasn’t brought back by the Bills. He signed with the Patriots, injured a hamstring, was released before 2018 training camp.
The Eagles brought him back two games into last season, after Mike Wallace went down. Matthews caught just 20 passes for 300 yards and two TDs. This year it was the 49ers, who signed him in the spring, released him at the end of the preseason, signed him back, and released him again.
Matthews said Monday he feels he has added something with each stop, that he is healthy and capable. He said he doesn’t reflect on his career to this point and his expectations, that he takes each day as it comes, concentrates on that situation.
“I feel like I came back here as a better player last year -- smarter, more focused, and I feel like that same thing coming back this time,” Matthews said. “I look at it like it’s a journey, man. I’m having a good time on it, too. I feel great, best I’ve felt in a long time.”