They call it “church mode,” as in taking a knee, but when Miles Sanders broke loose to seal the Eagles’ 17-9 win over the Cowboys, he slid feet first on the Lincoln Financial Field grass.
The running back could have tried for more yards or for the end zone to pad his stats or even to please his fantasy football owners. But his heads-up decision only reinforced the notion that he is now a rookie in name only.
Sanders might be mature beyond his 22 years, but he plays with a youthful exuberance that has invigorated the Eagles over the last month. He hasn’t been the only one. Dallas Goedert, Greg Ward, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Boston Scott – young guys all – have each in their own way helped inject some oxygen into a team that was on life support only weeks ago.
The Eagles took one giant leap toward securing the NFC East title Sunday and now only need to take one last (small?) step in beating the New York Giants next week. It seems like a dream considering how dire the forecast has looked at times, but it might not have happened had it not been for the skill-position youth movement on offense.
“It’s definitely true,” Eagles center and captain Jason Kelce said. “Those guys bring a lot of energy. Every time they get the ball in their hand, they are looking to make a play. They’re excited to be playing in the NFL and I think the youthful enthusiasm rubs off on guys.
“I know it sure does rub off on me when I see them making guys miss and breaking tackles.”
Sanders, for the second game in a row, gained more than 150 yards from scrimmage with an array of dazzling rushes and runs after catch. Goedert assumed a larger role with starting tight end Zach Ertz battling a rib injury and caught career highs of nine receptions for 91 yards and a touchdown.
Ward, once undrafted and unwanted, caught 4 of 5 targets for 71 yards, including a key 38-yard grab late in the third quarter. Arcega-Whiteside has struggled to gain his footing, but he caught 2 of 2 passes on the Eagles’ opening drive for 39 yards. And while Scott was kept mostly in check on offense, he had two significant second-half kick returns for 63 yards.
“I’m so proud of these guys, so proud of them,” quarterback Carson Wentz said. “It’s been really fun. Obviously, we’ve had our backs against the wall for a while now. You can see that sense of belief that each of these guys has. You see it each week with them getting better and better and believing in themselves and believing in this team.”
Unhampered by veteran receivers who may have their own agendas, Wentz has played his best football of the season during the Eagles’ three-game winning streak. He generated back-to-back comeback victories over the Giants and Redskins and was near perfect Sunday without right tackle Lane Johnson, among others.
While the youngsters have clearly rejuvenated the quarterback who turns 27 next week, the losses of DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, and Nelson Agholor still can’t be understated. The veterans are proven commodities. Who knows how the Eagles offense would have looked had Jackson played more than essentially one game?
But Jeffery and Agholor, partly because of injuries, never seemed to gel with Wentz this season. Questions about their returns – and Jackson’s – will have to be saved until after the season, whenever that ends, although it might be time to move on from all three.
The Eagles shouldn’t get caught up in youth-movement hysteria, however, because while Sanders and Goedert will factor significantly into the future, Ward and Scott might be only role players moving forward, and the jury is still out on Arcega-Whiteside.
But what the youngsters have shown is a proficiency to perform when there is outside criticism and playoff pressure.
“Everybody wants to doubt us, everybody wants to say negative things about us, and obviously we’re blocking it out, but we got nothing to lose other than just go out there and make plays,” Arcega-Whiteside said.
Arcega-Whiteside caught Wentz’s first pass for 27 yards even though it was thrown a touch behind him. And he caught another for 12 yards several plays later on third-and-10. Ward caught an early third-down pass, toasted the Cowboys’ zone with a double move for 38 yards, and even lined up once in the wildcat and ran for 5 yards.
“I don’t look at those guys any differently than I look at Alshon or D-Jack,” guard Brandon Brooks said. “And I don’t think anybody on the team looks at those guys any differently than those other two guys I mentioned. We have the same amount of confidence and faith in those guys.”
Goedert had been inconsistent through the first three months of his sophomore season. But his receiving ability has never been in doubt, and he’s been reliable down the stretch. He caught Wentz’s lone touchdown toss on a “stick-nod” route into the end zone, and he pulled in eight other grabs, the most important a 22-yard fade on third down in the fourth.
“When Zach went down it’s tough, we didn’t have a whole lot of bodies, but we did everything we could,” Goedert said. “Yeah, I got a few of his routes. It was fun. He’s got to get better. We need him next week.”
Ertz, who still caught four passes for 28 yards, was unavailable after the game. He was clearly in distress as he dressed and left the locker room. But if the seven-year veteran isn’t available, Goedert will be ready, and Sanders will likely shoulder more.
His touches continue to increase. The Cowboys were intent on stopping Sanders on the ground. He gained only 41 yards on his first 19 carries, although one was for a 1-yard touchdown. But he also caught a variety of passes for 77 yards and was elusive in the open field.
“They were keying on me a lot, but I was just grinding out the whole game. I was a little upset the last one had to break like that,” Sanders said of his slide that harkened back to Brian Westbrook’s similar slide in a December 2007 win over the Cowboys, "but I had to go into ‘church mode” and slide and secure the ‘W.’”
It was electric.