The whole sequence goes from smooth to sickening so quickly for Nelson Agholor — his stutter-step off the line of scrimmage to shake free of Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver, the fluidity with which he subtly bends his route toward the sideline and widens the distance between him and safety Keanu Neal, the football there, right there, arriving so close to his body that Agholor doesn’t even have to straighten his arms to catch it, thrown so perfectly that Carson Wentz might as well have handed it to him.
All of it takes less than five seconds: the stutter-step, the throw, the recognition that once Agholor catches the ball he will probably cruise into the end zone for a 60-yard touchdown and an improbable Eagles victory Sunday night, the appreciation for how easy Agholor made the whole thing look at a time in a game — less than two minutes left in regulation, his team down by three points — when nothing should look easy.
And then he drops it.
When he hired Doug Pederson in 2016, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said that he had been looking for a head coach with emotional intelligence. The term has been affixed to Pederson ever since. It is regarded as one of his greatest coaching strengths. And no Eagles player has forced Pederson to display that quality as frequently, and as profoundly, as Agholor has.
For most of that 2016 season, his second with the Eagles after they had selected him in the first round of the 2015 draft, Agholor was a miserable soul on the football field, so lost in his own head and so lacking in self-confidence that he struggled to carry out the simplest requirement of his job: catching the football.
His career, still young, seemed in tatters, especially after Pederson benched him for a game late in the season. The decision was a risky one for Pederson. He made it, he said, to allow Agholor to take a step back and clear his head — to go through all the clichéd stages of recovery for an athlete in a slump. But there was always a chance that Agholor would use the time away only to dwell on his mistakes, that he couldn’t let them go.
As it turned out, the decision was one of the best of Pederson’s tenure with the Eagles. Agholor caught a long touchdown pass against the Giants in his first game back in the lineup. He became an often-spectacular slot receiver during the 2017-18 season.
No player in Super Bowl LII caught more passes than Agholor, who caught eight, including two for first downs on the Eagles’ game-winning touchdown drive. He caught 64 passes last season, played in all 16 regular-season games, left little doubt that he was a reliable part of the offense.
There was scuttlebutt this past offseason that the Eagles might trade him; this is the final year of his contract, after all. But they didn’t trade him. Why not benefit from one more season with an important member of your offense?
And then, in a game in which Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson play just a handful of snaps because of soft-tissue injuries, Carson Wentz throws a perfect pass to Nelson Agholor — to this reliable and important and often-spectacular member of the Eagles offense. And in a game in which Pederson trusted him enough to line him up at two wide-receiver spots because of those injuries to Jeffery and Jackson, in a game in which he caught eight passes, including a touchdown on fourth-and-goal in the third quarter and a 43-yard heave from Wentz on fourth-and-14 to extend the Eagles’ final drive, Nelson Agholor drops that perfect pass.
After the game, someone asked Agholor if the glare from the stadium lights had caused him to lose sight of the football. Agholor acknowledged that it had, then swerved his answer away from excuse-making.
“I’ve still got to make that play,” he told reporters. “It’s something we prepare for in pregame. We were trying to track it in the lights. … I’ve got to find a way to catch them all — remember where it’s going to be, look it all the way in.”
Before the players boarded the team bus to leave Mercedes-Benz Stadium and fly back to Philadelphia, Pederson pulled Agholor aside. Emotional intelligence. The Eagles had lost a game, but it would be worse, much worse, if they lost Agholor, too.
“I told him one play is not going to define him or our season,” Pederson said Monday. “It’s Week 2 in the National Football League. We’ve got a bunch of football left, and he’s a great player for us. I told him just to keep his head up, keep working.”