Philadelphia needed this. A diversion. A release. Some vehicle of unity, even if that unity is rage.
Your 2020 Philadelphia Eagles.
With a backdrop of displays in support of social justice, playing against a team that finally admitted its nickname was offensive, Philadelphia’s football team played a football game in this moment of COVID-19 and strife.
Well, they played 20 minutes of a football game, anyway. They turned a 17-0 lead into a 27-17 loss. They saw a decimated roster wither further. Carson Wentz and the Birds left Landover, Md., as the newest, biggest target of a town whose sports fans despise the basketball team’s front office and the baseball team’s bullpen.
The airwaves will hum with outrage and anger and unrelenting passion.
This is the normalcy Philly needs, from its frustrated fans to its grateful players.
“When training camp started, I didn’t even know if we were going to [complete] training camp,” said tight end Dallas Goedert, who finished with a career-high 101 yards from eight catches, which were one shy of a career high. “There were definitely thoughts in the back of my mind, saying, ‘There’s no way we’re going to play the game. It’s a pandemic!' We’re not in the NBA, where we can go in a bubble and isolate from everybody.”
For the moment, despite simply trusting players, coaches, and support staff to be smart away from the buildings and to follow protocols at work, the NFL is underway.
“Credit to players, coaches, the [support] personnel, and whoever else comes into contact for doing their part," Goedert said.
There has been just one confirmed case in the league in the last two weeks, but the next few days likely will provide a more-accurate forecast of how the season will work, now that teams have begun boarding planes, trains, and automobiles; staying in hotels; visiting stadiums; and breathing the air other players exhale.
Wentz certainly looked healthy in the first 20 minutes on Sunday. He’s bigger, and stronger, but maybe not much better. While he delivered an elite performance through the first one-third of the event — he began the game in a zone that justified his $128 million contract — as the game progressed, he looked like a man stealing money.
Maybe Wentz should be graded on a curve. After all, 60 percent of head coach Doug Pederson’s offensive line played out of position. A starting receiver, defensive end, and running back all missed the game. Still, Pederson somehow cobbled together a squad that, early in the afternoon, played better than anyone could have imagined ... then reverted to the mean.
Wentz hit Goedert for two first downs, found DeSean Jackson for 19 yards, then found tight end Zach Ertz for a touchdown. He then erased third-and-22 with a 55-yard over-the-head bomb to first-round rookie Jalen Reagor to set up a field goal, then dropped a 34-yard over-the-head dime to Goedert. That made it 17-0 less than 23 minutes into the season. Wentz was accurate. He dropped bombs. He burned blitzes. He began 14-for-18 for 182 yards and two scores. And then he threw two interceptions, lost a fumble, and fired high and wide and short and long. He completed just seven of his next 21 passes for 73 yards, and he finished 24-for-42 for 270 yards.
“I’ve got to be better,” Wentz said. “It starts with me.”
It doesn’t end with him, of course.
The most unbelievable incompletion wasn’t Wentz’s fault. It was a jaw-dropping drop by, of all people, Ertz, over the middle, on fourth down, with just over 4 minutes to play. That won’t help Ertz as he seeks a contract extension. It will dominate water-cooler talk all day Monday — or Zoom talk, anyway. At least there’s something to talk about.
The empty seats at FedEx Field reminded viewers that America remains hostage to the coronavirus pandemic, but the action on the turf lent a degree of normalcy that the NHL and NBA playoff bubbles do not provide. Unpopulated baseball parks come closer, but the NFL rules remain the same: no overly expanded rosters, no seven-inning games, no universal designated hitters.
For 3 ½ hours, just outside the epicenter of the nation’s unrest, fans largely escaped protests, viruses, and the country’s divisive climate.
Fox Sports presented the pregame national anthem without prelude and with virtually no commentary. Without safety Malcolm Jenkins, who was their social conscience and mouthpiece for six seasons, the Eagles stayed in their locker room. While several Washington players raised their fists (Jenkins' chosen form of protest in support of the movement Colin Kaepernick began when he knelt in 2016) no player knelt. Players wore various messages or names of victims of police violence on their helmets. “END RACISM” decorated the back of one end zone, and “IT TAKES ALL OF US” decorated the back of the other, but, for a few hours, the social justice vibe was largely muted.
Philadelphia’s faithful replaced those worries to fret about more-familiar issues: Can the team reach the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season under Pederson? Is the new, faster roster good enough to make it back to the Super Bowl for the second time in four years? Will Wentz, now in his fifth season, now a father and the team’s unquestioned leader, play even better in 2020?
They did so against a Washington team that replaced Jay Gruden with former Eagles assistant Ron Rivera, who once led the Panthers to a Super Bowl. He looks closer to getting back than Pederson does, especially if Wentz plays like he did.
Wentz was responsible for five of the eight sacks he took. He threw a baffling interception late in the second quarter that Washington converted into a touchdown that created the 17-7 halftime differential, then threw another in the third quarter that quickly cut the lead to 17-14.
Pederson wasn’t perfect, either. His fourth-and-4 gamble near midfield at the end of the third quarter led to the tying field goal in the fourth — a clear punting situation for a less-excitable coach, but then, Pederson hasn’t seen a fourth down that doesn’t excite him. He is who he is.
Wentz looked like a quarterback who hadn’t had a preseason, which is exactly what he and every other quarterback are. The pandemic erased all preseason games, diminished all offseason preparations, and imperiled all sports, both professional and amateur.
But NFL football did begin. It started on Thursday night, in Kansas City, where defending Super Bowl champion Andy Reid won his 223rd game. Fifty-eight of them came with Pederson as either a player or an assistant.
Reid’s team looked a lot better than Pederson’s did, but, really, that wasn’t important.
At least they played.