ARLINGTON, Texas – The Eagles won the coin toss and for only the second time in Doug Pederson’s tenure as coach, he elected to receive. The first time: Three years ago, at the Bengals, a game the Eagles would lose, 32-14, after spotting their opponents a 29-0 lead.
It would be an omen of the carnage that would follow Sunday night.
The Eagles were slaughtered by the Cowboys, 37-10, at AT&T Stadium. It was a full team effort. Jim Schwartz’s defense was porous and ineffective. Dave Fipp’s special teams were weak and mistake-prone. But Pederson’s offense was utterly uninspiring.
“It starts with me, so I’m going to own this one,” said Pederson, who called the loss one of his one or two worst as coach. “This one will be on me.”
From the toss to the final whistle, nearly every choice Pederson made was either the wrong one or would backfire on the Eagles. And for really the first time since that Bengals loss, the coach has come to an impasse.
A change might be needed. It isn’t necessarily time to panic -- yet. The Eagles are 3-4 and only one game behind the Cowboys in the NFC East. But something is rotten in the state of the Eagles, and it might be systemic.
“What has to change is we have to roll up our sleeves and go to work,” Pederson said. “We have to figure out what’s going on. We got nine games left. ... We got the guys in the locker room to get it fixed."
Each week, there’s an altogether different reason for the Eagles losing, and even in winning ugly. Carson Wentz had been the least of the issues, but the franchise quarterback hasn’t done enough to lift the offense the last two weeks.
He had three turnovers against the Cowboys, two on successive possessions in the fourth quarter when the Eagles still had time to mount a comeback. But there was hardly a moment when it felt as if they would be able to overcome another dreadful start.
It took just five plays for the Eagles to blunder away possession when tight end Dallas Goedert had the ball stripped by linebacker Jaylon Smith on the opening drive. And then after the Cowboys converted the turnover into a touchdown, Wentz fumbled when defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence toasted tackle Lane Johnson for a blindside sack.
Dallas would score another seven points to increase their lead to 14-0, and for the sixth time in seven games, the Eagles trailed by double digits in the first half. It’s hard to stick to the script with giveaways and porous defense, but slow offensive starts have plagued Pederson’s team for the last two seasons.
The offense would rebound and score, thanks in part to two Cowboys personal fouls, with a 7-play, 87-yard series – the Eagles’ longest this season – that ended with a Goedert 28-yard touchdown catch. But it would be the high-water mark for the night.
Pederson, inexplicably, has turtled up in his play-calling. Last week, the Eagles went three-and-out on their first possession with three run plays. And on Sunday they meekly ran three straight times on their ensuing drive after they scored – the last on third-and-4 from their own 16 – and would punt.
“I called the run,” Pederson said of the third down handoff to running back Miles Sanders that netted only three yards. “They were going to play zone defense and we were going to run the ball.”
Wentz might have checked to other runs based upon his pre-snap reads, just as he did on the opening series against the Vikings. But the Eagles needed to be aggressive. They needed quicker strikes against a balanced Cowboys offense that controlled the clock.
The Eagles’ run-pass ratio on their first four possessions was 11 to 6. And by the time they got the ball back for the fifth time, Dallas had built a 21-7 lead, after a 12-play, 71-yard, touchdown drive.
“We felt like we had a good run plan,” Pederson said. “There were some kills [from pass to run] in there for the quarterback to get to. You fall down, 14-0, something’s got to change and it kind of takes you out of your rhythm.”
Wentz is the Eagles’ best offensive weapon, and yet, he wasn’t given the opportunity to do what he does best, whether it’s with his strong arm from the pocket, or extending passes in scramble mode.
The same could essentially be said of the Pederson and offensive coordinator Mike Groh’s neglect of their second-best weapon: Zach Ertz. The Pro Bowl tight end didn’t have a single target in the first half. He hasn’t seen a first-quarter attempt in four games.
“I don’t know, man,” Ertz said about the lack of early targets after a long pause. “I got to play better, look internally see how I can get open better, get open earlier.”
Ertz has been drawing additional attention this season. Defensive coordinators have figured out that if you take him out, the Eagles just don’t have a viable second alternative. But Ertz said Dallas didn’t double team him early.
“Not today,” he said.
Pederson deserves ultimate responsibility for the Eagles’ offensive inefficiencies this season. He signs off on the game plan and calls the plays. But there’s just no avoiding the elephant that is no longer in the offensive room.
Whatever it was that Pederson had with Frank Reich, it can’t just be a coincidence that the latter’s departure after the Super Bowl and Groh’s promotion have overlapped with the offensive struggles.
The Eagles have shown some offensive imagination this season, most notably with Sanders as a receiver. But wide receiver DeSean Jackson’s absence and the lack of a consistent downfield threat only forced their hand. And to no surprise, the Cowboys effectively neutralized Sanders with a safety when he ran routes.
The offensive line, meanwhile, hasn’t held up. Left tackle Jason Peters missed his first full game with a knee injury and it’s fair to speculate that even when he returns, he may not be near anywhere his former self. Rookie Andre Dillard, predictably, wasn’t up to replacing Peters and often got pushed around by Cowboys defensive end Robert Quinn.
Wentz was sacked three times, hit five other times, and pressured throughout.
“It’s got to get better,” Pederson said of the Eagles’ pass protection. “That’s a good pass rush, though.”
The receivers have also been uninspiring for most of the season. Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, and Mack Hollins – who has just one catch in the last four games – caught only a combined four of 10 targets for 62 yards. Agholor, again, couldn’t track a seemingly catchable deep throw from Wentz.
“I made a move on the guy and I’m starting to run to my landmark and I get closer and I’m seeing it low in trajectory," Agholor said of a pass that he appeared to alligator arm. “It is what it is. I can’t really explain that. We always see big plays, and we see some that just miss, and it sucks because we’re on the end of not making them.”
Said Wentz: “I thought we had a touchdown when I threw it.”
Sure, you could point to Wentz’s receiving options as reason not to throw, but Pederson effectively took them out of the game with his tepid play-calling. It was arguably one of his worst performances since becoming head coach.
Even Pederson, who had guaranteed a victory at the beginning of last week, wasn’t going to argue.