ARLINGTON, Texas — Before all 6 feet, 4 inches, 310 pounds, and $103 million of him disappeared for most of Sunday night, Fletcher Cox had spent a good portion of Thursday afternoon talking a better game than he or his teammates played against the Dallas Cowboys. A prime-time game, with first place in the NFC East at stake, was creeping closer, but Cox was insistent: No, whatever happened Sunday night at AT&T Stadium, good or bad, would not define the Eagles’ season. It was important, but it wasn’t everything.
“Getting a win is really big, but for us, we need to get another win on the road,” Cox had said. “We’re 1-2 on the road this year, and it’s not good. Good football teams win on the road. For us, we need to go down there and focus. We’re playing a team that we’re used to seeing every year. They’re coming off a loss. We’re coming off a loss. To me, it’s going to come down to who wants it more.”
That last line Cox delivered is usually nothing more than a cliché, the kind of thing an empty-headed, ex-jock tries to pass off as genuine insight during a roundtable show. But this time, the Cowboys — and, in their own, ugly way, the Eagles — infused it with meaning and relevance.
This wasn’t merely a 37-10 Dallas victory and a top-to-bottom embarrassment for the Eagles. This was another example of the Eagles’ defense offering little resistance to an opponent and letting a game get away. This was a first half that saw the Cowboys overwhelm the Eagles, outgaining them 266 to 95, happily accepting two early turnovers and using them as springboards to two touchdowns, becoming the fifth team to score at least 20 points in a game’s first 30 minutes against Jim Schwartz’s unit.
It wasn’t that the Cowboys wanted it more. It was that the Eagles didn’t seem to want it at all, and there was nothing from their defense to suggest it was capable, as Schwartz is coaching it right now, of turning the tide. Sure, Dallas Goedert’s burping up the football on the Eagles’ first possession and DeMarcus Lawrence’s strip-sack of Carson Wentz weren’t the defense’s doing. But just because the circumstances didn’t favor Schwartz and his group doesn’t mean they did their jobs well, doesn’t absolve them from the ragged tackling and predictable deep-strike completions and too-frequent failures on third down.
“That is not what we do,” Cox said. “That’s not our defense. That’s not how we do things around here.”
Wrong. It’s what they’ve done for much of this season, and Cox, the defensive tackle who is supposed to be the centerpiece and anchor of the defense, was a guilty party Sunday night, too. He did not record a tackle in the first half; it wasn’t until he sacked and forced a fumble by Dak Prescott in the third quarter that there was reason to believe he was even playing.
The Cowboys took care to double-team Cox as much as possible, but that fact doesn’t hold up as an excuse for either him or his teammates. “I’ve got to expect it,” he said, “and I’ve got to find a way.” The Eagles are paying him as if he were the equal of the NFL’s best defensive tackle, the Rams’ Aaron Donald, and even if Cox can’t fight through every double team, he can’t afford to go through a full half of football and have two offensive players — Nelson Agholor and Jason Kelce — record more tackles than he does. And if two offensive linemen are occupying Cox, the Eagles’ other defensive linemen should be generating more pass pressure and penetrating into the backfield on more run plays.
Yet there was never a sense Sunday night that the Eagles would or could produce the sort of play that might reverse a game’s momentum — a turnover, a thunderous hit, something, anything. The Cowboys did what they wanted. They dictated to the Eagles. Ezekiel Elliott plowed over Malcolm Jenkins on a 13-yard rumble to the 1-yard line, then scored on the next play. Amari Cooper ran past Rasul Douglas — because everyone runs past Rasul Douglas — and hauled in a 44-yard pass to set up another touchdown. Schwartz had the Eagles play soft coverage on the Cowboys’ final possession of the first half, and Prescott completed three easy throws to Jason Witten for 25 yards, just enough to give mega-legged kicker Brett Maher a chance to drill a 63-yard field goal, which he did.
Throughout his career as a defensive coordinator, Schwartz has built a particular reputation: He doesn’t tinker much. He counts on his front four to create disruption and pressure, and he wants his cornerbacks to cover with toughness and tenacity on the outside. He demands that his players fit themselves into his scheme. That approach helped the Eagles win a Super Bowl two seasons ago, but it’s doing nothing to help them now. If there were ever a time for him to get creative, to brainstorm for a solution that he wouldn’t otherwise consider, this would be it. Move Douglas to safety. Try a new alignment to free up Cox. Truth be told, it might be too late for such ideas. The Eagles are 3-4, and what happened Sunday night didn’t define their or their defense’s entire season. But it defined enough of it. Too much of it.