The Eagles are a one-win team. On merit.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they are a bad team, nor does it mean that they are a hopeless team. The former occasionally has been true this season, particularly against the Rams. The latter has never been true, particularly in the NFC East, where 1-4-1 lands the Eagles in second place.
With a bullet.
As wretched as their record stands, and as flawed as their roster lies, these Birds aren’t cooked. Their point differential in their last four games is just minus-4. They came back to tie the Bengals, won at San Francisco, trailed the Steelers by two points with three minutes to play in Pittsburgh, and lost to the Ravens by two on Sunday after they lost Miles Sanders, their No. 1 offensive weapon, and Zach Ertz, who once was a top-5 tight end. They’re close. Here’s why.
No sport requires buy-in more than professional football. Every season, the Eagles buy in for Doug Pederson. They could have quit against Pittsburgh, and there was no reason to believe they could win Sunday after injuries to Sanders and Ertz left them with just two offensive starters – quarterback Carson Wentz and center Jason Kelce – but they didn’t, to their coach’s delight.
“I see the way these guys practice, the way they attack every day from a preparation standpoint. There’s no quit. Guys are flying around. They’re bringing energy,” Pederson told me Wednesday. “We are 1-4-1, and we have to own that, but at the same time you wouldn’t be able to tell. Guys aren’t hanging their heads. They’re sticking together, encouraging each other, believing in one another."
That’s the spirit that won them Super Bowl LII, and it’s the spirit that pushed them to unlikely postseason appearances each of the past two years.
Over the last four weeks, through toughness and talent, Carson Wentz finally became the team’s unquestioned leader after five years in the league. The Birds opened 0-2-1 mainly because he played so poorly. But since the fourth quarter of Game Three against the Bengals, Wentz has committed just two bad turnovers, interceptions to the 49ers and Steelers. Only one or two of the 14 sacks he’s taken have been his fault. He also has run 20 times for 117 yards and three touchdowns, and his teammates love that. His passer rating in those last 13 quarters, plus overtime, actually rose, to 78.9, which, while lousy, is about 15 points better than he was. His supporting cast rarely supported him. But then, much of his projected supporting cast needed support themselves in the form of splints and crutches.
On Thursday night, the Eagles host the 1-5 Giants, whose offensive coordinator is former Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. The Eagles then host the 2-4 Cowboys, whose head coach is Mike McCarthy and current quarterback is Andy Dalton. Then, coming off a Week 9 bye, the Eagles visit those same Giants, whose offensive coordinator, in all likelihood, still will be Jason Garrett. Despite a bad start, the Eagles' short-term outlook screams 4-4-1, and, incredibly, divisional dominance.
DeSean Jackson, 33, has played in just three of a possible 23 full games since he returned to Philadelphia in 2019. That includes the last four Eagles games, this time with a hamstring injury. But if Jackson can make it through Thursday night he’ll have a 10-day break until the Cowboys visit, then a 14-day break before his next game. So, by Game Nine, we could see the Action Jackson who signed a three-year, $27.9 million contract extension.
The same is true of right tackle Lane Johnson, the best player on the team, who missed Sunday’s game with a lingering ankle issue, and cornerback Avonte Maddox.
Without setbacks, running back Miles Sanders (knee), tight end Dallas Goedert (ankle), mysteriously slow healer Alshon Jeffery (foot; heart?), and invaluable defensive tackle Malik Jackson (thigh) could return next week and be 100% after the bye. They will be the most talented team in the NFC East, and that will only increase with the eventual return of Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz (ankle) and speedy rookie receiver Jalen Reagor (thumb).
Little talent at linebacker and struggles in the secondary overshadow how good the defensive line has played. The Eagles' 21 sacks ranks fourth in the NFL, but that’s mainly because the No. 1 and No. 3 teams, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, respectively, played against the Eagles' leaky offense.
The Eagles' pass rush ranks third, according to profootballfocus.com, despite not a single top-line edge rusher ranking higher than 24th, and that’s Josh Sweat, who falls about sixth in the D-line pecking order. Meanwhile, Malik Jackson, Javon Hargrave, and, of course, Fletcher Cox all rank among the top 25 interior defensive linemen. Jackson’s absence will be felt through the bye, but Hassan Ridgeway, who ranks 36th, will see more playing time, and end Vinny Curry, who came off the injured reserve list Sunday (hamstring), can play inside.
The Giants are the worst pass-blocking team in the NFL. The Cowboys were atrocious the past two weeks after quarterback Dak Prescott got hurt. Like the Eagles, they’re down to just one projected starting offensive lineman, max.
The Birds will hunt, and they will eat, in these next three weeks.
After Thursday, the Eagles will have started the same offensive line in consecutive weeks just once in seven games. Assuming both Johnson and right guard Matt Pryor (COVID-19 list) return, they will have the same starters for the third time overall, but if either does not play they will have their sixth different configuration in seven games. They haven’t necessarily played well, but – grading on a curve weighted by inexperience and lack of pedigree – they have played well enough for the Eagles to win.
Former rugby player and current left tackle Jordan Mailata, a seventh-round pick in 2018, is playing well enough to keep the spot if 38-year-old Jason Peters returns from his latest injury. Undrafted second-year guard Nate Herbig has been astoundingly good at left guard. Pryor, a sixth-rounder in 2018, was sorely missed Sunday. And fourth-round rookie Jack Driscoll, now out with an ankle injury, held the fort while Johnson recovered.
The common denominator: offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, the Eagles' best position coach since Ted Williams turned running backs Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy into stars.
Practice squad graduate Travis Fulgham has 18 catches for 284 yards and three touchdowns in his first three career starts. Greg Ward has 52 catches for 445 yards and three TDs since he became part of the offense 12 games ago, in Game 12 last season. With or without Jackson, Jeffery and Reagor, the Eagles have discovered two proficient pass catchers – even if they were under their noses all the time.