Jim Schwartz said he didn’t want to review the Eagles’ 2020 season, with a game left to play against visiting Washington. But in discussing Sunday’s 37-17 loss at Dallas, which rendered this week’s finale meaningless from the home team’s perspective, Schwartz might as well have been talking about the season overall.
Schwartz, detailing his attempts to arrange coverage of the Dallas wideouts while also not giving easy yardage on runs and dump-offs to running back Ezekiel Elliott, said: “At times, we had too many fires and not enough hoses.”
That is the story of the Eagles’ defense in 2020. It has to do with injuries, a little, but also with a roster that didn’t portend great success even back in the preseason, when everyone was healthy. A defensive coordinator whose job might be in jeopardy after a disappointing year (the Eagles are tied for 20th in points allowed, 26.5 per game) doesn’t want to go on Zoom and blame the general manager. So Schwartz emphasized the importance of the Eagles’ quest to keep Washington from winning the wretched NFC East on the Eagles’ field.
“We’ve got a lot of individual things that players still can accomplish. We’ve got guys that are trying to earn their way in the league, and ... we have a division opponent that’s going to come and try to celebrate on our field,” Schwartz said.
“We’ve got to have a no-hat rule this week. We can’t let opponents put division-win hats on at the Linc. There’s a lot of pride in that, and all our focus has to be to accomplishing that this week.”
Success in the Great Hat Crusade, of course, would mean giving the Dallas Cowboys or New York Giants occasion to don such headwear. So this is important, why, exactly?
Maybe because, as Schwartz noted, he has never done a postseason wrap-up news conference. So, come up with some good hat talk, toss in a couple of Schwartz’s treasured baseball analogies. Michael Jacquet, at Dallas, was like a pitcher who takes the mound without his best stuff. “Sometimes they’re going to hit a homer off of you, and you’ve got to be able to come back and throw that fastball again, and I have confidence that he will,” Schwartz said.
Pretty soon the allotted time is up, and you haven’t had to talk about, say, the fact that everyone knew, after doing virtually nothing to replace departed free agent linebackers Nigel Bradham and Kamu Grugier-Hill, the team did not have enough talent there. It spent a third-round pick on Davion Taylor, inexperienced as a college linebacker and as a football player. Taylor was a long-term project from the beginning, and indeed he had no impact on the defense (32 snaps) before going on injured reserve Dec. 9 with a knee injury. The lone significant veteran the Eagles signed, ex-Charger Jatavis Brown, retired as training camp commenced.
The linebacking got a little better when Nate Gerry, who might be one of Schwartz’s all-time favorite players, went on injured reserve at the end of October, replaced by Alex Singleton. If he were inclined to discuss it, Schwartz might say that Singleton was still learning the system and could not have supplanted Gerry before Gerry’s ankle injury, but there is no denying that Singleton has been more effective.
The defensive line, which is Schwartz’s big emphasis and where the Eagles have spent much of their money, has been good (46 sacks) until a recent run of injuries. It would be interesting to talk to Schwartz about whether the front-four-oriented, wide-nine approach to defense that made his reputation 20 years ago at Tennessee is still as effective, as offenses evolve.
The Eagles got rid of 2017 cornerback draftees Sidney Jones (second round) and Rasul Douglas (third) before the season. Douglas has been a solid starter in a very different Carolina defensive system; Jones played well in seven games with Jacksonville, but has continued to be plagued by injury.
For the Eagles, this was admitting drafting disaster at a key position, and it also set up 2018 fourth-round pick Avonte Maddox as the starting outside corner opposite the team’s top free agent signee, Darius Slay. Maddox, a 5-foot-9, oft-injured overachiever in his first two seasons, continued to be 5-9 and oft-injured. He played in 10 games, frequently overmatched by bigger receivers before an ankle injury sent him to IR. Slay, despite a few bad games, has been more or less as advertised, but as Schwartz noted, teams don’t throw at him when they can avoid it. Slay’s interception Sunday was his first of the season. The Eagles’ 1.2% interception rate ranks 31st. They give up 7.34 yards per pass play, which ranks 27th.
At Dallas, Maddox’s replacement was undrafted rookie Jacquet, who is 6-foot-1, 203, but new to the position and to the NFL. Jacquet was destroyed in the first half by Michael Gallup (six catches, 121 yards, two touchdowns), so Schwartz moved him to the other side, where he quickly gave up a long completion to Amari Cooper. Schwartz finally put Jacquet on the bench and moved Jalen Mills from safety to corner – something he’d wanted to avoid, since, with Rodney McLeod on IR (knee surgery Tuesday), the safety group was inexperienced. (Releasing offseason free agent signee Will Parks just before McLeod went down was a very Eagles thing to do.)
Sunday, the Eagles stopped giving up huge plays, with Mills opposite Slay, but by then Dallas had a lead, and Elliott suddenly clicked into gear. The defensive line was missing Fletcher Cox (stinger), and Mills was no longer lurking at strong safety.
This was Mills’ first season as an NFL safety, and he had his ups and downs, more ups than some fans acknowledge. He wasn’t helped by having to move back and forth according to how the corners were doing. It’s fair to say Mills didn’t come close to replacing the coach-on-the-field savvy of Malcolm Jenkins, who was allowed to go back to New Orleans as a free agent. Before the Eagles played the Saints on Dec. 13, Schwartz gave an extended soliloquy on Jenkins’ value to the unit; it was very possible to infer that Schwartz had not been in favor of letting Jenkins walk.
Asked Tuesday about losing Jenkins and whether he had the personnel he needed in the defensive backfield this year, Schwartz said, in part: “The way I consider all that stuff is, that’s just part of this job. You’re going to be shorthanded sometimes. Sometimes you’re going to [have] a full complement.
“It’s part of the challenge of this job ... trying to figure out a way to solve those problems, trying to figure out a way to minimize matchups or maximize matchups, go with your strengths, try to minimize your weaknesses. At times this year, we haven’t done a good enough job with that. I haven’t done a good enough job with that.
“That’s just part of the NFL, and there’s no excuses in this league.”