CLEVELAND -- Doug Pederson seemed surprised by the question. Carson Wentz shrugged it off.
Who could have imagined, when the Eagles’ season began, that whether to bench the franchise quarterback would become a burning issue?
“He is our starter. No question about it. ... I think if you get to that spot where you don’t start him or you bench him, you’re sending the wrong message to your football team, that the season’s over,” Pederson said after Sunday’s dismal 22-17 loss to the host Cleveland Browns. “That’s a bad message. We have to work through this. When times get tough, sometimes that might be the easy thing to do. This business is about work, this business is about detailing, having ownership. ... That’s coaches and players, that’s not one guy ... this sport’s bigger than one guy. We all have a hand in it, and we all have to fix it.”
Wentz’s two interceptions Sunday gave him a solid grasp on the league lead, with 14. He was asked his reaction to Pederson being repeatedly questioned on whether the team would be better off with rookie backup Jalen Hurts, and how Wentz evaluates his own play at 3-6-1.
“You guys can ask whatever questions you want. I know that’s part of the deal,” Wentz said. “That’s always a scrutinized position, playing quarterback, and that’s what I signed up for when I came on to play quarterback, going back to high school. So I can take it. I can wear it. It is what it is.”
Then Wentz reached for a stratagem he has leaned on a lot lately, asking himself rhetorical questions and then answering them. Maybe he likes his own questions better than the ones he’s hearing from reporters.
“Are we playing as good as we can as a team? No. Am I playing my best football? No. There’s some circumstances out there today, that we left some plays on the field,” he said. “We’ll be critical, we’ll go back and watch the tape ... at the end of the day, that stuff is what it is. You guys can ask whatever questions you want, bring up whatever you want, and for me, I’m just going to put my head down and go to work.”
Wentz’s words dramatically underplayed the reality of where the team is, heading into next Monday’s game against Seattle, the second installment of a five-game stretch against teams with winning records. Is there a more pathetic, bedraggled offense in the NFL than the Eagles’ right now? A team that regularly makes more gut-wrenching, game-changing mistakes?
Hard to imagine there is. (Hey, we can do this, too!) The visitors converted their first third-down opportunity of the game, then went 1-for-9 during the part of the game when the outcome was being decided, not much of an improvement on last week’s 0-for-9 at the Giants.
“We’re not sustaining drives and staying on the field,” Wentz said. “That’s something we’re going to have to take a hard look at.”
This was despite the COVID-19-related absence of Cleveland pass rusher Myles Garrett, the best player on the Browns’ roster.
Wentz completed seven of his first nine passes, for 90 yards, but one of the two throws he didn’t complete was a pick-six. Then he completed three of his next 12 -- yes, there were drops, and receivers who couldn’t get open -- and took a terrible safety.
The Eagles never led, and they found a way to trail by double digits for the seventh time in 10 games, but the strangest thing was that for much of the day, you could say the visitors were doing a lot of what they came to the shores of Lake Erie to do, in a cold, miserable rain. They kept the Browns’ impressive running attack at bay well into the fourth quarter. They ran it effectively themselves. But two awful turnovers, the sack for a safety, and defensive breakdowns that seemed to occur right after Eagles’ scores made for a maddening exercise in futility.
It hardly matters, at 3-6-1, even in the NFC East -- though the Eagles still lead the division -- but injuries continued to pile up. Right tackle Lane Johnson (shoulder) and nickel corner Cre’Von LeBlanc (ankle) left the game and could not return. Left tackle Jason Peters, center Jason Kelce, defensive end Derek Barnett, and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox were in and out.
The offensive-line substitutions seemed to play a role in the offense’s struggles. With left guard Isaac Seumalo returning from a seven-game knee injury absence, and Matt Pryor starting at right guard, the Eagles fielded their ninth different starting group in 10 games. Eventually, Luke Juriga got snaps at center, Jack Driscoll at right tackle, and Jordan Mailata at left tackle and right tackle.
“The thing with the O-line is that these guys rely on each other, and the more they play together, the more they anticipate what a defense might present,” Pederson said. “Any time you have as many moving pieces as we have had, it throws that rhythm out. It has been a challenge this season, no question.”
Right from the start, the game was classic 2020 Eagles; if they had wanted to twist the knife in their fans’ guts, they couldn’t have planned anything better.
On their first drive, they moved the ball methodically from their 25, taking nine plays, seven of them runs, to get to Cleveland’s 5. Then Miles Sanders went into the middle on first-and-goal, got stood up, and fumbled, with Browns safety Karl Joseph recovering.
“I gotta be better. No excuses. ... I exposed myself in there, and they got one,” said Sanders, who rushed 11 times for 63 yards in the first half, and five times for 3 yards in the second half. He said the Browns’ linebackers started shooting the gaps, on a day that was less than ideal for passing.
This dispiriting turn of events looked even worse as the Browns moved downfield from their 4, eventually netting first-and-goal from the Eagles’ 1 on an Avonte Maddox pass interference penalty.
Ah, but somehow the Eagles’ defense gained a foothold, helped by a bad Baker Mayfield miss of wide-open tight end Austin Hooper on second down. On fourth down, Kareem Hunt tried the middle and initially was awarded a touchdown before replay showed his forearm was down as he propelled himself the final foot or so to the line.
So, did the Eagles’ offense, granted this reprieve, take control? It cruelly gave its fans hope that it was doing so, moving 53 yards to the Cleveland 46, but tight end Richard Rodgers missed his block, Wentz got blasted as he threw, the ball blooped up, linebacker Sione Takitaki caught it, and nobody got close to Takitaki as he redeemed the pick-six.
In the third quarter, just when it seemed the Eagles might never score again, the defense again stepped up. Cox stripped Mayfield, Alex Singleton recovered, and on the offense’s first snap, Wentz had plenty of time to throw. This surprising development led to a 19-yard touchdown pass to Rodgers, in the back of the end zone.
So the Eagles were even, 7-7, for just a moment, but the Browns’ next offensive snap was a 42-yard completion to KhaDarel Hodge against Jalen Mills, which set up a 46-yard Cody Parkey (yes, him) field goal for a 10-7 Browns lead.
It was 12-7 when Peters, playing perhaps the worst game of his life, was swatted aside by Olivier Vernon, who sacked Wentz in the end zone.
“You gotta throw it, throw it away,” Pederson said.
After a 43-yard Jake Elliott field goal, calamity again ensued. Defensive end Joe Ostman, making his NFL debut, bounced off Nick Chubb’s stiff-arm as Chubb cut back to the middle and the Browns’ smooth, powerful runner motored 54 yards, setting up a 5-yard Hunt TD run that gave the home team a 19-12 advantage, with 9 minutes and 13 seconds remaining. Hunt hurdled Mills, who had a particularly terrible day.
Later, Wentz extinguished a drive by overthrowing Alshon Jeffery for a Denzel Ward pick.
“The chemistry just wasn’t there on that one,” Wentz said.
He eventually found Dallas Goedert for a meaningless 4-yard touchdown, with 30 seconds remaining.
Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham and the other players who spoke via Zoom remained defiant.
“We talk about winners win and losers just figure out how to lose, and we ain’t doing that,” Graham said, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. “We’re winners here.”