Some mysterious disappearances might never be fully explained.
In that last case, reporters who cover the Eagles got a chance to go straight to the source on Friday, something that would have been much more difficult with, say, Ms. Earhart.
They were able to ask Fulgham how he went from toiling on the practice squad, to becoming the NFL’s most productive wide receiver for a dizzying five-game stretch (29 catches, 435 yards, four touchdowns – roughly six catches and 87 yards per game), to seeing diminished playing time, resulting in eight catches for 89 yards and no touchdowns over the next seven games.
Fulgham’s answers were not revelatory.
He started out with: “I just have to stay the course, keep getting better every day, keep working on my craft. Whenever the team calls on my number, I just need to make a play for them. As regards the dropoff, there’s only one ball to go around, so I’m not too worried about that. But when my time comes again, I’ll be ready.”
Prodded a bit, Fulgham acknowledged that “of course it’s disappointing, you want to do everything you can to help your team, and I wish I was able to do that.”
Fulgham, who has 37 catches, goes into Sunday night’s season finale against Washington tied with tight end Dallas Goedert for the team lead in receiving yards, with 524. Greg Ward has 52 receptions but for only 413 yards. Goedert, who has 46 catches, will not play Sunday night because of a calf injury. So Fulgham stands a good chance of finishing the season as the team’s leading receiver in yardage despite his long decline.
Fulgham blossomed at a time when the Eagles had little depth at wide receiver, few options other than elevating and trusting the second-year player from Old Dominion who’d been cut by the Lions and the Packers after Detroit drafted him in 2019′s sixth round.
First-round rookie Jalen Reagor’s return to health after a five-game absence caused by a broken thumb played a factor in Fulgham’s declining fortunes, as did Alshon Jeffery’s reinstatement after nearly a year-long recovery from foot surgery.
But Fulgham played 88% of the offensive snaps in the first game of his decline, Nov. 15 at the Giants, with Reagor and Jeffery in the lineup. Fulgham was targeted five times, caught one pass for eight yards. The next week, at Cleveland, 98% of the snaps for Fulgham, seven targets, again producing one eight-yard catch.
In the following game, against Seattle, Fulgham’s snap total started to shrink but only to 61%. Two targets, two catches, 16 yards. Next was Green Bay and the midgame benching of Carson Wentz. Fulgham, down to 40% of the snaps, was targeted twice, and was shut out for the first time as an Eagle.
Losing Wentz might have been significant for Fulgham. It was Wentz who called Fulgham a “big-time player” and seemed willing to trust Fulgham even when the not-particularly-speedy 6-foot-2, 215-pound wideout wasn’t wide open.
Fulgham, asked Friday about Wentz, said he remains very engaged with the receivers. “If you mess up, he’ll come to us, coach us up. And he’s always had great energy on the practice field.”
He said Wentz “might even have picked it up” energy-wise since being benched.
One theory has been that Fulgham flourished against zone coverage, struggled against man. Asked about that Friday, Fulgham said ‘that’s not the case at all.” He did not elaborate.
It also has been noted that at Old Dominion, Fulgham had his ups and downs. Mike Zyskowski, who recruited Fulgham to the school, told The Inquirer’s Mike Sielski last month that Fulgham “had to learn how to work. He had to learn how to give maximum effort, how to be a professional every day. I don’t think he knew those practice habits.”
As Fulgham’s production dropped this season, reporters asked Doug Pederson what was going on. Pederson almost never singles out players for anything more than the gentlest of criticisms. But he acknowledged at one point that Fulgham “really has to focus in and practice hard and fast and just prepare himself.”
Asked Friday about his practice habits, Fulgham said: “I think they’re pretty good. For me, myself, I don’t change. I like to say, I stay myself at all times. I’m always working as hard as I can, staying after practice, trying to get better. So, yeah, stay the course.”
Asked what he feels he needs to do to improve, Fulgham said: “I’ll go back to the drawing board and try to get better, and figure out which stuff didn’t work and what did.” He reiterated that “I’m ready for whenever they call my number.”
Could he have played better as the snaps receded?
“Absolutely. Even when I had [152 yards, Oct. 11 at Pittsburgh] I thought I could have played a little better. As a receiver, nothing’s ever going to be perfect, but just go out there and make it your best.”
It’s hard to know how much Fulgham figures into the Eagles’ 2021 plans, but Sunday night might provide an indication. DeSean Jackson isn’t playing. The same goes for tight ends Goedert and Richard Rodgers. Jeffery, who has virtually no chance of being here next season, might not get a lot of snaps or targets.
The coaches are going to look to the young guys – Reagor, sixth-round rookie Quez Watkins, Fulgham, maybe fifth-round rookie John Hightower, who has been inactive the past three weeks. It will be interesting to see who in that group stands out.
“I would like to think that I am [part of the team’s future],” Fulgham said. “But once again, I just have to control what I can control, just bring the same attitude every day and hope for the best.”