Despite what you may have heard, there is such a thing as a good loss. Problem is, only a bad team can have one. So, yes, the Eagles' 38-29 loss to the Steelers on Sunday was problematic. They are not a good football team right now, and there is a preponderance of evidence that suggests they will not be one by the end of the season. A good football team does not allow a rookie No. 3 receiver to score four touchdowns. A good football team does not attempt to cover such a receiver with a linebacker in a must-stop situation. A good football team does not have any of the Eagles' linebackers on the field in any situation.
The Steelers? They are a good football team. Because the Steelers are a good organization, with a good football ops department, and something that resembles a strategic long-term plan. They’re the ones who are drafting the receiver who scores four touchdowns, and the linebackers who are actually impacting the game in a positive manner. The difference between the 4-0 Steelers and the 1-3-1 Eagles can be simplified just by looking at those two positions.
Of course, those are not the positions that we tend to credit with sustained success, which is why Ben Roethlisberger owes at least a portion of his good name to the folks who have spent his career surrounding him with a steady stream of good, reliable NFL talent. Carson Wentz? He knows the other end of that knife. The first four weeks of the season, reasonable people could talk themselves into believing that he was the problem. Unlike a small handful of quarterbacks, Wentz is not perfect, and through the first four weeks of the season, his flaws seemed more conspicuous than usual. The heavy feet in the pocket, the mechanical friction in his delivery, the low angle of his release point. The Eagles were losing, and losing ugly, and those flaws were the ones most often in the center of the frame.
They were still there Sunday: some missed throws, a couple of interceptions, an untimely sack. The difference is that Wentz also made the kind of plays that reduce the flaws to nits. But the real story is that Wentz found a guy who could actually help him make them.
We could spend a lot of time delving into the implications of who that man happened to be. It wasn’t Jalen Reagor, or JJ Arcega-Whiteside, or John Hightower, or Mack Hollins, or Shelton Gibson, or any other player whom the Eagles can claim with more legitimacy than they can Travis Fulgham. It speaks volumes that the difference between the Wentz of old and the one of 2020 turned out to be a twice-released sixth-round draft pick who’d spent the majority of the season on the practice squad. But that’s another story for another day.
For the moment, the important thing is that the old Wentz reemerged. The stat line won’t show it, and the Nick Foles cultists won’t acknowledge it, but the Wentz we saw against the Steelers in Sunday’s loss was remarkably close to the quarterback we saw back in 2017. He stood tall in the pocket when he could afford to. When he couldn’t, he escaped it. He kept his eyes downfield. He delivered the ball with confidence and, with a few exceptions, he delivered it on target.
The critics will focus on the interceptions, and ignore the mitigating circumstances. One was a situationally-aware fourth-and-long throw that turned into a glorified punt. The other was a timing route into an open pocket in a zone where Zach Ertz was bumped off of his route. But the Eagles scored 29 points against a solid defense with an offensive line that was allowing Wentz to get pummeled even before it lost Lane Johnson. If you weren’t satisfied with what you saw on Sunday, you are in for a long decade.
“I think offensively we did some good things," Wentz said. “We got a good rhythm going. We converted a lot of third downs. Came up short. Obviously not what we want and how we want to finish, but there are some things we can definitely build on and getting into a rhythm today definitely helped us.”
And let’s be clear about what you saw. It wasn’t a different quarterback. It was a quarterback who discovered he had someone he could throw to. Time will tell whether Fulgham is the player he appeared to be against the Steelers, when he became the first Eagles wide receiver since 2014 to catch 10-plus passes for 150-plus yards. He wouldn’t be the first player to come out of nowhere, nor would he be the first to quickly fade. What matters is that, on this particular day, he was a guy whom Wentz could trust to make a play.
This is not a point that you can rationally shrug off. You saw it on the interception that was intended for Ertz, and on the two deep balls that Hightower was unable to track down. There’s a reason why so many of the game’s great quarterbacks are inseparable from their go-to targets. Montana and Rice, Manning and Harrison and Wayne, Brady and Edelman and Welker. The last time Wentz had anything close to the level of faith he displayed in Fulgham on Sunday was 2017 with Alshon Jeffery.
“He’s a beast,” Wentz said. “Kid is a baller.”
After it was over, and the Eagles were 1-3-1, Wentz tried to play the diplomat regarding his supporting cast. He has confidence in all of his guys, the defense dictates where he throws, yadda, yadda, yadda. But he said these things with a palpable optimism that had previously sounded hollow.
Everybody who watched Wentz’s performance should feel a similar level of optimism. It’s much easier to find weapons for a quarterback than it is to find a quarterback for weapons. Wentz is too cognizant of locker room dynamics to admit to the significance of having a wide receiver who makes the plays that Fulgham made. But even he had to acknowledge, “You definitely notice it.”