As irritating as it was to watch the Eagles get flicked aside in a winnable game, with a showdown next week for the NFC East title and an undeserved playoff berth sitting there right in front of them, Sunday’s blowout also brought clarity.
Losing, 37-17, to the host Dallas Cowboys stripped away a lot of illusions, as the 4-10-1 Eagles head toward a meaningless (for them) finale against Washington and an offseason that might define the fate of the franchise for years to come.
Their secondary is less than mediocre. Their offensive line — six false starts Sunday — can sabotage Jalen Hurts as effectively as it sabotaged Carson Wentz. They don’t have a lot of weapons they can count on.
Hurts made some big plays in his third NFL start. He also made some really bad ones, taking points off the board with a red-zone interception and a red-zone fumble. He missed Jalen Reagor for what should have been a touchdown.
With no meaningful games left, how do you decide whether to turn the 2021 reins over to Hurts, who was 21-for-39 for 342 yards, a touchdown and two INTs Sunday?
And who will do that deciding? Doug Pederson, assured of the worst record by an Eagles coach since Andy Reid went 4-12 in his final year, 2012, had an awful day. Pederson couldn’t get a play off on fourth-and-3, subsequently punted on fourth-and-8, then went for it on fourth-and-15,. He really had no coherent explanation afterward.
Pederson went in with a plan to run the ball against the worst rushing defense in the NFL, then he abandoned the run in the second half, down, 30-17, even though it was the third quarter and his injury-thinned defense needed the break that a long, time-consuming drive could have produced.
The Eagles ran 19 times for 108 yards in the first half, 10 times for 43 yards in the second half. Some of that difference had to do with penalties putting them behind the chains. Some of it was just the coaching staff acting like a 13-point deficit was a 30-point deficit.
Pederson’s team played hard but with little discipline or intelligence; it blew a 14-3 lead as carelessly as if this was the preseason.
“It’s not what we expected, to start the year,” said Pederson, who missed the postseason for the first time since 2016, his first year. “The mistakes, penalties, lack of execution piled up. You just can’t make those mistakes and win games.”
Speaking of that 14-3 lead, the Eagles got off to their best start since the season opener — another game that did not turn out well, and that in fact previewed a lot of the team’s problems.
First series, 11 plays, nine of them runs, 75 yards, with Miles Sanders getting great blocking from, among others, Jordan Mailata, on a 4-yard touchdown run.
Dallas drove for a field goal, then the next Eagles possession lasted only one play. Hurts heaved it over the Dallas defense and DeSean Jackson ran it down and kept going, 81 yards for the touchdown.
Jackson was never targeted again. Pederson said that Jackson, active for the first time since suffering an ankle injury back on Oct. 22, “got sorer and sorer as the game went on” and “lost a lot of that explosiveness.”
But the Eagles had a 14-3 lead, Washington was getting crushed by the Panthers, how could things be better? The Giants had already lost. Hold onto this lead, play Washington at the Linc next week for the playoff berth.
Then reality intruded, with Fletcher Cox having to leave the game with a stinger. Cox sat out practice all week with what the Eagles referred to as a “neck injury.” Derek Barnett was inactive with a calf injury and Josh Sweat was on injured reserve with a wrist injury suffered last week. So suddenly, there was a problem with the pass rush, a problem that got bigger as it became more and more apparent that undrafted rookie Michael Jacquet was not a starting corner.
“Those guys are our top guys for a reason,” safety/corner Jalen Mills said, when asked about the injuries.
Against Arizona, Jacquet was torched by DeAndre Hopkins for eight catches and 158 yards, but it was DeAndre Hopkins, and Jacquet was usually in the right position, and Jacquet also recorded a sack and a forced fumble.
Jacquet’s first half Sunday was the worst for an Eagles corner in recent memory, and that’s really saying something. Michael Gallup caught six passes on eight targets for 121 yards and two touchdowns, and by halftime, Dallas had a 20-17 lead.
Andy Dalton, who started the game 1-for-4 for 35 yards when Cox was playing and the pass rush was fierce, finished the half 16-for-20 for 224 yards and the two TDs to Gallup.
It got worse on the first series of the second half. Dalton found another mismatch, CeeDee Lamb in the slot one-on-one against Nickell Robey-Coleman, 52 yards for a touchdown that made it 27-17 before the Eagles even got the ball.
They then went three-and-out, of course, just what their dragging defense needed. Dalton then hit Amari Cooper for 69 yards; turned out defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s solution to the Gallup mismatch was to move Jacquet over to Cooper’s side, where he promptly fell down.
Finally, Schwartz moved Jalen Mills outside and put Jacquet on the bench, far too late.
The offense got into Dallas territory over and over again in the fourth quarter but managed to produce no points. Right tackle Matt Pryor again was a disaster, false-starting three times. As Sanders (15 carries, 57 yards, 3.8 yards per carry) noted, the Eagles got the ball at the Dallas 28 after Darius Slay’s interception near the end of the third quarter, plenty of time left, down, 30-17, and they ended up failing to convert fourth-and-15 from the 33. A Pryor hold took away a nice Sanders run for a first down. Zach Ertz and then Isaac Seumalo false-started. A pass was knocked down at the line.
At times like these, the offense looked an awful lot like it did before Wentz was benched.
“We kind of got stagnant,” Hurts said, referring to “great opportunities to put points on the board.”
He also said that the Eagles “shot ourselves in the foot,” and “kind of stopped ourselves.”
Sanders said that “the penalties really killed us, and it was impossible to get, like, a true rhythm. We had a rhythm the first two drives, and then, as soon as the penalties kicked in, they took the momentum from us. … We didn’t focus in all the way. We weren’t locked in.”
Dalton completed 22 of 30 passes for a season-high 377 yards, three touchdowns, and a pick. He was sacked twice but faced little pressure after Cox left. High-salaried defensive tackles Javon Hargrave and Malik Jackson were ineffective without Cox.
Pederson referred hazily to a “lower body” injury Hurts suffered; Hurts said he got “a little nicked up” in the second quarter. Whatever the case, the first half has been strikingly better than the second half in each of Hurts’ starts.
“Those guys believe in me to get it done,” Hurts said. “I take it very personally … Today, I came up short.”
Hurts promised that “we’ll be better from this,” something that matters now only if he’s talking about 2021.