On Sunday night, the Philadelphia Eagles showed up for a professional football game with a wide receiving corps that consisted of a rookie fifth-round draft pick, two recent signings off the practice squad, and a 25-year-old who entered the season having played more games in the Alliance of American Football than in the National Football League. If you think about that long enough, you should find it awfully difficult to move your attention elsewhere.
Forget about the injuries. Forget about the quarterback and his mechanical issues. Forget about the offensive line. Forget even that the Eagles somehow found a way to beat the 49ers 25-20 and pick up the season’s first win.
Greg Ward. John Hightower. Deontay Burnett. Travis Fulgham. At a position that requires as much raw physical ability as any on the field, this is the best that the Eagles can do. Maybe it didn’t kill them on Sunday night. But it has threatened to do so in almost every game that they have played over the last year, and it will remain an existential crisis for as long as Howie Roseman continues to fail to stock Doug Pederson’s offense with the talent it needs to function.
It isn’t complicated. It really isn’t. The rest of the league long ago arrived at the realization that the wide receiver position is one of greatest differentiators on the field. This offseason, you saw the Cardinals pair their young quarterback with DeAndre Hopkins, and the Bills do the same with Stefon Diggs. In recent years, you’ve seen the Cowboys gift Amari Cooper to Dak Prescott, and the Bears sign Allen Robinson.
Run down the list of great quarterbacks and one thing they all have in common is an unquestioned No. 1 target with either elite size or elite speed are some combination of the two. Aaron Rodgers (Davante Adams), Drew Brees (Michael Thomas), Russell Wilson (D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett), Patrick Mahomes (Tyreek Hill), Matt Ryan (Julio Jones), Ben Roethlisberger (JuJu Smith-Schuster). Sure, there’s an unavoidable circularity when it comes to the guys who catch the balls and the ones who make the throws. But watch someone like Metcalf on the field and then watch his counterparts on the Eagles. You don’t need to be a scout to understand that one is not like the others.
Go back and watch Wentz drop a perfect pass over Travis Fulgham’s inside shoulder for a 42-yard touchdown that gives the Eagles the lead late in the fourth quarter. Don’t you wonder how many other times that might happen if a receiver with elite physical pedigree were consistently running those routes? Greg Ward benched 10 reps at the combine. Metcalf benched 27.
Sure, the quarterback’s mechanics remain a problem. Late in the third quarter of Sunday night’s win, Wentz had Miles Sanders running an angle route into wide-open pasture for what should have been a significant gain. Instead of an easy pitch-and-catch, he short-strided a low throw that forced his target to break his rhythm and reach down to his shins, where the ball glanced off his hands and fell incomplete. Earlier, in the first half, Wentz had Richard Rodgers open on a deep sideline route but released a wobbler that hung in the air just long enough for a scrambling defender to undercut it for the breakup.
Either one of these plays had the potential to set the Eagles up for a touchdown opportunity that might have been the difference between victory and defeat. Even the best quarterbacks of all time shouldn’t be expected to make 100% of these plays, but Wentz is supposed to be the kind of quarterback who makes the vast majority of these throws. And, right now, he simply isn’t..
Yet mechanical problems have all sorts of potential roots, and discomfort is one of the more prominent among them. Despite Wentz’s imperfections as a precision passer, he still provides plenty of moments that show us that he remains a legitimate franchise player. We saw several of these moments on Sunday night, from the touchdown pass to Fulgham to Wentz’s own touchdown run. It isn’t easy to find a quarterback who can do these sorts of things. It is much less difficult to surround such a player with the sorts of athletes who diminish his need to be perfect.
The position the Eagles found themselves in on Sunday night is almost beyond words. Astounding. Inexplicable. Inexcusable. There should be malpractice insurance policies to guard against roster management like this.
Five years after making their improbable move up the board to draft their franchise quarterback, an entire draft cycle has come and gone without their having taken even a modest step toward providing that quarterback with an NFL-caliber combination of size and speed on the outside. Injuries aren’t an excuse. DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery were suffering injuries long before the Eagles decided that they were the answer. These are the sacrifices that a team is forced to make when it is consistently unable to identify elite talent and develop it into elite performance.
There is little they can do now but continue to ask the quarterback to carry them through. A roster like this makes victories like Sunday’s feel hollow. But, hey, there’s always next offseason.
On the Eagles' second drive, Wentz hooked up with Ward on back-to-back completions, one of them on a niftily designed play where he faked a pitch, rolled out on a naked bootleg, and threw a strike to the 25-year-old wide receiver for a 20-yard gain. Ward is not an unskilled player by any means -- he runs sharp routes, he makes the catches that are there for him to make, etc. But there is a reason he didn’t end up on an active NFL roster at any point during the two years he spent on the Eagles' practice squad.