It was a simple route, run with precision and exquisite timing. It was the essence of how Zach Ertz, in his sixth season, is having the greatest offensive season in Eagles history, and how, in four weeks, he could be the most prolific pass-catching tight end in NFL history.
Ertz needed seven catches Monday night to break Brian Westbrook’s single-season team record for receptions. He got nine. He caught his seventh pass 3 minutes, 37 seconds into the third quarter, after he’d lined up wide right and cut across the field 3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Redskins linebacker Zach Brown had given him a 5-yard cushion and couldn’t catch him until Ertz ran 7 more yards and gained a first down.
Simple. Elegant. Smart.
“It makes my job way easier. He just completely understands the game, almost from a quarterback’s view. He knows where he needs to be. He knows coverages," said his quarterback, Carson Wentz, who operates on Ertz’s wavelength when blitzers blitz: "He knows when (he’s) going to be hot; when to look early. Having another guy with that subtle intelligence — next-level intelligence — and the way he runs his routes and gets open ... "
Wentz approves. He has completed 292 passes this season; 31.9 percent of them have gone to Ertz, who is catching 76.9 percent of the passes thrown to him. Nelson Agholor has 51 catches at a 64.6 completion rate; Alshon Jeffery, 43, at a 66.2 completion rate. Ertz is the best bet. Maybe, simply, the best.
Ertz knows how efficient he and his bible study buddy have been, and used those numbers to refute an ESPN report that Wentz looks for him too much at the expense of other players and to the detriment of the offense.
“I did hear of it, obviously,” Ertz said. “I hope I’m not the problem. I’ve said all along, it’s all about efficiency when it comes to targets and catches. I feel like we are efficient in that regard. There has never been a (shred) of selfishness from anyone in that locker room.”
Eagles coach Doug Pederson downplayed the report as well: “I know, everybody in the locker room, the bottom line is, they want to win the game. And however it gets done, we’ll get it done.”
If there is jealousy, its roots likely go deeper than just this season.
“Last year we were playing at a high level, but this year we’ve taken the next step,” Ertz said.
“All-Pro level," said safety Malcolm Jenkins. “He’s becoming one of the top tight ends in this league, and closer to that Number One spot. You look at the amount of yards he’s racking up, touchdowns, all that — statistically, he’s up there with the best of them.”
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The numbers don’t lie. With 93 receptions in 12 games, Ertz is on pace to catch 124 passes, which would be the fifth-highest single-season total in NFL history. More significantly, it would demolish the record for tight ends, set in 2012 by his idol, Cowboys legend Jason Witten, who gushed about Ertz during the Monday Night Football broadcast. Ertz also has 978 receiving yards, a pace for 1,304 this season, which would rank fifth in Eagles history and would set a record for Eagles tight ends.
What Eagle ever had a better season? Ertz has six touchdowns, a pace for eight for the season; so, maybe Terrell Owens, with 14 receiving TDs in 2004? Or LeSean McCoy, who had 20 total touchdowns in 2011? What about Steve Van Buren, who scored 18 TDs in the 10-game 1945 season? Perhaps big-play wideout Mike Quick, who had 13 TDs and 1,409 receiving yards in 1983?
Different eras. Different numbers. And remember: Ertz and Wentz are just getting started.
You could see this coming.
Through the Eagles' first 12 games last season Wentz, in his second season, and Ertz connected 57 times at a 67.1 percent target rate. That seemed special, and maybe that would have improved had Wentz not been injured in Week 14. It turns out we hadn’t seen anything yet.
“We see the game so similarly,” Ertz explained. “We’re fully invested in being the best players we can be. We love the fine art of route-running and the timing of quarterback and tight end.”
Witten practiced that art with Tony Romo for a decade. Ertz exchanged jerseys with Witten after Witten’s last game, on New Year’s Eve 2017 at Lincoln Financial Field, the only time Witten ever swapped uniforms. Ertz exchanged jerseys Monday night with Redskins tight end Jordan Reed. Consider it a changing of the guard.
“Zach is kind of his own animal right now,” Jenkins said. "Jordan Reed would be the only one I would compare him to right now. Zach ... What he’s doing right now is just very, very impressive. You know he’s getting the ball but you can’t stop it. Good for us. Bad for them.”
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Malcolm Jenkins went to two of the last three Pro Bowls because he handles tight ends. He knows greatness. Iron sharpens iron.
“I’m not going to take credit for it, but me and Zach have made each other better over the years. Battling and competing," Jenkins said. "Having to improve our own games to not get embarrassed by the other in practice has made us better. If I ever need to get ready for a matchup, he’s the guy I’m gonna go against.”
Right now it doesn’t matter who Ertz goes against. He disassembled the Giants and two-time Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins for seven catches, 91 yards and a touchdown last week. He romped for those nine catches and 83 yards against D.J. Swearinger Monday night, and Jenkins said Swearinger is playing at a Pro Bowl level.
No matter how high Ertz’s star rises, he has remained firmly grounded. He was happy the record fell at the Linc, but he was much happier that the Eagles won, 28-13, moved to 6-6 and kept their playoff hopes alive as they visit the first-place Cowboys on Sunday. If playing on a mediocre team wasn’t enough, he has his faith to keep him humble — and he has his teammates.
As Ertz left the locker room for his postgame interview, receiver Nelson Agholor taunted: “I got you open! Continuously!”
A few minutes later Lane Johnson approached Ertz’s locker as Ertz dressed and said, half-mockingly, “How’s it feel to be the Eagles' all-time leader in (single-season) receptions?”
Ertz deflected the praise. He replied by referencing a double-block by the the team’s center during Darren Sproles' touchdown run: “Almost as good as it would feel to be (Jason) Kelce! You see him? He destroyed those guys.”
Kelce could say the same of Ertz.
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