Eagles-Redskins: What did we learn?
The Eagles battled, but ultimately succumbed to the Redskins, 27-22, on Sunday. Here's what we learned:
1. The Eagles don't lack character; they lack talent. When you lose by 32-14 to an underperforming, banged-up Bengals team, there are going to be questions about effort. And Doug Pederson intensified that fire when he said that not every player was giving 100 percent. But aside from Zach Ertz shying away from blocking Vontaze Burfict, there weren't any blatant examples of the Eagles quitting last week. Truth is, there aren't many dogs on this team, if any at all. I'm not sure the same could have been said had Rueben Randle made the roster. But the reason so many took exception to Pederson's public call-out, specifically defensive players on the Eagles' leadership council, was that they know effort has never been the problem. The team simply doesn't have enough top-tier talent and depth at key spots. Some might point to Sunday's game as a player referendum on Pederson or contend that he got the players to respond to his challenge. I'm not sure that is entirely the case. As Malcolm Jenkins pointed out last week, he doesn't play solely for his coach -- he plays because he has pride, because he loves the game and because he doesn't want to let his teammates down. But I do think the effort, despite the outcome, bodes well for Pederson. His job was likely secured before Sunday, but the fire-Doug sentiment should simmer some this week. The Eagles are 5-8 and not technically out of the playoff picture – although for all intents and purposes, they are – but the last three games should be more about next year than this year.
2. The Eagles are still learning how to win. Which is understandable, but obviously worrisome if you're looking ahead to next season. It's difficult to think big-picture in the NFL when teams are rising and falling in the standings yearly. But with Pederson a first-time coach, Carson Wentz a rookie quarterback, the roster thin … you get the drift … this season was also about building a winning formula for the future. I'm not sure the Eagles have found it. I'm not sure if Pederson will prove to be a magician with game management, although I've seen proof that says otherwise. But there have now been five losses that could have turned on one or two plays. You can say that about so many NFL games, but it was especially difficult to be critical of Pederson on Sunday when he was down to his fourth right tackle, his last running back, and his third long snapper (!). And yet, many blamed the coach. Why wasn't backup long snapper Brent Celek more prepared?!? Why wasn't third stringer Trey Burton ready to jump in?!? Could it be that the Eagles have only so much practice time per week, as mandated by the collective bargaining agreement, and having Celek work on snaps for an extended period wouldn't be a valuable use of that time when Jon Dorenbos hasn't missed a game in the last 10 seasons? Still, when you look at some of the numbers aside from points, it's hard to figure how the Eagles lost. They converted 50 percent (9 of 18) of their third downs and the Redskins converted only 29 percent (2 of 7). They ran 76 plays to the Redskins' 46 and held the ball for 36 minutes, 38 seconds vs. the Redskins' 23:22. But Washington made better use of its time. The Redskins averaged 7.3 yards per play against the Eagles' 5.0 and were 1 for 1 inside the red zone whereas the Eagles were 1 for 4.
3. Each game increasingly becomes about Carson Wentz and the future. I wrote extensively about the rookie's game for my newspaper column. In short, he was great. Wentz followed up his worst performance of the season with maybe his best. He had two costly turnovers, however, both in the red zone. He tossed an interception in the end zone in the first quarter and fumbled on the Eagles' final drive after he drove them to the Redskins' 14. I can't fault Wentz for the fumble. Ryan Kerrigan clocked him less than two seconds after the snap. And Wentz said miscommunication with Ertz was the issue on the interception. He thought his tight end would carry out his route while Ertz was thinking back shoulder. The Redskins zero blitzed, so Wentz had to unload the ball right away. The error was ultimately his, but it's another example of how time should correct some of the issues between the quarterback and his receivers – at least the ones who will be back next season.
4. More skill-position players than you think will return next season. Many would like just to napalm the receiver position, but I could see as many as three or four of the receivers back next year. I'm not saying that Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham deserve to return, but the Eagles will still need bodies. But with the emergence of Burton over the last several weeks, we're starting to see Wentz put more of his stamp on personnel. Pederson said as much after the game, noting the quarterback's chemistry with the backup tight end. I'm not sure what took so long, though. Everyone knew going into the season that tight end was a strength. On Sunday, the position accounted for 19 catches for 184 yards. I'm not sure if bringing Celek back for an 11th season can be justified, although I'd take him over the DGBs of the world every day, but Ertz and Burton will likely return. Jordan Matthews will be back. The Eagles need a stud at the top of the receiver depth chart and need to rethink running back, especially if Darren Sproles retires.
5. Connor Barwin's tenure in Philly could be nearing an end. The Eagles activated five defensive ends rather than dress four running backs (sitting Kenjon Barner would end up biting Pederson in the back). Why? I think it's clear that they wanted to see what Steven Means can do. Here was the defensive-end snap distribution: Brandon Graham 33 of 48 (69 percent); Barwin, 25 (52 pct.); Vinny Curry, 15 (31 pct.); Marcus Smith, 12 (25 pct.); and Means, 11 (23 pct.). None of the ends had a sack. Graham played 7 percent less than he normally does, and Barwin and Curry played 20 percent and 12 percent less than usual. But Barwin is the only one of the three with a huge salary cap number next season ($8.35 million) and no guaranteed money left on his contract. Curry has been a bigger disappointment because of his contract extension and because the scheme was supposed to suit his skill set. But Barwin hasn't contributed as much as he did in the three previous seasons because the attacking 4-3 front took away many of the responsibilities that made him so valuable on defense.
6. Zach Ertz is a Hall of Famer (if judging were based solely on playing the Redskins in December). Ertz caught a season-high 10 passes for 112 yards. I don't think it's any coincidence that his best game of the season came a week after his intestinal fortitude was questioned. There were a few times when I saw him lower his head and run toward tacklers when in the past he might have angled himself out of bounds. But there's something about the Redskins in December that has brought out the best in Ertz. He has caught a total of 38 passes for 349 games over the last three December meetings. Ertz started slowly this season, in part because he missed two games with a displaced rib. But over his last six games, he has caught 42 passes for 414 yards and two touchdowns. Those are the kinds of numbers the Eagles were expecting when they signed him to a five-year deal this past offseason. Still, his resurgence doesn't take away the fact that he was often a non-factor in the first half of the season and needs to produce more in terms of yards after the catch and in the red zone. Ertz said he's still developing chemistry with Wentz, and that claim has some merit, but how much longer can he get the benefit of the doubt?
7. Nelson Agholor is out of his head. I wouldn't quite say that he's playing out of his mind, but Agholor has strung together two competent games after getting benched against the Packers. He finished with only two catches for 22 yards against the Redskins, but he also drew a 44-yard pass-interference penalty after he beat cornerback Quinton Dunbar. He's still playing too many snaps (87 percent), but the Eagles were without Green-Beckham (abdomen injury) and Bryce Treggs clearly hasn't been the answer on the outside. Agholor isn't a first-round talent. I think that evaluation is no longer in dispute. But he can be a third or fourth option at receiver. He runs crisp routes and blocks well. But he just doesn't have a starter's skill set.
8. Brandon Brooks has had too many game-day illnesses for it to be coincidence. The Eagles right guard has missed two of the Eagles' last three games because of a game-day illness. Pederson had no further information after Sunday's game. The Eagles said that Brooks had to be hospitalized because of an illness before the Monday night Packers game two weeks ago. He was discharged the next day and said that he felt fine a day later. He played against the Bengals last week, but was another game-day scratch because of an illness on Sunday. Some history: Brooks missed two games with the Texans under similar circumstances. In 2014, he missed a game because of an ulcer, according to the Texans. And last year, he got sick the day of the Bills game and had to go to a Buffalo hospital. I'll refrain from speculating about some other possible causes for his absences, but the Eagles should be concerned about his availability moving forward. They signed Brooks to a five-year, $40 million contract this offseason. They've now had to toss rookie Isaac Seumalo into the starting lineup with little notice, and the changes to the offensive line have had a direct bearing on the game.
9. The Eagles cornerbacks still aren't … starting-caliber. I'm going to be genteel because Leodis McKelvin did make a game-changing play when he intercepted Kirk Cousins and ran the other way for a touchdown. He sat on DeSean Jackson and jumped the route with perfect timing. It offset the 80-yard touchdown that Jackson had toasted him on earlier in the game. And even though Cousins threw only 21 passes, many came at the expense of McKelvin, Nolan Carroll (beaten by Pierre Garcon for a touchdown) and Jalen Mills, who played a bunch in the slot. The Eagles need to upgrade at cornerback. No one disputes this fact.
10. And some leftovers: Caleb Sturgis was 3 for 3 on field-goal attempts, hitting from 45, 36 and 41 yards. … Fletcher Cox had a good game. He finished with 1 1/2 sacks, although the Eagles' coverage deserved an assist on both. … Ryan Mathews returned after missing two games with a knee injury and rushed 15 times for 60 yards. … Receiver Paul Turner had a drop.