Eagles-Redskins II: What Did We Learn?
LANDOVER, Md. – It didn't seem possible with the hapless Redskins riding a six-game losing streak, but the Eagles coughed up their third straight loss, dropping to 9-6 and virtually out of the playoffs. Three weeks ago, they looked like a postseason lock and possibly a team that could have a first-round bye. Now the Eagles are hanging by a thread and need the Cowboys to lose against the Colts on Sunday and at Washington next week to have any life. They would also have to win next week at the New York Giants -- not a sure thing in this pitiful December. Here's what we learned:
1. Chip Kelly has a problem and it may be in the locker room. His decision to release DeSean Jackson and bring back Riley Cooper was never going to please every player on the team. Kelly obviously knew that. But it certainly raised eyebrows from a certain faction of the locker room and in recent weeks there have increasingly been murmurs from several players about the decision. The way the Eagles lost on Saturday, with Jackson delivering daggers to the defense, prompted two players to lament his absence to me. "And then [Jackson] burns us," one starter said. "That hurt because you think, 'Damn, he should be on our team. Why he isn't he on our team?'" Another player: "I miss him. We miss him. … It was a mistake." There are others, but they're unwilling to go on the record for obvious reasons. Jackson said after the game that some of his former teammates were telling him as much even during the game. "They constantly tell me how much they miss me and they wish I was still there, but that's a decision they chose to make in the front office." Let's be clear: It was Kelly's choice. Right or wrong, it's had ramifications in the locker room. It's unclear if it will fester.
2. For the second time this season, Kelly let play-calling balance get away from him. Why is a limited backup quarterback being asked to drop to pass more than 53 times when the running game is working? Mark Sanchez threw 50 passes and was sacked three times. He also scrambled a few times, as well. That's at least 53 of 84 plays in which he was asked to make a play. The Redskins pass defense was ripe for picking, but many of Sanchez' 37 completions were short check downs. He couldn't take full advantage of opportunities downfield and when he was asked to win the game – Kelly understandably had him drop on eight straight plays on the Eagles' final drive – it seemed inevitable he would make a mistake. But it should have never gotten to that point. There were many goats, but a little more play-calling balance – in the first half, especially – would have paid off. The Eagles' first touchdown came on a drive in which LeSean McCoy rushed five times for 31 yards, including an 11-yard score. It was tough sledding on the opening drive and it appeared as if McCoy would struggle to get going one more time against the Redskins (he was held to 22 yards on 19 carries in the first meeting). But McCoy (22 carries for 88 yards) and Darren Sproles (four carries for 24 yards) had holes to run through as the game progressed. The Redskins had their safeties deep, according to Kelly. They weren't crowding the box. On the possession after McCoy's touchdown run, Kelly called three straight passes and the Eagles went three and out. Like the Cardinals game, when the pass-run ratio was 72-28, the Eagles coach got lost in the fog – like Andy Reid used to – and forgot about his running game.
3. The decision to release Jackson made the Eagles weaker on the field. And this isn't an opinion made in hindsight. Jeremy Maclin has had a monster season (82 catches for 1,269 yards and ten touchdowns), but it was never an either-or choice for the Eagles. They could have had both receivers back. Maclin has always supported the decision. He initially seemed to be one of the leading proponents for change. His relationship with Jackson appeared to have fallen out. But Jackson had kind words for his former teammate when I spoke to him last Sunday and Maclin said last week that the perception they didn't get along was off base. But his comments after Saturday's game struck me, because it sounded as if agreed that dumping Jackson didn't help the offense. "He's a great talent. We all know this," Maclin said. "He's one of the best deep threats in this league. We all know this, though. As far as talking about what the offense looked like – me and DeSean played together five years. I understand not in this system. But we did play together for five years. We aren't together and that's that. I can't go back in time and put us on the same team." There's a valid argument that releasing Jackson improved the team's culture. He is in many ways a "Me" player. But every team has a few of those guys. If your culture is so great it should be able to compensate for one or two odd balls, especially if they have Jackson-like talent. As far as a business decision, letting Jackson go was a bad one. The Eagles took a $6 million cap hit. They also let a Pro Bowl player in the prime of his career walk without receiving compensation. If Kelly wanted him out, it would have made more sense to do it after this season. Asked if Jackson's two 100-yard receiving games against the Eagles made him think back to his decision to release the receiver, Kelly, ever the literalist said, "No, I was thinking about the football game."
4. Bradley Fletcher should have been benched weeks ago. The questions about benching Fletcher actually started last season when he had his inconsistencies and Brandon Boykin was playing at a high level in the slot. They continued this season, in particular, after the Redskins, Rams, Cardinals, Packers, and Cowboys games. Bill Davis and Kelly stood by their man when there was far too much evidence that he should have been given a seat in favor of either Nolan Carroll or Boykin. Maybe those guys wouldn't have been better than Fletcher (although it's difficult to see how that's possible), but there was no place to go but up. What's the Joe Banner definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? It took Davis 15 weeks and two Jackson 50-yard catches for Davis to finally bench Fletcher for Carroll. Why did it take so long?
5. It's time to blow up the secondary. Cary Williams is a better cornerback than Fletcher. He's more athletic and has better technique. He could return if the Eagles found a suitable complement, a cornerback that resembled a No. 1. But it may be time for an overhaul. Williams has become a penalty-making machine. He also gave up a killer 23-yard pass to Pierre Garcon on the Redskins' game-winning drive. The Eagles have to also look at their narrow view of what an outside cornerback should look like in their defense. Tall and long is nice, but it matters little if the cornerback doesn't have ball skills or closing speed. Malcolm Jenkins will return and should. He hasn't been the problem. Nate Allen came up with a big interception when Robert Griffin III under threw Jackson after he had a step on Carroll in the fourth quarter. But he also took a pass interference penalty in the end zone trying to cover Jackson and has been almost as inconsistent as Fletcher this season. So three-fourths of the secondary should go. That's a lot of turnover, but they did the same thing two offseasons ago. The bigger problem, however, may be the Eagles' evaluation of the position and whether they can ably fill the slots. Jenkins and maybe Carroll have been the only successful secondary acquisitions since Kelly became coach. Fletcher, Williams and safety Patrick Chung were free agent mistakes. The Eagles have drafted four defensive backs in the last two years (safety Earl Wolff and cornerback Jordan Poyer in 2013 and cornerback Jaylen Watkins and safety Ed Reynolds in 2014). They were all late-round picks, but there may not end up being a long-term contributor in the bunch.
6. Bill Davis may not be the coordinator to lead this defense. Given the lack of talent in the secondary, it's difficult to knock Davis. As one would expect, he said there was enough talent when asked after the game. "Absolutely, yes we do," Davis said. "We have enough talent. We've played well at times. It's just lately we haven't made plays." We don't know if player decisions come down to Davis. He would probably have to go to Kelly if he were to make a change in between games. It sounded like the decision to bench Fletcher in-game was his alone. Kelly has enough to consider on offense. But if there really is enough talent, as Davis said, and if he's the primary decision-maker, then he needs to be held accountable for Fletcher. Week after recent week, he left him alone in man coverage and week after recent week he has been burned by some of the top receivers in the game. Jordy Nelson, Dez Bryant and Jackson are elite receivers. Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo are elite quarterbacks. Doesn't that call for adjustments to the scheme? Doesn't there have to be consistent safety help over the top? "They're very naïve and they play how they play, so they can care less who's out there or who's at wide receiver," Jackson said. I can't figure out if the hard-headedness when it comes to scheme is Davis' call or if he's just following Kelly's orders. But he hasn't been a step ahead of offensive coordinators over the last month. The talent on the back end is lacking, no matter what Davis says, but he has pieces up front. The defense shouldn't be regressing at this point in the season.
7. Nick Foles has never looked so good this season. Sanchez' tenure as the starter was going to tell us more about Foles than we had previously known. The jury is certainly still out on him as a long-term answer, but his topsy-turvy first half doesn't look as bad in retrospect. Foles supporters will point to his 14-4 record as the starter over the last two seasons. And maybe the Eagles would have won the last two games with Foles instead of Sanchez. But he had as many turnovers (13) as Sanchez in the same span on time. He's also now missed nine games because of three injuries over the last three seasons. Can the Eagles rely on him to stay healthy moving forward? I wrote in my newspaper column that getting a quarterback was priority No.1 for Kelly this offseason. That doesn't mean he'll find that guy. But he should exhaust his resources in acquiring one. And please stop with the calls for Matt Barkley. The signing of Sanchez this offseason told us all we needed to know about what the Eagles thought of Barkley. Sanchez, meanwhile, was just another backup playing on borrowed time. He won three of his first four starts, but turnovers and his inability to throw downfield ultimately caught up to him.
8. It only took 15 games to take full advantage of Zach Ertz' playmaking abilities. Sanchez' constant check downs had something to do with Ertz' record-setting 15 catches for 115 yards against the Redskins. "I'll tell you one thing: I'd rather take the win over this record any day of the week," Ertz said. The middle of the field was open and Ertz took advantage of mismatches against linebackers. But those opportunities have been there for much of the season. The Eagles came in with a game plan to utilize Ertz and, go figure, it worked. Ertz, who played 78 percent of the snaps, was split wide a bunch of times. Brent Celek is still a good tight end and certainly one of the better run-blocking ones in the NFL. He should return next season. But the Eagles need to involve Ertz more in the offense. His talent should not be wasted.
9. The Eagles are undisciplined. Kelly said they weren't, but there's too much evidence to the contrary: an NFL-worst 35 turnovers and 110 penalties after they committed 13 for 102 yards vs. the Redskins. Those mistakes didn't happen in a vacuum. Yes, quarterback play has accounted for 26 of the turnovers, but Kelly brought back most of the roster from last season. How can a team that was sound last season become mistake prone in one year? "I don't know the rhyme or reason," center Jason Kelce said. "It's tough to pinpoint one thing that led to that."
10. And a few quick notes ... Despite indications that he could play some defensive snaps as the third outside linebacker, Marcus Smith never got on the field. Brandon Graham started in place of the injured Trent Cole (broken hand) and Connor Barwin manned the other outside spot. The top draft pick's inability to get on the field has, needless to say, been a disappointment. … Cody Parkey's two missed field goals would have obviously given the Eagles the win had he made them. He said the groin wasn't the cause, but he was wearing down. He has never kicked this much and it was really only a matter of time before he would miss a big kick. With a full NFL offseason, he should be stronger next season.