EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There are worse things than meaningless NFL games, although nothing immediately comes to mind. The skies were gray, the stadium was church-quiet, and the Eagles beat the New York Giants, 34-26. This is how the season ended and the autopsy began.
According to the people at fivethirtyeight.com, 97 percent of NFL teams since 1990 who were 9-3 eventually made it to the playoffs. The Eagles are in the unfathomable 3 percent. We all know how the last month went -- Seattle, Dallas, Washington, New York; L, L, L, meaningless W. The trick now is understanding the reasons.
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The quarterback is a big part of this, and likely the biggest part -- and if it feels as if we already have talked this one to death, well, let’s just say that the conversation has not even started yet. But we’re going to give that one a rest, at least for today. Instead, the question here is about a defense that really has trouble covering anybody, and about what that means for the future.
The question, then: how long will it be before the Eagles have a decent defense? Not elite, just decent? Not great, just OK?
Or rather: is it possible to whip this thing into shape in a single off-season?
All of these questions are being asked on a day when Bradley Fletcher did not dress, mercifully, because of an injury -- and when the Giants still had two receivers each go for more than 150 yards on the Eagles, something that had never before happened in their defensive history.
For Rueben Randle, it was six receptions for 158 yards. But for Odell Beckham Jr., who figures to torture the NFC East for as long as he stays healthy, it was 12 catches for 185 yards and a touchdown. The numbers are breathtaking, and the Eagles’ secondary players were the ones sucking the most wind. The Eagles got no pass rush until the very end and the back of the defense was defenseless. Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw the ball to Beckham an astounding 21 times, the most targets for an NFL receiver this season.
The numbers just scream at you. The Eagles won the game because Mark Sanchez threw only one interception, because the special teams blocked another punt and returned it for a touchdown, and because the Eagles’ offensive scheme -- even through everything -- is still very good.
But how to fix the other side of the ball?
They got very good interior play on the line this season, especially from Fletcher Cox. They got an excellent pass rush in the vast middle of the season from the entire cast, from Connor Barwin and Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham and Trent Cole and more. And because of how good they were up front as the season began to build its own momentum, the coverage problems in the secondary were masked.
But as the whole thing began to unravel in December, the front seven on defense began to get noticeably quiet. They barely breathed on Manning Sunday until the last couple of minutes -- and while it wasn’t that bad in the prior three games, the pass rush was not nearly sufficient. As a result, the coverage was exposed.
So as they go forward, you wonder how the Eagles will evaluate things. That they need at least one more cornerback and one more safety goes without saying. There would seem to be little question that a decent percentage of the Eagles’ attention and treasure this off-season, either in free-agency or the draft, will be allocated in that direction.
But is that enough? Will that make them decent? Or do you need even more up front -- another outside rusher, another athlete at linebacker? Are they two players away  on defense, of three, or four, or more?
How you answer that question affects everything else. Just know this: the notion  that the Eagles could expend a package of picks to move up in the draft for a quarterback would border on malpractice, given everything else they need. If nothing else, that is the first lesson of the last month of the Eagles‘ season.