Lessons from a stunning loss: Eagles need running and defensive backs to protect leads | David Murphy
Anybody who claims the Eagles season is over is ignoring the reality of an NFL season. But anybody who claims it isn't probably wasn't in the locker room after Sunday's brutal loss.
His eyes were fixed on some point in the middle distance, his gaze drifting over the heads of the crowd that had gathered around his locker. He bit his lip. He shrugged his shoulders.
"We blew it," Chris Long said.
Wall by wall, stall by stall, the scene repeated itself. The voices changed but the tone remained constant. Anybody who claims that the season is definitely over is ignoring the reality of an NFL season. But anybody who claims that it definitely isn't probably wasn't in the home locker room at Lincoln Financial Field early Sunday evening.
There are losses, and then there are inflection points. After the Eagles allowed the Panthers to put together three consecutive fourth-quarter touchdown drives totaling 236 yards while coming back from a 17-0 deficit to win 21-17, they left little doubt where the performance stood. There were some brave words. There was some resilience, some defiance, some constancy. Mostly, though, there was the sense that a stun grenade had just gone off in the center of the room.
Fletcher Cox called it the worst loss he'd ever been a part of.
"Tough, tough loss," the tight end said. "No other way to put it."
Where, exactly, did it go wrong?
The most obvious culprit is also the most familiar one. It was a good day for the Eagles' secondary, right up until it wasn't. For three quarters, they were fine. Dominant, even. Yet when it was over, Jalen Mills was standing at his locker, shaking his head and peering somberly out from underneath the polyurethane hood of a white starter jacket. The collapse had become real on his watch. On fourth-and-10 with 2:06 remaining and the Eagles clinging to a three-point lead, the third-year cornerback had lost his footing downfield, allowing former teammate Torrey Smith to pop open beyond the first-down marker. Cam Newton released the pass with a defender around his waist, and Smith took it 35 yards down to the Eagles' 34-yard line.
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There were other ignominious moments. Ronald Darby couldn't hang onto the ball after jumping an out pattern and getting his hands on a horribly underthrown Newton pass. Devin Funchess was more wide open than a receiver of his skill set should ever be on an 18-yard touchdown catch with 4:13 remaining that cut the Eagles' lead to 17-14.
Yet, in the grand scheme of things, 21 points allowed is no atrocity. Good defense is not the only thing a team needs to salt away a game. A bigger concern might be the state of Doug Pederson's running game. With the Eagles clinging to a three-point lead with just over 4 minutes remaining, Carson Wentz dropped back to pass on three straight plays, the first two short-by-design quick hitters that went nowhere. You can question the play-calling, or you can acknowledge that Pederson might have been doing the best with what he's got. At the time of that drive, running backs Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement and Josh Adams had combined for 46 yards on 20 carries, a pitiful average of just 2.3 yards per attempt. The Eagles finished with 58 yards on the ground, their lowest total since Week 1 of last season.
Whatever was working last year has not been working this year. But it needs to work. Carson Wentz wasn't perfect in Sunday's loss but he was 30-for-37 for 310 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. Keep in mind, this was a windy day that featured a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a decision by Panthers coach Ron Rivera to punt from the opposition's 31-yard line. In other words, it was the kind of day when it would have been helpful to have a running game capable of picking up chunks of yards on first down. That was an important part of the Eagles' success last year, whether it was Wentz or Nick Foles at the helm.
The actionable question is: Where do they go from here? What does this portend? Every loss has a legacy. What will this one's be?
From a personnel standpoint, they are who they are. There has already been a change at guard. The tackles are beaten up. The center might be, too. Perhaps there is a trade to be made in the running-back market. At cornerback, Sunday's starter in the slot was Dexter McDougle, whom the team just signed this week. The quarterback is again playing at an MVP level, regardless of his rough final drive against the Panthers, when a near-interception served as a prelude to a game-ending fumble. He spent the first part of the afternoon making throws that maybe two other quarterbacks in the game can make.
"We're gonna find out what we're made of," Wentz said. "It's make-or-break time, almost, so to speak."
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It's rare that you hear that kind of language in Week 7. The season isn't over. Not in this conference, and this division. You want to put your money on the Cowboys or the Redskins winning the NFC East? I'll take that bet.
There are legitimate questions about this Eagles team, though. The first is: How will they respond?
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