RYAN MATHEWS' tenure with the Eagles began on an odd, wrong-footed note. Now it just might have ended the same way.
Mathews signed with the Birds two springs ago, just as they were reeling in DeMarco Murray, the NFL's reigning leading rusher. The team hadn't expected to sign Murray when it made an offer to Mathews, which was kind of awkward, but Mathews signed here anyway, three years and $11 million, his arrival an odd footnote to the much splashier Murray venture.
Mathews outlasted Murray, and he became the Eagles' leading rusher this season, even if his play and the coaches' use of him remained oddly inconsistent. Now, it seems his final Eagles carry might have been that fourth-and-goal failure late in the third quarter Thursday night, when Mathews was wrestled down well short of the goal line, after the ball was snapped from inside the 1.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson announced Friday that on the previous play, Mathews' third-down run from the 3 to inside the 1, Mathews suffered a herniated disk in his neck that will require surgery. So he already had the injury when he threw himself into the line on fourth down.
Mathews has a year left on his contract, but the dead-cap charge for releasing him is $1 million, vs. $5 million to keep him around. The team wants to develop 2016 rookie Wendell Smallwood and seems likely to address running back in free agency or the draft.
Mathews' fate is to be a guy who runs hard but pays dearly for it, it seems. He has been healthy for 16 games only once in his seven-year NFL career, since arriving in San Diego as a first-round pick, 10th overall. That one, charmed year, 2013, he carried 285 times for 1,255 yards, but hasn't shown lead-back durability since.
Mathews had two big games this season - 19 carries for 109 yards and two touchdowns in the Nov. 13 victory over Atlanta, 20 carries for 128 yards and a touchdown Sunday at Baltimore. Both times, he suffered an injury in the next game after such heavy use - an MCL sprain in Seattle, the week after the Atlanta game, that sidelined Mathews the next two weeks.
"I think that Ryan obviously got off to a good start, and then there was a little bit of a lull in the middle, and he's finished up strong. That's kind of been the nature of the season for him," Pederson said of Mathews, who has 661 yards on 155 carries, and a team-high eight touchdowns. "These last couple of weeks, he's kind of been our workhorse at the running back position, and did some really good things for us."
Pederson called it a "pretty significant" injury, though he said he didn't think it was career-threatening.
The Eagles go into their season finale against Dallas on New Year's Day with only two healthy running backs, Darren Sproles and rookie Byron Marshall. Smallwood (knee) and Kenjon Barner (hamstring) already are on injured reserve. The team signed a practice squad running back, Terrell Watson, this week.
DEVELOPING STORY LINES
* Carson Wentz completed 14 passes to Eli Manning's 38, but the 40-yard touchdown pass from Wentz to Nelson Agholor was longer than any Manning completion. The Eagles were determined not to be burned by the big play.
* Terrence Brooks didn't play on defense until the final series, but he had a good night on special teams. It was Brooks who forced the Dwayne Harris fumble on a second-quarter punt, which was recovered by the Giants. Brooks later violently ripped down Harris, who might have thought he had some return room on the Eagles' first punt of the second half.
* Brooks' snaps as a safety came about because of a makeshift defensive plan devised on the sideline, Malcolm Jenkins said, before the Eagles' final punt gave the Giants the ball at their 15 with 1:31 left.
"We got tired of Odell (Beckham Jr.) catching the ball and sprinting through the defense, Jenkins said. Beckham gained 150 yards on 11 catches, while being targeted a whopping 20 times. "So we put Jalen Mills on him, took one of our d-linemen out, and added Terrence Brooks in, and basically just played a form of Cover-2. But we made sure we had somebody on Odell all the time. Because every time we played zone, he just kind of ran through the entire defense. So we knew that last drive, we were going to need something to keep the ball out of his hands."
Jenkins said defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz referred to it as a "box-and-one." Beckham did not catch a pass on the final drive, though he seemed to be open between Mills and Brooks on the next-to-last Giants play, a pass overthrown in the end zone.
* As is often the case, Dorial Green-Beckham's only catch of the night showed his tantalizing potential. Green-Beckham didn't seem to have anywhere to go on a third-down wide receiver screen, but he made Eli Apple miss, then bulled forward for the first down, just before the TD pass to Agholor.
* I get that the Giants had a case for pass interference on Nolan Carroll on that fourth-down pass with 1:54 left, but rewatching, it's pretty clear that Sterling Shepard stuck his arm into Carroll, to get separation, and that Carroll pinned it. To me, once a receiver does that, he's on his own; if he can't get his arm free, tough. Same thing on the Eagles' final throw, down the sideline to Jordan Matthews, who stuck his trail arm into Trevin Wade and got locked up before the ball arrived.
* The most important stat of the night might have been the Giants going 1-for-5 in the red zone. Yes, they gained 470 yards, 356 in the air, recorded a mind-boggling 89 snaps. But four times they had to settle for field goals at the end of drives. The Eagles hung in there.
Chase Daniel's lone pass of 2016 brought back memories of Andy Reid, the coach Daniel played for in Kansas City the previous three seasons. When he coached the Eagles, Andy loved the shovel pass near the goal line.
Daniel was at the Giants' 25, and the shovel wasn't the play-call, but when he had to scramble away from pressure, on second-and-12, Daniel flipped a pass to Ryan Mathews, who found open field in front of him, to the Giants' 9.
"The only way I could get it to him without falling down was the shovel, so I just didn't even really think about it, just got it to him," Daniel said afterward.
"It's what I'm paid to do," Daniel said, when asked whether it was hard to jump into the third quarter of a Week 16 game, having not played a live snap since the preseason. "Go in there as long as they need me, don't miss a beat. I don't think we did."
Doug Pederson, the coach who goes for it on fourth down more than anyone in the NFL, 26 times in 15 games, opted to try for a touchdown instead of settling for a field goal with the ball inches away from the Giants' end zone.
But the Ryan Mathews run up the middle seemed to take forever to execute. The left side of the Giants' defensive line completely overwhelmed the right side of the Eagles' offensive line, and the Giants got pressure from both edges, as well. Mathews never had a chance.
In your stadium, your o-line ought to get off the snap better than the defense can, but that was not the case. Pederson suggested the line being unfamiliar with backup QB Chase Daniel's snap cadence might have been a factor.
"That would have really, I feel like, iced the game for us. It's just unfortunate," said Daniel, who took six snaps while Carson Wentz was being evaluated for a possible concussion.
Daniel said getting the team used to his snap count was the biggest adjustment the Eagles had to make.
"It's tough to see without watching the film; it looks like we just got caved down pretty hard," center Jason Kelce said. Kelce said the play was one the Eagles had been looking for a chance to use.
Doug Pederson faced some pointed questioning Friday of his decision to call a reverse on the first series after Carson Wentz re-entered Thursday night's game; Wentz ended up out in front of ballcarrier Nelson Agholor, Wentz throwing a block at the legs of Giants corner Eli Apple, helping Agholor gain 5 yards.
Surely, Pederson didn't want Wentz throwing his body around, in the immediate wake of a concussion scare? After he was thrown down by the Giants' Olivier Vernon, 4:29 remaining in the third quarter, Wentz was directed off the field by left tackle Jason Peters, who told him to get checked out. Wentz later said he was "dizzy" when he got up from having his head whiplashed to the turf. He consulted with Eagles doctors on the sideline, then went into the locker room for a concussion evaluation. He passed the test and returned to the game after Malcolm Jenkins intercepted Eli Manning for the second time.
"He is supposed to block," Pederson said. "Most reverses, the quarterback and the tackle, in this case Jason Peters, are both out in front. He's supposed to block, if there is a guy to block."
Did Pederson hesitate to call that play, given that Wentz had just gone the locker room for testing?
"I didn't," Pederson said. "He was cleared. He went in, came out. How many guys run into a concussion (evaluation)? He ran in, ran out. We talked on the sideline, talked before the play, we talked before the series. He was good, he was cleared, so I had no hesitation."
The questioning continued.
"We can speculate all day, I guess," Pederson said. Obviously, our goal, in everything we do, is to try to win a football game. I think the second that you sort of hesitate in any sitation is the time you get beat . . . I had no hesitation on making that play and putting him in that situation."
On this matter, Pederson has been consistent, at least. Remember when Wentz went head-over-heels on a run attempt in his lone preseason action? Pederson was unfazed.
"I loved his toughness," Pederson said then. "You saw some of the shots he took tonight, and stood in the pocket, bounced back from tough hits."
Of course, it turned out that Wentz suffered a rib injury on one of those hits, and he didn't play the rest of the preseason.
Eli Manning's 63 pass attempts Thursday night were a Giants franchise record, and the most ever thrown against the Eagles.
That the Eagles could win on a night when Malcolm Jenkins caught as many passes as Zach Ertz or Jordan Matthews?