Last Saturday was certainly the final meaningful day of the year for the Eagles, but the way the season was destined to end, whenever it ended, was determined to a large extent by three other days: March 28, May 8, and Nov. 2.
Some of what happened on those days was bad decision-making in retrospect - always the handiest way to judge things - some was bad luck, and some was a combination of the two. All of what transpired on those three days, however, combined to make the Eagles less versatile, more predictable, and more vulnerable to coming up short late in the season against good and not-so-good teams.
Every team and every organization has good days and bad days, lucky days and unlucky days, and makes good decisions and bad decisions. The Eagles are no different. They may have speeded up the wheel under Chip Kelly, but they didn't reinvent it.
If they can manage a closeout win over the New York Giants on Sunday, the Eagles once again will finish with a 10-6 record. Last season, that was good enough to win the division and make the playoffs. This year, it isn't even close. Their record would stay the same even though they lacked the element of surprise this time, suffered through more injuries to vital players, and faced a schedule that turned out to be significantly tougher than that of 2013.
Does that mean the overall quality of the season was equal to the first one under Kelly, even if it was ultimately disappointing? The debate is pointless. Where 2013 was viewed as a success because the Eagles went from 4-12 to the playoffs, the 2014 season will be viewed as a failure because the needle stopped moving forward. And just three days during the year halted that momentum more than any of the others.
The Eagles have never so tightly packaged an arrival and a departure as important and ultimately ironic as when they signed quarterback Mark Sanchez and released wide receiver DeSean Jackson on the same day.
The argument can be made that a backup quarterback is a backup quarterback, and, in Sanchez, Kelly chose one who is as good as any and better than most. If an NFL team loses its starting quarterback, that team is in trouble and that's just the way it goes.
In Sanchez, however, the Eagles allegedly had a backup who represented far less than the usual dropoff in talent. That certainly seemed possible when Nick Foles struggled at times during the early part of the season.
As for Jackson, Kelly said his release was purely a football decision, and there's no question that the receiver's practice habits and unwillingness to serve as a downfield blocker weren't in keeping with the coach's view of the position.
Without him, however, the Eagles couldn't force opposing defenses to respect the deep pass this season, a problem that was exacerbated when Sanchez became the starting quarterback. The Eagles averaged 11.9 yards per completion, compared to 14.2 yards in 2013.
And with the 22d pick of the 2014 NFL draft, the Eagles traded down to the 26th spot and also acquired the 83d overall selection. Then they took linebacker Marcus Smith II and projected that he would be a great pressure player on the outside of a 3-4 alignment. Smith said he was surprised to go in the first round.
In taking Smith, the Eagles passed up on five defensive backs they could have selected instead: cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard (who went 24th), Jason Verrett (25th), and Bradley Roby (31st); and safeties Deone Bucannon (27th), and Jimmie Ward (30th). All five saw significant playing time as rookies.
If the Eagles thought getting stouter near the line of scrimmage was more important than improving a so-so defensive backfield, they didn't succeed. In fact, Smith has taken only defensive snaps in six of 15 games, the majority of which came at the end of blowout wins, and has played just 68 of 1,035 defensive snaps.
As for that extra pick, they traded it to get the 101st and 141st picks in the draft and took Florida cornerback Jaylen Watkins in the fourth round and Oregon defensive end Taylor Hart in the fifth. Hart has been inactive all 15 games. Watkins has been inactive 11 of 15 games, didn't play a single defensive snap, and had 34 special-teams snaps, although none since Nov. 2.
Speaking of which . . .
If all those weren't bad decisions at the time, the poor fortune that turned them into very bad decisions took place in Houston's NRG Stadium on this day. Quarterback Nick Foles was lost for the season with a broken collarbone, and inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans was lost with an Achilles injury.
Not only did Ryans' injury elevate Casey Matthews to a starting role, it forced defensive coordinator Bill Davis to adjust his scheme to compensate. The Eagles went to a lot more dime pass coverage because the defense was so thin at linebacker, and the tackling near the line of scrimmage suffered as a result. Davis also stole from the back end of the field by using cornerback Nolan Carroll as a mini-linebacker in those specialty packages and by almost always placing safety Malcolm Jenkins in the box. That left the Eagles in man-to-man coverage on most wide receivers, with single-safety help if Nate Allen could get himself there. Against Dez Bryant and Jackson in the most important games of the season, it didn't work very well.
Sanchez proved to be a competent game-manager, but only because the coaching staff padded the corners of the game plan to help him. The Eagles attempted eight more passes per game on average with Foles than Sanchez, even though Foles was usually ahead and Sanchez was often behind. Nothing could stop Sanchez from throwing interceptions, however, and nothing could make him more dangerous on deep balls. The Eagles offense could pile up yards on low-risk slants and crossing patterns, but it wasn't explosive, and the ultimate irony, of course, was the two 50-yard-plus receptions pulled in by Jackson on the Eagles' final meaningful day of the season.
All the threads of the season tied themselves together in that game on that day: the missing quarterback, the missing draft pick in the defensive backfield, the missing threat down the field. That day was the last day, but it wasn't really the most important of days. Those came earlier, and they never left.