THE MOST telling thing was the befuddlement. It wasn't reticence. It was genuine. One by one, they stood at their lockers and shook their heads and admitted that they didn't really know what to say. The only answer they could provide was the one that everybody already knew: That they did not have one. That, after 60 minutes of some of the most dreadful offensive football you will ever see out of an NFL team with playoff aspirations, they still had not figured out where it was going wrong.
For four quarters they searched, right there in front of your eyes. Looking down from above you could watch them on the sidelines, staring at computer printouts, tablet screens, talking on headsets, wide receivers pantomiming routes with their hands, offensive linemen debriefing the breakdowns on the previous series. All game, you looked for some evidence of a lightbulb, some sign of progress, even in the abstract, just a little hint of energy, of confidence, of belief that things would unfold differently just as soon as they got back on the field.
But afterward, they admitted that everything pretty much was as it seemed.
"I don't even know what to tell you guys," tackle Lane Johnson said. "It was embarrassing. It was terrible."
In some respects, they looked like a bunch of guys who had never played together before. They looked like strangers. And maybe that's a rational line of questioning. A new quarterback, a new running back, two new guards, two young outside receivers, one of them a rookie, the other a sophomore who barely played last year.
"We're all young, collectively as a group, so it's going to take some time to get some chemistry going," Johnson said. "We tried to get some going through the preseason . . . "
At the same time . . .
"I just don't even know what to tell you guys," Johnson continued. "We just pissed on our leg."
Maybe it's as simple as a lack of chemistry between the quarterback and his receivers.
Look at Sam Bradford's two interceptions yesterday. Both of them came on throws to Zach Ertz in tight man coverage. On the first one, Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee had inside position on Ertz and made good use of it. On the second one, a hard-and-high ball bounced off the tight end's hands and was then plucked from the air by J.J. Wilcox. Ertz missed most of training camp and all of the preseason while recovering from what the team described as a groin injury.
But Ertz wasn't buying that hypothesis.
"It's just a matter of catching the ball and throwing the ball where it needs to be thrown," Ertz said.
Which leads to the more concerning hypothesis, which involves the Eagles' aptitude in those departments.
Really, when you break this offense down into 11 individual parts, what is its talent level? What evidence do we have that Josh Huff and Nelson Agholor are any more adequate than Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley, the two Cowboys receivers who were forced to step up in the absence of superstar Dez Bryant? That Jordan Matthews can be the kind of guy that forces defenses to go out of their way to account for him? That Andrew Gardner and Allen Barbre can handle NFL defensive tackles?
Maybe we did not regard the fundamental units of this team with nearly enough skepticism. Maybe they are exactly what their talent level says they should be.
Then again, the reason people believed in this offense was never the sum of its parts. It was the offense itself, the unique way that its architect has always been able to get his individual parts to work as a collective. People believed in the system, and that belief was not unfounded, given the results we had seen it produce over a couple of 10-6 seasons.
There were ugly games last year. But even in those games, the system looked somewhat systemic. You know, functional. In last year's loss to the Cowboys, they had a four-possession stretch in which they scored three touchdowns and a field goal, including two drives of 80-plus yards. Yesterday, they did not have a drive longer than 37 yards until their last possession of the game. Their first seven possessions resulted in two first downs and a grand total of 34 yards.
They rushed for 7 yards, their lowest total since 1961, and maybe it really is as simple as that. Football is hard enough when you have three downs to gain 10 yards. Eliminate one of those downs and tack on a few extra yards and it becomes virtually impossible.
"You can't play behind the sticks," Ertz said. "It's impossible to be in second-and-15 and expect to execute."
There's a good chance it really is that simple. The challenge is finding out why they have been playing behind the sticks. There didn't seem to be any hint of a solution yesterday. But they'd better find one quick, because if you can't win a half of football against a Cowboys team playing without Tony Romo or Dez Bryant, you can't win a half of football against anybody.