Time for dying Eagles to play the kids
The struggling team needs to find out what the likes of Josh Huff, Eric Rowe and Nelson Agholor can do.
THE LOCKER ROOM is dead. The season is dying.
The signs are everywhere.
Star running back DeMarco Murray, noted for his toughness, slid to avoid contact as he crossed the first-down marker in an upset loss to the Dolphins.
Star left tackle Jason Peters took himself out of Sunday's upset loss to the Bucs . . . to nurse a month-old injury.
Veteran quarterback Mark Sanchez jumped all over Darren Sproles on Sunday, too; a rift that needed mending first on the sideline, then at practice Monday.
This team is collapsing.
The Eagles take a 4-6 record into Detroit for a short-week Thanksgiving Day game that hardly could be less meaningful. With the invincible Patriots looming 10 days hence and with the Cardinals coming to town Dec. 20, the best the Birds realistically can hope for is an eight-win season. Even if eight wins somehow earn them the wormiest NFC East title in history, eight-win teams don't win Super Bowls. That's the point, right? The Super Bowl?
And, so, with six games left, this season is about next season.
That's a bitter pill for a town watching long-term rebuilds on the other three professional fronts. Still, it's better to swallow that pill now than later. Third-year coach and first-year general manager Chip Kelly says his team has enough talent to win big in the NFL. He might be right.
Except he isn't playing it.
It's time that talent takes the field.
It's time to see second-round defensive back Eric Rowe play regularly. It's time to see first-round receiver Nelson Agholor become the No. 1 target. It's time to let shifty receiver Josh Huff, a third-round pick last year, try to terrorize the middle of the defense. It's time to let second-year, first-round linebacker Marcus Smith swim; or, more likely, sink.
They Eagles have been undone less by poor execution than by significant miscalculations.
Rowe was supposed to, in some capacity, replace Brandon Boykin, the thrilling little nickel corner Kelly bewilderingly traded to Pittsburgh in training camp, for a song. Rowe seems mystified by the NFL.
Agholor was supposed to, to some extent, replace Pro Bowl veteran Jeremy Maclin, whom Kelly found either was too expensive, too insignificant, or both. Agholor has been hurt and harmless.
By now, Marcus Smith was supposed to replace both Trent Cole and Brandon Graham but Smith developed so slowly last season the Eagles had to re-sign Graham. Smith's continued struggles have made him unusable.
But why not use him now? Give Connor Barwin an occasional break. He's played more than 90 percent of the defensive snaps since he was made the signature signing of the Kelly era, in 2013.
Rowe was pressed into service for a handful of snaps Sunday because the Bucs' receivers and quarterback Jameis Winston made that attack too much for safeties Chris Maragos and Malcolm Jenkins to handle. For the first eight games Maragos played free safety on passing downs, with Jenkins dropping down to defend the slot. Then, the Dolphins undressed Jenkins. The Birds then moved dime corner E.J. Biggers to cover the slot and adjusted accordingly - which gave Rowe his first six snaps in a month.
Give him 36 in Detroit.
"There are some breakdowns on our part," admitted defensive coordinator Billy Davis, "especially those 'Ones' coming on shallow crosses."
Davis, you might recall, disastrously wedded himself to cornerback Bradley Fletcher last season.
Speaking of shallow crosses, Huff on Sunday caught a crossing pattern, made two moves and outran the defense for a 39-yard touchdown in the first quarter. The Eagles never looked his way again.
The Eagles say they only play the players who earn playing time at practice or during games.
"We're growing Eric about where we feel he deserves, and what he's earned," Davis said of Rowe. "Like Marcus Smith: We're going to continue to put you out there in limited roles. As you grow that role . . . then you play more."
That's a fine philosophy . . . for Taylor Hart and Ed Reynolds, taken at the tail end of the draft.
Picks inside the top 100 have to get opportunities to fail.
Put Huff in the slot. Move big Jordan Matthews outside for good, if he can really play there, as advertised, and make Agholor the Man. He's got the speed; send him deep.
"Each week he looks smoother and smoother, more dynamic and explosive," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said of Agholor.
So? Play him.
Riley Cooper and Miles Austin have 13 and 12 catches, respectively; each, fewer than Huff and Agholor. Neither Cooper nor Austin has missed a game.
Frankly, if they missed the rest of the games, you might not notice.
With all due respect to Biggers, a journeyman veteran always hoping to hold on one more season, Rowe, a superior athlete, needs to play. Period. For some reason the Birds are pathologically averse to playing Rowe at safety, where he played until his senior season; but that's another discussion.
So what if Rowe gets beat deep? He'll learn.
So what if Marcus Smith bites on play-action? Did you miss the linebacker follies Sunday?
So what if Agholor and Huff drop nine more passes? It looks like Sanchez will be throwing them. They'll be lucky if the passes even reach them.
Remember: This is a 10-win team looking at an eight-win season.
This is a team whose running back, famous for yards after contact, avoided contact.
A team whose best player sat himself in the fourth quarter.
A team with petulance at quarterback.
A dead team, in a dying season.