Bill Davis could neither explain nor excuse the performance he'd just witnessed from his defense, and as he stood in the Eagles' locker room late Sunday night, he couldn't erase it with his patented square-my-jaw, look-you-in-the-eye responses to the questions coming his way.
The Arizona Cardinals hadn't just gotten the better of the Eagles and Davis's defense, 40-17. They had emasculated them. They had run past them, run over them, stiff-armed them to the ground, and with every reference, seven in all, to the Eagles' terrible tackling Sunday night, Davis was subtly indicting the toughness of a defense that was fortunate not to have been embarrassed worse than it was.
"The tackling was awful," he said. "That was more disappointing than anything. Tackling is something we work on all the time, and no matter who's in there, we should tackle better than we did."
There was so much distance between what the Eagles should have done and what they did do that it's difficult to imagine their summoning a stronger effort this Saturday, in a game that means only their season, against the Washington Redskins. The Eagles can still be a playoff team if they beat Washington, but the task of stopping running backs Alfred Morris and Matt Jones and wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon seems too great for them, based on Sunday night.
Suddenly, those back-to-back victories and solid defensive performances against the Patriots and the Bills look like the anomalies again. Suddenly, the Eagles were back to being the same pushovers they were against Tampa Bay and Detroit. They gave up 493 yards of offense to Arizona, including 230 rushing yards, and the Redskins' skill-position players had to be watching NBC on Sunday night, from the comfort of their homes, and rubbing their hands together in anticipation of facing a shorthanded Eagles secondary and a defense that couldn't be bothered to deliver a decent hit.
In the first quarter, Maxwell, the team's $63-million cornerback, had reenacted a scene from one of the Toy Story movies, hopping atop Cardinals tight end Darren Fells, bouncing and flopping and going for a good long ride as if Maxwell were Sheriff Woody and Fells his trusty Bullseye, letting Fells carry him for 10 yards to set up an Arizona touchdown two plays later. In the second quarter, six Eagles defenders had clear chances to tackle Cardinals running back David Johnson, and Johnson seemed to swat them away, as if they were bugs at a summer barbecue, on his way to a 49-yard score.
Look, Arizona is 12-2, and the Eagles 6-8, on merit. Bruce Arians is a coach-of-the-year candidate. Palmer is a smart and seasoned quarterback with more weapons than he knows what to do with. Entering Sunday's game, the Cardinals led the NFL in total offense and did nothing to damage that ranking. They could have put a hurting on the Eagles even if Davis' defense had been perfect, if every player had carried out every assignment to a tee. But the Eagles were so far from where they needed to be that the game became a rout by the midpoint of the third quarter.
As it happened, the Eagles' best defensive player was actually Arizona wide receiver John Brown, who emancipated the football from his hands three times, including on two plays that would have been surefire touchdowns. Hell, on the game's first play from scrimmage, Brown zoomed down the middle of the field, past a stumbling Eric Rowe and beyond the Eagles' deepest defender, and had Palmer hit him in stride … only to drop the ball.
Now Davis has to figure out how to cover for the possible absences of Maxwell, who will undergo an MRI on Monday to examine his injured right shoulder, and rookie cornerback Rowe, who left Sunday's game with a concussion.
"We have to turn around and throw all our attention into Washington and get this thing going," Davis said. "We can't sit and dwell on this one. It was a bad, bad night, starting with the tackling. From here, we've just got to go attack Washington, with whoever's healthy."
Without Maxwell and Rowe, Davis was left with backups E.J. Biggers and Jaylen Watkins playing on the outside, and it was Watkins who was involved in the sequence that turned the game decisively to the Cardinals. Five minutes into the third quarter, Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer rainbowed a deep pass down the sideline to wide receiver Michael Floyd and, with Watkins draped over him, Floyd somehow caught the ball with his right hand and stayed inbounds. It was a 29-yard reception to the Eagles' 1-yard line, a lovely throw by Palmer, a truly brilliant catch by Floyd. Running back David Johnson went in on the next play, giving Arizona a 23-10 lead and breaking the Eagles' backs.
"If I did any more, I probably would have pass-interferenced him," Watkins said. "If he can make a one-hand catch on me every time, that's good on his part."
The prospect of relying on Watkins, Biggers, and a hobbled Maxwell to neutralize Jackson and Garcon ought to fill Davis and head coach Chip Kelly with dread. The Cardinals had 59 "X" plays -- pass plays that gain at least 20 yards -- through their first 13 games, the most in the league, and the Eagles did little to slow them Sunday. Jackson and Garcon can be every bit as dynamic as Arizona's wideouts, and Davis's defense will have to disrupt the Redskins' passing game to a degree it couldn't the Cardinals'.
The Eagles sacked Palmer just twice, and play after play, he had time to wait for his receivers to run those deep routes, and it didn't matter that one of them kept letting the football slip through his fingers. The Cardinals had Palmer and Johnson and Floyd, and only Arizona's mistakes kept the stands at Lincoln Financial Field from emptying any earlier. It was a bad night for the Eagles, a humiliating one, and it will take more than hard words and hard looks from the man in charge of their defense to restore any hope of salvaging something positive from this underwhelming season.