THERE WERE moments on Sunday when you looked at the scoreboard, and then at the field, and then at the scoreboard again, and you wondered whether the one really added up with the other.
How could something like this happen? The NFL is a funny league, but not a 34-3 over the Steelers kind of funny. Less than a year ago, we sat in this same building and watched this same Eagles team get smacked down by the Buccaneers and blow a lead to the Dolphins. The personnel has changed, but is it really a 34-3 over the Steelers kind of change? Wendell Smallwood, Kenjon Barner and Darren Sproles combined for 249 yards of offense, 2 fewer than the Steelers' total as a team. Does the sum of their parts really equal the sum of the Steelers'?
The easy answer is that the only part that matters is the one operating out of the game's most important position. There is some validity to that. Plenty of it, actually. For a third straight game, Carson Wentz was better than even his most ardent supporters could have expected. Eight incompletions in 31 pass attempts, 301 yards, a pair of touchdowns, zero turnovers. Those numbers mean something.
Yet as much as we like to make the quarterback the alpha and omega, and as much as Wentz has earned the hyperbole that he will continue to garner, you looked around the NFL this week and you saw a Broncos team quarterbacked by Trevor Siemian crushing the Bengals to remain undefeated.
You saw a Patriots team quarterbacked by third-string rookie Jacoby Brissett shutting out a Texans team that spent $37 million in guaranteed money to sign a quarterback this offseason, adding Brock Osweiler to a fleet of offensive weapons that includes one of the best receivers (DeAndre Hopkins) and running backs (Lamar Miller) in the game.
And you saw the most inconvenient truth of all: The Vikings improving to 3-0 with a win over the defending NFC champions and their MVP quarterback, the whole thing led by the guy the Eagles jettisoned in order to prepare the way for Wentz. As good as Wentz has been, Sam Bradford has been every bit his equal, completing 40 of 59 passes for 457 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in back-to-back wins over two teams many picked to face each other in this year's NFC Championship Game.
All of that is to say that something doesn't add up about the whole notion that what we're witnessing is the simple result of finally having a franchise quarterback in town. There is clearly more than meets the eye to this Eagles team, even after accounting for the remarkable performance of the rookie under center.
The suspicion here is what we are really witnessing is the result of a coach who has an intuitive feel for counteracting opposing defenses and putting his players in positions to do what each of them does best.
Perhaps the answer to the talent vs. scheme question that we pondered throughout Chip Kelly's final season as coach was a trick question. Perhaps they can't be separated from each other. Antonio Brown might be the best receiver in the game, and one of the best of all time, but Doug Pederson seems to have a knack for taking each of his players' strengths and cobbling them together to form some sort of equivalent that can match, or even surpass, the production the Steelers get from the receiver position. The first possession featured a 40-yard catch-and-run by Sproles on a screen pass whose design and execution were both things of beauty.
An end-around look by Nelson Agholor got the Steelers' defense flowing to the right, leaving Sproles and a wall of blockers set up on the left for the big gain. Later, we saw Dorial Green-Beckham in a one-on-one situation where he could use his massive frame to put himself between the defender and the ball and haul in a 19-yard gain on third-and-12. One play later, Josh Huff was in the exact situation in which he thrives, the ball in his hand and open space around him for an 11-yard gain. Then came a 15-yard pass to Brent Celek over the middle, and then an 11-yard run by Smallwood over left end, with an end-around look from Agholor helping to create the space where he does his best running. Finally, here was Jordan Matthews working out of the slot with no inside help. He made his cut and, with nothing but grass between him and Wentz, snagged a 12-yard dart for a touchdown that put the Eagles up 10-0.
"It's like he's been doing it his whole life," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said of the way Pederson works with his staff to develop and implement a game plan. "It comes very naturally to him."
That's not to diminish Wentz's contribution to the whole thing. His arm strength and ability to scramble make the whole thing go. The speed with which his ball arrives at its intended destination leaves defenders with little room to close, and his ability to make those throws from sideline to sideline and in the middle of the field forces defensive coordinators to account for them. Covering an entire football field with 11 men is not an easy thing to do. Go back to that throw to Green-Beckham. A quarterback needs an elite level of size and strength to make that toss consistently. The respect defenders must pay to Wentz's ability to make that pass helps open things up elsewhere. The fact that the Eagles have thus far seemed capable of attacking all corners of it with equal proficiency makes it seem like something is always going to be there to exploit.
"He can put the ball anywhere on the field," Reich said. "You've got to defend the whole field. And he's not afraid to make those throws to the sideline. When you have to defend the whole field, it's just a different dynamic."
There is a beautiful kind of synergy right now between the men calling the plays and the ones executing them. Not only is this team undefeated. It's fun to watch.