WHETHER THE Eagles can run off a string of victories down the stretch that gets them into the playoff picture or not, their offseason will largely be about one thing: acquiring weapons for Carson Wentz.
Ten games into Wentz's rookie season, the cast assembled around him regularly tests his character more than his arm. While Wentz bounces passes off Nelson Agholor, the major question in the competition for NFL rookie of the year is whether the award will go to Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott or to his extraordinarily gifted teammate, running back Ezekiel Elliott. Wentz and Prescott met face-to-face last month. For much of the game, Wentz was more accurate and more consistent, and made better decisions. But Prescott, favored with Elliott, a stable, excellent offensive line, and Dez Bryant, won in overtime.
Wentz and the Eagles' defense have proved to be a sturdy enough structure upon which to hang playoff hopes, even in Year 1, but, weapons. Always, weapons.
As you are reading this, somewhere Doug Pederson might be sitting down with Agholor to determine whether the Eagles' 2015 first-round draft choice has devolved to the point at which Pederson and Wentz would be better off playing Paul Turner, an undersized, undrafted rookie wideout just promoted from the practice squad, when the Birds host Green Bay Monday night. Pro Football Focus places Agholor, Jordan Matthews and Dorial Green-Beckham among the 20 NFL receivers who drop passes at the highest rate.
At times like these, it is sometimes instructive to turn to the (slightly paraphrased) question posed many years ago by noted football sage David Byrne:
"Well, how did (we) get here?"
The devaluing of existing offensive weaponry, and poor decisions made attempting to replace it, helped lead to Chip Kelly's firing. We don't need to go through all that again, you know the names and the reasons - DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin. Put those guys on the field with Wentz right now and you'd have a team competitive with anyone in the NFC.
So the problem was obvious when Howie Roseman wrested control back from Kelly last December. But solutions were not. Roseman put much of his energy and resources into positioning the franchise to draft Wentz, along the way getting rid of contracts Kelly had given to DeMarco Murray and Byron Maxwell that would have crippled his ability to maneuver.
There were no instant Pro Bowl, franchise-building-block wide receivers available in free agency, and the Eagles didn't have that level of cap space. Roseman shopped at the bargain table for Rueben Randle, a former Giants second-round pick, and Chris Givens, a receiver with a pedigree as a sometimes-starter with the Rams and Ravens who had breakaway speed. It was reasonable to think both would make the team and contribute, even if they weren't "the answer."
The background here was that management was still very hopeful about Agholor, thinking new coach Pederson's West Coast system and a new wide-receivers coach, Greg Lewis, would turn him around from an alarming, 23-catch rookie year. And though after two years of Josh Huff, it was pretty clear Kelly's Oregon project wasn't ever going to achieve greatness, Huff was a threat in open space with the ball, and maybe he, too, would benefit from better coaching.
In the draft, the trade for Wentz and other previous deals meant no chance to draft anyone other than the QB before the third round, then nothing again until two slots in the fifth. The Eagles were in dire need along the offensive line, where they hadn't drafted anyone since Lane Johnson in 2013. So they spent that third-round selection on guard Isaac Seumalo, and the fifth-rounders on running back Wendell Smallwood (with Murray gone, they pretty much had to draft a running back) and tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Again, hard to argue, though one has to wonder: If Roseman had known he'd basically be OK at guard this year, anyway, and that the wideout corps would lurch toward disaster, might he have made a different third-round decision?
Houston took Braxton Miller six spots after the Eagles selected Seumalo. Miller very definitely has potential as a weapon. But he was a quarterback most of his career at Ohio State and is still learning to be a wide receiver. After missing several weeks with a hamstring injury, he scored his first NFL touchdown Monday night against the Raiders. He has 14 catches for 87 yards.
With the next pick, Miami took Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo. He has two catches for 14 yards thus far. Four picks after that, the Seahawks took Notre Dame running back C.J. Prosise, who seems roughly comparable to Smallwood - the only offensive skill-position player the Eagles drafted - though Prosise might have been more useful as a receiver.
Nobody else drafted between Seumalo and Smallwood would have moved the needle.
Obviously, in a rebuilding situation, you can't address every need at once. It became apparent over the spring and summer that Roseman was not going to get lucky with Randle or Givens. Agholor still looked like Agholor, Huff like Huff.
It's fair to wonder whether the Eagles could have grabbed, say, 36-year-old Anquan Boldin, who signed with the Lions as training camps opened, but so far, the Roseman-Pederson regime has been all about playing younger guys whenever possible. Still, Boldin has caught 41 passes for 323 yards and five Matthew Stafford touchdowns.
Looking back, when the Eagles cut the veteran receivers they'd brought in, the issue of Agholor feeling pressure to perform was lurking. This is what he said at the end of the preseason:
"I have a responsibility, because I will be a guy that's out there. In my mind, my number's going to be called multiple times, and I need to answer the phone . . . This is a different type of pressure for me now. This is a pressure that I accept from my teammates, and for my team. This is an opportunity that I need to take advantage of, for my team and what we need to do."
Roseman's move, as the preseason evolved, was to cross his fingers again and take Green-Beckham in a trade for reserve offensive lineman Dennis Kelly. This was low risk and high reward - a young wideout who is a physical marvel, at 6-5, 237. But it turns out the Tennessee Titans weren't crazy. For whatever reason, Green-Beckham still performs like an athlete who first discovered the sport of football last week and is trying to learn what it is all about.
So, here we sit, with one Eagles receiver - Matthews - ranked in the league's top 100 in receiving yards. He's tied for 25th, with 639 yards, on 53 catches. Could Roseman have done a better job giving Wentz an opportunity to make a bigger rookie splash? Almost certainly. Not a single move he's made with receivers has panned out. Though none of them was ever a slam dunk, and he didn't have great resources to spend, given an entire offseason, you ought to be able to come up with somebody who can help your team.
But this is also true: It wasn't Roseman who drafted Agholor 20th overall. Given his strong sense of how the rest of the league thinks, and the way Roseman almost fetishizes the developing and retaining of drafted talent, it's really hard to imagine Maclin trundling off to Kansas City, with the Eagles acting shocked at how much money he got.
This year is what it is, as they say, whatever that is supposed to mean. Next offseason, though, will not be a time for crossed fingers and assembling a cast of other teams' castoffs.