Jordan Matthews' ankle injury happened on what might have been his best catch of the season. It came on a route-catch combination that he and quarterback Carson Wentz have worked on for months.
Matthews was lined up to Wentz's left two weeks ago against the Packers. Just before the snap the quarterback looked at his receiver and patted his left butt cheek. He looked again and tapped the left side of his helmet. One of those motions signaled to Matthews, who was to run an outside fade, that Wentz's throw would be on his back shoulder.
That meant Matthews would need to sell the go route against press-man coverage and then break back off the pattern just as Wentz's pass would arrive. The coverage was tight, so the throw and grab would have to be exceptional. They were, and the Eagles gained 20 yards.
But when Matthews stood up he felt a sharp pain in his right ankle.
"I was actually joking with Carson. I was like, 'Bro, the reason why I got hurt is because our back shoulder is better than [the Packers' Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson]," Matthews said on Friday. "So it didn't mesh right with the universe. . . . The football gods took my ankle."
The gods also took Wentz's favorite target out of the lineup. The results, while more dreadful than many could have imagined, were predictable. Without Matthews, Wentz had his worst game. He tossed three interceptions against the Bengals last week and could have had more.
Matthews' presence probably wouldn't have altered the outcome - a 32-14 loss that all but interred the Eagles' playoff hopes. But his ankle injury, in the big picture, did put on hold the developing chemistry between Wentz and maybe the only receiver who is guaranteed to be back next season.
The Eagles, with four games left, are playing for pride and for the future. Matthews is expected to return for Sunday's game against the Redskins. The season didn't turn out the way he anticipated. For a third-year player who could be approached this offseason about a contract extension, Matthews' numbers won't likely be trending upward.
But the bottom line was always about next year and beyond. It was about advancing Wentz and building bonds. And the back shoulder, the most difficult pass to defend, is the type of throw Wentz will need in his arsenal if he's to be mentioned alongside the Rodgerses of the NFL.
"It's something we're going to continue to work on and continue to grind out," Matthews said. "We know we have a long career together."
The Eagles are sure to come to Matthews this offseason about a long-term deal. But he may want to roll the dice and play out his fourth season. He had hoped to play more on the outside, but the majority of his routes (74.3 percent), once again, came out of the slot.
"I think Jordan's a perfect slot receiver for any offense, particularly ours," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "He's a bigger body; he's a smart guy in there and knows how to get open, not only against man, but zone."
Of Matthews' 57 catches for 686 yards and three touchdowns, 44 catches for 533 yards and two touchdowns have come from the slot. Every receiver moves around, but the league's top receivers both in terms of production and salary, play primarily on the outside.
The Eagles, though, have gotten very little from starting outside receivers Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham. It's almost a foregone conclusion that they will address the need this offseason. But will they break the bank (for someone like Alshon Jeffery), go bargain hunting, or once again draft a receiver?
Pederson's comments suggest that the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Matthews will remain inside. Even before the injury, he wasn't putting up what would be No. 1-receiver numbers. Matthews got off to a solid start, catching seven passes for 114 yards and a touchdown against the Browns, but he hasn't had more than 88 yards receiving in a game since.
Like last season's hand injury, which he kept hidden, Matthews said that he has to work through various bumps and bruises. He first showed up on the injury report with a knee injury heading into Week 7. He then strained his back lifting weights before the Packers game. And then for the first time ever, dating back to peewee football, he missed a game, in Cincinnati.
"It's been one of those years," Matthews said.
Matthews was on pace to put up statistics similar to last season (85 catches for 997 yards and eight touchdowns) heading into the Green Bay game. He may still finish in that neighborhood. But the overall struggles on offense have seemed to affect his production. Matthews' catch rate (63.3 percent vs. 66.4 pct.), yards after catch (3.5 yards vs. 4.9 yards), and drops (seven vs. five) are worse than last year.
But he said that when he watches film of his rookie year vs. now he sees a receiver who is more patient.
"I feel like a lot of my routes I was rushed," Matthews said. "And then whenever I knew the ball was coming to me, I wasn't as patient as I could be."
With the Eagles' few weapons, defenses have increasingly paid more attention to Matthews.
"I like his energy," said an NFC senior scout who recently watched his film. "He doesn't have game-breaking speed, but he's good at finding creases. He runs hard after the catch and will drag guys. [The Eagles] should stop throwing him screens. They aren't working. He drops some easy ones, but has decent hands on low throws."
Matthews has also added the back shoulder to his repertoire and has caught several from Wentz. He's the only Eagles receiver who has. You would think the others would make it a priority. Keeping Wentz happy is of the utmost importance.
"Any time you've got a quarterback you can win games, and Carson has shown the signs that he can be a great quarterback in this league," Matthews said. "We've just got to continue to rally around him and then be productive so he can continue to grow."
Matthews hopes they blossom together.