EARLY IN WEDNESDAY'S indoor Eagles practice, receivers were running pass patterns against air, except air was getting an assist from Doug Pederson, who crouched like a cornerback at the spot in the route where the receivers needed to break to the outside. As each receiver made his cut, Pederson extended his arms and gave a gentle push.
Nelson Agholor came out of his break, reached for the perfectly thrown ball when he was a few yards past his coach, and then watched it bounce off his hands, to the turf.
When a player doesn't come close to living up to expectations, there is a point when teammates and coaches subtly indicate they are pretty much done with him. Agholor has not reached that point. His work ethic and his potential still resonate inside NovaCare, even as fans and reporters scoff. And frankly, unless 2017's free agency and draft bring an unbelievable haul of wideout riches, the Eagles are still going to need their 2015 first-round pick to be part of the mix, even if he is never going to become the star he seemed ready to be when he was drafted 20th overall out of USC.
Coming to grips with not becoming a star might be part of Agholor's struggle. As the son of Nigerian immigrants, he has always worked hard, and always excelled. The story of Agholor's meltdown and one-game benching last month is at least to some degree the story of him being unable to cope with having disappointed the team, having disappointed himself.
"(The 2016 season is) something that I just should have allowed (to) flow. I think too many times in the season, when I was in those moments, I was trying to be the controller of things. And I'm not that. I'm just a player, and this is a reaction game," Agholor said Thursday. "I can't control what comes my way . . . Thinking too much almost takes away those natural abilities of reaction and instinct."
After Agholor's disappointing rookie season (23 catches, 283 yards, one touchdown, playing 58 percent of the snaps), the 2016 offseason was deemed crucial to his future. Now, going into the season finale with 36 catches for 365 yards, including two touchdowns, playing a whopping 83 percent of the 2016 snaps, Agholor is looking to another crucial offseason.
Agholor, listed at 6-foot, 198, talked Thursday of getting bigger and stronger as one offseason goal. Then he listed another objective: "Come to peace with myself and my life, so that when I come into the season, it's just ball. Nothing else needs to cloud my mind . . . With everything that went on this year, just to have an opportunity to realize how blessed I am."
The difference is, last year the team believed Agholor would blossom as a starter, freed from Chip Kelly's offense, and given what the organization felt would be better coaching from new wide receivers coach Greg Lewis. Getting that calculation wrong is a big reason the Eagles aren't playoff contenders, heading into the Sunday's finale against NFC No. 1 playoff seed Dallas.
This time around, the Eagles know they are going to have to sign or draft someone to be what they'd hoped Agholor would become, while hoping that Agholor can at least turn himself into a solid, dependable foot soldier. Cutting him in 2017 would entail a $4,684,309 dead-cap charge, vs. a $2,557,486 cap hit to keep him, according to Spotrac.com.
"This will be an offseason where I feel that I will be coming back to the same offense, so I have experience in this offense, I have knowledge in this offense," Agholor said. "I enjoyed being in this offense. I think (the challenge is), for me, to better understand it. Because they put me all around, more than I was last year, but I didn't have the best understanding. I tried to learn, but you don't know until you experience."
With Jordan Matthews hobbled by an ankle injury, Agholor got some work in the slot last week against the Giants. He was lined up there when he ran the pattern that resulted in a 40-yard touchdown. Some people think the slot might be a better place for Agholor than outside.
When Agholor caught a 35-yard Carson Wentz touchdown pass in the season opener, it was hailed as a turning of the page, proof of the hard work Agholor had done to improve. Then he didn't score another TD until Game 15, along the way compiling a 52 percent catch rate. According to Football Outsiders, going into the season's final weekend, only 10 NFL receivers with as many targets (69) as Agholor have lower catch rates. One of those is teammate Dorial Green-Beckham (also 69 targets, 35 catches, 51 percent rate).
So Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich was wary when asked this week if the TD against the Giants represented an Agholor breakthrough.
"Obviously it was a nice play. It shows his speed. He did a good job," Reich said. "I think the only way to get breakthroughs is to do something over and over again, consistently. This league is too tough to be a flash here or there. I think we all know that. Nelson knows that. Every player knows that. You have to do it week in and week out, play in and play out.
"But you take every positive step that comes along as a good step, and that was certainly a good one."
Asked why Agholor hadn't been able to put together "breakthrough" level consistency, Reich said some of it was Agholor, some of it was circumstance.
"One thing I can say about Nelson, is he practices hard, he plays hard, and I still maintain that good things are going to come his way," Reich said.
Agholor was asked what he would tell last year's Agholor, if he could.
"I would say, 'Just relax and let the game be the game,' you know? . . . I would tell myself, 'Hey, relax and play hard, and things will come your way.' "
Eagles receiver Bryce Treggs was on the Cal sideline in 2014, when Agholor led the Trojans to a 38-30 victory by catching 16 passes for 214 yards. And the year before, when Agholor ran two punts back for touchdowns in a romp over the Bears.
"Plays fast, catches everything, great with the ball in his hands," Treggs said, when asked what he recalled from those days. "I remember I played him at the Coliseum my junior year, and they were feeding him . . . I got to witness some great play, so I know it's in him. I can't wait to see, when it comes out."