For Eagles, losing is bad; but corroding Carson Wentz’s progress might be worse
The quarterback's forced throws and visible frustration Sunday were more alarming than the fact that the Eagles lost.
When does a down season, the year after winning the Super Bowl, become a crisis?
Maybe when it starts to affect the development of Carson Wentz.
For several weeks there the Eagles were struggling, but their third-year quarterback was playing really well. The past few weeks, with the slide deepening into 4-6 territory, Wentz seems to be succumbing to frustration: forcing throws, trying to do too much. This trend could affect the franchise's long-term prospects.
Disappointing results might not get offensive coordinator Mike Groh and/or quarterbacks coach Press Taylor fired after just one season. But any hint that Wentz is displeased, or just isn't flourishing the way he did with former quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo and former offensive coordinator Frank Reich – that sort of thing could imperil the job security of just about anyone in any NovaCare office.
"Sometimes in situations like [Sunday's 48-7 loss at New Orleans], especially quarterbacks … I've been on teams where, with great quarterbacks … things begin to kind of spiral just a touch," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said on Monday. "That you feel like you have to make every play."
Pederson said it's important for quarterbacks and coaches to stay within themselves when the team is struggling.
"It's just nature. Even as play-callers, sometimes you get out of your norm just a little bit and do things differently. We have to guard against that, and those are areas that we'll continue to grow in and get them fixed," he said.
Fox's cameras kept finding Wentz on Sunday as the carnage mounted in the Saints' 48-7 victory over the Eagles in New Orleans. Wentz slamming water bottles in frustration. Wentz looking at the sideline with upraised palms when he had to call timeout with 10 minutes and 5 seconds remaining in the third quarter because there were only 10 Eagles on the field. Wentz shaking his head in disgust after any of his three interceptions.
Analyst Troy Aikman, who has been there and done that, said after Wentz threw his second interception, running full speed to his right, about to cross the line of scrimmage, the Eagles already down 48-7, that the QB was "just trying to make something happen."
Pederson said Monday that he wouldn't consider pulling Wentz for Nick Foles for a series or two in such a situation, just to get Wentz's head right.
"I think you continue to work through it," Pederson said.
There really isn't any good reason for the Eagles' offense to be as bad as it is.
This point was reinforced Monday when Pederson, asked whether he was more disappointed in the 48 (his defense) or the seven (his offense) during Sunday's loss, said: "The seven points we scored, because we had more plays out on the field that we left, after watching the film again. … So that's the disappointing thing, that we didn't do a better job offensively and score more points in this game."
Giving up 48 to the Saints was humiliating, but it was the sort of humiliation other teams have experienced this season at the hands of the NFL's highest-scoring offense. And by the fourth quarter, the Eagles' secondary consisted of three practice-squad-level guys and Malcolm Jenkins. What happened to the defense was more or less explainable. What happened to the offense – what has happened all season to what was the NFL's most exciting attack, a year ago – was much less understandable.
Pederson pondered Monday whether he could have been more aggressive early, could have gone for it on the first series, facing fourth-and-about-a-half-yard, rather than chalking up the sixth three-and-out in 10 Eagles first possessions this season.
It sure seems there must be a reason beyond "execution" – the bland, amorphous explanation we get from both players and coaches – for the Eagles sitting dead last in the NFL with 21 first-quarter points this season.
Pederson said part of his task this week will be to get Wentz "back to trusting the offense, let the offense work for you, things like that. … Use the guys around you, trust the run game."
Given the looks of the offense and especially the run game, Pederson might have his work cut out for him.
• After that punt-return tackle he made, who else is thinking that maybe Cameron Johnston can play safety?
• When did Nigel Bradham – one of the unsung heroes of the Super Bowl season, a tough, fearless competitor – turn into Casey Matthews? Bradham could have stopped the Saints' first touchdown drive Sunday, he had Keith Kirkwood lined up a couple yards short of the sticks on third-and-9, and Bradham just totally missed. The next play was a 16-yard tight-end screen on which Bradham couldn't get off a block. If Jordan Hicks (calf) is going to be sidelined a while, Bradham presumably will move back to the middle, where he played so well last season. Maybe that will help.
• How the Saints devoted that much attention to Zach Ertz without leaving anybody else wide-open remains a mystery to me, even after rewatching the game.
• The Eagles promised to get Golden Tate more involved. Eight targets, five catches for 48 yards. Meh.
That Taysom Hill would compile a better passer rating (64.6) Sunday than Carson Wentz (31.9)?
Wendell Smallwood, the Eagles' leading rusher on the season, has run for 257 yards on 63 carries. In the league rankings, that places him one spot behind Dak Prescott (52 for 261).
The Saints' plan Sunday was to go right after spindly Eagles corner Sidney Jones, 6-feet, 181 pounds, returning from a three-game hamstring absence. The first play from scrimmage, Mark Ingram (5-9, 215) blew right through Jones' late, weak attempt at a tackle and gained 38 yards.
The Eagles' 2017 second-round pick moved outside from the slot for this game but did nothing to help Jim Schwartz's battered defense before leaving with yet another hamstring injury after just 22 snaps.
"We gotta run right at 22 and we gotta throw at 22," Saints coach Sean Payton said in a Saturday night meeting, according to Peter King's NBC Sports column. "We're gonna make him defend the run on the first play. We're going after him on three of the first eight plays."
Payton prefaced this with: "Our emphasis in this game is to run at 22. He's coming off a hamstring, and we don't think he can hold up."
Payton had that figured correctly. When the Eagles drafted him, Jones was rehabbing an Achilles' tear that took him well out of the first half of the first round, where he'd been projected, but since he got healthy, he has been plagued with hamstring problems. Doug Pederson insisted Monday that Jones was completely healed when he took the field against New Orleans, that this was a new injury, not a reinjury.
It doesn't seem either scenario – new or old hamstring pull — speaks well for Jones soon becoming the Pro Bowl-level corner the Eagles thought they drafted.
Pederson was asked if having one of his better young players considered a weak link by the opponent was troubling.
"We talk about matchups a lot with our guys. If that's what they felt was a matchup for them, then I'm sure they were going to go in that direction," Pederson said. "We would do the same thing."
Last Friday, Pederson spoke of Jones as if he were some sort of redshirt freshman, years away from fulfilling his potential. (BTW, Marshon Lattimore, the Saints corner who swooped in and intercepted Carson Wentz in the first quarter Sunday, was considered comparable to Jones in 2017 predraft evaluations, and went 11th overall.)
"He had a couple setbacks. He missed some offseason time because he was rehabbing. Missed training-camp time because he was rehabbing," Pederson said. "Sidney is kind of that young player that … his body is still developing, tremendous athlete. He's going to be a great player for us. … It's just unfortunate that early in a player's career he's had a couple of setbacks due to injury. But, where he's at and what he's done, I really see that once he gets this behind him, he gets stronger, he gets bigger, all those things, he learns how to practice and play, he's going to be a really good player."
Get insights on the Eagles delivered straight to your inbox with Early Birds, beat writer Zach Berman's newsletter for Eagles fans. Click here to sign up.