Approached by a pair of reporters in the Eagles' locker room late Monday night, Alshon Jeffery spat out, "I'm good, boss" and was gone. Three words were all Jeffery needed to sum up a game in which he didn't catch a pass, in which Nick Foles targeted him just twice, and whatever frustration Jeffery might have been feeling after the Eagles' 19-10 victory over the Raiders, the circumstances justified it.
In a game that the Eagles needed to win to assure themselves of home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, a no-catch night from their top wide receiver should be unfathomable, but understand: Circumstance always matters to a wide receiver and his production, and the responsibility for this goose egg wasn't primarily on Jeffery. It was on Foles, and it has to change if the Eagles are to have any hope of reaching the NFC championship game, let alone the Super Bowl.
"We've just got to keep shooting, keep throwing, and keep trying to find ways to get him the football," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Tuesday. "It's our job as coaches, offensively, to make sure that he's in position, whether it be by formation or just by play design, to try to give him an opportunity to, number one, get targets, and then to get hands on the ball."
Maybe, for the regular-season finale this Sunday, Pederson can include a few Foles-to-Jeffery slants or screens among the Eagles' scripted first 15 plays. Such approach would be fine as far as it would go, but the concern here isn't boosting Jeffery's numbers or placating his ego. He's had a solid season for the Eagles but not a spectacular one: 56 receptions, 781 yards, nine touchdowns. Still, he showed them enough during the season's first 13 games, when Carson Wentz was at quarterback, that they gave him the two things he always wanted out of this season: a chance to win a championship, and a chance to sign a long-term contract.
On Dec. 2, the Eagles announced they had reached an agreement with Jeffery on a four-year deal that could be worth as much as $52 million. It was eight days before Wentz tore his left ACL, and it was easy at the time to project that he and Wentz would grow more comfortable with each other as games and years went by. Already, they had made progress in that regard, and Wentz's profile as a quarterback – with a daring nature, and the arm required to make any throw in the book – fit perfectly with Jeffery's strength as a wideout: He catches the football even though he's covered.
Jump balls, back-shoulder throws, slant routes that demand that he outmuscle a cornerback and get to a specific spot on the field at a specific time: Those are his specialties. He's not fast or elusive enough to leave an opposing defensive back in the dust, and dating back to his high school career, he really has never been. The people who knew Jeffery when he was a star at Calhoun County High School in St. Matthews, South Carolina, didn't marvel over his speed or shiftiness, because those skills weren't necessarily worth marveling over. They remember, instead, his hands, and the high quality of the contested catches he could make. An all-state basketball player and Division I prospect then, Jeffery has long used the physical fundamentals of that sport to his advantage in football.
"I tell him, 'You know why you're so good catching the ball in traffic? It's got to be because of all that bumping and grinding we did on the basketball court, boxing out, positioning,'" said Zam Fredrick, Jeffery's basketball coach at Calhoun County High School. "That had to pay off."
It can pay off only if his quarterback is willing to give him opportunities to make such plays. Wentz is such a quarterback. Foles, less so. In the light of the full breadth of his career, if Foles' remarkable 2013 season — the 27 touchdowns, the two interceptions, the 119.2 passer rating – shows nothing else, it demonstrates how reliant he is on his coach or coaches to scheme receivers open for him.
Chip Kelly was in his first season with the Eagles then, and he and his up-tempo system and play-calling tendencies were still mysteries to the rest of the league. Watch a tape of Foles' touchdown passes that season, and you'll notice how many times his receivers were, relatively speaking, wide open and running free. Pederson is unlikely to create such situations for Jeffery, but then, the whole point of having Alshon Jeffery is that a coach shouldn't have to create those situations for him. The quarterback should, if he can.
"I do agree with sometimes you do have to challenge the receiver, challenge the [defensive back], and make it a contested catch," Pederson said. "I think as we all know, Alshon has a tremendous catch radius and can catch a high ball [off a] back-shoulder throw. We've seen it this season already.
"It's just those two guys working out the details of body language and understanding route combinations and how he runs certain routes, and [continuing] to work that way in order to have that trust and ability to make those plays."
They have three weeks, from today to the divisional round, to develop that trust. It will be a waste of what Alshon Jeffery is supposed to do best – and, for the Eagles, a waste of an opportunity that might not present itself again soon – if they don't.
This column was corrected from an earlier version that erroneously listed Foles' 2013 passer rating as 199.2.
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