NEW ORLEANS – Some predicted a blowout, but fewer could have forecast the complete dismantling of the Eagles in their 48-7 loss to the Saints on Sunday. Here's what we learned:
1. The real learning will come in the final six weeks of the season. I'm not sure I agree with the idea of the Eagles' going one of two ways after a lopsided defeat. Three seasons ago, they laid a turkey in Detroit and the following week beat the Patriots in New England. That Chip Kelly-coached team showed enough resolve to upset one of the best teams in the NFL, and for good measure, beat the Bills at home the following week. But that two-game winning streak was just the death rattle for a dead team and coach walking.
I'm not trying to compare this Eagles team and Doug Pederson to that Eagles team and Kelly, at least in terms of the big picture. The 2016 Birds got pasted by two subpar opponents – the Bucs and the Lions – and were already a hot mess after an offseason front-office shakeup. The 2018 Birds are coming off a Super Bowl. They lost on the road to the hottest team in the NFL. No one is (likely) to get fired before the end of the season.
But Pederson has hit a crossroads. His team didn't look like it even belonged on the field with the Saints. And it wasn't just talent and execution. It wasn't just all the injuries the Eagles have suffered this year. Pederson said last week that his team was close. He sold it (sort of) because the Eagles had yet to lose by more than one score. This was his and his players' opportunities to show that they could, at least, run with a top-tier team.
Few expected an upset. But what Sunday showed was that things were way worse than Pederson even (publicly) thought. Talk about not having the pulse of your team. The Eagles played uninspired football, and that's a reflection of the head coach. Can Pederson get his players to respond to the challenges that lie ahead, while the NFC East is still within grasp? The 4-6 Eagles trail the 6-4 Redskins and the 5-5 Cowboys, but they face both those teams and the seemingly awakened, 3-7 New York Giants for three straight games starting Sunday against the Pat Shurmurs.
We might learn a lot about the players' belief in their head coach. Or not. Maybe Pederson just wasn't given enough players to win with this season. Even if that were the case, the defending Super Bowl champions shouldn't lose any game by 41 points.
2. Doug Pederson has lost his mojo. I wrote a story a few weeks back titled, "What happened to 'Big Balls' Doug?" Pederson pushed seemingly every right button last season, and often it had to do with being aggressive. But he's been timid almost all this season. He doesn't have the personnel he had a year ago, and injuries haven't helped, but Pederson hasn't had the magic touch.
One of the obvious storylines entering the Saints game was how the Eagles would need to match the Saints' offensive firepower. There was almost no way they could hold New Orleans to fewer than 30 points. The offense would need to take some chances. But Pederson didn't seem to get that obvious message. Maybe taken individually, his decisions to punt on the Eagles' first two possessions were sound, but even in the moment, it felt as if he should have gambled once to set an early tone.
The Eagles faced a fourth-and-1 on their own 24 on their first possession and fourth-and-4 at the Saints' 49 on their second. I'm not so sure about going for it on the first drive, but the second screamed for Pederson to keep his offense on the field.
"There were some opportunities to do that and elected to punt," Pederson said. "Try to flip the field a little bit and get field position." Field position? Your plan to beat the Saints is by winning field position? No, it should be to score as many points as possible. To keep the ball out of Drew Brees' hands as much as possible. The Eagles were likely to go down in the Big Easy, but at least go down swinging.
3. The offense is the biggest problem. When Pederson decided to be aggressive, it made little sense. The Eagles had life after they scored a touchdown and the defense forced a three-and-out. The offense drove to the Saints' 46 and faced a third-and-3 with more than four minutes left before halftime. You're in four-down territory. You have two plays to get a first down. A quick touchdown or long strike would be nice, but you're down your starting center and the longest pass Carson Wentz had completed to that point was for 15 yards.
But Pederson had his quarterback take a seven-step drop off play-action. "We had a shot play called down the field," he said. The Eagles were in max protection and Wentz should have had enough time to throw downfield. But by the time he turned, Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins was in his face and Wentz took a sack. Stefen Wisniewski, center Jason Kelce's backup, failed to pick up his block, and the Eagles faced fourth-and-13. The Saints ran into Cameron Johnston on the ensuing punt, and it could be argued that Pederson should have gambled on fourth-and-8, as well. But he didn't and the Saints got the ball back, marched down the field, and took a 24-7 lead before halftime.
It's almost as if Pederson made some Faustian deal to be a Hall of Fame-caliber coach for one season. He's looked anything but this year. His game plans have lacked originality. His scripted starts have mostly been pathetic. His situational play-calling has been indifferent. And his game management has been suspect. Dumb penalties (offsides on a kickoff?) and wasted timeouts (not enough players on the field?) are reflections of the coaching staff.
The departure of offensive coordinator Frank Reich isn't the reason the Eagles aren't good this season, but on a day when Reich's Colts team waxed the Titans — a team the Eagles lost to — you must wonder if it's played a role.
4. Carson Wentz had his worst game in the NFL. The Eagles quarterback tossed three interceptions and no touchdowns. He finished with a career-low 31.9 passer rating. He completed only 19 of 33 passes for 156 yards against the league's worst passing defense.
On the Eagles' third series, Wentz threw a first-down bomb to Nelson Agholor, who had run a deep post. He had gotten behind his man, but Wentz's pass was short and cornerback Marshon Lattimore came across and made the interception.
"They made a good play," Wentz said. "I didn't quite see the coverage there." He didn't agree with the notion that he had forced his throw, but he looked at times like a quarterback who had brought a knife to a gunfight.
It wasn't just the turnovers that should bother. Wentz looked skittish when he was pressured. He had been one of the bright spots over the previous seven games, and of all the players, I'm most comfortable saying that he'll rebound down the stretch, but Wentz didn't look like he was in the same league as Brees.
5. The Eagles defense didn't play well at all, but Jim Schwartz at least had some valid excuses. By the end of the game, the Eagles' cornerbacks were Chandon Sullivan, Cre'von LeBlanc, and De'Vante Bausby. Not one was on the roster just two weeks ago. It's no surprise then that Brees finished with a near-perfect passer rating.
The Eagles were already shorthanded in the secondary. Both starting corners (Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills) and one starting safety (Rodney McLeod) were out. It just got worse. Safety Avonte Maddox left with a knee injury, cornerback Sidney Jones suffered another hamstring strain, and cornerback Rasul Douglas was sidelined by a knee injury. Those three weren't exactly playing well, but the secondary was basically Malcolm Jenkins, a shot 34-year-old safety (Corey Graham), and three corners who typically see their Eagles careers end in the fourth preseason game. Schwartz played a lot of man defense, per Saints coach Sean Payton.
"They played a ton more man tonight than we had seen in two years," Payton said. "We had watched every film, you name it – last season, the Super Bowl, this season, last postseason, the playoffs. Tonight was entirely different."
Schwartz could have called the zone version of the "Triple Lindy" and it wouldn't have mattered. He probably didn't want to get too complicated with so many young and new faces in the defensive backfield. That being said, Schwartz's unit forced just one punt in the Saints' first nine possessions. That isn't good enough.
6. The injuries go beyond bad luck. The Eagles medical staff can't possibly be faulted for the high number of injuries the Eagles have suffered this season. With Maddox's season likely over, there will be 10 players on injured reserve.
The areas in which the new medical leadership can be questioned is in relation to rehabs and recoveries. Jones became the second player, after Darren Sproles, to suffer either an aggravated or second hamstring injury this season. The Eagles have had a decent number of soft-tissue injuries, but more concerning has been the long recovery time for most. Sproles has now missed nine games. Jones missed three (plus a bye week). The same went for Graham.
The Eagles have played poorly for myriad reasons, but the story of the 2018 team can't be told without mentioning injuries.
7. Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas don't look like good draft picks. It's too early to make final assessments about any player during his second season, especially since Jones and Douglas, for various reasons, have played little on defense. But Jones and Douglas, if you consider their draft positions, could have been this era's version of the Lito Sheppard–Sheldon Brown class.
Jones can't seem to stay healthy. Notwithstanding the Achilles tendon rupture he suffered before the draft, Jones has been and on and off the field since he made his debut in last year's season finale. He left that game early and didn't play in the postseason. He didn't practice in the final three weeks of spring workouts. He was sidelined during the preseason. And he's missed three full and parts of two other games so far this season.
Jones has obvious talent, but he needs experience. The Saints attacked him early – purposely, per this Peter King story – and he couldn't respond. Douglas just might not have the physical skills to be a starting outside cornerback. For the second week in a row, he got toasted, even though he often had safety help over top.
>> PHOTO GALLERY: Scenes from the sidelines in New Orleans
8. The Golden Tate trade was a mistake. This isn't a 20/20 hindsight statement. The failure of the trade falls on both Howie Roseman and Pederson. Roseman can be saluted for going for it in sending a third-round pick to the Lions for the slot receiver, but he miscalculated the talent of his team. Giving up that much for a potential eight-game rental wasn't worth the cost, even if you factor in a possible compensatory selection that won't help the Eagles until 2020. Receiver was a need, but Tate is like skill players the Eagles already have. There were other positions of greater need.
Still, Pederson and offensive coordinator Mike Groh have done a poor job implementing Tate into the offense. He played only 29 percent of the snaps last week and was a non-factor, and while they got him on the field 71 percent of the time this week, Tate (five catches for 48 yards) never got going. The same could be said of the entire receiving unit, but the Eagles are a few games from being totally out of the playoff picture. Was the trade worth the gamble when you couldn't find a way to capitalize on Tate's skills for 25 percent of the time he'll likely be an Eagle?
9. The Eagles linebackers have been a disappointment. Jordan Hicks started this season strong and has had moments since, but he's been inconsistent far too often. The Eagles allowed more than 170 yards on the ground for the second straight week. A lot of that falls on the middle linebacker.
Nigel Bradham has been a ghost nearly all season. His defense on an early third-and-long was dreadful. The Saints threw well short of the sticks, but Bradham had dropped too deep to come up and make a stop. Bradham had been one of the Eagles' best defenders the two previous seasons. He didn't just make game-changing plays, but he also was reliable.
It should be noted that he earned a contract extension this offseason. I can't say with certainty that getting paid has altered his performance, but when one's level drops that much, you should wonder.