The idea behind scripting the first 15 plays of a game is that these are plays you are confident in, that you have worked on specifically for this situation, that you think will get you moving against this particular defense.
So when the first few offensive series turn into a train wreck, over and over again, as has been the case with the Eagles this season, it's hard not to think that somebody is choosing the wrong plays, maybe not seeing the matchups realistically, maybe not playing to his players' strengths.
Specifically, when you have an entire bye week to prepare for an opponent, and your first four plays are a 1-yard pass on which Zach Ertz misses a block on DeMarcus Lawrence, a run for no yardage, a 7-yard screen on third-and-9, and an interception, it seems as if there might be a bit of a disconnect somewhere in the process.
"I do evaluate the calls, because I put those together. That's solely on me," coach Doug Pederson said Monday, after his team went three-and-out on the first series for the fifth time this season, and failed to score in the first quarter for the seventh time in nine games.
Pederson said he bases his script off what he sees from the opponent's film: "I go back and look at all their games and I see how they start that first series, that first drive, and try to put plays accordingly. Then I have to go back and look at how we started games by play call, play design, so that I'm not repeating and having any indicators there. In the case of some of our struggles, it has just been just our execution. Just sustaining a block or the read by the quarterback or … to me, that's kind of where if there's an urgency moment how we start games, that's where the urgency [is lacking], I think, coaches, players, everybody involved really needs to sort of heighten [their urgency], so that we can stay on the field and go down and score points."
Sunday night's game, after the first four plays – that awful interception coming after a nice defensive series and a punt return set the Eagles up on the Dallas 44, by the way – what happened with the next 11?
Corey Clement ran for 5 yards. Jordan Matthews got 10 on a run after a short catch. Jason Peters gave up a 9-yard sack to Randy Gregory. Carson Wentz rolled right and hit Nelson Agholor for a 14-yard gain. Third-down drop by Alshon Jeffery.
Next series, now into the second quarter, plays 10 and 11 were Josh Adams runs that netted 34 yards. Then Wentz hit Jeffery for 11, and Ertz for 8. Wendell Smallwood gained a yard. Play 15 was a third-and-1 incomplete pass to Golden Tate on which Xavier Woods could have been called for pass interference, but was not, on a night when not much that happened was deemed penalty-worthy.
Play 16 – we're off script now — could have been a Jake Elliott field goal, but instead it was a 3-yard loss on fourth-and-1, Adams dancing up to the line as Ertz failed to get to linebacker Jaylon Smith, and Pederson eschewed the QB sneak.
No points from the script. No deep shots. Nothing especially set up for Tate, in his Eagles debut, despite the generous planning time afforded by the bye.
Pederson was asked about teams taking away the things the Eagles did so well last season, such as RPOs and play action.
"Teams had a whole offseason to study us, and that's usually what happens," Pederson said.
He didn't say exactly how he is countering that adjustment. Maybe because he isn't, with any kind of consistent success, anyway.
Developing story lines
*Ezekiel Elliott gained 14 yards on his first six carries, and then, somehow, 137 on his next 13, starting with the 32-yard hurdle play against Tre Sullivan. Something keeps happening to Jim Schwartz's defense in the second half of games, and I'm not sure injuries and fatigue completely account for it. That unit will get a needed offseason shake-up.
*Another Jekyll-Hyde Eagles defensive note: The Cowboys' two field goals, which gave them a 6-0 lead, were set up by an interception and a successful fake punt. Dak Prescott could do very little until the final drive of the first half. But like most opposing quarterbacks, he could do anything he wanted in the fourth quarter.
*It got a little lost in all the carnage that followed, but I thought that third-and-15 the Eagles gave up on the first Dallas touchdown drive, just before halftime, was a huge moment. You get a 13-yard sack with 1 minute, 5 seconds left, setting up a Dallas second-and-23, you start calling timeouts because you want the ball back; then, on third-and-15 from its 35, the opponent runs a little screen to a third-round rookie named Michael Gallup, and somehow, there is no defender on that side of the field except for Rasul Douglas, who promptly takes the wrong angle, going inside and leaving Gallup the sideline for a 25-yard gain. "That is gonna kill the Philadelphia Eagles," Cris Collinsworth said, prophetically.
*Projected Eagles starting secondary Sunday against New Orleans, with Ronald Darby now done for the season and Jalen Mills not expected to be ready: Tre Sullivan, Chandon Sullivan, Molly Sullivan, Maureen O'Sullivan.
*It's great that Zach Ertz has the most catches ever by an NFL tight end through nine games (78), but maybe Carson Wentz could look at his other receivers more than a couple times a game? "I think the ball's going to the open guy," Ertz said after the game, when asked about this.
When Tre Sullivan played for Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va, he didn't encounter anyone much like Ezekiel Elliott.
Sunday night, Sullivan played in his fifth NFL game, in which he would get 22 snaps, nearly tripling his career total of eight. He was the deep safety, at a listed 6-feet and 200, playing because the secondary was ravaged by injury, giving away 25 pounds to Elliott, one of the league's best running backs. Elliott was coming at him with a full head of steam. No one on the Eagles' defensive line had gotten in Elliott's way as he rampaged into the secondary. As was the case the entire second half, no Eagles linebacker could get off a block well enough to even make Elliott break stride.
So here he came, full throttle, and Sullivan, standing and waiting, did what he has been coached to do, he went low. You know what happened next. Elliott hurdled him, delighting the NBC broadcast crew and creating an indelible image. Sullivan's helmet might have grazed Elliott's undercarriage just enough to throw him off balance and cause him to fall several yards further downfield.
It was a 32-yard gain that, like so many other moments Sunday night, seemed an apt metaphor for the evening. Eagles caught flatfooted, in a bad matchup. Cowboys soaring.
"That's a great play by him," Sullivan said afterward. "Y'all know Zeke's a great athlete. He's known for making tremendous plays like that. It's not like I can just guess he's going to jump over me, because he's a physical guy who's going to run through [standup] tackles. I was just playing it honest. I wasn't trying to whack-tackle him because he's a big body, and he'll bounce off a tackle. … I broke down and tried to make a secure tackle. It's just a great play by him."
Sullivan noted that Dallas got only a field goal from the drive.
That the Eagles' Sept. 23 victory over the Colts, their 13th in a row at the Linc in games they were actually trying to win (excluding the meaningless 2017 regular-season finale), might be the last chance for the home crowd to celebrate a win this year?
The Eagles are 1-6 in their last seven home games with the Cowboys. They are 5-2 in their last seven trips to Dallas.