To compete for a championship, Eagles have what it takes in two key areas | Mike Sielski
With Carson Wentz and a deep and talented defensive line, the Eagles don't necessarily need to out-scheme or out-think an opponent.
Frank Reich was talking about the Carson Wentz play that everyone has been talking about. No, not that play, the other one. Reich wasn't talking about that 17-yard duck-and-dash against the Redskins on Monday night, the play in which Wentz curled into a ball and disappeared into a cocoon of offensive linemen and pass-rushers and emerged like a full-grown beast moving with ferocious speed. Reich was talking about a play earlier in the game. You know this one, too: a couple of Redskins collapsing the pocket and knocking Wentz off balance, Wentz regaining his feet, looking straight ahead, then turning his head a tick to the right and flicking that wheel-route lob to Corey Clement for a 9-yard touchdown.
"Here's what happens when you're not only athletically really good, but you're mentally really good," said Reich, the Eagles' offensive coordinator. "You have to be able to make that decision and know that that guy is going to be where he's going to be at. And so it was that combination of physical ability to make the play, but also the mental ability to understand the dynamics of what was happening in that moment."
Normally, Reich said, what coaches seek and try to extract from their players is consistent excellence over the long term. That makes sense. If your job is to teach an athlete how (in Larry Brown's favorite phrase) to play the right way, his or her ability to do so repeatedly is a manifestation and validation of you. If the athlete is doing his or her job well, you must be doing your job well. But that single, startling play by Wentz truly wowed Reich. "As coaches we tend not to be too easily impressed…" he said. "But I have to say that the touchdown pass to Corey, I was impressed."
At the risk of playing mind-reader, I'd suggest that the reason Wentz's pass to Clement floored Reich was that it was not the sort of play that a quarterback can be coached into making – and Reich knows it. Give Reich, say, Mark Sanchez, and with enough time and enough reps, Reich might be able to get Sanchez to throw the football at the right time to the right place to the right receiver with consistency. Might. What Reich can't do is teach Sanchez to shrug off blockers and – even if Sanchez knew where Clement would be – throw that pass with that accuracy and arm strength to that corner of the end zone. Wentz can do it. Sanchez and a whole mess of other quarterbacks can't. And sometimes, for all the analysis of and lip service paid to schemes and play-calling and culture, the difference between winning and losing can be so small and simple: Our guy here is better than your guy there, and there's nothing you can do about it.
We see this in sports all the time, of course, arguably in basketball most frequently – a logical assertion, given the nature of the sport and the outsize influence that one dominant player wields. A team with LeBron James has represented the Eastern Conference in each of the last seven NBA Finals, and neither the Miami Heat nor Cleveland Cavaliers suddenly became smarter or better operated or more forward-thinking than any of the other teams in the conference. They, for different intervals, had the best player, the greatest athlete, and they dared their opponents to stop him. The same thing can happen in the NFL, though the impact of such a player or players isn't necessarily as profound. Send Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora after the quarterback often enough, and pretty soon even Tom Brady and the unbeaten Patriots can't run their offense. Put Aaron Rodgers on the Packers, and they're a Super Bowl contender. Take him away, and, well, good luck to you, Mike McCarthy.
Those two, well-known examples dovetail with this season's Eagles and with this team's two primary strengths. If there are reasons to think that the Eagles can overcome the devastating injuries to Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, and other key players, the two most encouraging are Wentz and the defensive line. Those are the two areas, the two positions, where the Eagles can say to their opponents, You can do everything right, and our guys can still beat you. Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Timmy Jernigan, Vinny Curry, Chris Long, Derek Barnett, and Beau Allen: That group is as deep and as talented as any in the NFC.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz "has put a lot of faith into us," Curry said. "We've got a great group. The eight guys have come in and just rolled and rolled and rolled at a high level."
Consider Monday night: On their nine called running plays in the first half, the Redskins gained 22 yards. Three times, they faced a third-down situation in which they needed to gain two yards or less to get a first down. Three times, they called a pass play. The Eagles had rendered them one-dimensional by halftime. On Wednesday, the same day that Reich rhapsodized about Wentz, someone asked Schwartz if, because this was his second season with the team, the players' greater familiarity with his system was a reason they were defending the run so well.
"It's more the individual players," Schwartz said. "We are a good penetration team up front, and then we have good tackling linebackers and good tackling safeties that can clean it up."
Yes, it's the players. They're the impressive ones. As long as they stay that way, the Eagles have a shot. A good one.