There’s a classic episode of Seinfeld – are there any other kinds of episodes of Seinfeld? – in which George keeps trying to break up with his girlfriend, Maura. He behaves badly. He cheats on her. He tries to declare, by fiat, that the relationship has ended. Doesn’t matter. She won’t leave him. Worse, she continues to annoy him at every turn. “Ew, Mr. Apple, you have a brown spot!” she says in a child’s voice to a piece of fruit, and it’s nails on a chalkboard to George. He’s trapped. It’s torment.
There’s an appropriate metaphor for the 2020 Eagles in that sitcom story line. I’m just not sure what it is yet. Are the Eagles George, and is the NFC East Maura? Are the Eagles Maura, and are their fans George? The analogy will reveal itself fully over the final seven weeks of this season. This much is certain: Those seven weeks will be torment.
Any illusions that anyone might have had about this Eagles' season being anything other than an excruciating slog that would result, at best, with a meaningless first-place finish in an awful division should have evaporated Sunday. The Eagles lost, 27-17, to the Giants at MetLife Stadium. They did not play, in a cliche that NFL coaches adore, complementary football, which is about the nicest compliment one could pay them.
Their defense was terrible early, then allowed a momentum-killing touchdown drive in the third quarter. Their offense was inconsistent, baffling in its collective decision-making and play-calling and overall performance. Carson Wentz didn’t turn the ball over, but he was no sharper than he had generally been before the bye week. Jason Kelce kept snapping the ball low out of the shotgun. Doug Pederson appeared bent on inserting Jalen Hurts into the game exactly at those moments when the last thing the Eagles needed was Jalen Hurts inserted into the game.
Those were all bad developments, but the loss continued the worst one of this season: The Eagles don’t know what they are, and they can’t really know what they have. They’re not finding out much about themselves, if anything. Is Jalen Mills really a safety? Is there a linebacker on the roster worth keeping? Wentz has regressed. Is this the quarterback he will be henceforth: turnover-prone, too often inaccurate? Do they have other ways to win a game when he’s playing poorly? Sunday was the perfect opportunity to gather such information. Miles Sanders averaged 5.7 yards a carry. Boston Scott ripped off a 56-yard touchdown run. Between them, they had 18 carries. Why not rely on them more?
It is, in some regards, unfair to compare Pederson and this Eagles team to Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots of the last 20 years, but ... one of the things that has made Belichick a great coach is his willingness to try to win a particular game in a particular manner. If it took Tom Brady throwing every down, Belichick would expect him to ice his arm afterward. If it took Brady handing the ball off to an anonymous running back, Belichick was happy to give the kid a name for a week. The upshot of such strategic flexibility is that a coach learns what he has in a player or players. Sanders has never had more than 20 rushing attempts in any of his 23 games in the NFL. Would he spontaneously combust on the 21st?
“It’s not even about that,” Sanders said Sunday, when asked about his workload. “It’s about executing. It doesn’t matter if I’m getting the ball 10 times, three times, 20 times. I’m going to do whatever I can to help the team win. But the team, offensively, I think we didn’t play to our standard."
Actually, they did. They are 3-5-1 now, and though they still lead the NFC East, the reasons to think they can and will hold on to that lead are dwindling. Their next five games are against teams with winning records, and given that they have already lost twice within their division, they have no remaining game that one would look at and say, Well, at least they have a pretty good chance of winning that one. The Giants are 3-7 but at least trending upward, improving, under first-year coach and Lansdale Catholic alumnus Joe Judge. Washington, which beat the Eagles in Week 1 when it had an incompetent quarterback in Dwayne Haskins, now has a competent one in Alex Smith. The Cowboys can justify some of their poor play and assuage some of their fears about their future with the knowledge that if Dak Prescott weren’t injured and out for the season, they would be competitive.
The Eagles don’t have any such comforting thoughts. They’re just not very good. Worse, they seem no closer, after Sunday, to figuring out why. They are not the masters of their domain. Or of the NFC East. Or of much of anything.