The list of troubling events during Sunday night’s loss to the Cowboys is not a brief one, but high on the list is the Eagles’ apparent inability to determine how many players are allowed on the field at one time.
Like a car going drunkenly from guardrail to guardrail, they tried 12 men, and that didn’t work, then later went with 10 men and, while technically not an infraction, that wasn’t a particularly good idea, either.
Small things tend to get magnified in losses, and a 37-10 whipping at the hands of their only credible division rival is the equivalent of putting an electron microscope on Eagles mistakes. If a team can’t line up properly, that is certainly a coaching failure, but it also speaks to how locked in the players are to the task at hand.
It isn’t a question of quitting, or not trying, but simply that the focus required to play football at the highest level can drift if the players don’t believe deep down that it matters one way or the other.
“I have to do a better job, quite frankly,” coach Doug Pederson said Monday, “and I have to communicate that better to the team and make sure that we’re doing the right things every single day, not just some of the time.”
Pederson did a thorough job of taking responsibility for the team’s play – which is the easiest and most obvious escape from the thicket of questions posed by Sunday’s game – but the truth is there is only so much a coach can do. Professional players can sniff out a season sliding away, and will make their own bargains with themselves regarding how much pain and effort a losing proposition deserves. Every player is different in that regard, but none are immune to the dynamic.
The Eagles season does hang by a tenuous thread, even though they are just one game behind the Cowboys in the NFC East with nine games remaining on the schedule. Pederson has to rally them to believe, and the game this coming Sunday in Buffalo might be the best opportunity for that.
The problem, of course, is that they are playing crappy football. Most worrisome of all after the Dallas loss weren’t the blips of concentration, or the occasional issue lining up, but what took place when they actually had 11 men on the field. The Cowboys were tougher and more talented, and appeared more motivated, which is odd for a game between rivals with identical records playing to assure that the division can’t be lost on the first tiebreaker – head-to-head games.
Maybe the loss was simply the logical outgrowth of the way the game started. That would be an optimistic view. When the Eagles didn’t get a pass interference call on their first drive and proceeded to fumble twice and stake the Cowboys to a 14-0 lead, the snowball was rolling downhill quickly. They didn’t do anything to stop it, but the momentum of that game was difficult to overcome.
Although Dallas looked good, it’s worth remembering that the Cowboys really aren’t that good. They have yet to beat a team that currently has a winning record – yes, regrettably, that does include the Eagles – and list the Jets among their three losses.
Dallas gets a bye this week and then the schedule gets tougher. The Cowboys still have games left against Minnesota, Detroit, New England, Buffalo, Chicago, the Rams, and a Dec. 22 rematch with the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Eagles have a schedule challenge, too, particularly if they keep stinking up the joint, but they also have four games against the Giants (2), Dolphins and Redskins. If they can just right things enough to pick off a couple of games from among their other opponents, they can still win the division and at least get a swing at the postseason. Dallas has to cooperate, but, again, the Cowboys already lost to the Jets.
“By no means are we pushing any panic buttons,” Pederson said.
The buttons they have pushed haven’t worked, however, particularly those pushed by the front office. Releasing linebacker Zach Brown, annoying though he was, despite Nigel Bradham’s being out with an ankle injury, looked shortsighted when the Cowboys ran for 189 yards. Not having a reasonable replacement for DeSean Jackson’s skills, not foreseeing another year of injuries for Jason Peters, not properly assessing the talents of Sidney Jones, not giving the defensive line more depth than a played-out Vinny Curry, all of those and more have added up.
Pederson has a significant coaching job ahead of him to overcome the issues facing the team, but he only has to overcome some of them to get the Eagles into the playoffs. This wouldn’t seem an optimistic moment to predict that, but it could easily happen. It has to start with the next game, and would that really be such a surprise? Buffalo has played one team with a winning record and lost that game. The combined record of the five teams the Bills have beaten is 6-27.