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The Eagles’ Slow Starts May Quickly End Their Season

Philadelphia is among the worst first-quarter teams in the league—and if the Eagles can’t start digging themselves out of these holes, they’ll likely find themselves outside of the playoffs come January

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

“Begin at the beginning,” Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland, “and go on till you come to the end.” It’s sage advice for storytelling, but particularly useful for the Eagles, who lost 37-10 to the Cowboys on Sunday night. Philadelphia was essentially out of this game after its first two drives. Tight end Dallas Goedert lost a fumble on the fifth play of the game. Six plays later, Cowboys receiver Tavon Austin scored a touchdown. Philadelphia’s second drive ended even quicker than the first. The Eagles needed just two plays to fumble again, this time when Dallas defensive end Demarcus Lawrence strip-sacked quarterback Carson Wentz. The Cowboys needed just two plays to score again. Six minutes and four seconds into the game, the Eagles were down 14-0. That disastrous beginning led to a predictable end. The Eagles went on to lose by 27 points, their second-biggest margin of defeat since Doug Pederson became their head coach in 2016, and in Pederson’s own admission, either the worst or second-worst loss of his tenure.

The Eagles have been sleepwalking through the beginning of games all year. Their season began by hosting Washington as 10.5-point favorites, but Philly fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter and 20-7 at halftime before coming back for the win. In Week 2, the Eagles fell behind Atlanta 10-6 at halftime and lost 24-20. That is still Atlanta’s only win of the year. In Week 3, the Eagles fell behind the Lions 20-10 at halftime and lost 27-24. Last week, the Eagles fell behind the Vikings 24-3 midway through the second quarter before succumbing 38-20. So when the Eagles fumbled twice in their first seven offensive plays against the Cowboys, it didn’t seem like an anomaly.

If any metric can capture the drop-off between the Eagles’ Super Bowl squad in 2017 and the Eagles the past two years, it’s their slow starts. This year’s Eagles have been behind at halftime five times, more than they were during their entire 19-game Super Bowl run in 2017. That year, the Eagles led the league in first-quarter score differential and were second to the Patriots in halftime score differential. In 2018, they ranked 22nd and 18th, respectively. This year is even worse, as the Eagles rank 26th in first-quarter score differential and 25th in halftime score margin. That was before this Cowboys shellacking.

This isn’t a new problem for the Eagles, and the underlying problems aren’t new, either. Pederson rightfully took the blame for Sunday’s loss. He deserves plenty of credit for Philly’s aggressiveness, but the Eagles play-calling has not been the same since 2017, when former offensive coordinator Frank Reich left to take the Colts head-coaching job and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo left to become offensive coordinator in Minnesota (he now holds the same position in Jacksonville).

Like falling behind early, the Eagles’ secondary is a problem already well-known to the Philly faithful. Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper dominated despite playing through a foot injury, catching all five of his targets for 106 yards. Through three quarters, quarterback Dak Prescott had completed 20 of 25 passes for 8.4 yards per pass attempt. Philly cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones (who didn’t play a snap on Sunday) have been struggling to fill in for the rest of the injured Eagles secondary for more than a year. (Cornerback Jalen Mills played for the first time since injuring his foot last year.) Opponents have lasered in on Philly’s weakness. In 2017, the Eagles defense allowed the eighth-fewest net yards per pass attempt; this year’s Eagles were allowing the ninth most entering Sunday.

Health isn’t just an issue at cornerback. Left tackle Jason Peters sat out with a knee injury and was replaced by rookie Andre Dillard. But right tackle Lane Johnson gave up the strip sack on Philly’s second drive, and Johnson’s spotty play last season was also a main factor in the Eagles’ slow start in 2018. Receiver DeSean Jackson, brought in to be the vertical speed element the Birds have been missing since Torrey Smith left after 2017, hasn’t played since Week 2. But these absences aren’t new. Peters was out for the second half of their Super Bowl run, the secondary has been a consistent issue, and Jackson wasn’t on the team last year. The absences are also not unique to them. The Cowboys also entered the game with injuries at cornerback and to their left tackle and top receiver, though their stars mostly played through injuries on Sunday.

Whatever the reason for the Eagles’ slow starts—coaching, injuries, bad luck—they haven’t been able to fix it, and those bad beginnings may lead lead to their season ending before the playoffs. Their next four games are against the Bills, Bears, Patriots, and Seahawks. Going 2-2 against that slate will be tough, and that would put the Eagles at only 5-6. That’s not a reason to panic. Last year’s Eagles started 4-6 before earning a wild-card berth at 9-7. But last year’s NFC was not as competitive, and it looks like between the emergence of the NFC West and a more competitive NFC North, 9-7 may not cut it for a playoff spot this year. The Eagles will need an even more dramatic turnaround than last year, and the only Eagles quarterback to pull that off in the past two years is now on Jacksonville’s roster. If Wentz wants to change that, there’s only one place to start.