As Doug Pederson addressed the media following the Eagles’ 17-10 loss to the Patriots on Sunday, he delivered a message that’s become all too familiar this fall. “The guys are disappointed,” Pederson said. “They’re frustrated. They understand we’re a better football team than what we played tonight.”
Disappointing and frustrating are apt descriptors for the 2019 Eagles, especially when you consider where this franchise was the last time it played New England. Philly finished off one of the most improbable championship runs in NFL history in Super Bowl LII by dropping 41 points on the Pats with backup quarterback Nick Foles under center. That 2017 roster was deep enough to overcome a season-ending injury to MVP front-runner Carson Wentz and bring home a championship, and, as Pederson raised the Lombardi Trophy that night in Minneapolis, it seemed like the start of a multiyear reign over the rest of the NFC. So far, though, that dominance hasn’t materialized.
Last year’s Eagles were absolutely decimated by injury. Philly finished second in the NFL in adjusted games lost, and position groups like the secondary were almost completely composed of backups by the end of the season. Wentz missed the first two games of the year as he recovered from an ACL tear, and then a back injury kept him out for three of Philly’s final four regular season games and the playoffs. The Eagles still managed to slip into the postseason at 9-7, knock off the Bears in the Double Doink wild-card game, and give the Saints a real scare during the divisional round, but it was clear for most of the season that Pederson’s flawed team wasn’t a part of the NFC’s elite.
This offseason, though, brought plenty of renewed optimism. General manager Howie Roseman traded a sixth-round pick for wide receiver DeSean Jackson in March and signed recently released Jaguars defensive tackle Malik Jackson that same day. With talented reinforcements coming to an already strong roster, Philly was once again a trendy preseason Super Bowl pick. But after a horrid offensive showing on Sunday, the 5-5 Eagles look firmly mired in mediocrity for the second straight season. And as Pederson’s team trudges through another disappointing and frustrating fall, it’s fair to wonder whether the Eagles’ magical 2017 run was lightning in a bottle that this group will never find again.
A quick diagnostics check on this year’s team shows that injuries have once again hit Philly hard. Both Jacksons were hurt in Week 1 and essentially lost for the season. Malik’s absence became even more devastating after fellow defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan went down with a foot injury in Week 2. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham have mostly been able to keep that interior group afloat, but the Eagles’ pass-catching unit has had no such luck.
With Jackson already out for Sunday’s game and Alshon Jeffery sidelined with an ankle injury, Nelson Agholor and Jordan Matthews were left as Wentz’s two primary receivers. And both had accurate throws bounce off their hands in crucial moments late in Sunday’s loss. Matthews’s flub came on a third-and-8 bullet from Wentz on the right sideline. And Agholor’s happened on a beautiful deep toss from Wentz on the final play of regulation. Neither would technically be considered a “drop,” but both instances illuminate an issue that Philly has faced all season: Wentz’s wide receivers aren’t creating any plays. Coming into Sunday’s game against the Patriots, Philly’s wideouts had combined for 127 yards on 15 catches in the Eagles’ past six games.
The ground game—which was supposed to be the Eagles’ best hope of moving the ball against the Patriots’ excellent secondary—also stalled on Sunday. Jordan Howard missed the game with a shoulder injury, right tackle Lane Johnson left in the first half with a concussion, and running back Miles Sanders mustered only 38 yards on 11 carries. In total, the offense averaged just 3.5 yards per play against New England.
What makes the offensive issues even more dispiriting is that the Eagles defense finally seems to be hitting its stride. The return of cornerback Jalen Mills—who spent the first six games of the season on the physically unable to perform list with a foot injury—has provided a huge lift to the secondary. His tipped pass on a deep throw to Julian Edelman early in the second quarter likely saved a touchdown. Ronald Darby is also back in the starting lineup after missing four games with a hamstring injury, and his late recovery on a long throw to Phillip Dorsett on Sunday prevented another possible score. Safety Avonte Maddox, who missed time with a concussion earlier this season, added a nice pass breakup on a deep throw to Edelman in the fourth quarter. On the day, the Eagles held Tom Brady to 26 of 47 passing for 216 yards and no touchdowns. The arrow is undeniably pointing up for coordinator Jim Schwartz’s group—but it may not matter if the offense can’t find its footing.
Sunday’s loss is sure to bring plenty of scrutiny for Wentz, which doesn’t seem entirely fair. His ugly stat line (20-of-40 passing for 214 yards), a handful of bad sacks, and a pair of errant throws to Zach Ertz will stick out for Wentz detractors. But on a windy day against the best secondary in football, without his top two wide receivers and with his running game struggling, Wentz was asked to be a superhero—and he very nearly was. His 21-yard completion to Ertz to set up a Hail Mary attempt required a laser-beam throw in traffic, and if Agholor managed to come down with that end-zone heave, the conversation about Wentz’s outing would be very different.
The Eagles handed Wentz a four-year, $128 million extension this offseason, and the less patient members of the Philly faithful will likely look at the tough conditions the QB faced on Sunday and channel Don Draper: That’s what the money is for. But the specifics of Wentz’s contract make it far more palatable than some of the other mega-extensions that quarterbacks have received recently. His 2020 cap hit is just $18.7 million—the 30th-highest figure in the league. And though that number will jump to more than $34 million in 2021 (currently the second-highest figure in the NFL), with the cap rapidly expanding and a new CBA on the horizon, it should be still more than tolerable. So as tempting as it may be to blame Philly’s struggles on the team’s franchise quarterback, Wentz has played well enough to justify the deal he got this summer.
Pederson and Roseman have also been taking plenty of heat—and will probably continue to do so if the Eagles can’t right the ship—but this team’s relative struggles over the past two years speak more to the difficulties of winning in the NFL than to shortcomings from the coaching staff and front office. Any aggressive GM is going to have their share of misses. Roseman’s trade-deadline deal for Golden Tate last season looks misguided in hindsight, but the bold ethos that defines the Eagles’ front office is ultimately a positive. Even if this group falls short of the postseason in 2019, it’s set to return a core that includes Wentz, three Pro Bowl offensive linemen, DeSean Jackson, and a loaded defensive front. Rookies Andre Dillard and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside have struggled in limited action, but both should be better equipped to step into starting roles next year after an entire offseason in the Eagles’ program. The secondary will be a concern with Mills, Darby, and Rodney McLeod all hitting free agency, but Philly should have upward of $38 million in cap space to address some of those needs via free agency and the trade market. And unlike the Bears and Rams—two other would-be NFC contenders that have taken massive swings over the past two seasons—Philly has its full arsenal of draft picks in 2020 in beyond.
There’s also still a very real chance that the Eagles can edge out the Cowboys for the NFC East title. Dallas has only a one-game lead in the division after knocking off the Lions on Sunday, and the Cowboys travel to New England next week to take on the Patriots. Plus, these teams have a pivotal matchup looming in Week 16. At this point, the prospect of facing Dak Prescott and the Dallas offense seems like a much more dangerous postseason proposition than matching up against Philadelphia, but the Cowboys’ Jekyll-and-Hyde ways leave any possibility on the table.
Even if the Eagles do manage to sneak into the playoffs, though, they don’t have the ceiling that many projected before the season—or the one many more envisioned when they topped the Patriots in the Super Bowl. For the second straight year, an Eagles team with lofty expectations looks like it’s going to fall short. And even if there’s still hope for the future, the present—as Pederson put it—is both frustrating and disappointing.