clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The NFC East Race May Have Just Been Decided by Coaching—or a Lack Thereof

As Doug Pederson made adjustment after adjustment and worked to give the injured Eagles a fighting chance on Sunday, Jason Garrett sat back and watched the Cowboys’ season essentially slip away

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sunday’s clash between the Eagles and Cowboys shouldn’t have been close. Sure, Dak Prescott was dealing with an injury to his throwing shoulder, but the rest of the Cowboys’ (extremely talented) roster was close to full strength. The Eagles, on the other hand, were not.

Philadelphia has been crushed by injuries this season, and the team was short-handed again on Sunday. Here’s a list of notable Eagles players who missed this week’s game: DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, Malik Jackson, Lane Johnson, Jordan Howard, Nelson Agholor. Philly was forced to start J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Greg Ward at receiver. Arcega-Whiteside is a second-round rookie who entered the game with eight career catches; nine months ago, Ward was playing for the AAF’s San Antonio Commanders. Cornerback Ronald Darby played only 11 snaps after aggravating a hip flexor injury. Fellow corner Jalen Mills was carted to the locker room with an ankle injury in the third quarter, before eventually returning to the game. Tight end Zach Ertz left early in the second quarter to have his ribs wrapped and missed a handful of snaps. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox wore a heating wrap on the sideline to keep his injured elbow warm.

Blaming Philly’s season-long struggles on injuries alone would ignore the other issues that have plagued this team since their Super Bowl run two years ago. But for this game, at least, it would have been understandable if the Eagles had thrown up their hands and admitted this wasn’t their year. Instead, with an NFC East title on the line, the players gutted their way to a 17-9 win that felt even more lopsided than that. And as head coach Doug Pederson’s staff reminded us all how important coaching can be in the NFL, Jason Garrett once again let down the Cowboys.

Without their top receivers on the field, the Eagles’ offensive game plan relied heavily on short, underneath passes. Running back Miles Sanders didn’t find many big holes as a runner, but he consistently gave the Cowboys fits in the open field as a receiver. Tight end Dallas Goedert turned some short throws into nice gains, which included a string of five straight receptions near the end of the first half. Arcega-Whiteside and Ward combined for just six catches, but both players had a big reception on an Eagles scoring drive. There was nothing groundbreaking about Philly’s offensive approach or Carson Wentz’s performance. Most of the team’s big plays came via smart design. Sanders took a simple swing pass 29 yards in the first quarter. Both Sanders and Goedert rumbled for long gains on play-action screens. Ward’s 38-yard reception—the longest play of the game for either team—came on an out-and-up from the slot that left him wide open along the right sideline. Pederson’s team consistently found ways to manufacture offense and understood what it would take to win. And with the Cowboys struggling to move the ball, that was enough.

Prescott’s shoulder injury clearly affected him on Sunday. He was uncharacteristically scattershot on a number of throws, including a brutal overthrow to a wide-open Tavon Austin on a deep shot late in the fourth quarter. But even when Prescott did find his target, he didn’t get much help from his receivers. Amari Cooper caught just four of his 12 targets on the day. Jason Witten dropped a would-be first-down pass in the second quarter. Randall Cobb couldn’t hold on to a high but catchable pass in the third. Michael Gallup dropped a potential touchdown on a deep throw late in the fourth quarter.

The Cowboys’ passing game was clearly struggling to find its footing, but unlike Philly’s staff, Garrett’s group failed to create plays in other ways. Ezekiel Elliott consistently faced loaded boxes in the running game, but the Cowboys failed to make the Eagles pay on deep throws or play-action shots to the middle of the field. Athletic, underneath options like tight end Blake Jarwin and change-of-pace back Tony Pollard were complete nonfactors in the passing game. Pollard got just two carries on the day. The first came early in the third quarter after Elliott had requested a break, and Pollard went on to fumble at the Philly 26-yard line.

Later in the game, with the Cowboys facing a fourth-and-8 and their season hanging in the balance, Cooper wasn’t on the field as Prescott missed high on a throw to Gallup in the end zone. Cooper and others later explained that he’d just run a deep route and came to the sideline as part of the team’s normal receiver rotation. That can occasionally happen, given the machinations of how teams substitute (there are instances when even the play-caller gets surprised about who’s in the huddle), but it doesn’t reflect particularly well on Garrett and his staff that two of his biggest stars were watching pivotal moments from the sideline with a division championship at stake.

Leaving Cooper on the sideline (or even limiting his snaps on a tough day for the receiver) wasn’t Garrett’s biggest misstep on Sunday, or the reason that Dallas’s loss likely sealed his fate as the Cowboys’ head coach. It’s not the reason that Jerry Jones probably spent the night wondering where the hell this all went wrong. The issue for Dallas wasn’t a single play or decision. It’s that with everything on the line, one of the most talented rosters in football laid another egg while a depleted Eagles team played like their playoff lives depended on it. As the Cowboys failed to find alternatives to their typical brand of offense, Pederson and his staff devised ways to move the ball with a pass-catching group that’s currently held together with duct tape.

Pederson hasn’t done a flawless job since the Eagles’ incredible Super Bowl run, but Sunday’s game makes you wonder what a coach like him could do with Dallas’s roster. When the Cowboys inevitably move on from Garrett (whether it’s later this week or after the season), they may not find the next great NFL coach. But they should at least be searching for the next good one. There’s no conceivable way this team should be 7-8 and essentially done in the NFC East race—not with the talent lining this roster. But as Dallas’s latest loss reminds us, talent is only part of the equation in the NFL. Teams ultimately need coaches who understand the best possible ways to use their players, even when their original approach goes awry. The Eagles have one. The Cowboys do not. And that’s why, in a season when everything went wrong for the Eagles, they’ll likely be hosting a playoff game while the Cowboys will be sitting at home and wondering what could have been.