In February 2018, Doug Pederson held aloft the coveted Vince Lombardy trophy as the Philadelphia Eagles swept aside the league losing only three games along the way, one of which was week 17 vs Dallas with the second string team on the field. They had dominated the league. Wentz’s polished, accurate QB play mixed with the pass-catchers of Ertz, Jeffery and Smith led to the Eagles putting up over 5,800 yards in the regular season. Blount and later Ajayi in the backfield proved that Philly had the twin-pronged attack to beat teams on the ground as well as in the air. They were scintillating, unstoppable. Philly was dubbed the ‘next big football franchise’, a team to take over from New England.
Push the clocks forward nearly 3 years and Philadelphia looks a shadow of its former glorious self. They lack an identity; they lack real offensive threats and a shutdown defence, all of which contributed to that Superbowl LII victory. No one is overturning cars on Broad Street anymore, well maybe they are, but definitely not for the same reasons.
I want to look into some of the elements that can go a way to explaining the frailties of the Eagles so far in 2020.
The proverbial elephant in the room here is undoubtedly Carson Wentz. He has come off a 2019 season where he rallied the team to four consecutive regular season victories to end the campaign and take the Eagles to the play-offs with a respectable 9-7 record (considering they were 5-7 and looked down and out after a miserable loss to Miami in week 13). He set the franchise record for passing yards in a season (4,039 – also the first QB in team history to surpass 4,000 yards in a single season) and for completions (388, beating his previous record of 379 set in his rookie 2016 season). He looked like a top ten QB at times throughout the season, despite the undesirable cast around him. All of which makes his start to the 2020 season even more confusing.
Just what is going on with Carson Wentz?
Three games into the 2020 regular season and the Eagles sit at 0-2-1. Carson Wentz leads the league by a considerable margin in interceptions, contributing to the team as a unit having eight turnovers. To put that in context, last year Carson threw seven interceptions all season. WRs are struggling to get separation and aside from a solitary 55 yard bomb to Jalen Reagor in week 1, the Eagles longest completion to a WR is 29 yards to Greg Ward. Wentz is also holding onto the ball for far too long and that has shown with the 11 sacks he has taken so far.
Wentz is averaging just over 270 yards a game through three games, which does not look so dramatic on paper. However when you watch him playing in those games, something doesn’t look right. He seems tense, like he’s trying to force plays that are not there. The attempted pass to triple-covered DeSean Jackson in week 3 vs Cincinnati look worse every time you play it back. Carson Wentz is usually a fairly accurate passer who likes to hit WRs and TEs fast with pace on the ball. One thing that is noticeable so far in 2020 is how inaccurate he has been which is frustrating because there is no obvious fix to that, a QB doesn’t just ‘become’ inaccurate.
Wentz has to play better, if he plays better, the team will improve around him and perhaps the Eagles would be sat here at 1-2 or even 2-1 and most fans would probably have been okay with that. However I’m reluctant to pin all of the blame on the QB. Sure he takes his fair share but other things around him certainly aren’t helping.
What about Howie?
The injuries around the team are once again overwhelming. Brandon Brooks, Andre Dillard and Isaac Seumalo are all on IR and Jason Peters (has just been placed on IR with a toe injury at the time of writing) looks a shadow his former nine-time Pro Bowler self. Somehow, SOMEHOW, the birds are going to head into week 4 vs San Francisco with Greg Ward as their most senior healthy WR. That buck stops at the door of the front office and General Manager. After the end of 2019 and the cast of pass-catchers that Wentz was having to throw to, Howie Roseman had to give him more options downfield. Yet somehow, four weeks into the season we are already here again.
This is a major failing of the front office and whilst injuries can’t be predicted, it is shambolic that Wentz is going to have to play one of the best (albeit injury-hit) defences in the league with yet another unknown cast to throw the ball to. How on earth has it come to this? I think the failings of the last few drafts are finally becoming evident for Howie Roseman. Someone that has succeeded in manipulating the cap in favour of Philadelphia so often in the past has really struggled with drafts over the last 4 or 5 seasons.
Is it coaching?
Doug Pederson’s role also needs to be considered here. The coaching so far this season seems to be coming under the microscope. Usually such an inventive, attacking mind, Pederson seems hesitant. He is not being aggressive like he has been so often. Not letting Jake Elliot have a go at the 64-yard FG vs Cincinnati in week 3 seems like such a puzzling decision for a Head Coach who puts so much trust in his key players. Nobody needs reminding of the Philly Special play on 4th down in Superbowl LII, but that seems like an age ago now with a team that has only attempted three 4th down conversions and hasn’t succeeded on any of them in 2020.
Alongside Doug comes Jim Schwartz’s defence who are yet to make a turnover. Whilst Darius Slay’s performances have been a positive in a sea of negatives, it matters little when the rest of the secondary are getting burned so easily. I think the loss of Malcolm Jenkins both on and off the field has hit this team harder than we think. Up front the defence are struggling too. Derek Barnett is still leaving much to be desired from a 1st-round pick. They are also paying Javon Hargrave, Fletcher Cox and Malik Jackson a combined $31.9m this season and they have 1.5 sacks between the three of them. The coaching staff as a whole lack an identity, there is so little cohesion, and seem to be going game-to-game without any real plan to beat the team in front of them.
If the Eagles didn’t have enough going on already, the Ghost of Christmas Past has reared his head again. Nick Foles (remember that guy they built the statue of outside Lincoln Financial Field?) had this to say this week,
“He (Frank Reich) was the one who really figured me out as a player.”
Is it possible that they Philly coaching staff are also finding similar struggles with Wentz? Reich’s departure to Indianapolis would certainly explain the struggles to repeat their 2017 successes. Either way, something definitely isn’t clicking with Wentz right now.
So what do they need to do about it?
Its cliché and you are not going to like it. However, the Eagles just need to go back to basics. Simplify the play-book and get Carson firing again. He’s a rhythm quarterback, he always has been. If he can get rolling and build up a string of completions, he will start to play with more confidence and build trust in the guys around him. Wentz will likely improve, it’s difficult for him to play any worse than he already has. This is the poorest football he’s played in five years and I’m confident he’ll bounce back.
Doug also needs to trust the ground game more. Philadelphia has a real talent in Miles Sanders and he has said all the right things about being ready to be the bell-cow this season. Give him the ball more often and let him move the chains. With Boston Scott and Corey Clement contributing, the Eagles run game looks strong. They just need to trust it.
Long term I am not sure what happens to this team. They’re projected to be over the salary-cap by approximately $716m next season, so there are going to be some big changes, probably not popular ones too. This season will more than likely be a losing season. I think the best possible outcome is 7-8-1 but even that is generous. Perhaps a reset and rebuild might be a decent idea?
Back to basics. Run the ball. And maybe, just maybe, the defence can help out with a couple of turnovers? Mind you, that’s assuming the entire team hasn’t found its way to IR by Sunday…
Steve Tough (@SteTough)