At this point, it isn’t clear which is the appropriate question: Should the Eagles run the ball more? Could they if they wanted?
A few instances to consider from Sunday’s season opener:
1) Third-and-1 from their own 22-yard line, late in the first quarter, Eagles line up in the shotgun with an extra offensive lineman. They give to LeGarrette Blount, who gets tackled for a loss of 2.
2) Third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, early in the second quarter, Carson Wentz lines up in the shotgun, fakes the handoff, throws to Blount for a touchdown. (Two plays earlier, Blount gained 2 yards on first-and-goal from the 3, which was followed by an incomplete pass on second down.)
3) Third-and-3 from the Washington 22-yard line, 2:49 left, Eagles leading by two. Blount gets the handoff, gains 2 yards, fourth down.
Those were the only plays when the Eagles had less than 4 yards to go on third or fourth down. They ran the ball twice, and failed both times. They threw the ball once, and converted that attempt. That’s an awfully small sample size, but it’s something to consider, particularly No. 3, which ended a possession that had begun with just under six minutes remaining and the Eagles attempting to preserve a two-point lead. With the ball at their own 47, the situation begged for the ground-and-pound approach. Win the point of attack, gain 4 yards, repeat. That is not how the Eagles chose to approach things: First came a short pass to Alshon Jeffery for no gain, then a 24-yarder to Jeffery that moved the ball to the Washington 29. There, Pederson called three straight runs. And, there, the drive stalled on Blount’s 2-yard gain on third-and-3.
Eagles Rushing Stats/Sunday
It was easy to snicker when Wentz came out throwing to start the drive, but most of the evidence suggests that running the ball would have served mostly to add another 24 yards onto Caleb Sturgis’ field goal attempt.
Again, which is it: should, or could?
One thing that isn’t up for debate is necessity. Look at the quarterbacks who have experienced postseason success at a young age and you’ll notice that a lot of them played for teams that fit a similar profile: a solid defense, yes, but also a power running game that further enabled a ball-control ideology.
In 2005, when Ben Roethlisberger won his first Super Bowl, the Steelers finished the regular season with just 379 pass attempts, compared with 549 rush attempts. In 2013, Russell Wilson attempted just 407 passes, as the Seahawks ran the ball on 52.3 percent of their plays from scrimmage. In 2015, with Cam Newton at quarterback in his fifth season, the Panthers ran the ball on 49.6 percent of their plays from scrimmage. In Joe Flacco’s first two seasons, which featured a conference championship berth and two divisional berths, the Ravens ran the ball on 51.2 percent of their plays from scrimmage.
Last season, with a rookie starter, the Eagles ran the ball on 40.5 percent of their plays from scrimmage. In their 30-17 win over the Redskins in this year’s season opener, they ran the ball on 36.9 percent of their plays.
None of those numbers proves anything. The Patriots passed the ball more than they ran it throughout Tom Brady’s blinged-up early years. So did the Packers when Aaron Rodgers won a Super Bowl in his third season as a starter.
But as talented as Wentz is, he’s a much closer comp to Roethlisberger than Brady or Rodgers, at least at this stage of the game. In Washington, he showed that he is just as capable of losing a game by himself as he is of winning it. Few quarterbacks have the athleticism to make a play like his 58-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor. In the debit column, though, were the overthrown backward pass that Washington recovered, and an ill-advised and ill-executed throw to Darren Sproles that Ryan Kerrigan intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
From one perspective, Doug Pederson’s decision to get cute on the play that resulted in the backward-pass-turned-fumble was a head-scratcher. The Eagles were moving the ball through more conventional means, and the blocking had been spotty early on. From another perspective, if he were more confident in his backfield’s ability to run the ball, would he have felt the need to enlist his slot receiver?
“Obviously at the end of the day, it’s not good enough,” Pederson said. “The running game is not good enough. We pride ourselves on running the football here and we’ve got backs and linemen and tight ends, really, that can help us do that.
“You know, watching the film last night on the way home and then again this morning a couple times, we’re close. We’re close. We just have to finish blocks, sustain blocks. There were a couple — and this always happens going into Week 1 — there are always a few unscouted defensive looks that they present that gave us some problems early. [We] made the corrections during the game, and had some success later in the game on some of the same runs.
“It’s close. We’ve got to keep detailing it, keep working it, and just continue to get better.”
The Eagles’ best chance for success is for Pederson to call plays based on the roster he has, rather than the one his bosses believe him to have. Against the Redskins, they finished with just 58 rushing yards, the second-fewest since Pederson became coach, and by far their fewest in a win (the Eagles went 0-6 when rushing for fewer than 100 yards in 2016; their lowest total was 53 yards in a blowout loss to Cincinnati in Week 13). Watching Dalvin Cook and Kareem Hunt run wild in Week 1, it’s tempting to imagine what might have happened had the draft unfolded differently. Whatever the case, it is going to take a lot more than patience for Donnel Pumphrey to turn into that.
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