Hayes: There's still reason to believe in Eagles

ARLINGTON, Texas - Ya still gotta believe.

Don't ya?

Carson Wentz and the Eagles trundled into Dallas, faced the league's top running back and the best offensive line and a sterling young quarterback and took the 'Boys to overtime. That line wore the down the Birds' front four, converted an OT fourth-and-we're-stronger-than-you and gave Dak Prescott 10 seconds to find Jason Witten with a 5-yard playground touchdown.

A week after the Eagles disemboweled the unbeaten Vikings the young men went west and played the Pokes to a standoff. Both teams were, on paper, superior.

Paper doesn't account for everything.

Paper cannot predict Prescott short-circuiting in the end zone all night. Pressured by the Eagles' pass rush and flummoxed by the tight coverage, Prescott threw one interception, missed Dez Bryant and nearly threw another interception. Prescott this season broke Tom Brady's record for passes without a pick to start a career, and set the new mark at 176.

Poll

Which young QB’s team has the best outlook this season?

Paper cannot predict a third big kickoff return in as many weeks. Wendell Smallwood and Josh Huff returned kicks for touchdowns the past two games and Huff busted a 53-yarder in the third quarter Sunday night that set up a 34-yard field goal that regained the Eagles' 10-point lead early in the fourth.

The only thing on paper that matters on Monday morning is the standings. The Eagles have won on Monday night on the road, and nearly on Sunday night, too. They have beaten the unbeaten and they nearly upended a division leader.

They are imperfect, and they are unfinished, but they are for real.

"We obviously need to get wins and get some things fixed," said veteran defensive end Connor Barwin after the Eagles squandered a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead. "But there's definitely positives to be taken from this game."

Without starting defensive tackle Bennie Logan, they handled the best offensive line in football for 60 minutes.

Without starting right tackle Lane Johnson, who was serving the third game of a 10-game PED suspension, and without starting left guard Allen Barbre, who left in the first half with a hamstring injury, they kept Wentz mostly clean and they did not quail, even with 100,000 in full throat.

After a loss, it is tempting to dwell on what the Eagles are not, because it's difficult to determine exactly what they are.

Is Wentz a star? Not yet. Stars go deep, and Wentz throws short. He was 32-for-43 for just 202 yards, 4.2 yards per attempt. Neither is Prescott, who was 19-for-39 for 287 yards and two touchdowns, plus an end-zone interception.

Is the defense outstanding? Not yet. Fletcher Cox is peerless at tackle and Brandon Graham is a stud at end, but the linebackers and defensive backs don't make plays.

Is the receiving corps . . . even competent? Sometimes. It comes and it goes. It had four drops Sunday night.

"It sucks to (bleeping) lose the (bleeping) football game," Agholor said, who bristled at the mention of his drops. "I'm finished with that. It's stupid."

A public-relations representative then ended the interview.

Is first-year head coach Doug Pederson a genius? Well, he is brave and he is innovative and he adjusts without pause, but too many of his decisions are too debatable. For instance, his call for an obvious screen to Darren Sproles in the fourth quarter cost the Eagles yards and a chance at a field goal that would have pushed the lead to 10: then, facing a 52-yard field goal, he punted and trusted his defense. The next drive ended on a play designed for . . . third-string tight end Trey Burton. He failed to call timeout with the Cowboys facing third-and-20 at their 18 with 21 seconds to play, holding all three timeouts. Incredible.

He's a rookie. Rookies make mistakes.

"It's a learning game," said Graham.

"We've just got to finish," Cox said. "The game was in our hands. We didn't wear down. We never wear down. We just gotta finish it."

As expected, Pederson, with scant coaching background, benefits from a solid staff. He could not ask for a better lieutenant on offense than Frank Reich. Jim Schwartz runs the defense like a second head coach. If this were the 17th century, offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland would be burned for his wizardry.

For the moment, then, the Birds play better than the sum of their parts.

Part of that lies in maximizing personnel. Part of that lies in understanding limitations. Part of that reflects the mix and level of talent assembled by general manager Howie Roseman in the wake of Chip Kelly's 11-month deconstruction project.

Put those parts together and you have a 4-3 team on the rise.

It is a team that suddenly looks capable of emerging from its daunting, seven-game run with a winning record. They still have to travel to play the Giants and Seahawks and host the Falcons and Packers.

Given what was witnessed Sunday night, none of those dates seems particularly unmanageable.

Given what was witnessed against the Lions and Redskins in the losses of Games 4 and 5, this sort of conversation seemed positively implausible.

That was then.

Now, even after a loss, nothing seems implausible.


hayesm@phillynews.com

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