ARLINGTON, Texas - Fear not, Eagles fans. The news here is actually quite good. Yes, your boys in green snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and, yes, that hissing sound you heard was their playoff aspirations deflating into the soft Lone Star night. But at some point this offseason, the coaches who keep telling you that their pass-catchers are good enough are going to gather in a conference room with the personnel men responsible for improving the roster, and unspoken among them will be the memory of what they witnessed in Sunday night's 29-23 stinker in Big D.
That, right there, is the silver lining. While Dez Bryant almost single-handedly kept his team within striking distance, his counterparts on the opposite sideline turned the game into a clinic on why their bosses need to make finding a legitimate No. 1 receiver a priority in order to maximize the talent they have in their fireballing rookie quarterback. Twice, Bryant made the kind of play that illustrates the impact just such a receiver can have on a game, particularly on a night when his quarterback is struggling. The first came on the Cowboys' second drive of the game, when he dusted Leodis McKelvin's single coverage and hauled in a 53-yard pass down the right sideline, setting Dallas up with a first down on the Eagles' 22-yard-line, which would eventually result in a 7-yard touchdown run by Dak Prescott. The second and more instructive play came in the fourth quarter, when Bryant went up over double coverage to haul in an imperfect throw from Prescott for a 22-yard touchdown that tied the game at 23-23 with 3:04 remaining. It was the exact type of catch that Eagles' receivers have spent the first eight weeks failing to make.
You've heard of the dink-and- dunk offense? Pederson's scheme has looked more like dink-and- drop lately, with his receivers compounding the problems they create with their lack of big-play ability by failing to win the kinds of balls in traffic that can move the chains and extend drives. Sunday night featured critical drops by Matthews and Dorial Green- Beckham, and a handful of other balls in traffic that receivers of Bryant's ilk are able to convert at least some of the time.
What was billed as a showdown between the two best teams in the NFC East instead became a showcase of each of their flaws. For the Eagles, that meant not only their receiving corps, but their offensive line and running backs as well, the first of which suffered another blow when Allen Barbre went out with a hamstring strain and his replacement at left guard, Stefen Wisniewski, almost immediately gave up a sack. The line did a decent job of protecting Carson Wentz, but there were some critical breakdowns, particularly in the fourth quarter. And while Darren Sproles did what he usually does when he gets the ball in his hands, the Eagles' theoretical go-to back barely played and rookie Wendell Smallwood had a costly fumble that turned what had the potential to be a game-sealing scoring drive into a 49-yard Cowboys field goal that pulled them to within one possession.
It's awfully difficult to reconcile the resumes of these teams with what went down at Texas Stadium on Sunday night. The paper says that the Eagles and Cowboys entered with a combined 8-1 record against non-division opponents, including wins over the Vikings (Eagles), Bengals (Cowboys), Steelers (Eagles), and Packers (Cowboys), all of whom entered the season with far greater championship aspirations than any team from the NFC East was supposed to have. But instead of a showdown, fans of both teams got a showcase of a litany of flaws that could undermine any aspirations of a postseason run.
Credit Pederson with milking what he could out of a depth chart that continues to do nothing to discredit the notion that it lacks the kind of individual talent required to achieve any semblance of week-to-week consistency against NFL defenses. There were several moments that suggested the Eagles had the upper hand in the battle of wits waged between the head coaches. The first was the timeout he called with 1:40 remaining in the second quarter and the Cowboys facing a 1st-and-goal at the Eagles' 7-yard line. The move preserved a portion of game clock that would prove precious once the Eagles regained the ball, enabling Caleb Sturgis to drill a 55-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.
Pederson's second shrewd bit of strategy came in the second half, when he shifted the Eagles into a no-huddle offense that seemed to catch the Cowboys off guard. Wentz marched the unit 69 yards down the field in 12 plays, the last a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews that gave them a 20-10 lead.
The moments that made you scratch your head the hardest - in particular a curiously designed swing pass to Darren Sproles late in the fourth quarter that lost six yards and turned what would have been a 47- or 48-yard field goal attempt into a pooch punt (despite the fact that Caleb Sturgis had twice drilled a 55-yarder at the end of the second quarter) - were at least partially attributable to the lack of go-to options at Pederson's disposal. The Eagles' offense was essentially Sproles and Sproles and Sproles. That's not good enough, and it isn't going to get appreciably better until the Eagles address their most glaring weakness. At least now it is impossible to ignore.