Sielski: With penalties and lack of production, Cox costing Eagles too much

The hit was crushing in every regard, to both Aaron Rodgers and to the Eagles' chances of beating the Packers on Monday night, and the damnedest thing in its aftermath was that Fletcher Cox didn't think he had done anything wrong.

Third and 4 for the Packers late in the third quarter, the Eagles down by four points and desperate to get the ball back, and Cox couldn't help himself. Just after Rodgers threw an incomplete pass, Cox delivered a blow that a pro wrestler would have been proud of, using his left arm to clothesline Rodgers as if the removal of Rodgers' larynx were Cox's only aim. It was an obvious roughing-the-passer penalty, and it helped turn what should have been a Packers three-and-out into a 13-play touchdown drive - the third time this season that Cox has committed that infraction on third down, the third time that the opposing offense scored a touchdown on the extended possession. Yet in the Eagles' locker room after their 27-13 loss, Cox copped to disputing the call with the official who made it.

"He just said it was one of those things where it was close, so he's got to call it," Cox said. "That's how they're protecting the quarterbacks. . . . I thought it was a clean hit until I got up and saw the flag. I thought it was a clean hit. Like I said earlier, it's hard to really stop 300 pounds when you get going."

Hard to stop, sure, but lately, harder to start. For a six-year contract extension worth $63 million in guaranteed money and that could top out at $103 million, the Eagles have for seven consecutive games seen Cox deliver a sliver of the production that a player paid so much ought to deliver. After winning the NFC defensive player of the month award for September, after racking up 11 solo tackles and four sacks in his first four games, Cox has eight solo tackles and no sacks since. He had an assisted tackle Monday; that's all.

There's a healthy debate to be had over how much blame Cox himself deserves for this decline, but this much is certain: The debate itself doesn't say much good about the Eagles and what's supposed to be the strength of their defense - their line. If what Cox and head coach Doug Pederson argue is true, if Cox is still playing well but can do only so much because offensive linemen are constantly double-teaming him, then he is merely a very good player, not the dominant one the Eagles believed him to be.

In that case, the franchise's most pressing order of offseason business can't be to replenish their talent at cornerback or wide receiver. The Eagles will have to replace Bennie Logan, Connor Barwin, and Vinny Curry, because if Cox is attracting that much attention, those players should be more effective than they've been.

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The other explanation - and the more plausible one, given the high level at which he has played even earlier this season - is that Cox could be a great player, if only he and his coaches could extract that greatness from him every game. But at his news conference Tuesday, Pederson didn't inspire the belief that he or anyone else on his staff could be that kind of master motivator. At the moment, everyone would settle for more disciplined play from Cox, for an end to these inexcusable roughing-the-passer penalties, but Pederson seemed to regard those damaging mistakes as simply the price of letting Fletch be Fletch.

"I'm not going to slow his aggression down based on a penalty," Pederson said.

Even if he keeps committing the same penalty over and over again?

"Then I need to sit down with him and say, 'Hey, Fletcher, let's keep our hands down. Let's not hit the quarterback. Let's lower our target. Let's do a lot of other things. . .' " Pederson said. "All I can do is grab him and say, 'We've got to be careful. We've got to make sure we're lowering our target.' Fletcher is a big man. He's a tall man. He's got an arm reach. He's aggressive. Yeah, we've got to be careful, and we've got to be smart about how we hit quarterbacks. But at the same time, I want our defensive line to hit quarterbacks."

Welcome back to Doug's Love On 'Em Lounge, where a coach can never be too empathetic, where there's always an excuse, no matter how egregious the error might be. Pederson long ago turned day-to-day control of the defense over to coordinator Jim Schwartz, but as Pederson himself said Tuesday, "I'm the one who has to answer for it all." And if he can get away with benching one of his three best wide receivers for a game that the Eagles had to win to stay in the playoff race - ostensibly for Nelson Agholor's own good, of course - then he and Schwartz can stand to come down harder on a player who's supposed to be a star and should know better than to keep cracking quarterbacks upside the head.

At his locker late Monday night, Fletcher Cox was asked if there was any difference between who he was now and who he had been in September.

"Not at all, man," he said. "I'm the same player I've been all year, just aggressive, trying to be the tone-setter, and that won't change."

Except something has to. Something has to change soon. The Eagles can't afford to have their 103-million-dollar man cost them this much.

msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski