McLane: Lack of receiver talent cost Lewis his Eagles job

Greg Lewis’ firing on Monday rekindled the nature vs. nurture argument as it relates to position assistants: Was it the coach or was it the players?

In this case, as it often is, it was more the Eagles’ lack of talent at wide receiver than it was Lewis, their position coach. But that doesn’t mean he was without fault, either. The group, specifically Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham, did not show any progress and in some ways regressed in 2016.

But the Eagles ultimately shoulder the blame. They were responsible for both the dearth of talent at the position — some of which predated the current regime — and for hiring an inexperienced coach to lead a group of young, (mostly) underachieving receivers.

The nature of the situation was never one that would have given to much nurture — for both the coach and the players.

Poll

Who’s most responsible for the failure of the Eagles’ wide receivers?

Lewis had never been a receivers coach in the NFL. He had just one season in the pros under his belt as an offensive assistant with the Saints in 2015. With three young wideouts returning — two who had previously struggled — the Eagles were expected to bring in a veteran coach. And yet they tabbed Lewis, who had played for them from 2003-08.

It was the most dubious of the staffing hires made after Doug Pederson was named head coach last January, and was emphasized in this space at that time. But it became increasingly apparent that Lewis was unsuitable for the task at hand, as two instances before the season suggested.

The first occurred during training camp. Agholor, who entered the season after an underwhelming rookie season, was dropping passes on almost a daily basis. During one particular drill, the receiver was uncovered deep. The pass landed in Agholor’s hands, but he juggled it for a few steps before pulling it in and running into the end zone.

The play elicited cheers from some fans in attendance, but Agholor knew it wasn’t a catch worthy of praise. He pounded the football as he ran back toward his group. Lewis, though, walked out, met him, and patted him on the back with a smile.

Should Agholor have been admonished instead? Maybe not. Perhaps a teaching point was conveyed in the film room. But Lewis’ initial reaction was consistent with the Eagles’ public coddling of the receiver and with the position coach’s occasional rapport with his players.

For example, on the day that Paul Turner was signed to the Eagles practice squad, the undrafted rookie drew a pack of reporters to his locker stall. Lewis, one of the few assistants to regularly venture into the locker room, stood behind the cameras and made faces and gestures to get Turner to laugh.

It worked. But was it behavior befitting a first-year assistant trying to teach rookies and second- and third-year players how to thrive in the NFL? There’s nothing wrong with lightheartedness, and maybe the 36-year-old Lewis was stern behind closed doors, but repeated mistakes implied that his message wasn’t getting through.

Agholor’ six drops were spread out evenly over the course of the season, his final one coming in the penultimate game. As in his rookie season, Agholor had an illegal-formation penalty that brought back a Zach Ertz touchdown.

Green-Beckham had seven drops and was penalized four times for offensive pass interference — three coming on similar blocks downfield. The second-year receiver, who came in a preseason trade, averaged only 10.9 yards per catch after averaging 17.2 yards as a rookie with the Titans.

Jordan Matthews led all Eagles receivers with 73 catches for 804 yards and three touchdowns, and was on pace to marginally top his career best in the first two categories before an ankle injury, but drops (six) remained an issue for the third-year receiver.

Josh Huff had most of his downfield receiving routes taken away this season. And yet he remained as mistake-prone as he had been during his first two years. A missed assignment — he was supposed to block Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee — resulted in a costly failed fourth-down try days before he was released after getting arrested.

Agholor, Green-Beckham, and Huff failed to make any progress, but aside from their draft stock, was there much from earlier in their NFL careers to suggest they could become consistent threats? They each have physical capabilities, but there have been obvious mental roadblocks.

Lewis’ hiring was announced two days after Pederson was named coach. Pederson signed off on the addition, but because he had never assembled a staff before and was also preparing for the Chiefs playoff games, executive Howie Roseman initiated much of the contact with candidates.

The Eagles were able to pull together a capable group either by retaining several from Chip Kelly’s staff or searching elsewhere, but Lewis was a curious signing. He checked off the prerequisites the organization was looking for in some of its assistants — NFL playing experience, an Eagles background — but he had only three years of college coaching experience before moving to New Orleans.

The Eagles tried to add veterans to the receiver room, but free agents Rueben Randle and Chris Givens were not players worthy of emulating and failed to make the final roster. The average age of the receivers who made the team was 23.

We’ll never know if a more authoritative coach would have gotten more out of the group. The Eagles are expected to hire someone with more experience. Of course, Agholor and Green-Beckham could return.

Good luck, then, to Lewis’ replacement.