After two weeks of the season, the Eagles are right where they were expected to be, at 1-1 and preparing for a home opener against a division foe that will tilt the confidence seesaw in one direction or the other.
When ticking off the wins and losses on the schedule ahead of time – always a popular and pointless exercise – it was anticipated that the Eagles would beat the Redskins and lose to the Chiefs to begin the year. That the win was less than resounding and the loss was less than disastrous doesn’t really change the calculus of where the season is going. It is still going to the Linc for a game against the Giants that could well set the tone for the rest of the season. Unable to run the ball on offense and susceptible to big plays on defense, the Eagles will get a true reading on themselves this Sunday.
“We’re not bad. We have to just not beat ourselves. You have to finish the game,” defensive end Brandon Graham said, a bent-not-broken sentiment that was shared by many of his teammates.
“We’ll go back and watch the film and learn from it,” said offensive tackle Lane Johnson. “Moving forward, we’ll get it addressed. We’ll get it fixed.”
That’s a good attitude to have, but unfortunately it is one echoed in every losing NFL locker room every week. All the losers are just a few plays and a little better execution away from turning the frown upside down. The Eagles put as happy a face as possible on the Kansas City loss, but no one can say for sure if the issues that led to it are fixable or merely vices that are destined to become habits.
“They got 10 points off our turnovers and it could be a potentially different football game,” coach Doug Pederson said. “We’ve got to eliminate a couple of big plays and try to fix those, but overall I thought the guys … played well, played hard. Got some great experience.”
Terrific, but the Eagles had the experience of losing on the road seven times in eight tries last season. The experience of actually pulling out one of these games – by addressing those nagging play-here-play-there shortcomings instead of merely talking about it – would be a welcome change. The fear, leaving aside questions about the coaching and the scheme itself, is that the mistakes are indeed correctable, but just not by the players on this roster.
The offensive line is clearly a mess, more comfortable in the familiar retreat of pass protection than in the aggressive attack of run blocking that linemen usually prefer. That’s not good. Against a talented defensive line like Kansas City’s, the holes aren’t there for the running backs and the pass-pro is so leaky that Pederson has to provide an extra blocker or two on nearly every play.
Whether the backs themselves are capable is a question that can’t be answered yet. For the most part, they would have to hit the holes sideways to fit through. LeGarrette Blount could still be useful with room to run, but there’s no indication he’ll get it – or the ball – very often this season.
While the state of the run game is the most glaring deficiency at the moment, even Jim Schwartz’s defense has some worrisome aspects. The defensive backfield, thin to begin with, is hampered by injuries and vulnerable if the line can’t get pressure. No one is talking about the linebackers, but Nigel Bradham is being exposed badly in coverage and opposing coaches will continue to exploit that. It would be nice to employ Mychal Kendricks as the second linebacker (along with Jordan Hicks) in nickel situations, but he apparently hasn’t been coached up to that level yet.
So, it’s easier to focus on the micro problems from a given game – turnovers, missed assignments, spotty execution – than to confront, two weeks into the season, the macro elephant in the room of whether the team is simply composed of Carson Wentz, Fletcher Cox and a bunch of guys named Joe. Howie Roseman cautioned that moving up to draft Wentz would lead to a short-term step back in roster flexibility, but he didn’t define “short-term.” Apparently, however, the Eagles are still firmly in it.
“We’re on the right track. I’m totally confident with where we stand,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said after the loss. “Every game usually comes down to maybe four plays. That’s the difference between winning and losing in this league. The thing that makes you feel confident is that the mistakes happen, not because you get beat, but because you just made a mistake. It would be different if we felt we got whupped.”
But those scant plays are not just the difference between winning and losing a game, but, over time, they are the difference between winners and losers.
“Yeah,” Jenkins said. “We need to correct the self-inflicted wounds against playoff-caliber teams to get some big wins this year.”
Easily said, and still easy to believe in September. The September schedule ends on Sunday with a game that defies being checked into either the win or the loss column, though. It’s hard to know what to anticipate from this one, but the outcome will make the expectations for the remainder of the season a lot more clear.
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