Well, that was awful. The Eagles ended the season with a whimper, falling to the Cowboys, 6-0, in an otherwise meaningless finale. Per usual, here’s (an abbreviated) what we learned:
Nick Foles lacks confidence, despite claims to the contrary
A few years back, after Chip Kelly had traded Nick Foles for Sam Bradford, I had a few players and members of team personnel give some insight into why the Eagles had given up on Foles as a starter. His skill set, first and foremost, wasn’t starter-caliber, or at least good enough to consistently win games in the NFL. It had become abundantly clear to Kelly that Foles was more his 2014 version than 2013. But an additional concern, and one brought to my attention, was that Foles would sometimes let his performance or outside criticism outwardly affect his demeanor. He would get down on himself and the rest of the squad felt it. Three years later, I don’t know if Foles handles himself differently. He’s older, endured a professional low with the Rams, has been recast as a backup and has become a father.
A few weeks back, after Carson Wentz’s injury had thrust him back into the starting position, Foles spoke about how he had matured. But it would take the most resolute quarterback to not let the last two games and the mounting pressure of playoff aspirations affect his psyche. Foles used the words “confident” or “confidence” 11 times during his postgame news conference. Of course, he’s going to remain publicly positive about his and the Eagles’ prospects, but in re-watching the interview it sounded almost as if he was trying to convince himself that he’s confident enough to lead the Eagles.
I’ve seen this Foles before. I saw it on the field last week against the Raiders and again on Sunday. It was just one quarter, but when Torrey Smith dropped a would-be first down on third down, Foles went into a tailspin. He completed his first two passes for 23 yards. The throws weren’t anything special, but they were on target. So was the over-the-middle toss to Smith. But from that point onward he was all over the barn. He missed an open Zach Ertz over the middle on fourth down and threw wildly to a double-covered Smith. The Eagles went three-and-out on the next drive, Foles threw an ugly interception on the following series, and his last possession was also marred by an errant throw. He completed just 2 of his final 9 passes for 16 yards. To be fair, it was a small sample. Who knows what would have happened had Smith caught that pass? There were also several penalties from other players. But Doug Pederson’s decision to play Foles and the first team offense for one quarter backfired. The unit at least had some momentum after driving for the game-winning field goal against the Raiders. Which begs the question: If you’re going to play the starters why not play them at least until they got rolling? What it so bad that Pederson didn’t think that was possible? There’s always the risk of injury — and the Eagles coming out healthy was a silver lining — but if Pederson cared that much about exposing his starters he would have rested them for the entire game.
Eagles will be home underdogs no matter their divisional round opponent
The No. 1-seeded Eagles are scheduled to play on Jan. 13 at 4:35 p.m. They will face one of three teams — the Saints (No. 4), Panthers (No. 5) or Falcons (No. 6). The No. 3-seeded Rams, should they win, would head to Minnesota to play the Vikings (No. 2). The Saints, who host the Panthers, are the Eagles’ likely opponent and, of the three, the team they would probably least like to face. Drew Brees is the most capable of the quarterbacks — Cam Newton and Matt Ryan being the others — and the Saints’ running back duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram would be a formidable challenge for Jim Schwartz’s defense.
All three quarterbacks, though, have at least played in a Super Bowl. They all know what it takes to win in the postseason. Whichever team advances they’ll be the favorite at the Linc. Pederson has done a remarkable job, and winning two of three without Wentz has only added to his accomplishments this season. He has the locker room — feeding LeGarrette Blount the ball so that the tailback could get a $300,000 incentive should go over well — and a very good team outside quarterback. But the adage Any Given Sunday doesn’t apply as much during the postseason. It’s a quarterback-driven league and the Eagles will have the worst one among the NFC’s six playoffs teams.
Nate Sudfeld shouldn’t start ahead of Foles
There’s an argument to be made, but I don’t think it’s a very strong one. Sudfeld looked better than Foles on Sunday, but not good enough to think he has any chance of winning in the playoffs. Foles, at least, has won 22 regular-season games. He had the Eagles ahead late in his lone playoff appearance four years ago. They were up, 24-23, over the Saints with under five minutes to play. Foles completed 23 of 33 passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns and didn’t have a turnover in frigid conditions — 25-degrees at kickoff. I don’t care how bad he’s looked the last two weeks. Hooking him for Sudfeld, who completed 19 of 23 passes for 134 yards against the Cowboys, would be rash. But I will say this: Sudfeld has a stronger arm and is a little more mobile than Foles. But he lacks experience and having him make his first NFL start in the playoffs would be like tossing a lamb to the wolves.
The defense, at least, came to play
With Pederson resting five starters (Brandon Graham, Tim Jernigan, Nigel Bradham, Jalen Mills, Rodney McLeod) and one regular (Derek Barnett), the Eagles were shorthanded against the Cowboys’ first unit. Fletcher Cox, Malcolm Jenkins, Vinny Curry, Mychal Kendricks and Ronald Darby were also pulled sometime before the end. But the makeshift defense shut out Dallas for the first half, and aside from a 99-yard drive against the depleted backups, held its own after the break.
After a three-game lull, Schwartz’s unit finished the season more in line with how it played for the first three months. The defense carried the Eagles past the Raiders on Christmas and did more than enough on Sunday. But will it have enough to compensate for the Eagles’ offensive regression? There are still legit concerns about the secondary, the pass rush and the linebackers’ ability to cover out of the backfield. But Schwartz can game plan as well as any defensive coordinator. He is expected to interview for the New Giants’ head coaching vacancy this week, and could be on the radar for other openings. I don’t imagine Schwartz will be distracted from the task at hand. But his head coaching candidacy will be an obvious storyline over the next few weeks.
Sidney Jones is back
After nearly nine months of rehab, Jones played live football for the first time in exactly a year. The cornerback played 29 snaps and could have played more had he not left after cramping. He looked good. He ran well and gave up little in coverage. But he also looked at times like a rookie without the benefit of a preseason. He failed to set the edge on an Ezekiel Elliott outside run and he bit on a double move (the pass was overthrown). But who cares at this point? Just seeing Jones on the field had to bring joy to the Eagles’ eyes. He’s the future and with three other cornerbacks on the roster 24 years or younger — Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills and Rasul Douglas — the team has reason for optimism at the position. Douglas didn’t have a good game on Sunday. But he hadn’t played in a while, and he will likely be behind the other three on next season’s depth chart. But those are discussions for down the road. The Eagles have at least one more game to play and there are lots of stories to write over the next two weeks.
Happy New Year.