In baseball, they say the ball always finds the worst fielder. Maybe in the NFL, misfortune tends to find the position you were able to improve the least in the offseason.
The Eagles are 2-1 despite an offense that has been plucky but not all that dynamic through three games. Carson Wentz and those pass-game weapons the front office added are still working out the kinks, Doug Pederson acknowledged Monday.
Now, the team will play the final 13 games without its familiar catalyst, running back and returner Darren Sproles.
Sproles suffered a torn ACL in his left knee, a broken radius bone in his right forearm and wrist ligament damage when he was upended by New York Giants safety Darian Thompson early in the second quarter of the Eagles’ victory Sunday, a source close to the situation said. He underwent surgery for the arm/wrist injury Monday. Sproles was placed on injured reserve, and will miss the remainder of what he had said would be his final season in the league, which Sproles entered as a Chargers fourth-round draft pick back in 2005, from Kansas State.
Sproles, 34, leads all active NFL players with 19,155 career all-purpose yards, ranking eighth all-time, and has gone to the last three Pro Bowls as a returner. He also is the veteran leader of the Eagles’ running-backs group, a player who sets an example through intense preparation and focus.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson called it “a devastating loss with the punt return, the special-teams aspect of it,” but Sproles also was the offensive weapon the Eagles could deploy from the backfield or the slot, as a runner or a receiver. And despite his 5-6, 190-pound stature, Sproles was the best of their running backs at blitz pickup, a crucial skill in Pederson’s offense.
Pederson indicated there will be a running back/returner roster addition, maybe Byron Marshall from the practice squad, but mainly, second-year back Wendell Smallwood and rookie Corey Clement will have to develop quickly.
“I think Wendell, on third down specifically, Corey, as well, they’re going to have to step up and assume that role,” Pederson said.
Thirty-year-old LeGarrette Blount, coming off his best game as an Eagle with 67 yards on 12 carries, remains the running-game sledgehammer, but he is no kind of receiver at all and isn’t going to do much of what Sproles did.
This loss would look a lot less challenging if the Eagles’ draft strategy had worked better. Donnel Pumphrey, the 5-9, 176-pound back the Eagles drafted in the fourth round this spring to be Sproles’ successor, is on injured reserve with a hamstring tear. He could come off IR after Week 8, but Pumphrey was inactive for the opener before he injured his hamstring; his lack of burst and elusiveness might have been the team’s biggest preseason disappointment.
Pederson’s offense managed 23 points in the opener (the defense added seven more) and had 13 in Kansas City until a final-seconds touchdown, scored with the Chiefs up 14 and playing loose coverage.
Against the Giants, as Fox analyst Troy Aikman noted, the Eagles were dominating the game more than the 14-0 lead they carried into the fourth quarter would suggest, and it came back to bite them. The big-play capability just wasn’t there, as was illustrated when Wentz missed Alshon Jeffery with what should have been an easy touchdown bomb early. Pederson said Monday that Wentz “would love to have that one back.”
Fans greeted Jeffery’s signing with hopes he would become the team’s most lethal weapon, but they have seen only flashes so far. Before he made the clutch 19-yard grab that set up the winning field goal Sunday, Jeffery had three catches for 37 yards and had taken two bad penalties. Two of his catches were well short of the sticks on third-and-longs, on the Eagles’ first two series of the game.
“These guys continue to work every day in practice, and it’s still a – I don’t want to say a work in progress, but it’s something that they work on every day,” Pederson said, when asked about Wentz and his receivers.
*It kind of got lost in the late-game drama Sunday, but that tackle Malcolm Jenkins made on an early Giants third-and-1, dropping Orleans Darkwa in the backfield, for a 4-yard loss, was a big play. The Giants punted rather than trying a 56-yard field goal.
*Eagles fans might have been relieved to hear Doug Pederson declare middle linebacker Jordan Hicks (ankle) and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (calf) “day-to-day” Monday, but another source indicated Cox “will miss some time,” which presumably would include this week’s road game against the Los Angeles Chargers. There was no clarification on Hicks. Those injuries led to 50 snaps for defensive tackle Beau Allen and 48 for linebacker Mychal Kendricks on Sunday.
*Patrick Robinson made several strong plays against the Giants. One was when he wrangled Sterling Shepard out of bounds before Shepard got the ball over the goal line, and the Giants ended up not scoring at all on the drive just before the half. Another came on fourth-and-2 and the ball at the Eagles’ 13 with 1:17 left in the third quarter, Robinson with perfect positioning to break up a pass over the middle for Shepard. Robinson also gave up Shepard’s 77-yard TD, but he might have been able to limit the damage if Chris Maragos hadn’t inadvertently set a pick on Robinson, both of them trying to tackle Shepard.
*Some tremendous Eagles run blocking, especially by Stefen Wisniewski and Jason Kelce on a couple of fourth-quarter runs, the 15-yard Corey Clement touchdown and a later Wendell Smallwood 20-yarder. Doug Pederson was coy Monday when asked if Wisniewski will be the starting left guard going forward. Unless the coaching staff has taken leave of its senses, he will be.
You could take a crucial penalty because you reached out and grabbed somebody who was trying to leave the field?
Troy Aikman said on the Fox broadcast that he’d never seen it before, and Giants coach Ben McAdoo said the same thing, when McAdoo talked to reporters Monday.
As the Giants lined up, running hurry-up, third-and-2 from the Eagles’ 18, the score tied at 21 in the fourth quarter, guard John Jerry grabbed Eagles rookie defensive tackle Elijah Qualls, who was belatedly trying to get off the field. Qualls didn’t get off in time, probably wasn’t going to get off in time anyway. But a member of the officiating crew saw the grab, and the flag was thrown on Jerry for delay of game. Third-and-7, Eli Manning couldn’t connect with Odell Beckham Jr., and the Giants had to settle for a field goal. Plus, they gave the ball back to the Eagles with much more time remaining than if they had converted.
“I don’t know if it was just a natural reaction to a lineman running in front of his face or what it was,” McAdoo said. “But I am going to have to have a conversation with John and see what he was thinking there. I have never seen that before.”
Qualls said he was surprised to get the call.
The Giants said the Eagles’ 18-play touchdown drive that used up 9 minutes and 34 seconds was the longest TD drive against them by elapsed time since Oct. 31, 1993, when the Jets chewed up 11:15 en route to the end zone.
Tight end Zach Ertz is off to a great start. He leads the Eagles with 21 catches on just 25 targets through three games, for 245 yards and a touchdown. With Darren Sproles going on IR, Ertz could emerge even more emphatically as the team’s most important weapon.
But if the Eagles had lost Sunday, Ertz would have made the play of the game, and not in a good way. His fumble on the first play from scrimmage after the Giants had finally gotten on the board early in the fourth quarter opened the floodgates for three Giants touchdowns in 5:27, exposing an injury-depleted Eagles defense on a 90-degree afternoon.
“Jake [Elliott] definitely saved my butt,” Ertz said after Elliott’s team-record 61-yard field goal pulled out the victory. “I’ve had two of ’em [fumbles] in my career in the NFL, so I’m not going to overthink it, but at the same time, I’ve got to be better.”
Giants safety Landon Collins “made a great play … but I gotta be better,” Ertz said. “He just kinda freakin’ swiped the ball as he was trying to tackle me. I was focused on him. He was focused on the ball.”