Jeffrey Lurie last week said the goal for 2017 is to be better than 2016. Nothing more. Not playoffs; not Super Bowl. No gold standard proclamations for this dream team.
These days, the owner would be satisfied with a bronze performance to erase recent nightmare seasons.
A road game in Washington to open the season seemed like the perfect gauge. And it was. Almost no question about the team went unanswered … for better, or for worse.
So, did Lurie get his wish? Are they better? Well, after a 30-17 win in Washington, a team they hadn’t beaten in three calendar years, how could they be considered anything but better?
The answer is, yes, they’re better. But the issue is a little more involved than you’d imagine. They’re not a lot better, yet, and they’re not better in all aspects.
Don’t forget that the Eagles in 2016 were 7-9, and they weren’t consistently an atrocious 7-9. They even went 3-1 to start, dominated the Steelers in Game 3 and were one late turnover from starting 4-0. Their collapse followed the 10-game suspension of right tackle Lane Johnson, without whom they went 1-9.
Maybe better question is: Are the 1-0 Eagles of 2017 better than the 5-1, Johnson-led Eagles?
Still, the answer is yes; but only by a little bit.
Begin with Carson Wentz, because, simply, everything begins with Wentz. He worked all offseason on his mechanics, on throwing deep passes, on keeping his eyes downfield as he fled from pressure.
Surely, Wentz displayed better mechanics and threw the ball better downfield, but both areas remain unpolished. He also threw a pick-six in the flat and threw two poor passes to receivers in the backfield, one of which became a fumble.
However, Wentz consistently escaped pressure and consistently completed brilliant throws on the run. To this point, improvisation is his forte; but then, it is a major reason why the Eagles drafted him No. 2 overall in 2016. His 58-yard scramble strike to Nelson Agholor — a play that few quarterbacks in NFL history could have made — set a tone on the opening drive not only for the game, or for this season, but for his career. It was a signature moment. By any measures, Wentz 2.0 is markedly better than Wentz the rookie.
This is made all the more remarkable in the absence of Jordan Matthews, Wentz’s favorite receiver, whom the Eagles traded to Buffalo last month for cornerback Ronald Darby. That trade raised the second-most serious question:
Would Wentz’s weapons produce without Matthews? After all, Matthews was nearly as productive the past two seasons as newcomers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith combined. As for Agholor, he’d been a bust in his first two NFL seasons. None had strong preseasons, and Jeffery missed much of it with a shoulder problem.
By the end of Sunday’s win, though, each of that trio had a long reception (Smith for 30 yards, Jeffery for 24). None seemed to hesitate in the offense. All seemed more attuned to Wentz. Certainly, they looked more capable than any combination of Matthews, Agholor, Josh Huff and Dorial Green-Beckham ever did in 2016.
There’s work to do. Wentz was often gun-shy Sunday when a receiver wasn’t wide open, which required the offensive line to protect him longer, which it couldn’t do last year and which it cannot do now. Last season, though, he often forced passes to Matthews, but that’s how confident quarterbacks with specious offensive lines survive; they get the ball out of their hand quickly and give their best receivers chances to make plays. Wentz needs to find an outlet like Matthews. The line won’t get much better any time soon.
Left tackle Jason Peters injured his groin Sunday and missed more than half of the game. Even before he got hurt, though, the line, hindered by injury in training camp, was not nearly as good as it was early in 2016. Their lack of cohesion showed.
Eagles running backs averaged 2.6 yards on 20 carries Sunday. In the first four games of 2016, Eagles running backs averaged 4.2 yards on 102 carries. Wentz was sacked just twice, but that had more to do with his athleticism than their protection. He had pass rushers in his face all day.
Aggressive and competent defense compensated for Sunday’s offensive blemishes. Even after Darby dislocated his ankle in the second quarter, the defensive backs played very well. Along the line, defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan each recorded a sack, while end Brandon Graham, the best player on either team Sunday, got two.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz blitzed more freely Sunday than he did most of last season, mainly because he is more confident in the components of his defense. Safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod looked as sharp as they did early in 2016, but this was a sea change Sunday. At no point last season did the entire defense look as completely synchronous as it did in Washington.
None of the progress in the opener guarantees success in Kansas City on Sunday. The Eagles performed slightly better than a Washington team in disarray. That’s why 30-17, on the road, against a nemesis, doesn’t mean that the 2017 Birds are resoundingly better than the 2016 Birds.
But better, they are.
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