The more you watch this Eagles offense, the more you wonder what it would end up looking like if the season was a month or so longer.
If you gave the quarterback four more games to find his legs ...
If you gave the new wide receiver four more games to find himself in this scheme ...
If you gave the head coach four more games to get this year’s parts marching to last year’s rhythm ...
There were moments on Monday night when you saw the thing starting to come together. Most of the night, really. Throughout a 28-13 victory that kept the Eagles alive in this year’s muddled NFC, Doug Pederson’s offense looked more like the unit of a year ago than the one that has spent much of 2018 slipping into and out of first gear. Carson Wentz completed 27-of-39 passes for 306 yards. Josh Adams carried 20 times for 85 yards. The Eagles finished with 436 yards of total offense and an edge in time of possession of nearly 2-to-1.
To be clear, this wasn’t the offense of a year ago. Few NFL offenses are. But with four games left to play and a daunting deficit in the standings, the Eagles finally looked like a team capable of getting there.
More than anything, what they showed was that good things happen when players make plays. And bad things happen when they don’t. Against the Redskins, you saw both sides of it. On three occasions, you saw Wentz scramble out of the pocket long enough to improvise a little two-man game with Golden Tate. You saw Darren Sproles will his way into the end zone on a 14-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter.
You also saw plays that were there that just weren’t made. Maybe that’s something that we have paid too little mind in our season-long quest to diagnose this Eagles offense. No, Doug Pederson might not have had his finest moment as a play caller during a four-play stretch inside the Redskins 10-yard-line late in the second quarter. You can argue that Zach Ertz should have been on the field for a 4th-and-goal play from the two, that maybe his presence would have prevented the Redskins from selling out on the run and stuffing Josh Adams for a loss of two yards. You can also argue that Jordan Matthews should not have gotten a target on 1st-and-goal. But these are also moments whose outcomes are generally decided by individual performances rather than strokes of play calling brilliance.
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The side that wins those moments is the side with the players who win their 1-on-1 battles, as Matthews did later in the game, getting inside position on Redskins cornerback Danny Johnson and making the catch in traffic for touchdown that gave the Eagles a two-possession lead. In the first half, Matthews was unable to get himself into that sort of position, and Wentz’s pass glanced off his hands and fell incomplete. Maybe the problem isn’t any more complex than the Eagles needing a receiver capable of making that sort of play more often.
How many times this season has Wentz reached the top of his drop and spotted a receiver with the kind of separation that Josh Doctson twice created for himself against Rasual Douglas on catches of 32 and 20 yards?
There’s no denying the importance of a coach’s scheme and play-calling in today’s NFL. At some point, though, it comes down to players making plays. That’s what we tend to overlook when comparing this year’s Eagles team to the one that won the Super Bowl. All of the attention paid to Philly Special tends to obscure the fact that Eagles do not beat the Patriots if Corey Clement and Alshon Jeffery do not make 1-in-100 catches in the end zone when presented with the opportunity to do so.
Same goes for the running game. A lot of what we tend to talk about when we talk about the Eagles’ rushing attack fails to take into consideration the situational realities of an NFL football game. No doubt, there are going to be days and nights when a play-caller who cut his teeth under Andy Reid gets away from the run. Pederson has been that play-caller at certain points this season; he tacitly acknowledged as much in last week’s win over the Giants, when he heeded the advice of his offensive linemen and rolled to victory on a simplified, downhill attack that featured a heavy dose of Adams and fellow undrafted free agent Corey Clement. At the same time, the situation does not always call for or even allow that sort of punch-em-in-the-mouth attack.
This extends to the quarterback, of course. Nine games into his return from knee surgery, Wentz still occasionally moves his feet like a man walking to the economy-class bathroom at 30,000 feet. There was a third-down play early in the fourth quarter when Wentz had Nelson Agholor wide open on an out pattern for a first down. As has been the case on more than a few occasions this season, the quarterback’s upper and lower halves seemed to be operating on a different internal clock, resulting in a pass that would have pulled the first baseman all the way off the bag before bouncing into seats.
Wentz doesn’t belong anywhere near the list of critical problems that have plagued the Eagles this season. He might not be the player who was an MVP frontrunner last season, but there should be little doubt that he will eventually get there.
Whether that happens in time to extend this season remains to be seen. There are four games left. You can only hope that is long enough.