Flaws of Wentz, Birds exposed at worst time
Six games and seven weeks into their season, the Eagles were still without definition.
They’d been good at times, spectacular even, particularly at home. But they’d too often been inconsistent, almost jittery, on the road. In that, they’d looked like a younger team should look. Interesting, but flawed. Aggressive, but sloppy. Confident … to a point.
And that’s when Jerry Jones opened the roof on his convertible football palace and the NBC cameras gave the world a good look.
So it was on the one surface that forever will define what the franchise can be that the Eagles wasted a double-figure, fourthquarter lead and were defeated by the first-place Dallas Cowboys, 29-23, in overtime Sunday night. And it was there that they made it official: They are too flawed, including at quarterback, to contend in the NFC East.
With a chance to snag a share of first place, the Eagles showed too many familiar traits. The wide receivers, those whom Doug Pederson announced last week that he was “thrilled” to have the privilege to coach, had
more difficulties holding onto Carson Wentz’s passes. Nelson Agholor, Jordan Matthews and Dorial Green-Beckham all dropped critical passes. And the wide-nine defense was aggressive, but also occasionally leaky.
The Eagles tried to rely on the running of Darren Sproles and the ability of Wentz to manage the nationally televised moment. Instead, they fell to 4-3, while the Cowboys improved to 6-1.
In other sports, in other situations and especially in other divisions, the Eagles could have applied their have-patience, trusta-process, rebuild-for-thefuture option to Pederson’s first season as a head coach and Wentz’s first as their No. 1 quarterback.
In other times, in other rivalries, their first trip into the Cowboys’ stadium could have been rationalized as a down-payment on something better or, in the grand cliché of the sports era, as a teaching moment.
In different circumstances, the Eagles have been satisfied Sunday just emerging relatively healthy from a game against the Cowboys, who still have to visit the Linc.
But no Eagles-Cowboys game is ever that insignificant. And the one Sunday would draw the teams together with its own particular magnetism. For it wouldn’t just be the Eagles with a hot rookie quarterback, as Dak Prescott had been just as impressive as Wentz. And it wasn’t just the Eagles who’d seemed to have solved the last draft, trading up for Wentz, as the Cowboys confidently waited until the No. 4 overall pick to choose early Rookie of the Year candidate Ezekiel Elliott.
“We all know the type of runner that Elliott is, and it’s no surprise that he’s having the success,” Pederson said last week. “But it really starts with that offensive line.”
The game wasn’t seconds old and already Terrence Brooks made it obvious that the Eagles were there to be the aggressors, smashing into kickoff returner Lucky Whitehead, jolting the ball loose. Though Whitehead recovered the ball, the Birds attacked Prescott, with as many as six of them blitzing, including the evercriticized Marcus Smith, who had an early sack.
Yet in an interesting move, given recent circumstances, Pederson made an uncharacteristic first-quarter decision. The Birds’ coach was rightly praised for most of last week for consistently showing the self-confidence to run a play on fourth down. But when the Cowboys were flagged for running into Caleb Sturgis during a first-quarter field goal, leaving the Birds with a fourth-and-one opportunity, Pederson chose to keep the three points on the massive stadium scoreboard.
In the fourth quarter, Pederson also made a timid call, choosing to punt from the Dallas 36 rather than to allow the sizzling Sturgis to attempt a 53-yard field goal. The Cowboys responded with an 11-play touchdown drive to force a 23-23 tie.
Though the Eagles’ defense was strong enough to push the game into overtime, their lack of a long-passing game revealed them as little more than ordinary.
Oddly, the Eagles may have defended just well enough to cost them in the near term. For Jim Schwartz’s attack of Prescott could have made Tony Romo the Cowboys’
quarterback again. Healthy after recovering from a back injury, Romo, 36, had to wait until Prescott began to play like a rookie in order to regain his job.
Though Prescott had some highlights Sunday, including running for a touchdown, leading a drive to force a 23-23 tie with 3:04 left, he mangled a late first-half drive and was intercepted by Jordan Hicks in the end zone.
Though they continue to breeze in the NFC East, the Cowboys cannot afford to trust their playoff hopes to a fourth-round draft choice, not with a healthy, four-time Pro Bowl quarterback available. Also, Dez Bryant, who made a 53-yard reception and also scored a touchdown with 3:04 left, has recovered from a knee injury. So the Cowboys can look familiar again, and soon.
As for the Eagles, they were not good enough in that stadium, in that spot, for those stakes to tighten the division race. The NFL trading deadline is 4 p.m. Tuesday. Howie Roseman, who made the aggressive move to acquire the right to draft Wentz, then was able to offload Sam Bradford just before the season, may use the struggle as inspiration to take a shot at winning something this season. Reports are the Birds are interested in upgrading at wide receiver.
Never mind that Pederson said last week that, “I’m thrilled with the guys we have and going to work with them every day.” Seven games, including a critical opportunity Sunday, the Eagles already need to be re-defined.
To contact Jack McCaffery, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @ JackMcCaffery