Flaws of Wentz, Birds ex­posed at worst time

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - Jack McCaf­fery Colum­nist

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 jm­c­caf­fery@21stcen­tu­ry­media.com; fol­low him on Twit­ter @ Jack­McCaf­fery

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