Opinion Angelo Cataldi
AP_610320252221.jpg Alex Brandon/AP

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson stands on the sideline in the first half of an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016, in Landover, Md.

October 17, 2016

Do the Eagles even realize their bye week is over?

Who would have believed three weeks ago that the worst unit on the Eagles would be the defense, that the worst coach on the staff would be Jim Schwartz and that the two most disappointing players would be Fletcher Cox and Malcolm Jenkins?

And yet, that was the buzz on the streets of Philadelphia this morning after a 27-20 loss in Washington that defied logic. There’s no other way to describe a defense that yielded 493 yards to a middling offense, 230 yards to a 25th-ranked running attack and fielded a Pro Bowl tackle who made zero tackles in 67 snaps.

There were other reasons for the Eagles falling to 3-2, of course. Carson Wentz looked like a rookie at the end, taking sacks when a miracle was still possible. So did Halapoulivaati Vaitai, failing to negate the unforgivable suspension of Lane Johnson at right tackle. And so were the 13 penalties and 114 yards called by fair-minded refs this time.

But the prevailing theme of this unbearable loss was the stunning failure of a defense that held a much better Pittsburgh offense to three points exactly three weeks ago. Where did that defense go? Did they think it was a bye month instead of a bye week?

It wasn’t all that long ago that defensive coordinator Schwartz was just marking time here until the bidding war began for his services as an NFL head coach. Now, especially after that atrocious performance, he’ll be lucky to keep his job with the Eagles past this season.

The most amazing part of the debacle was the beating that the Eagles defensive line took at the hands of a far less heralded Washington front line. The last time the Redskins averaged 6.9 yards per carry in a game, the running back was John Riggins and the year was 1985.

One of the primary reasons for the spectacular failure of the defense was the disappearance of the best player on the team, Cox, who signed a $102-million contract before the season. Based on Cox’s work yesterday, he should be arrested for burglary.

Cox faced 33 runs and 34 pass plays, and never got his hands on anyone with the ball. The only sign that Cox had actually made the trip down I-95 were the two penalties called against him, including a roughing-the-passer infraction that turned a field goal into a touchdown.

“I need to look in the mirror,” he said after the game. “I need to take my thumb and point it at me.”

And so does Malcolm Jenkins, the second-best player on the unit. Despite his interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter, Jenkins appeared lost. The safety got burned on the first touchdown pass, broke late on the second, and hosted a clinic on bad tackling. By his own admission, he “had a bad day.”

The Eagles all had a bad day. This was the kind of defeat that makes fans question everything they originally believed. Is Wentz just a kid after all, easily exposed behind a porous offensive line? Is Doug Pederson a rookie coach whose early magic has disappeared now that opponents have a book on him? Were the 3-0 Eagles a fraud?

It’s too early to answer any of those questions, but there’s no doubt now that our early optimism was misplaced. This is a team with holes as big as the ones that Redskins running back Matt Jones blasted through for 135 yards yesterday. And the biggest hole is the one we never anticipated, the strength of the team, the defense.

As of right now, there’s no rational way to evaluate our football team. And there won’t be any logical conclusions to draw until the Eagles defense returns from its bye month.

***

Anyone who believes that the 13 penalties called against the Eagles in Washington yesterday somehow absolves referee Pete Morelli from that debacle in Detroit one week earlier needs either a better television or a more effective brain. There was no comparison.

In Sunday’s loss to the Redskins, the Eagles deserved the flags they got, and – more importantly – so did Washington, which earned nine of their own. The disparity in Detroit was the issue – 14 for the Eagles and two for the Lions. The last time there was that big a difference was Oct. 20, 1996 – 20 years ago.

Yeah, I know. Get over it. But how is that possible when one of the most honest and respected voices in the NFL, ex-Eagles coach Dick Vermeil, calls the Detroit loss “the poorest officiated game I’ve seen in 10 years”?

What I learned last week during my obsessive quest to unmask Morelli’s ineptitude is that the 20-year official has always had a reputation for being affected by home crowds. In 2010, according to NFL historian Ray Didinger, home teams were 14-2 (there are those numbers again) when Morelli’s crew worked the game.

My co-host at WIP radio, Hollis Thomas, is something of an expert at the inner workings of NFL line play, having played nose tackle for 14 seasons, and he said there were two separate standards for holding in the Detroit game. Anything close was called against the Birds, while nothing was flagged – not one holding call – for the Lions.

Why were the refs so one-sided in that game? Conspiracy theorists will say the game was rigged; I’m not ready to go there. But what I will say is that Morelli should be fired at the end of this season, if not sooner, and his entire crew should be scrutinized after calling into question the integrity of the league.

By the way, in Morelli’s latest assignment Sunday in Oakland, his crew called a total of five penalties all day, against a Raiders team that had been the most penalized in the league before that. You don’t think somebody from the league talked to him after that Lions’ mess, do you?

The bottom line is, I have no plans to get over it. Robbery victims rarely do.

***

Despite a heartbreaking loss in Phoenix on Saturday night, the Flyers started the new season looking like a sure thing for the playoffs this season. A sure thing? Really?

Really. Unlike the other three pro teams in Philadelphia, Flyers fans rarely get swept up in optimism early in the schedule. If anything, they are overly pessimistic, always waiting for the inevitable injury that will spell doom. Forty-one years without a Stanley Cup will breed a dour outlook.

But the first two games over the weekend belied that thinking. The Flyers dominated Los Angeles – in L.A., no less – with their exciting blend of veterans and youngsters, plus two quality goaltenders. Travis Konecny enthralled Flyers Nation when he set up linemate Sean Couturier with s slick pass to make it 3-0. There will be many more thrills to come from that rookie.

With Konecny and defenseman Ivan Provorov joining last year’s sensation Shayne Gostisbehere, the Flyers are still a work in progress, but major strides are certain now with that level of young talent. And there are more kids on the way. Ron Hextall is the first good GM the team has had since Keith Allen 40 years ago.

The final score wasn’t as impressive the next night in Phoenix – a 4-3 overtime loss – but the Flyers came back from a two-goal deficit on the road, and would have won in overtime if not for an insane save by Phoenix goalie Mike Smith just before the game-winner. Konecny got his third assist of the season in that game.

Coach Dave Hakstol – that other guy from North Dakota – said he was thrilled with the three points, but he should know right now that, with better players, there will be more scrutiny on him. Back-to-back too-many-men-on-the-ice penalties at the start of the Phoenix game are unacceptable. Those are the coach’s responsibility.

After one more road game tomorrow night, the Flyers play five of the next six at the Well Fargo Center, including the home opener Thursday night against Anaheim. Get tickets now, if you can. This is going to be season that exceeds expectations – a playoff season, for sure.

And finally …

• Joel Embiid is making encouraging strides as his minutes increase in the Sixers preseason, but patience will be required for the rest of the team. In other words, they still stink. They are in dire need of a point guard, and none of the new pieces fit yet. Nerlens Noel is sulking. Dario Saric is getting stuck in the Philadelphia traffic. Jahlil Okafor is healing much too slowly. Are 25 wins too much to ask?

• Bravo to LeSean McCoy, who hosted 130 police officers for Buffalo’s game against San Francisco and anthem protestor Colin Kaepernick yesterday. Fresh off his own scrape with off-duty cops here last winter, McCoy doesn’t believe all cops should be blamed for the actions of a few. Meanwhile, Kaepernick is starting now – providing a great chance for fans to express their own freedom of expression with a chorus of loud boos, as they did in Buffalo.

• With his nemesis Chip Kelly gone, DeSean Jackson is openly politicking for a return to the Eagles when he becomes a free agent after the season. Please, no. He may still be a deep threat, but at 29, his fastest days are behind him, and his annoying personality will only get worse. Chicago’s Alshon Jeffrey would be a far smarter free-agent signing.

• Baltimore manager Buck Showalter just keeps looking dumber and dumber as the teams advancing in the baseball playoffs redefine how to use the best arms in the bullpen. The Dodgers got seven outs from their closer in the deciding game against the Nationals, and Cleveland used its best two relievers for 40 pitches each in one big win. Meanwhile, Zac Britton never threw a single pitch in the Orioles’ elimination game. Well, at least now baseball’s best closer is getting his rest.

• The greatest joy of Los Angeles’ playoff conquest of Washington was the sight of ex-Phillie Jayson Werth getting thrown out at home in the final game, and then walking off the field a loser again. Remember when he said he would make sure Philadelphia never had another championship parade? Hey, Jayson. How many parades have you had in D.C.?