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December 10, 2018

Angelo Cataldi: The Eagles never really had a chance this year

It is hardly a surprise to anyone that the Eagles will not repeat as NFL champions this season. Last year was so exhilarating, so overwhelming, it was asking too much for another parade this winter. I think we can all agree with that sentiment.

Still, what made the final indignity so upsetting was the way the Eagles said goodbye to a lost season yesterday. Did it have to be against the nauseating Dallas Cowboys? In an overtime 29-23 loss that left a feeling of disgust over the officials, the failures of both the offense and defense in key moments, and even the timidity of the coach.

The sad truth is, the Eagles never had a chance to repeat this season because they never gave themselves a chance. Yes, there were an absurd number of injuries, especially in the defensive secondary. Yes, there were some unlucky bounces along the way, too – most notably the final play on Sunday. And sure, there was a Super Bowl hangover. There’s no question about any of that.

For the next nine months, we can all grumble over the game that ended the dream of a repeat, and there is plenty to complain about. Let’s start with the referee crew headed by Clete Blakeman. That those refs missed the fumble recovery on the opening kickoff and made a phantom pass-interference call against Dallas Goedert late in the game is appalling even now, a day after the crimes.

So is the haunting notion that Doug Pederson, one yard from a two-point conversion that could have won the game, suddenly lost his nerve. Last season, he said it was always a good bet from the one-yard line to go for two – at the very least, a 60-40 proposition. Then, when his moment came on Sunday, down 23-22 with 1:39 remaining, he went conservative.

Unfortunately, all of those moments do not address the real reason why the Eagles will not repeat as champions. The simple truth is, the Eagles are not good enough this season, nor were they good enough against the Cowboys.

The refs didn’t inspire Dallas to 576 offensive yards on Sunday. They didn’t cause the 46-23 time-of-possession disparity, either. The Cowboys gained more than double the number of yards, and they held the ball for more than double the time. They were the better team, in that game and in the season.

A far more revealing question is why? A season ago, the Eagles finished four games ahead of the Cowboys, scored 103 more points, gave up 37 less points, and were superior in every way. How did the Birds get so much worse while Dallas got so much better?

Well, that’s where the Eagles ultimately beat themselves. From the very first day of training camp, the Eagles were not committed to the formidable challenge of repeating their success.

For reasons that only he can explain, Pederson thought it was a good idea to revel in last season instead of preparing for this one, decorating the locker room with posters and mementos of 2017. He actually declared, after the Eagles blew a 17-point lead to Carolina: “The pressure’s off.” The pressure is never off a team defending a championship. He knew that.

In the end, quarterback Carson Wentz was not as good this year, the offensive line took a big step backward, the defense was less reliable in big moments, help from special teams was pretty much non-existent and the coach was far less creative and surprisingly less bold. Other than Zach Ertz, not a single player exceeded expectations this season.

There will be mercy from the fans for 2018, because of 2017. Even after that soul crusher in Dallas yesterday, the joy from the parade will carry the fans through another frigid winter.

But Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz and everybody else on the Eagles should understand now that two seasons in a row like this will not go down so easily. Next year, the fans will demand a commitment to winning that was simply not there in 2018.

As Phillies owner John Middleton said a decade ago, we want our damn trophy back.

And finally . . . .

• The most laughable moment in the aftermath of Ron Hextall’s much-deserved firing last month was his public goodbye to the fans. By all accounts, he insisted on holding a final press conference because he felt it was his responsibility. Ha, ha. For four-plus years, he stonewalled every question that he didn’t find appropriate – and there were many – and even said he didn’t care what the fans thought. As a player, Hextall was awesome. As a GM, he was inept and obnoxious.

• Joel Embiid’s admission last weekend that he is having a tough time adjusting to Jimmy Butler’s presence in the lineup should concern no one, at least right now. Butler has been terrific so far, especially in big moments, and Embiid is smart enough to figure out how to co-exist with a player who is equally committed to winning. Once these two superstars figure it out, the Sixers will have a legitimate chance to make it to the NBA Finals.

• The NFL keeps bumbling domestic-abuse cases, and there’s a reason for this. It cares a lot more about its brand than about the victims. Four years ago, commissioner Roger Goodell slapped a two-game suspension on Ray Rice until a video surfaced of the running back punching his girlfriend in the face. This time Kareem Hunt received no punishment at all until another video leaked showing him shoving and kicking a woman. In both cases, the NFL made barely a token effort to get the tapes. You know why? It was bad for business, that’s why.

• Meanwhile, it appears that the NFL is fine with employing convicted felons. At least that was the implication when ex-Eagle Mychal Kendricks – who pleaded guilty to insider trading and faces up to 30 months in federal prison starting next month – was cleared to return for the final four games of the season, plus maybe the playoffs, with the Seattle Seahawks starting tonight. How heartwarming will it be if he makes a game-winning play just a few days before heading to the slammer? The NFL has no soul.

• If you’re casting for the title role in The Grinch That Stole Christmas, it’s hard to imagine a better choice than Seth Joyner, the former Eagles linebacker who scowls his way through post-game shows on NBC Sports Philadelphia. Joyner is every bit as intense in a TV studio as he was on the football field. In fact, an even better role than The Grinch for Joyner would be as an Eagles assistant coach. Joyner simply doesn’t tolerate losing. If the Eagles can’t see his potential, all I’ve got to say is, “Bah, humbug.”