September 03, 2018
Every time I begin to write the words I desperately want to write: "the Eagles will repeat as Super Bowl champions this season," the image of left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai whiffing on block after block pops back into my mind. Can the Birds survive with someone that inept protecting their quarterback?
I know, I know. How can a backup lineman determine the fate of a team so deep, so resilient? Vaitai should be way, way down the list of concerns for a club that won 16 of 19 games last season and is better, on paper, than the champs. And don’t forget that Vaitai was right there, replacing Hall of Famer Jason Peters, for all of the biggest games.
But that Vaitai bore no resemblance to the revolving door who played during an alarmingly bad preseason for the entire team. Neither did Nick Foles, whose miraculous performance in the Super Bowl seems even more of a miracle after his hideous work in the practice games. In fact, the offense as a whole had a gruesome August. Can they flip the switch on Thursday night in the season opener against Atlanta?
After seven months of post-Super Bowl euphoria, I doubt it. The biggest problem is not backups like Vaitai or Foles. It is that word, doubt. There are just so many questions that have cropped up since the parade – too many for even a master roster manipulator like GM Howie Roseman to fix.
• Can Carson Wentz, with a surgically-repaired left knee, return to the MVP form of last season?
• Is the offense line good enough to protect him?
• Is the corps of wide receivers deep enough without Alshon Jeffrey, and how long before he will be ready to lead the group again?
• How much will the loss of LeGarrette Blount – on the field and in the locker room – hurt the team?
• Can middle linebacker Jordan Hicks finally stay healthy for a full season?
• Is the defensive secondary championship-caliber? (Remember, that group, with only a couple of changes, gave up 500 passing yards in the Super Bowl.)
• Can coach Doug Pederson recapture of magic of last season?
The truth is, the only part of the team that seems ready to defend the championship is the defensive line, even stronger now with the additions of Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata. The rest of the roster? Not really.
Obviously, Wentz is the key issue. As reported here for the past three months, he will not start the season because the healing process is incomplete, despite his herculean effort to be ready. Even when he does return – probably in a couple of weeks – he will need time to trust the knee again.
The first big hit is going to be a hold-your-breath moment for every fan. None of us valued highly enough the insurmountable record the Eagles achieved with Wentz running the offense for the first 12 games. The 10-2 mark with him working behind center ultimately brought a home-field advantage for the playoffs. Would the Birds have won on the road in Atlanta or Minnesota?
I’m happy we never had to find out. Unfortunately, based on Foles’ horrendous preseason, we may learn very quickly what it’s like not to lead the NFC pack. It’s hard to imagine Foles beating Atlanta (or anyone else) in the opener on Thursday, or maybe even Tampa Bay the following week.
The Super Bowl MVP has fallen that far that fast. Still, in the underwhelming NFC East, the Eagles should prevail easily despite a slow start. Las Vegas has their over-under win total at 11½, which is exactly right. If I had to pick, I’d go over – with 12 wins. Oh, wait a minute. I just saw Vaitai miss another block. Take the under, 11 wins. And I’m very sorry to report this, but there will be no winter miracle this season. The Eagles will not repeat.
Over the past week, Doug Pederson has showed a snarky side that he hadn’t displayed in his first two seasons as Eagles head coach.
Has success already gone to Pederson’s head?
As someone who has been talking to fans for the past three decades on my WIP radio show, I feel qualified to say that Pederson’s frustration with questions about Wentz’s status has been an insult to the same people who showered the coach and his team with adulation for the past seven months after the Super Bowl victory.
This entire preseason primarily has been about one issue – Wentz’s availability to play after a grueling nine-month rehab from a torn left ACL and LCL. Based on the way Pederson’s moribund team has played the games, it certainly hasn’t been about rounding into midseason form before the opener.
The Eagles, in a word, have been putrid this summer. But the biggest hope that the preseason has been a mirage is that the real stars of the team – Alshon Jeffrey, Brandon Graham, Darren Sproles, Nelson Agholor, Jason Peters and, of course, Wentz – would be back when the games counted.
The coach must know by now that there is nothing more important to fans than the daily updates on the health of the stars, and especially Wentz. If the media asked Pederson 10 different ways to assess the availability of the young quarterback, he owed it to the fans to answer every variation of the same question.
Instead, he lashed out on two separate occasions at perfectly legitimate inquiries, actually parroting agent Drew Rosenhaus on Sunday by snapping “Next question,” over and over to reporters who were trying to find out whether Wentz had been cleared to play. This is not the understanding coach of the first two seasons – not even close.
Over that period, I had to ask Pederson countless tough questions during his weekly visits on my show, and he handled every one with a respect for the fans that he had demonstrated throughout his entire career, both as a player, assistant and head coach. What has changed? The only obvious answer is that success may be spoiling one of the class acts in sports.
After seven months of pure adulation – including the parade, national talk-show appearances, and even a book tour – Pederson may have lost his appreciation for the passion of this city. Wentz will not play the season opener. Everybody knows that. Heck, the first opponent, Atlanta, put the report of Nick Foles starting Thursday’s game on the home page of its website.
Pederson was delusional if he thought he could keep Wentz’s status a secret for an entire week leading up to the game. If Pederson needs a reminder of how things work in Philadelphia sports, here it is: The fans always come first. The media is doing its job. Now do yours. Answer the questions.