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August 27, 2021

Final observations: Eagles 31, Jets 31

The Eagles closed out a fairly meaningless preseason slate with an inexplicable 31-31 tie against the Jets on Friday night. Pop the corks and raise your glasses, everybody, because football games with actual stakes are so close you can almost taste it. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• You hate to see a guy potentially lose his job in a preseason game, with the final preseason game serving as the last ride for a lot of guys trying to live out a dream. I'm not sure if that's the fate awaiting J.T. Hassell, but his odds to stick in the NFL certainly didn't go up after this:

Boston Scott sure does love to make big-time plays at MetLife, and even with the backfield a little more crowded this season, it feels like he has a decent-sized role to play in this year's offense. Miles Sanders is expected to be the feature guy, but Scott's sure hands out of the backfield and his ability to make plays once the ball is in said hands can't be discounted. There's a reason a guy his size has been able to stick around and carve out a role.

(Credit to Joe Flacco for this throw and his work on Philadelphia's opening drive. Against New England, he missed a handful of throws and tossed up a few wobblers that were off enough to either lead to an incompletion or slow down his receiver to limit YAC. Admittedly, he was against a pretty weak group of Jets backups, but he came out looking much sharper against New York, and he even bought Philly a few yards with his legs on their opening drive.)

• If anybody is going to stop Scott from having a moderately-sized role for the Eagles this year, it's Kenneth Gainwell, who simply looked too good to be playing in the third preseason game. Gainwell has impressed in limited action during the first two games, running decisively and showing off the pass-game versatility that made him an intriguing prospect coming out of Memphis.

Everything was on display during the Eagles' second scoring drive of the game, with Gainwell picking up 32 yards on five carries and picking up 15 yards on a catch out of the backfield, all but carrying Philly toward the endzone. The best sign for Gainwell? A good chunk of his yardage came on runs up the middle, which runs counter to his reputation as a guy who tries to bounce everything to the outside, often to his detriment. His touchdown run showed patience and burst as he waited for a crease to open in the middle of the line, exploding through it once it became available.

I'm not going to go as far as Ross Tucker did on the broadcast — let's all settle down before invoking Brian Westbrook's name — but Gainwell has shown off plenty during the preseason. Would like to see what he can do with regular touches once the real games begin.

• I've spent a lot of time crushing Joe Flacco for his performances in the preseason to date, and while I'm still pretty skeptical he's a credible backup at this stage of his career, Flacco was excellent in the preseason finale, providing some hope if he has to step in and play at some point this season.

A normal good game from Flacco follows a pretty standard script — good timing, a deep bomb or two, and an understanding of when to live to fight another day. But after running like Han Solo encased in carbonite in previous outings, Flacco actually used his legs effectively against New York, buying some time behind backup offensive linemen and even making some plays outside of the pocket. It's not his M.O. and it's not something they should count on him to do regularly, though it was nice to see the veteran signal-caller sprinkle some surprises into a pretty dreary game. 

Hurts is a tough, durable kid who did a good job of protecting himself while running last season, but you're always dealing with some degree of increased risk when starting a QB who gets out in the open field and fights for extra yardage. Having a trustworthy backup is something Eagles fans value as much as any fanbase in the league (for good reason!) so hopefully Flacco ends up being the steady man they need him to be. Or, ideally, we never see him take the field because Hurts is upright and slinging the football. But you have to feel slightly better about him after this one, even if you don't feel great about him overall. 

• Insofar as you can judge a man by his performance against opposing backups, T.Y. McGill had a productive night at the office against the Jets, which you would think should be enough to solidify his spot on the roster. McGill has earned strong reviews all throughout training camp/preseason, and he put an exclamation point on that with a good game against New York. If all a guy does is show up and produce day after day and week after week, that's just who he is, and you should make a bet on him.

Beating double teams is great to see from an interior lineman regardless of the competition he's up against. Almost everybody feels good about the starters up front on defense, but maybe they'll get a bit of a boost from backups like McGill this year.

• It's not helping to erase all the bad memories of his career to date, but good on J.J. Arcega-Whiteside for showing a little something when he desperately needed to in Philly's final preseason game. His status as a rostered player was (and perhaps still is) very much up in the air, and he did his best to put some big plays on tape in limited action on Friday night.

The highlight for Arcega-Whiteside was eerily reminiscent of the sort of tough, physical plays he made at Stanford that put him on the radar in the first place, a touchdown featuring a nice route and a strong finish through contact to find paydirt:

I'm certainly not going to be the guy writing, "Is it finally time for Arcega-Whiteside to step forward?" or other such nonsense, and it's a little easier to impose your will physically when you're up against a bunch of backups and third-string players. But he might have saved himself as time is running down on the preseason. Good sense of timing, you have to give him that.

The Bad

• Michael Jacquet simply can't be on the 53-man roster to open the year. We watched him get torched in big moments toward the end of last season, he got picked on and burnt several times during this preseason under a new regime, and he completely whiffed on New York's opening touchdown that sailed right over his head, with Jacquet dead in the water after missing on the press.

The guy simply isn't very good or trustworthy in coverage and we probably don't need to see any more evidence to prove that.

Fair play to Jacquet, however, for continuing to fight for his spot until the final whistle. There were not a ton of defensive highlights to speak of in this one, but Jacquet had the biggest one, forcing a Jets fumble before running it all the way back for a touchdown to slam the door shut on New York. He either went out on the highest possible note or bought himself a bit more time on an NFL roster. Regardless of whether you think he's good enough, that's one of the only reasons the end of the preseason is compelling — guys occasionally come up with trajectory-altering plays with their careers and dreams on the line.

(Alright, I take all of this back after he did absolutely nothing to prevent the Hail Mary to end the game. He's bad.)

• Would have to say this game is a bad sign for Travis Fulgham, who had not done much worth discussing coming into the game and didn't do much to stand out in a game where he is theoretically overqualified to run it up on backups. This is a guy who briefly lifted up the entire position group for a stretch last season, then faded for what appeared like no reason at the time. The further we get from his 152-yard outing against the Steelers, the flukier that stretch of the season feels. We can't blame Doug Pederson and/or Carson Wentz for minimizing him anymore.

Fulgham's one big chance to make a play came midway through the fourth quarter, when he made a nice initial grab over the middle and looked to be dragging his defender into the endzone for a tough touchdown catch. But as it turned out, Fulgham never really had control of the ball in the first place, and it squirted out of his hands and eventually rolled out of the endzone for a touchback and change of possession. 

It's hard to fault him too much on the play — coming up with it in the first place was fairly difficult — it's just that every opportunity has increased importance when you're fighting for your job.

There's always a chance he beats out Arcega-Whiteside and sticks on the roster anyway, provided the coaches decide they aren't too worried about what happened in a meaningless preseason game. But he's going to be sweating it out after this one, that's for damn sure.

• Andre Dillard had a couple of nice blocks when he was on the field in the first half, and an equally gruesome false start when Philly was in their two-minute offense to close out the first half. How you choose to weigh the two sides of the coin is up to you, though given the negative reports coming out of NovaCare about his play in camp, it's hard to get jazzed up about key blocks vs. backups. That he had to play in this game in the first place is an indictment of where he is and how far his stock has fallen since they traded up to draft him.

The Ugly

• Giving up a Hail Mary and a two-point conversion to end the game was just hilarious and awful rolled into one. Can't believe they took the entire 60 minutes to find a way to not win. Amazing stuff. 

• If there was ever a preseason to show just how worthless preseason football is, it's the one we all just sat through (or at least I did). By all accounts, the Eagles' first-teamers looked excellent in joint practices against other NFL teams, evidently getting enough out of those reps to keep most of their important starters completely uninvolved in the last two games of the preseason. Unless you're a member of the Eagles beat or with the organization, you head into the regular season having seen very little on which to form an opinion of the team. Maybe that's why there's so much optimism bubbling up on social media lately — hard to be pessimistic when you're fueled by offseason hope with little to nothing to dissuade you.

Frankly, I don't really care about preseason games, but if teams are going to treat them like a complete farce, why bother at all? Franchises like the Eagles are asking fans to pay for preseason tickets for the privilege of also being able to pay for their season-ticket packages, which continues to be one of the great screw jobs in sports. Just scrap the whole thing, honestly. If you learn the most about your starters in practice, why wouldn't the same logic hold for backups and third stringers? Stop wasting everybody's time (and more importantly, their money).

• For the love of god, don't make me watch Nick Mullens play football anymore. There has to be a better option. 

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