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October 10, 2021

Final observations: Eagles 21, Panthers 18

Eagles NFL
Jalen-Hurts-Eagles-win_101021_usat Douglas DeFelice/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts passes the ball against the Carolina Panthers.

The Eagles somehow overcame a brutal opening three quarters from their offense to steal an improbable win on the road in Carolina, beating the Panthers 21-18. Thanks to a fantastic performance from the defense, the Eagles hung around long enough to pull off a robbery.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• This game was closer than it had any right to be because of the work the Eagles did up front on defense. Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox absolutely bullied people in the trenches on Sunday, and whenever one guy had attention shaded their way, their partner exploited single-coverage to get through the line and either pressure or sack Sam Darnold.

As Greg Olsen was thrilled to tell you throughout the broadcast, not making the play himself was not always indicative of Cox's impact on the game. With the Panthers sliding multiple blockers toward him throughout the game, it frequently left Hargrave on an island, a situation he has thrived in throughout the season. Struggling to deal with Hargrave, the Panthers then decided to send bodies his way, only for Cox to break through the single coverage for a big third-down sack in the third quarter, quieting some concerns about his downturn this season.

These guys can hold their heads high after the performance they offered on Sunday. Hargrave's speed at his size is remarkable, and if it wasn't for his breakout performance this season, this miserable year would be looking and feeling a lot worse for the Birds.

Frankly, the entire defense is justified if they think they did enough to win this game. Sure, they gave up some big plays and probably could have done better against the run given the lack of Christian McCaffrey in the Carolina attack, but the Eagles came up with several impact plays on defense in an effort to drag the offense across the finish line.

There was never a better time than Sunday for Darius Slay to live up to his nickname. After an excellent grab at full extension in the first half, Slay was called into duty once again in the third quarter, and he broke on a route with perfect timing to give the Eagles the ball back around midfield:

Bonus points for Slay using the rock-the-baby celebration afterward following the birth of his son just a couple of days ago. Very on-brand.

Philadelphia's defense had one more huge play left to make with the Panthers trying to drive downfield to either tie or win the game in the closing minutes, and it was Steven Nelson who slammed the door shut with an interception on the sideline, capping what will go down as one of the craziest Eagles victories I can remember.

It was a return to form after brutal showings vs. Dallas and Kansas City, and hopefully this is closer to representative of who they are, because the offense needs a lot of work.

• It only took most of three quarters for the Eagles to try to make some big plays downfield, and though Hurts had to take some big hits in service of doing so, it paid off rather quickly once they emphasized the long ball. 

Enter Quez Watkins, whose speed has been one of the only consistent weapons in Philly's attack. The second-year burner got open downfield for Philly's first big play of the game, inspiring a lot of sarcastic, "Can't wait to see how they don't score this time" tweets and texts from Eagles nation.

This is not exactly a niche opinion in Eagles world right now, but Watkins should be the guy getting the most reps in the receiver group outside of DeVonta Smith, having actually earned the opportunity with his play on the field. Unlike Jalen Reagor, who seems to get touches and snaps based solely on where he was drafted, Watkins is put on the field and actually puts his speed to use, stretching the field in a way that benefits the offense.

In any case, this set the Eagles up to finally punch the ball in for their first touchdown of the day. This is what speed is supposed to do for you.

• His fumble aside, DeVonta Smith had another solid, if slightly unspectacular game for the Eagles on Sunday. He appeared to be open more often than he actually got the ball, made some tough contested catches in traffic, and continues to look like a guy who will be a big-time playmaker for this team if the other guys on offense can sort their issues out.

• Even the special teams guys did their best to try to dig the Eagles out of their self-created hole. This blocked punt late in the fourth was the first time in the second half where you actually felt like the Eagles could win the game:

Sure enough, a strike to Dallas Goedert and a run from Jalen Hurts later, the Eagles were suddenly out in front of the Panthers, to the shock of basically everybody watching this game. Is this the most improbable go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter in recent Eagles history?

After a miserable day at the office, Hurts followed up the big TD with a big play on the ensuing two-point conversion attempt. Carolina burst through the line and flushed him out of the pocket immediately, and Hurts kept just enough space between him and a would-be tackler for DeVonta Smith to find a pocket in the back of the end zone, where Hurts hit him with a strike.

I'm not sure anything about this game felt good for Philadelphia fans, but sometimes you only need to play a few good minutes of football on one side of the ball to get a win. Riding a hellacious performance from the defense, that's exactly what happened for the Eagles' offense on Sunday. 

The Bad

• Is Jalen Hurts capable of making all the throws a quarterback needs to in order to be a franchise guy? Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. There's no way of knowing with the way the Eagles have structured the offense through five weeks. They are doing a disservice to themselves in the long-term and the football team on the field in the short term, and they simply can't continue to play this way if they have any desire to compete and develop talent this season.

Honestly, it's even more infuriating when the Eagles actually make an effort to go downfield and mix up their play calls because they have plenty of success when it's not just screen after screen being called. The big shot downfield to Watkins late in the third quarter is the sort of play they need to actively pursue more. The second half, broadly speaking, featured a more diverse set of plays and concepts, and they reaped the benefits of that approach. It's why they won the freaking game!

If Nick Sirianni doesn't believe in Hurts, that's his right as the head coach of the team. But he took this job knowing there was a development project to lead and a young quarterback to mentor, only to basically opt out of trying to make him better or challenge him for long stretches of games. That's a bogus approach to running a team, and it's a disservice to everybody on the offense, Hurts included. 

Hurts owns plenty of the blame for the conservatism himself, mind you. When he has had opportunities to make plays or hit targets downfield, he has botched them relatively often. Throwing a free play out of bounds late in the first half was simply inexcusable, and it's representative of a body of work with lots of misses so far. Every week, you can point out at least a small handful of plays where Hurts misses on easy and makable plays, completely forgetting the tough stuff that could help push a developing offense over the top. A true franchise guy brings the best out of everybody, and Hurts has had multiple games already this year where he can't even get the basic stuff down.

That's before getting to the interception he threw midway through the third quarter, a play where he had Zach Ertz open down the sideline and simply air-mailed it into the arms of a Panthers defender. You can't blame pressure, or bad timing, or lack of chemistry, or playcalling — this is just a bad, bogus throw from a guy who has too many of those lately:

On the leadership and charisma fronts, Hurts has everything you want in the quarterback of your football team. Guys want to line up with him and go to battle with him, based on all indicators we have. If the Eagles lean more on his ability to run the ball and break tackles or make guys miss, they can probably win more games in the short term. And to be fair to Hurts, he has shown the ability to battle through adversity whenever it has hit him and this team, as he did when he converted a scoring drive off of the blocked punt. The second half was much better from him, and maybe that's as simple as the Eagles running a real offense instead of handling him with kiddie gloves.

The bottom line is that you need your quarterback to make all of the throws and keep opposing defenses guessing, and Hurts has either not looked like that guy or has not been allowed to be that guy depending on the play and the series. There's still plenty of time for him to get where he needs to go, obviously, but you have to overlook a bunch of issues to have unwavering faith in him as a true foundational piece at this point. Lot of learning left to do.

• The quarterback was not the only guy at fault during Sunday's offensive snoozefest. DeVonta Smith was one of the few guys who looked decent during the first 30 minutes of football, but he made a costly mistake when he got the ball punched out of his hands on a potential third-down conversion

Elsewhere, the Eagles were impacted by a combination of health issues and poorly thought out strategy. Moving Jordan Mailata across the line on a bad knee in service of keeping Andre Dillard at left tackle seemed like a bad idea on paper, and it was even worse in practice, with both sides of the line giving up pressure and sacks at inopportune times, including a brutal series in the third quarter where Hurts was crushed on back-to-back plays. Paying Mailata big-time money to play left tackle and then relegating him to fill-in duty on the other side of the line is madness, even with what we know about Dillard's struggles to play right tackle in a pinch.

The Ugly

• What's more ugly — Philadelphia's propensity for getting flagged, or the blandness of this offense week-after-week? They're running neck-and-neck for me, though I tend to lean toward the latter as a bigger concern under the belief that you can eventually fix the former with better/smarter players playing big roles for the team.

One of the reasons you hire a young coach in the first place is to try to tap into the mind(s) of guys who are near the cutting edge of football. You're expecting them to innovate much more compared to their older, set-in-their-ways peers. Have you seen anything from Sirianni that feels inventive, unorthodox, and surprising to the opponent they're up against? If anything, it has been the opposite, a drone-like march toward the final whistle that uses a small handful of plays over and over again to the point that the Panthers nearly jumped the route on a screen pass in the third quarter. Minimalism is okay if you have elite talent to make the most out of it, but this group needs inventiveness, creativity, a coach with the guts and wherewithal to try new things. Even their craziest play of the year, the botched fourth-down throw from Greg Ward, was basically just a variation of the Philly Special.

Maybe Sirianni uses games this year as a series of lessons and truly evolves over time. He wouldn't be the first coach who learned from failure and was better for it, and he definitely changed the approach in the second half. Credit to him for that.

• Probably a good time to say that maybe everyone should pump the brakes on the Sam Darnold breakout. The Eagles were fortunate to not face a better QB on Sunday. 

• Miles Sanders going out of bounds multiple times in clock management offense might be a good example of why he doesn't get more touches and playing time. His brain cramps are also a great example of just how dumb this team is on the whole. 

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