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December 22, 2019

Eagles 'unknown' offense has fueled rebirth as team reaches for unlikely playoff berth

The Eagles’ offense has taken a while to find its identity, but it finally has one. And it found it in one of the unlikeliest of places: the unknown.

No, we aren't saying they don't know who they are. But outside of the most fervid and attentive of Eagles fans, no one else knows who they are.

When Philly started the season, they had a group of skill players that were the envy of most offenses in the league. They had a speedster in DeSean Jackson to open things up as an over-the-top threat paired with one of the top possession receivers in the league, Alshon Jeffery. They had veteran and agile Nelson Agholor in the middle, a power running back in Jordan Howard, and one of the three best tight ends in football in Zach Ertz.

Well, it's almost Christmas and Ertz is the only of the above mentioned players who played in Sunday's 17-9 season-saving victory over the Cowboys.

The Eagles lost their offensive star-power slowly, with games missed spanning pretty much the entire season, and as recently as three weeks ago, they looked totally lost when they possessed the football, with a bumbling 5-7 record and three straight defeats (including one to the then two-win Dolphins). 

Back during Weeks 11, 12 and 13, Wentz looked about as bad as he ever has, leaving fans and critics all across the country questioning his ability to lead.

But then something happened. A rag-tag group of skill players — many of whom have spent considerable time on the practice squad — banded together to lead the Birds to three straight wins and to the cusp of an improbable NFC East title.

In their come-from-behind win against New York, Boston Scott had 128 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. In their overtime win against Washington, rookie Miles Sanders picked up 172 yards and had two touchdowns, with Greg Ward leading all wideouts with 61 yards. Against Dallas, rookie J.J, Arcega-Whiteside had two huge catches early, Sanders once again eclipsed 150 yards and Goedert led all players with nine catches.

(Sanders isn't necessarily "unknown" — but he is a rookie and started his NFL career very slowly, splitting carries with Howard and was not expected to contribute this much. Goedert, too, isn't a practice squad guy like his fellow pass-catchers — but he is the team's second tight end and has produced at a high level as Ertz has shuffled in and out of the lineup with various injury issues.)

Here's how the offense has transformed since September (not including the one constant — Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert at tight end):

 Week 1Week 16*
RB1Jordan Howard (56)Miles Sanders (14)
RB2Miles Sanders (0)Boston Scott (11)
WR1Alshon Jeffery (102)J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (14)
WR2DeSean Jackson (156)Greg Ward (5)
WR3Nelson Agholor (71)Robert Davis (5)
NFL games38549

The players getting reps at receiver and running back in Week 16 had combined to start 49 total games prior to kickoff on Sunday. And they looked like seasoned pros.

"Greg Ward, Joshua Perkins, Robert Davis, guys who have gotten promoted, it's all about how we approach every single day," Scott said. "On the practice squad we prepared as if we were playing every week."

It's worth mentioning that Lane Johnson, the Eagles' Pro Bowl right tackle, has also missed serious time including the Cowboys game. It's also worth mentioning that things got so bad that Joshua Perkins caught five passes in Week 14, with the team dressing just three receivers that night.

So what the heck happened? How are the Eagles firing on all cylinders with inexperienced and undrafted cast-offs making Wentz look like the MVP candidate he was back in 2017?

Well, perhaps it's the energy and enthusiasm that can come from young and hungry players. 

"With guys like us, the more reps you get in the game, the better we get. The more comfortable we get, the more settled down we get. And you see the results get produced on the field," Scott said. "I think we have great chemistry — we have all been through the same scenarios, we talk to each other when we are down. Now that we are on the field together, it's just there."

Or maybe it's their health. Agholor and Jeffery were arguably never truly healthy this season as each looked to have lost a step or struggled to make routine catches at times. 

"You can't go back to Alshon or Nelly at this point or any of those guys, DeSean," head coach Doug Pederson said prior to Sunday. "You have to put them out there, right? They kind of grow up in a hurry. We've seen that with the young guys that have played. It’s good for them, and it’s good for us, because we get to see who they are and what we have. But it's a great opportunity for them at this point."

It could also be a signal of Wentz' leadership. After the Eagles won the Super Bowl two seasons ago with Nick Foles leading the way — and made a playoff run last year with Foles once again impressing in the clutch — Wentz took over a team this year that had never been in a playoff race under the fourth-year former No. 2 pick. This season, Wentz led back-to-back comeback wins leading up to Sunday's bout with the Cowboys. 

"He just continues to coach on the field. You see him during the games talking with these guys," Pederson said after the win. "It's helping him, and I think you're seeing the trust factor with some of these young guys. He's leaning on them a bit more. These are the guys we're playing with. We've got to do that."

Wentz has commanded respect and he has made players around him inarguably better. Which is exactly what a franchise quarterback is supposed to do.

"He's our leader," Scott said of Wentz. "He played very well. I think he took control of that game. He did well being mobile, moving out of the pocket, making something out of nothing, making opportunities to run. Its nothing new — that's what we expect from 11."

And there's definitely something to the growing trust between the quarterback and his young receivers.

"Spending extra time with Carson, talking things out, really becoming part of the offense — I mean shoot, I was covered on [a third down catch in the first quarter] and Carson trusted me to make the play," Arcega-Whiteside said. "He trusts us to make plays and he knows we are going to go out there and just play our game play hard every play, do the right thing, do the right assignment. And I was telling Dallas [Goedert], 'Keep balling. Every time you get tackled I will pick you back up. Keep rolling.'"

Whatever the reason may be for Wentz' jump from unreliable and unpredictable to franchise QB in just one month's time, there must be credit given to the players that you'd never heard of a month ago.

The Eagles need one more winning effort from Wentz and his new stable of weapons to clinch a playoff spot and win their division. And even though the team, as a whole, has fallen well short of expectations this season, any run that gets them into the playoffs and past even the first would would be considered an overachievement for the personnel lining up next to Wentz this winter.

Surprisingly, even with so many veteran bonafide star players sidelined, the locker room is confident and relaxed.

"It's hard to explain but you can feel like, guys looking around smirking at each other," Scott said. "You know what's at stake but at the end of the day, it's like, there's nobody else I'd rather do this with."

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