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January 04, 2021

Final observations from the 2020 Eagles' season

Eagles NFL
Eagles_Cowboys_Doug_Pederson_mask_Week8_Kate_Frese_11022033.jpg Kate Frese/PhillyVoice

Doug Pederson on the sideline during the Philadelphia Eagles game against the Dallas Cowboys at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on November 1, 2020.

The Eagles lost their final game of the season 20-14 to Washington Football Team, but in more important news, they will have the sixth pick in the 2021 NFL Draft as a result of the loss. Well-executed tank job on Sunday night.

I'm not going to pretend this game mattered for Philadelphia at all, so we're going to focus on some big picture stuff involving the most prominent names in the organization instead.

The Good

• It was not an emphatic finish to the season for Jalen Hurts, but I think he comes out of this final stretch with plenty to feel proud of. His legs are a legitimate threat, he made a lot of wide receivers look better than they had under Carson Wentz, and his ability to respond to adversity remains a huge strength, something that was apparent with the way he handled an unorthodox college career.

There are warts, of course. With Eagles fans just hoping to see semi-competent play from the QB (and with expectations low for a rookie), Hurts got away with some underthrown passes downfield and misses in big spots. If he's able to win the job outright heading into next season, the pressure of being the Week 1 starter is much different compared to being the late-season emergency option who just makes people feel relief. Hurts will need to deliver, and Philadelphia's second-half collapses in the games prior to this one will not be accepted so easily.

Still, there was more good than bad for the rookie, and he will put pressure on whoever is left standing in the QB room by next August. He is poised beyond his years, and an increase in first-team reps during training camp (on top of this starting experience) should allow him to hit the ground running next year. What he lacks in pure arm strength he makes up for with touch on his throws and an ability to extend plays long enough to let somebody get open. And on top of all that, his teammates seem to love and respect him, an essential trait for any winning QB at this level.

• Zach Ertz did not do a whole heck of a lot this season, turning in the worst year of his career at a time when he's in pursuit of more long-term money. But as far as I'm concerned, his legacy with the Eagles was etched in stone before they ever took the field this season — Ertz scored the biggest touchdown in franchise history, was a workhorse for the team across eight seasons in Philadelphia, and he was a reliable source of offense for a team that often lacked that. If this is it for him, he had a heck of a run.

• Was Jim Schwartz at the helm of some maddening decisions over the years? Yes. Was sticks defense the bane of my existence for a good two-year stretch? Of course, I watch this team just like the rest of you. But if the Eagles think moving on from their defensive coordinator is going to be the thing that pushes them back toward respectability, they have another thing coming.

Philadelphia's defense had way more excuses to lay down and give up down the stretch, and they (rather inexplicably) kept coming and coming no matter how many bodies dropped, no matter how many practice squad players had to be elevated to the active roster. They came up with not one, but two different turnovers in the second half with a collection of cast-offs playing for pride, a pair that included one of the best defensive plays of the year for the unit, a Marcus Epps hit/pick combo that Cris Collinsworth salivated over after it happened.

The Eagles used plenty of resources to assemble the defensive line, but the investment skewed heavily toward the offense in recent years, and Schwartz continued to make it work with rubber bands and shoestring often all that held it together. This isn't the NFL of the early 2000s where you can win defensive slugfests, and I think many fans are still expecting "good defense" to produce the same results we saw when Jim Johnson was at the helm. They may do better with his replacement, but they could also do much worse.

The Bad

• Doug Pederson had as disappointing a season as anybody with the Eagles' franchise, no matter how many excuses he has to lean on with poor QB play and poor executive work above him. The fact of the matter is he did nothing to fix their problems until the team finally decided to go away from Carson Wentz, and there were poor decisions made by the head coach that he owns all by himself.

Pederson's in-game decisions, for example, have been without rhyme or reason for most of the year. There were two-point conversions attempted that made no sense mathematically, mystifying choices in crucial spots, and fourth-down calls that might as well have been plucked from a Wheel of Fortune-esque set of options. You can't blame the quarterback or the personnel for not understanding basic game situations — there are 12-year-olds whose only football experience is playing Madden who understand game theory, so there's no excuse for an NFL head coach to throw blind darts.

Whoever was responsible for "Big Balls Doug" appears to have vanished into the ether. Whether it was an offensive staffer or the devil on his shoulder, Pederson has to find a way to recapture the attitude that made the Eagles so dangerous under his watch. Playing not to lose instead of attempting to grab the game by the throat is a sure way to let more aggressive coaches and teams dictate terms for 60 minutes.

Then there's the apparent deterioration of his relationship with Wentz, a guy who will get to in a moment but was ultimately pretty good in Philadelphia up until this year. As a former quarterback himself and the leader of the offense, Pederson owns a fair amount of the blame for Wentz's downturn, whether you want to call that a product of lack of trust, poor playcalling, or however you want to sell it.

On the other hand...

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• It is not lost on this writer that the Eagles have looked like a normal NFL team almost always when Wentz has not suited up at quarterback. Pederson's most creative moments, save for a few exceptions, have come with backup quarterbacks under center. It is worth questioning how much of the fault for that lies at the feet of Wentz himself.

And let's be clear about something else, Wentz blew plenty of golden opportunities when things did go right this season. Any suggestion that losing the starting gig to Hurts was out of his hands or the fault of everyone but the QB is complete madness. Wentz missed on every type of throw imaginable this season, either by actually blowing the throw or never making it in the first place, choosing instead to hold onto the football for the perfect window and the perfect play, often resulting in sacks and turnovers. Even when he didn't make those catastrophic mistakes, he often missed home run plays as he was throwing check-downs and low-upside passes to the flat. The Eagles had to put points on the board by playing inch-perfect football for long, excruciating drives, a style that has serious limits.

This much was clear when Hurts took over at QB, immediately taking risks downfield to guys like Alshon Jeffery and getting positive results with players Wentz failed to even attempt throws to. The offensive line didn't magically get better with Hurts behind center, and he took a beating in the second half of the Cardinals game, but the rookie QB made them seem better by not running himself into trouble over and over again, knowing instinctively when to throw the ball away and live to fight another day. The young guy showing more awareness than the veteran mega-millions QB is an enormous indictment of the better-paid guy.

Do I think Wentz's time as a productive QB is totally over? Not necessarily. Maybe this situation is so toxic that a change is all he needs to return to form — change in scenery, change in coach, change in surrounding talent, whatever the case may be. He would not be the first guy to rebound from a down season, and it's not like he was outright bad in any year aside from this one.

There's one thing, though, that sticks out for me above all else — if Wentz has been mentally undone by the circumstances in Philadelphia, he was never cut out to be the guy here, and likely won't be anywhere else. Professional athletes of all types have to have completely irrational confidence to make it, and playing quarterback requires more of it than probably any other position in sports. Many guys around the league would have looked at their team drafting a QB in the second round and used it as motivation to be better than they'd ever been before. Wentz melted down under the scrutiny this season.

If he comes back next season, puts aside recent reports and wins the job by playing great in camp, I'm sure the Eagles will be thrilled. But this isn't a charity, it's a professional football team, and there's no reason to treat him with kid gloves anymore. Put up or shut up.

The Ugly

• Of all the people who deserve to survive this miserable Eagles season and stretch of post Super Bowl play, Howie Roseman will garner the most animosity. That anger is pretty well-founded based on one simple fact — the Eagles have been horrific in the draft throughout his time at the top of the organization, failing to turn over talent at the speed a winning franchise needs to.

Failing to get impact players would be bad enough on its own, and it's the surest way to ensure your mediocrity as a franchise. The painful part for Philadelphia has been watching Roseman draft players who play the same position as impact players that were taken shortly after the Eagles picked. 

Wide receiver has been the best example of this phenomenon because the Eagles have made two high-profile mistakes in quick succession. Would you rather redo the pick of JJ Arcega-Whiteside over DK Metcalf or Jalen Reagor over Justin Jefferson? The Eagles can't hide behind the excuse of having "needs in other areas" because the needs they tried to fill would have been dealt with better by taking almost anyone else in either of those slots.

There are other problems they face year after year, though the waters get messier elsewhere. Is Roseman to blame for their total absence of secondary talent over the years, or is that a product of how Jim Schwartz prefers to load up his defensive front? Giving up a decent draft pick for Genard Avery looks more inexplicable now than it did when the Eagles made the pick. The Eagles are always reacting to trends and needs instead of anticipating them in advance – that's how you end up needing a speed guy at wide receiver, only to take one in the first round who might not be able to impact the game at the NFL level.

Roseman has been the constant in the organization through several regimes, and though the Super Bowl year featured an abundance of savvy moves, they have failed to recapture lightning in a bottle ever since. Even the things he is supposed to be good at, like managing the cap, have been bungled in a way that impacts their future. I don't know why anyone should expect things to get better without a change.

• Jalen Reagor was ruled out for the game at the end of the first half with what the Eagles said was a head injury/issue. Apparently, it wasn't serious enough to keep him from retweeting birthday wishes from his agency on Twitter:

I already gave my two cents on Reagor during the first half observations, but suffice it to say this guy has shown nothing on and off the field to suggest he's a late bloomer or a star waiting to blossom in the right circumstances. Some guys just don't "get it," and he appears to be one of them.

• No disrespect to Nate Sudfeld, but that was a tanking performance for the ages. I get that the NBC crew had to ignore the draft pick implications of Philadelphia losing this game, but it was silly listening to Michaels and Collinsworth act shocked at the third-string QB getting burn down the stretch.

• You know who really comes out of this game looking terrible? Washington Football Team. The Eagles did absolutely everything they could to give them this game, between overly conservative punts, the insertion of Sudfeld, and the state of their active roster, and Washington still almost pissed this game away several times. They are going to get absolutely smoked in the playoffs.

• Salute to T.Y. McGill for taking one for the team and committing an offsides penalty at a time when the tank needed it most. Jeff Lurie should send him some bitcoin through a third party for his service.

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