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September 27, 2020

Final observations: Eagles 23, Bengals 23 (OT)

Eagles NFL

The Eagles and Bengals played to a 23-23 tie, and I hope to whoever your religious figure of choice is that you didn't spend four hours on that slop.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• I was going to write something nice about Jalen Hurts giving the Eagles a new dimension to the offense and do so without feeding into a theoretical "quarterback controversy," and as soon as I went to type the first sentence he fumbled the ball. That's how well this game went for Philadelphia for about three-and-a-half quarters.

• I'll give you the same two positives for the game that I gave you after the first half: Carson Wentz made better use of his legs than he has in quite some time, and Greg Ward was an absolute baller on third down Sunday. Wentz's plays on the move extended the game-tying drive in the fourth, making up for what was otherwise an ugly day at the offense for him.

As for Ward, he has been so much better than every other Eagles receiver on third down that Wentz almost trusts him too much at times, locking in on him when he should be scanning down the field for other guys who might be open. But it's better to have that problem if it means they have a sure-handed guy to go to in big spots.

• This is the throw of the season so far from Wentz, who finally came to life when things really got hairy in the fourth quarter and overtime.

If you wonder why a lot of people don't want to give up on this guy, throws like these are exactly why. Unfortunately, there was a lot of bad football that preceded this.

• Haven't enjoyed much about watching this Eagles defense so far this year, but the Darius Slay experience has been pretty good through three weeks. After shaking off what looked like an ugly arm injury in the second half, Slay was the guy who rose to the occasion in overtime, coming up with an excellent pass breakup and a wrap-up tackle to force the Bengals off of the field almost by himself. Slay kept A.J. Green under wraps for most of the afternoon, and while it doesn't make you feel much better about their failures throughout the defense, they finally have a corner who is worth a damn, at least.

To the credit of the guys up front, too, the Eagles' pass rush started really turning the screws to Burrow late in this game, with veteran leaders Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox getting in Burrow's face time and time again. Cox's huge sack on third down in the final two minutes, the Eagles' eight sack of the day, may ultimately have been the most important play of the game — it pinned the Bengals deep in their own territory for the punt, giving the Eagles' offense a short field to attack with the game on the line.

The Bad

• This was one of the most baffling gameplans I've ever seen from Doug Pederson. He called the game Sunday as if he was watching a completely different game and playing a completely different team than the one he was up against. Philadelphia's meat-and-potatoes game on the ground was cooking for most of the game, as you might expect when you're up against one of the worst rush defenses in the league. Yet the Eagles did a poor job of blending runs and using playaction, of picking their spots with gadget plays, and on calling run plays in the first place. When they finally started to try to run the ball late, it was the worst time to do so. What are they seeing here?

If there was a sequence that summed up Pederson's day at the office, it came early in the third quarter on Philadelphia's opening drive. The Eagles moved the ball down the field quite easily to start the half, and instead of sticking to what got them there, Pederson decided that was the time to run an end-around for Greg Ward, which was blown up in the backfield for a big loss. The very next play was a designed screen on Ward, and the Bengals sniffed that out immediately. The Eagles were fortunate they have Jake Elliott to bang through a long field goal, because they could have been punished even harder for it.

While granting this isn't an offensive unit with a lot of strengths, that makes an even stronger case for the coaching staff to keep it simple. And that's without getting into their refusal to move Wentz out of the pocket and get him throwing on the move more, which fans have been pining for all season and still remains a minuscule part of the gameplan.

The coaching-by-committee plan on offense is working about as well as the managing-by-committee plan the Sixers used in the front office the last few years. It seems clear Pederson needs a strong offensive coordinator by his side. 

The Eagles came out in overtime with the urgency of a team playing a scrimmage on August 12th, and the playcalling of a parent filling in for the actual Pop Warner coach. They basically played for a freaking 59 yard field goal to close out the game, and then they were rewarded with a penalty that pushed them out of field-goal range. Garbage.

• Carson Wentz is actively regressing in front of our eyes. Forget about expecting improvement from past years, it would be a win for the Eagles if Wentz was as good as he was last season. He's not even close to that level, let alone his near-MVP season right now.

At the moment, Wentz is making mistakes on routine plays and then compounding those mistakes by having to take more chances on the plays that follow. On the play prior to his interception in the third quarter, Wentz missed an open John Hightower and instead opted to throw the ball away at the feet of Greg Ward, sacrificing a potential first down for no reason. When he had to make something happen on the ensuing third down, Wentz made an attempt to throw a jump ball to Zach Ertz and threw it in the worst possible spot for his tight end to battle for it.

A common excuse for the lack of big plays last season was Philadelphia's inability to create separation at wide receiver. Wentz whiffed on at least two or three big-play opportunities on overthrows Sunday, including a crucial throw down the sideline to Miles Sanders that otherwise might have gone for an easy six points. Easy is not in this quarterback's vocabulary right now. He's even missing screen throws by at least several feet. Whether it's all mental, physical, or some combo of both, it is a mess.

Again, Wentz is far from the only problem on this team. But when you pay a quarterback franchise QB money and he's a Jekkyl-and-Hyde player, you are screwed. There is no way around that problem. There are not enough resources elsewhere to make up for it, especially if you draft as poorly as the Eagles have under Howie Roseman in recent years.

• I'm not inclined to give Jim Schwartz much more credit than Pederson, even though the defense looked competent for longer stretches than the offense on Sunday. Philadelphia was winning the battle against Joe Burrow early by sending additional pressure at the rookie, but starting in the final few minutes of the second quarter, they decided they were going to back the corners off and play soft-ish coverage, relying on the front four to get pressure.

Perhaps it shouldn't surprise you that things went off of the rails from there. It has been a pretty predictable part of the Jim Schwartz experience in Philadelphia, where his units come out strong and fade as the game wears on. There were some built-in excuses for him today with injuries piling up in the secondary, but I've seen this movie before. Just because you can't play balls-to-the-wall for 60 minutes doesn't mean you have to take your foot off of the gas to the degree this team does on defense.

After a penalty/challenge overturned this first down...

...the Eagles managed to one-up themselves on the ensuing third-down play. In an obvious screen situation, the Bengals threw a screen and just obliterated the Eagles with their blocking, and Giovani Bernard got to the marker with ease against some classic Schwartz sticks defense. There was plenty of fight in this group, which they showed with their backs against the wall in overtime, but they were undercut by some of the same weird decisions we've seen for years.

• When the two-way failure is as pronounced as it has been so far, you have to look directly at the front office for disastrous roster assembly. Howie Roseman has buried this team himself with poor drafting and bets on aging veterans who couldn't come through, and with each passing week, it looks like the Super Bowl season was a flash-in-the-pan that taught him all the wrong lessons about team-building. 

You're not going to be able to skate by with deteriorating veterans every year if you aren't injecting the team with new, young talent. When the coaches you have running the show can't figure out how to make use of the guys you're giving them, that's another huge problem. 

The thing that stands out about this team is how little synergy there seems to be on both sides of the ball — guys are blowing assignments, missing reads, ignoring pass-rushers, and this team looks like it needs another month of training camp to even have a chance to compete. What is the identity of this team through three weeks other than dysfunction? After Wentz threw his best pass of the year to reach the fringes of field-goal range in overtime, the Eagles immediately shot themselves in the foot with a bad holding penalty. That's who they are.

These problems are relatively unique to Philadelphia in spite of the lack of preseason for everyone this year. Play across the NFL has generally been pretty crisp so far, which makes the Eagles look even worse by comparison. It's not like they brought in a new QB or a new head coach to completely change their systems. The pieces in place might just stink, and the fish rots from the head.

• If Nate Gerry has done anything to prove he should be a starting NFL player, or a rostered NFL player for that matter, I must have missed it.

The Ugly

• Maybe last season's saga should have been an indication that the Eagles couldn't rely on DeSean Jackson as an integral part of their passing attack. He has always dealt with soft tissue injuries, and with Jackson only getting older, it was safe to assume he couldn't stay healthy all year. Not exactly the surprise of the season that Jackson left the game on Sunday after already playing limited snaps in the previous two weeks.

If Jackson was way down the pecking order with young, talented receivers leading the way, you wouldn't care as much. Betting on him to be a top threat on this offense was and is clearly foolish.

Based on the health picture coming out of Sunday's game, things are only going to get worse for the Eagles. The Eagles were down to three healthy corners after Avonte Maddox limped off of the field, and then Darius Slay came down awkwardly on his arm, briefly prompting fears he may have broken his arm. Thankfully, he was back on the field in the fourth quarter.

Even a fully-healthy version of this group is not good enough, so imagine how bad things are going to get if bodies keep dropping. The worst is yet to come. 

• Going to commercial during a crucial review/challenge before anyone can see a useful replay should be illegal. Show ads on the side if you have to, but at least let people see what the heck happened.

• I don't know if I can ever call Doug Pederson "Big Balls Doug" again after that punt to end the game. The most coward shit imaginable. He should be suspended by the Eagles for conduct detrimental to the team. 

I'm only like 25 percent kidding. Absolutely ridiculous, anti-competitive nonsense. BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

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