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December 20, 2020

Final observations: Cardinals 33, Eagles 26

Eagles NFL

The Eagles left everything on the field on Sunday and it wasn't enough, with the Cardinals pulling out a 33-26 victory in spite of four total touchdowns from rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The tough start to this game for Jalen Hurts (and by extension, the team) is something you see derail young QBs all of the time. Hurts is a bit different from the average rookie QB because of the adversity he went through while still in college. This is a kid who had to bounce back after being demoted in a high-profile spot at Alabama, and all he did was turn in an elite season at Oklahoma. You don't accomplish that without plenty of self-confidence and understanding of what you bring to the table, so it's not surprising that he was able to dig out of an early hole against the Cardinals on Sunday.

Well, okay, it's a bit of a surprise when a rookie QB throws three TDs in a half and continues building on that hot stretch in the second half. Philadelphia's offense looks completely rejuvenated with Hurts in control, and the best part is they're doing it without being carried by one or two guys. All of Philadelphia's skill position players are getting involved, from Greg Ward to Jalen Reagor to Zach Ertz to Miles Sanders to Alshon Jeffery, and we're seeing a better mix of shots down the field blended with short-to-intermediate throws.

The biggest change I can see is the willingness Hurts has to take 50/50 shots compared to Wentz. Wentz has the "gunslinger" rep but can be surprisingly tentative when his guys are covered on deep routes. There has been a lot more trust from Hurts on lofted balls down the field, and his guys are rewarding him, either by making plays or drawing pass interference to move the chains. Jeffery went from looking awful with Wentz to a difference-maker with Hurts, even if most of his production came through penalty yards. You're moving down the field either way.

Hurts is also a pretty ideal blend as a runner at quarterback. He's got the wheels to beat guys and the strength to break tackles, but he's pretty smart about picking his spots and does a good job of avoiding big hits as a result. When you have a good athlete at QB, you sometimes worry that they'll run themselves into problems much more devastating than a sack, but so far that hasn't looked like an issue for Hurts. He's been quite effective at buying time with his agility and then delivering a strike for first downs, never dropping his eyes on the move. And then he sprinkles in plays like this, and it's hard not to dream of what he might do with more time and development:

With Hurts moving the Eagles down the field almost by himself, it was only fitting that he was the guy to punch it in for six points to tie it up late in the third quarter. This doesn't really fit snugly alongside the "He protects himself as a runner!" point, but look, sometimes you have to go the extra mile.

I will continue to say and believe this until his first season is over — I have no idea if Jalen Hurts is or should be Philadelphia's quarterback of the future. But at the very least, he's on track to make it as tough as possible for the Eagles to go in a different direction next year, playing productive football and never getting too high or too low behind center. This kid can play.

• They say you can't look a gift horse in the mouth, and I guess you shouldn't complain about gifted turnovers from the opposing QB, either.

Marcus Epps didn't have to do much except for sit in his spot and make sure he didn't drop the ball, and considering how many times I've seen members of this secondary drop would-be interceptions, that's more than enough for me.

• After giving up 26 points in the first half, it would have been reasonable to expect a further defensive collapse in the final 30 minutes of football. The defense had every excuse to lay down and die this week, lining up a secondary that everyone expected to get torched by DeAndre Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald. Somehow, someway, they came up with answers in the second half, even as key players like Fletcher Cox had to hit the sideline due to injuries.

Linebacker Alex Singleton, an unlikely hero, would be a good guy to start with. With double-digit tackles for the fifth time in six games since his role expanded, Singleton looks like he's growing into a role on Jim Schwartz's defense. He made a huge third-down tackle in the fourth quarter to force the Cardinals into a tough decision, flashing the speed to cut down the available angles and get a stop. You saw the interception made by Epps above, and I thought he played a reasonably good game as well, playing physical football on the back end without playing dirty or over the line.

But of course, all of this starts with the defensive front, as it has all season. Kyler Murray is plenty dangerous with his legs, but the Eagles guided him into some uncomfortable positions as a thrower and rarely sold out to stop him as a runner. Does it sound crazy to force him to win through the air with the secondary in the state it was in? Absolutely. But that was the choice the Eagles made, and I think it was the right one, because this should have been a lot uglier than it ended up being.

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The scoreboard looks ugly, and they didn't actually get to Murray all that much. But in these circumstances, I don't know what else you would have expected from the group they had out there. Hopkins and Fitzgerald each came up with a ridiculous touchdown catch on the day, and there's not much you can do about that.

• I suppose I owe Alshon Jeffery a personal apology for all the times I mocked Doug Pederson for playing him over Travis Fulgham this season. He was one of the most dangerous players on the field on Sunday, and Hurts has rejuvenated a guy many people thought was toast. 

The Bad

• I think Doug Pederson has ultimately come out of the last couple weeks looking good — he's succeeding with another non-Wentz QB in must-have games — but the Cardinals were clued in on what the Eagles were doing on third down far too often on Sunday, something that reflects poorly on his offense. 

There are a number of calls they make often in certain spots that never seem to work. For example, the third-and-one delayed draw out of shotgun failed multiple times in the first half alone, and it just feels like a doomed play to begin with. Let Miles Sanders go downhill and pick up the small amount of yardage you need instead of encouraging his worst habits and inviting more pressure into the backfield.

(Then again, the third-down predictability might not exist if your QB gets you out of the plays pre-snap, which is what they get paid the big bucks to do under center. Perhaps this is just a limitation of playing the rookie quarterback who is still getting his feet under him. This isn't a complaint about Hurts, to be clear, just a byproduct of playing a young guy.)

• Let's say it again for what feels like the 14th time this season — Philadelphia's special teams unit is way worse than I think we acknowledge. Outside of Jalen Reagor's punt return touchdown in Green Bay, I struggle to think of the positive plays they've made throughout the year. On their best day, they are basically a complete neutral, and they haven't had a lot of good days this season.

Where does your mind go first? Jake Elliott's regression after signing a big contract? Their total lack of dynamism in the return game? Sunday, it was the Eagles not even considering the possibility of a fake punt in a tie game, with the Cardinals picking up a crucial fourth-down conversion because no one thought to protect against the possibility, even as people watching from home worried about that exact possibility.

Philadelphia's special teams undid a lot of good work from the other two units, and Dave Fipp might have trouble sleeping after this one. Reagor not returning the final punt of the game is completely inexcusable.

• The Eagles are not dead yet, and I suppose your reaction to that depends on what you feel should be the priority for this team with a couple of weeks left to play. Is a playoff push all that valuable for a team that needs a lot of help and would (theoretically) benefit from a higher draft pick? Frankly, they don't really have the ability to choose between one or the other at this point anyway. They've already turned the team over to the developmental rookie QB, it's not like they can or should take him out for the sake of hoping they get a higher draft pick.

They'll play to win, as they should, and only time will tell whether that hurts them long-term or not. This game felt like the best-case scenario to yours truly — Hurts was terrific and did enough to win, and you still lose and help your draft position.

• The two-minute drill for Jalen Hurts still needs a bit of work, and that's something I'm willing to give a rookie QB a pass for. That said, taking back-to-back losses in a pivotal spot is an absolute backbreaker, and he was fortunate the Cardinals decided to call a timeout when he ran for two yards on their final play of the game. The rookie was able to work his magic throughout the game to evade pressure, bailing out an offensive line that has struggled all year, but he could only pull something out of thin air so many times before getting burned.

That being said, even after the two consecutive sacks, Hurts gave Dallas Goedert a chance to come down with a touchdown on third-and-22, delivering a great ball over the middle that his tight end couldn't hang onto. After fumbling on the final drive, he not only scooped it, he completed a dart for a first down. Almost every moment of adversity was met with a better response. Heck of a game.

The Ugly

• A season filled with injuries has taken some wild turns, but I still didn't expect the Eagles would have to deal with a punter-related issue. After a clunker of a punt following their first drive of the third quarter, Cameron Johnston was actually removed from the game due to a potential head injury, and beleaguered kicker Jake Elliott was forced into double duty.

(The good news: Elliott had a great punt when they needed it in the fourth quarter!)

A lot of writers and fans alike didn't notice it was Elliott on punt four of the day, so I'll be honest here — it's not out of the question Elliott was in the game and punting before that. Even the official box score guy missed on this one the first time. Johnston got crushed on the blocked punt Arizona had in the first half, and I am not exactly scrutinizing who is standing back there to punt because I have no reason to assume there's a new guy back there unless I'm told otherwise. I'll have to check the DVR after the game to make sure it was Johnston who was responsible for the 22-yard-net punt on their opening second-half drive.

The ramifications of Johnston's absence went beyond punting — Zach Ertz was forced into emergency holder duty, and the first attempt went about as you'd expect, with a poor snap from Rick Lovato resulting in a botched extra point. 

• Reactions were split enough that I couldn't tell whether people loved or hated Aqib Talib as the color commentator for Sunday's game, so mark me down in the pro-Talib column. He brought energy to a game that warranted it and added enough insight to get the job done. Much rather listen to a guy like that than some of the boring, overly analytical guys that are on broadcasts anymore. We're watching sports, not covering the Pentagon, have some fun with it.

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