December 27, 2020
The Eagles' dream of a division title is officially dead following a 37-17 defeat at the hands of the Cowboys. Philadelphia has officially been eliminated from the playoff hunt.
Here's what I saw.
• Everything appeared to be going against the Eagles in the second half of this game. Dallas was scoring at will, Doug Pederson appeared afraid to be aggressive, and Philadelphia's rookie QB showed signs of his inexperience, sailing a few throws he would love to have back.
In stepped Darius Slay, who came up with the first interception made by an Eagles cornerback since Week 17 of last season. You are reading that correctly — no Eagles cornerback had an interception all year until the second half of Sunday's game:
If you didn't watch the game yourself, it's hard to put into perspective how miraculous this play felt when it happened. It's a shame the Eagles' offense squandered the opportunity.
• The offensive resurgence under Jalen Hurts was a nice story and ultimately creates some intrigue for the Eagles heading into 2021, but in the end, the state of the secondary was just too much to overcome. And while the Eagles certainly couldn't have planned around the rash of injuries they had on the back end, they seem to run into these problems year after year, banking on no-name talent in the secondary to bail them out. At a certain point, it's not just a health issue, it's a failure to identify proper starters to avoid getting to this spot.
When it was Michael Jacquet getting roasted throughout the first half, to a certain extent you just have to shrug your shoulders and roll with the punches. Nickell Roby-Coleman, on the other hand, has been part of Philadelphia's Plan A from the very beginning, and he looks no better than he did when he had starting-caliber talent around him to open the season. It was Roby-Coleman who got roasted by Cowboys rookie CeeDee Lamb to open the second half, and that's a guy who would have been handed a matchup he was out of his depth to stop regardless of how many injuries Philly had in the secondary.
Howie Roseman is the guy who should and will earn most of the blame for how dire it is on the back end, but I think we should keep in mind that Jim Schwartz has a considerable voice in the organization when it comes to defensive personnel decisions. His guys have fought to the extent that they can, but the investment of resources is at least in part a reflection of his defensive philosophy.
• Matt Pryor is not exactly one of the most decorated Eagles of all-time, but even by his low standards, this was a miserable performance. Every time it appeared the Eagles were on the verge of seizing momentum during the game, Pryor came through with a mistake, whether it was a crippling penalty or a botched block at the line of scrimmage. False starts, holding calls, this game had it all. The metaphorical bar is no higher than ankle level for Pryor, and he somehow managed to trip over it so hard that the bar clobbered a teammate in the back of the head and sent him into concussion protocol.
But he wasn't the only guy making unforced errors on Sunday evening. After a strong first half, the inexperience and/or lack of talent in the trenches really started to shine through, with Jalen Hurts running for his life throughout the second half. Regardless of who the QB is next season — and it seems to be leaning toward Hurts at this point, I suppose — they need to get the offensive line figured out.
• While we're on the subject of the quarterback, this performance was much more of a mixed bag for Hurts, a performance that was ill-timed given the importance of this game. He certainly wasn't outright bad and the walls were crumbling around him in the pocket, but this was his first game as an Eagles QB that featured several bad misses, and the Eagles just weren't in a position to win with a so-so performance from Hurts.
The miss over the top to Reagor in the first half was the big one, but little mistakes throughout the game had big consequences. On a pivotal third-down play late in the third quarter, Hurts appeared to have Miles Sanders with room to run in front of him, and he just refused to pull the trigger, with Hurts eventually trying to run it himself and not going much of anywhere. There were other miscues over the middle to Reagor and Greg Ward, plays that get lost over the course of 60 minutes but resulted in a lot of third-and-long situations.
By the time he threw the interception late in the fourth quarter, the damage had already been done. After overperforming against Saints and Cardinals defenses well-equipped to stop him the previous two weeks, Hurts falling back to Earth against one of the worst defenses in football is a bummer. Even with Hurts playing well in his previous starts, Philadelphia's offense clearly hit a wall at halftime the last few games. We'll see whether the issues seen in this game are the foundation of long-term concern or just a one-off blip.
After that game, the one feel-good story left for the Eagles this season is tainted like everything else. Tough loss for the rookie, but certainly one he should learn and bounce back from.
• He has admittedly looked a little better than he did with Carson Wentz vomiting all over himself this year, but Jalen Reagor being taken before Justin Jefferson looks like another all-time mistake in the draft by the Eagles from where we sit today. One is a Pro Bowler in his first year that constantly seems to find ways to make plays. Reagor is a guy with good tools who constantly snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, a prospect who skated on the "bad QB play" excuse in college but can't exactly do so at the moment.
A perfect snapshot of the Reagor experience: Philadelphia tried to set up a play at the end of the half to get Reagor the ball in space with blockers in front of him, and they executed the first part of it almost perfectly. Reagor, however, somehow managed to run himself into a tackle despite having several blockers ahead of him ready to wipe out Cowboys players, and they went into the half with a whimper.
Was it a play that was likely to score? Of course not. But Reagor has not even flashed in the areas where he's supposed to already be good, specifically winning in space and downfield. It has been a pretty rough season for the rookie, and it's yet another plank in the case to move on from Howie Roseman, who can't say an impact player wasn't available in that spot.
• The biggest disappointment of this season for me outside of Wentz's play has been Doug Pederson and his inability to understand the game situation. There have been some brutal moments this season, including two-point tries that made no sense mathematically, but it has been a big-picture issue that has followed the team every week.
Trying to set the tone with the run game is an understandable move with a rookie QB behind center, and I suppose you could make the argument that ball control/clock management is essential with a defense as leaky as the one the Eagles trotted out on Sunday. I would posit the opposite — the defense did not have a chance to stop Dallas on Sunday whether they had to defend five yards of grass or 95 yards, for 15 seconds or for 15 minutes. It became clear this game was going to be a shootout, one Philly would have to outlast the Cowboys in to have a chance to win the division.
In the past, Pederson has shown a good feel for that sort of thing. Strictly speaking, the Eagles didn't have to run the Philly Special in the Super Bowl. The reason they did (beyond Nick Foles asking for it) is because they were up against a great QB who was in the midst of carving up their defense. Aggression was his M.O. that year, sure, but it also made sense contextually, mathematically, and so forth.
This year, it feels like Pederson just throws darts at a board as it pertains to aggressiveness, use of tempo, and even overall playcalling. The booth seemed to think they were trying to draw the Cowboys offsides, but on a fourth-and-three that they eventually took a delay of game on, I thought it looked like the offense just took too long to get set up. Even if we give them the charitable interpretation on that call, they decided to go for it on fourth-and-15 on the very next series, an absolutely baffling turn of events. That's a reflection of a coach who was not sure what he wanted to do himself in a big spot, leaving them scrambling to get it together and ultimately having to punt because of it.
I don't know how you make sense of that moving forward. This isn't something you can attribute to losing Frank Reich, because we saw Pederson use selective aggression at times throughout 2018 and 2019, too. He clearly trusted this group enough to try some inventive things the past two weeks, so sitting on the ball and getting conservative with the season on the line in Dallas didn't sit right with me. It has been a bad year for Pederson, and while I think Roseman deserves more animosity for where they are as a franchise, the head coach's fingerprints are all over this brutal season.
• NFL replay standards have needed to change for a long time, but the Jalen Hurts fumble not being overturned should really drive that point home. There is no universe where you look at that call and think it's the right one, and if the QB had been ruled down the first time, they would have kept that ruling, too. Just get the damn call right.
• Fletcher Cox is pretty damn important to the success of this Eagles defense. If the Eagles are so reliant on him that his departure from the game resulted in the complete unraveling of the defense, perhaps they should consider how they spending their money and their picks to build the defense. Something has to change.
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