For Eagles fans in the Delaware Valley, the football season that almost never was has morphed into the season we never wanted.
A summer of hope has given way to an autumn of discontent. The Eagles limp into the October portion of their schedule winless in three tries, with only a dismal tie against the hapless Bengals on which to hang their hats. On the horizon loom road contests against the 49ers and the Steelers, followed by a home game against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. The Eagles could very well be staring at an 0-5-1 record heading into their Thursday night game against the Giants late in the month.
It wasn’t supposed to unfold this way. Heading into this COVID-impacted campaign, the Birds seemed to have a distinct advantage over their divisional rivals. While the Cowboys, Washington, and the Giants were breaking in new head coaches who had limited time to install their systems, the Eagles were heading into year five of the Doug Pederson regime. The organizational continuity, combined with key additions at positions of need and an infusion of talent and speed, were supposed to push Philly back into the circle of contenders.
Out was the reliable but aging Malcolm Jenkins. In from the Denver Broncos came Will Parks, who would bring the positional versatility the Eagles want in a safety, and at a cheaper price than Jenkins was seeking. General manager Howie Roseman reeled in star cornerback Darius Slay in a trade with the Detroit Lions, shoring up a seemingly persistent hole in the depth chart.
Roseman also targeted speedy wide receivers in the draft to bolster the position group, supplying quarterback Carson Wentz with more weapons with which to attack defenses. Wentz, who took a big step in his development at the end of last season during a surprise run to the playoffs, seemed poised for a breakout year. Maybe it was too much to expect a return to his (almost) MVP form of 2017, but it should not have been unreasonable to think Wentz might perform like the top-10 quarterback he is paid to be.
Alas, the guy who was to be the straw that stirs the drink has turned into the fly in the ointment.
Outside of most of one half of the opener against the Washington Football Team, Wentz has looked worse than pedestrian. His play has actively hurt the Eagles’ chances of winning games. It began with 1:37 to go in the first half of the Washington game, as the Birds were looking to add to their comfortable 17-0 lead. Wentz stepped back and, rather than make the easy throw to tight end Zach Ertz leaking out to his right, looked left and targeted the marked Jalen Reagor. The pass was intercepted, and the previously punchless Washington offense promptly scored a touchdown. Washington would capitalize on a second Wentz act of charity in the third quarter, turning an interception into another touchdown drive on a short field.
Wentz closed out the season opener with three turnovers on his card. In addition to taking 8 sacks, he could not get the Eagles offense into gear in the second half.
Two more interceptions followed in Week 2 against the Rams, including an absolute back-breaker in the end zone to squash a 12-play drive that could have given the Eagles the lead. And then Wentz punctuated his September campaign with two picks against Cincinnati.
When Wentz starts turning the football over, commentators might affectionately start comparing him to Brett Favre. “He’s a gunslinger!” they tell us. But Favre was capable of overcoming his mistakes and winning games. Right now, Wentz just looks like Tony Banks.
Of course, the slow start does not fall solely on the shoulders of the embattled signal caller. An injury to Parks has hampered the secondary, while the Eagles have not had the services of the speedy Quez Watkins at all this season. DeSean Jackson has gone down with his annual hamstring injury, and Reagor is also among the walking wounded. Dallas Goedert limped out of the Bengals game early, and Alshon Jeffery hasn’t been able to return to the field yet. Rumors of an increased role in the offense for J.J. Arcega-Whiteside remain premature, as the former second round pick has yet to distinguish himself while some of his draft peers have excelled.
But injuries happen in the NFL. No player knows that frustrating reality better than Wentz, whose own brushes with unavailability compelled the Eagles to expend a second round draft choice on Jalen Hurts. Although some fans and a prominent columnist have already sounded the alarm for Hurts, this remains Carson Wentz’s football team, for better or worse. The Eagles made that decision last year when they locked up Wentz through the 2024 season. Moving on from the franchise quarterback is financially prohibitive until the 2023-24 offseason:
If the Eagles trade Carson Wentz before the 2022 season, they will pay $24 million in dead cap.
If they trade Wentz before 2023, they pay $15.2 million.
If they trade or release Wentz before 2024, they pay $6 million.
He's a free agent after 2024, when he will be 32.
— Bryn Swartz (@eaglescentral) September 28, 2020
In short, do not expect Jalen Hurts to be the spark that propels this Eagles offense from the muck in which it is currently mired. Nick Foles is not walking through that door. Frank Reich isn’t coming back to fix the offense, and the embattled Mike Groh is long gone. The scapegoats have been slaughtered, the saviors have found homes elsewhere, the prospect is still developing, and the security blankets have been stripped.
As his cap figure climbs, the degree of difficulty will only get harder from this point for Wentz. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Eagles, unable to agree to terms with Ertz, move on from the stalwart tight end after this year in an effort to save money and harvest draft capital. Even if Ertz is retained, Wentz’s disproportionate share of the limited financial pie will deplete other areas of the roster. It is Carson’s job to raise the play of those around him and to mask deficiencies elsewhere on the roster.
The will is certainly there, as evidenced by Wentz’s dive to the end zone to tie yesterday’s game at 23. At a certain point, though, competitive drive needs to be paired with calculated decision making and crisp execution. Missed connections, like the overthrow of a wide open Miles Sanders, need to be erased. Poor reads, which accounted for both interceptions yesterday and a near-miss on the first overtime drive that would have handed Cincinnati the game, should not happen with a franchise quarterback in his fifth season:
The Eagles had Miles Sanders isolated on a LB.
Sanders breaks off a filthy route that creates 3 yards of separation.
Poor ball placement. Incomplete.
— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) September 27, 2020
There was no bigger indictment of Wentz’s declining play than Pederson’s approach to the end of the overtime period.
Arguably the most aggressive coach in the NFL on 4th downs opted to punt rather than give his offense an opportunity to convert a 4th-and-12 in plus territory. Despite the second thoughts he expressed this morning, Pederson’s decision in the moment reflected a lack of belief in his offense and the man piloting it to execute a play that could net a first down and put the Eagles back into field goal range. The man who had a seemingly unshakeable trust in Wentz that bordered at times on recklessness had reached the limits of his faith. The coach who had won a Super Bowl by relentlessly pushing forward had decided to sit still. To settle for a tie rather than try to win. It was a shock, and should serve as a wakeup call for the quarterback who caused his coach to lose his nerve.
Wentz needs to earn back his coach’s confidence by finding some for himself. Because, right now, the player who was supposed to lead the way to contention seems utterly lost, and he’s driving the Eagles into the NFC cellar.