The Eagles Need to Rebuild, Even if the NFC East is There for the Taking

Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

With the two-minute warning approaching, the New York Giants had the Philadelphia Eagles right where they wanted them. They had the ball, and they had the lead. A drive that featured five straight runs was primed for a pass, and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett dialed up the perfect play.

The Giants lined up in shotgun in a four receiver set, and they had their mismatch. Safety Will Parks was covering tight end Evan Engram, and quarterback Daniel Jones wasn’t going anywhere else with the football. As soon as the ball was snapped, he looked Engram’s way. The Giants’ tight end easily ran past Parks and streaked down the field. He had run barely ten yards before the ball was in the air. And it was a beautiful pass. A perfect pass. Over the shoulder, where only Engram could catch it. He tracked the ball. He stretched out his arms. The ball arrived in stride. The game was over.

Until it wasn’t.

The football clanked off Engram’s hands and fell to the Lincoln Financial Field turf. The Eagles’ season, which should have been declared dead, had life once again.

You know the rest. The Giants punted, and Carson Wentz piloted the Eagles offense right down the field. The Eagles won the game, and reclaimed pole position in a divisional race no one seems to want to win.

It’s been a bad season for the Birds. For a disproportionate chunk of the campaign, 80 percent of the starting offensive line has been consigned to the sidelines. Instead of the blanket provided by Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks, Andre Dillard, and Isaac Seumalo, Wentz has been compelled to entrust his protection to a patchwork quilt featuring a rotating cast of characters and retreads. Jason Peters, who originally returned to the fold to play right guard once Brooks was lost for the season, moved to left tackle when a biceps injury claimed Dillard. Peters looked every bit of his 38 years, unable to keep up with the elite speed rushers he was once able to keep at bay. He soon claimed a place on injured reserve.

Rookie offensive tackle Jack Driscoll has shown flashes of talent in spot duty, but he has also been slowed by injury and inexperience. For a guy who never played competitive football before arriving in the NFL from the rugby pitch in 2018, left tackle Jordan Mailata has acquitted himself well. He has all of the tools a tackle needs, especially the difficult-to-find combination of quick feet and superior upper body strength that blunts the impact of the sprinting bulldozers that ply their trade as defensive ends and outside linebackers in today’s game.

Matt Pryor  has carved out a role as a serviceable reserve lineman since he arrived from TCU as a 6th round draft pick in 2018. He is certainly a better option than Jamon Brown, of whom the less that is said, the better. Nate Herbig has fought his way into the roster and distinguished himself as a decent player since he was signed as an undrafted free agent last season. And Sua Opeta… well, I don’t know who Sua Opeta is. The fact we heard his name called last night is a testament to how far down the roster rabbit hole the Eagles have jumped because of their offensive line attrition.

In the middle of all of this chaos is Jason Kelce. The reliable Eagles center has avoided the injury bug to this point, and his ability to block downfield has been critical to whatever run and screen game head coach Doug Pederson has been able to cobble together. But the problem is not necessarily the spare parts, most of whom have held up quite well given the incredible challenges handed to them. It’s the time an offensive line requires to build the cohesion and chemistry in order to play as a unit. Time that was robbed by a combination of injuries and an abbreviated offseason.

Not helping matters is Wentz, a quarterback who can exhilarate or exasperate at any given moment. He can wow you with his talent, but he is just as capable of leaving you confounded by his seeming inability to grasp the importance of situational awareness. Wentz tossed his league-leading tenth interception in the red zone last night, killing a drive that was destined to produce points, if only he could get out of the way. Spinning left to avoid an oncoming pass rush and throwing off his back foot, Wentz lofted a prayer toward the end zone that had no chance of being answered. Why wouldn’t he throw the ball away? Live to play another down? Why? –

It was one of a few head-scratching moments of the night for Wentz, who continued his stubborn habit of holding on to the ball too long while adding in an ill-advised throw across his body that should have been intercepted.

But then he makes throws that are so difficult, and so special, that you wonder if the recklessness that sometimes mars his play is simply an exaggerated expression of the confidence required to thread the game-winning toss to Boston Scott. Perhaps the recklessness and confidence are two sides of the same coin, which is offered willingly to cover the price of the skill that Wentz brings to the field – so long as the good results outweigh the bad:

Wentz and the Eagles’ offense took the field last night without their pair of game-breaking tight ends in Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. Running back Miles Sanders sat out with a knee injury. DeSean Jackson was an infrequent presence in the lineup, and it appears he is now out for good after falling victim to a dirty play during a punt return in the waning minutes of last night’s contest. Alshon Jeffery is nearing a return, but his effectiveness when he eventually suits up is an open question. First round pick Jalen Reagor remains on injured reserve as well, leaving Wentz with a diminished set of weapons.

Into the breach has stepped Greg Ward, the converted quarterback who has refashioned himself into a dependable slot receiver. Travis Fulgham has arrived from seemingly nowhere, a burgeoning prospect whose on-field exploits might help Eagles fans move past their anger at general manager Howie Roseman for passing on D.K. Metcalf in favor of the struggling JJ Arcega-Whiteside in the 2019 draft.

This pattern of talent discovery while plumbing the depths of a roster is a necessary component of a rebuilding franchise. And make no mistake, the Eagles are in the midst of a reconstruction. Last season, courtesy of stats compiled by Philly Voice‘s Jimmy Kempski, the Eagles fielded the second-oldest team in the league. They have dropped to the middle of the pack in 2020. Meanwhile, the roster and salary cap are clogged by seemingly untradeable veterans like Alshon Jeffery and the aforementioned Jackson, who both have been unable to remain healthy over the past two years.

Zach Ertz remains a prime candidate to be traded in the offseason, as the Eagles seem to have made their peace moving on from their star tight end and redistributing the money that would be needed to provide his desired contract extension to bolster other areas of the roster. Meanwhile, Fox’s Jay Glazer reported last night that Roseman and the Eagles front office have put out the “For Sale” sign as the 2020 trade deadline approaches.

However, what might stop the Eagles from fully committing to the Reset Button that so desperately needs to be hit is the readily obtainable divisional crown that is available for the taking. In the past two years, the Eagles claimed a ticket to the playoffs with a 9-7 record. Last season, the Birds had no business even competing for the NFC East title. They were a team begging to bottom out, but their generous division rivals would not allow it.

Last year’s storyline seems to be replaying itself. The Giants have embarked on another rebuild after dismissing the can’t-miss head coaching candidate of the 2017 cycle, Pat Shurmur, and replacing him with Bill Belichick assistant Joe Judge. Judge certainly fielded a competitive football team last night, but they are woefully undermanned in the trenches. Judge marks the fourth head coach to patrol the Giants sideline since 2016, which is also the last season the Giants made the playoffs. Whether the head coaching shuffle is the cause or a consequence of the Giants’ lack of success likely depends on the eye of the beholder, but the result is the same. If they were on schedule with their initial overhaul, New York would be in prime position to dominate this weak division. In a way, Engram’s misfortune last night was quite fitting for an organization that has figuratively dropped the ball over the past four years.

In our nation’s capital, the Washington Football Team has adopted dysfunction as a core operating principle. The franchise’s last playoff win came in 2005. When he is not busy bullying local media or fostering a toxic workplace culture, Washington owner Dan Snyder has been assiduously committed to the task of tearing down a once-venerable organization. But fear not, Football Team fans: Snyder has hired the right people to steer the ship to calmer waters this time, just as he did last time. And the time before that. And the time before that.

Even when Washington has been able to punch through the miasma that Snyder has created, they have fallen victim to bad luck. In 2012, the Shanahan brain trust had its offense rolling with Robert Griffin III, and the organization seemed to be ahead of the curve on the emerging trend of zone reads and deep passing routes that have become a staple of NFL offenses today. Washington won the NFC East that season, and jumped out to a 14-0 lead on the NFC powerhouse Seattle Seahawks. And then Griffin tore his ACL, and the magic was gone. Alas.

Finally, there seems to be drama brewing in Big D, as the Dallas Cowboys have fallen into their usual state of disarray, which they wear like a comfortable shoe. Jerry Jones’ last Super Bowl trophy is as old as Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. With Dak Prescott out for the season, a once-stalwart offensive line that has been decimated by the retirement of center Travis Frederick and injuries to both of its tackles, and a defense that seems unable to stop anyone, 2020 does not look to be the Cowboys’ year, either.

While one might be inclined to think that this divisional chaos benefits the Eagles, it certainly has hampered their progress over the past two years. In order to move forward and re-emerge as a true Super Bowl contender, the Eagles need to take a step back. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham are not getting younger. Kelce was floating the possibility of retirement as recently as two seasons ago. Carson Wentz is entering the expensive years of his contract extension, which will only add to the pressure on the salary cap and necessitate a reliance on younger players to fill critical roster holes.

Whereas some of their competitors who are “tanking for Trevor” can only offer the false hope of the next prospect to paper over their organizational incompetence, the Eagles actually have a proven model of success and coaching continuity in all three phases. They know how they want to attack on offense, how they want to defend, and the kinds of players they are seeking for special teams roles. It’s a tremendous advantage, and the primary reason why we have not seen this organization fall into the purgatory occupied by teams like the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns.

Now is the time to regroup, reset, and rebuild. The fool’s gold of another divisional title should not stand in the way of long-term progress. If the Birds happen to win the NFC East during this necessary transition, so be it. They don’t need to tank. But they do need to continue to feature the younger players who can help build out the roster in 2021 while actively pursuing opportunities to acquire additional draft assets. Chasing the ghosts of 2017 with veteran pieces who do not factor into the long-term plan serves no one.

So yes, Roseman and the Eagles should be sellers at the trade deadline. The future demands it.

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