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Lawlor: A Good Start


In recent years, the Eagles season opener has served as a signs of things to come. Back in 2012 the Eagles struggled against the hapless Browns. Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden threw four interceptions and had just 118 yards passing, but the Eagles still needed a late touchdown to win 17-16. The Eagles fell apart that year, going 4-12. 2013 was Chip Kelly's first year and the Eagles exploded in the opener, racing out to a 33-7 lead and looking like the future of football. The defense wore down in the second half and Washington made a furious comeback that cut the final score to 33-27. As in that game, the Eagles struggled to play consistent football year. In 2014 the Eagles had high expectations. They hosted the lowly Jaguars in what was supposed to be a blowout. Somehow the Eagles were down 17-0 in the first half. The Eagles rallied and won 34-17. That team was streaky all year and that inconsistency kept them out of the playoffs.

Remember last year's opener? Expectations were sky high. The Eagles were absolutely dominant in the month of August. Things fell apart when the calendar turned to September. The Eagles got down 20-3 to the Falcons and looked completely over-matched. The Eagles got going at halftime and probably should have won the game, but a missed field goal and some costly penalties proved to be too much. Once again the Eagles were maddeningly inconsistent. They finished 7-9. 

On Sunday the Eagles dominated the Browns 29-10. We don't know if that will prove to be a sign of things to come, but if it is, this is going to be a fun season. The Eagles didn't get lucky. They didn't come up with a bunch of fluky turnovers. They dominated the game. There wasn't one area where the Browns were better. Blocking, tackling, running, passing, catching - you name it and the Eagles were better. This was a total team win by the guys in green. The offense, defense and special teams all made big plays and did their part.

The big story is the play of rookie Carson Wentz. Put simply, he didn't look like a rookie. I was confident going into the game, but reminded myself that Wentz was a rookie and there would be some plays where he looked lost. There were a couple of those plays, but they were surrounded by others where Wentz looked like a star in the making. He made a few throws that were incredibly impressive. Wentz was accurate. He put touch on passes that needed it. He showed the zip to put the ball into tight spaces. He spread the ball around. Passes went right and left, short and deep. One touchdown was to the right side. The other touchdown was to the left side. Maybe the best throw all day was the fourth-down throw to Zach Ertz. That was short and right over the middle. Wentz got rid of the ball just before a blitzer hit him. The pass was where Ertz could get it, but the defenders couldn't. That sounds simple, but is very difficult because you're throwing into traffic with someone running right at you.

More than his throws, I was impressed with how Wentz ran the game. There weren't a bunch of wasted timeouts. There wasn't confusion on offense; quite the opposite, in fact. The coaches had Wentz use his hard count to get the defense to show what they might be doing. He then adjusted the play at the line of scrimmage. This didn't happen a couple of times. Wentz did it all game long. You just don't see rookie quarterbacks making pre-snap adjustments for 60 plays. That's crazy. Not only did Wentz do it, but he sure seemed to do it well. The Eagles piled up 403 yards and scored 27 points on offense. To put that in perspective, the Eagles didn't top either of those totals until October last year.

Eagles receivers took a lot of heat this summer for dropping passes and not making enough plays. They came through on Sunday. Nelson Agholor had a 35-yard touchdown catch, beating Pro-Bowl cornerback Joe Haden. That was a great play by Agholor, not some lucky wide open score. Agholor had a great release at the line and then used his speed to get by Haden. Agholor then made a smooth catch for the touchdown. That's what you want from a first round wide receiver. Jordan Matthews saw his first game action of the year and was in midseason form. He caught seven passes for 114 yards and a touchdown. Wentz and Matthews still need to fine tune their timing, but I was pleasantly surprised by the chemistry between the two.

The Eagles dominated the line of scrimmage. The offensive line gave Wentz a clean pocket most of the day. They opened holes for the run game, which went for 133 yards and a touchdown. I was most impressed with left guard Allen Barbre. He was really good in the run game and solid in pass protection. Barbre didn't have a great year in 2015. I thought the new coaching staff would replace him, but they stuck with Barbre and that looks like a good decision. He and Jason Peters did a very good job of creating running room to the left side.

We talked all summer about the defense so it feels funny to go this long without mentioning them. That's what happens when the rookie quarterback plays so well in his debut. Jim Schwartz delivered great results all summer long and that continued on Sunday. The lone touchdown came on a drive where the Browns got lucky with calls. There was a non-call for offensive interference when you could clearly see the receiver push Nolan Carroll just before making the catch. That got the Browns into scoring territory. The Eagles appeared to have the Browns stopped on third down after that, but a questionable interference call on Malcolm Jenkins kept the drive alive and Cleveland finally got into the end zone.

The defense was red hot in the first quarter. They kept the Browns from getting a first down. Cleveland woke up in the second quarter and had some success moving the ball. That all went away after halftime. The Browns had just 132 yards in the second half and 40 of those yards came on draw plays at the end when they were trying to run out the clock. The defensive line really took over in the second half. They came up with three sacks and got regular pressure on Robert Griffin III. Brandon Graham really played well, against the run and pass.

It was great to see Jordan Hicks back on the field for a full game. He had four solo tackles and made a huge play in the passing game. Hicks got into the passing lane and tipped a ball that Rodney McLeod picked off. That stopped a potential scoring drive. It is hard to quantify how valuable it is to get impact plays like that from your middle linebacker. Hicks is a huge part of the Eagles defense.

Special teams came up big as well. Donnie Jones launched some rockets that flipped the field. Jaylen Watkins downed one of those punts at the one-yard line. Darren Sproles had a 40-yard punt return. Rookie Kamu Grugier-Hill read a fake punt and tackled the runner for a loss.

There were a few negatives in the game. The Eagles need to cut down on penalties. There were some dropped passes, even a couple by Sproles. Defensive backs need to do a better job of playing the ball, especially downfield. Caleb Sturgis missed a field goal.

Still, this was a terrific overall performance in the season opener. The Eagles played really well and sent a message to the rest of the league that this team isn't building for the future. They want to win this year.

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