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Lawlor: Now and Later


After Sunday's loss to the Giants, the Eagles 3-0 start to the season had turned into a 4-4 record at midseason. The team which played so well and showed so much promise before the bye week has disappeared. The Eagles are good enough to stay close, but they aren't doing the little things it takes to win games.

One play ended up being huge on Sunday. Someone on the line didn't use proper technique while blocking on a field goal attempt and let Jason Pierre-Paul get penetration. He blocked that kick. If the Eagles hit that field goal, think how different things might have been in the fourth quarter. The team would have been down 28-26, needing only a field goal to take the lead. Instead, one small mistake kept the Eagles down 28-23 and meant they had to have a touchdown, which they couldn't come up with.

It is easy to bemoan the fact the Eagles don't have an elite running back, receiver or cornerback, but the focus should really be on who is here and what the Eagles do have. This team isn't that far away. They just have to eliminate some of the mistakes. They don't have to be perfect. Think about three of the losses. The Eagles were down 14-0 against the Lions, Skins and Giants. The Eagles outscored each of those teams after that point, but the hole was too much and they lost each of those games. 

On Sunday it was Carson Wentz throwing a pair of bad interceptions and then the defense not being able to come up with a key stop after either of them that dug the Eagles their big hole. If Wentz just took a sack or threw the ball away, the team would have been much better off. If the defense had held the Giants to a field goal after either pick, the game could have been very different. Unfortunately the interceptions were thrown, the touchdowns were scored and the Eagles now sit at 4-4. 

This is a strange season. The Eagles have a rookie coach and quarterback. You have to go back to 1999 to find that scenario happening again, with Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb. That team was 2-6 at midseason, just having lost two close games in painful fashion. I think we would all agree that 1999 team isn't a great comparison to this group. Reid had to completely build the offense and that team wasn't as talented as this group, despite having two elite players in Troy Vincent and Brian Dawkins. Chip Kelly was 3-5 at midseason in his first year with the Eagles and he didn't have a rookie quarterback. Ray Rhodes had the Eagles at 5-3 back in his first year. That team had nine players 29 years old or older in the starting lineup. There was nothing young about that group at all. They were built to "win now". 

Doug Pederson talked in his press conference about how he is trying to build something for the long term, but also win now. He sees that there is too much talent in place for this to all be about the future. He also knows that any time you have new coaches, new schemes and young players, there are going to be some tough learning lessons. There was a blown coverage in the game on Sunday. The play involved Jaylen Watkins and Leodis McKelvin. Those guys have not been on the field much together. Watkins is inexperienced in general (16 games in three years) and McKelvin is new to the Eagles. McKelvin played for Jim Schwartz in Buffalo, but the defense isn't exactly the same and he's got different teammates and positional coaches to deal with. Watkins and McKelvin needed to see the same thing and react the same way. That didn't happen and the Giants got an easy touchdown. Players need time together. They need time in the system. There is no substitute for reps and experience. 

That doesn't lessen the frustration of seeing the Eagles lose winnable games. They just need to make a key play here or there. The defense actually came up with a huge one on Sunday. Connor Barwin tipped Eli Manning's pass and Jordan Hicks picked it off. That set up the offense in great position. There is no question that the defense is ahead of the offense at this point. The defense is sixth overall in both points and yards allowed. They are performing at a playoff level. 

The offense is a work in progress. There were some encouraging signs on Sunday. Small ball went away and the Eagles opened up their passing attack. Carson Wentz threw for a career high 364 yards and the Eagles attacked the field vertically. There were four pass plays of 30 or more yards and another three that covered 20 or more yards. This was the kind of aggressive passing attack many have wanted to see for a few weeks now. 

Rookie Bryce Treggs played in his first game at the NFL level and made an impact right away. He caught two passes, including one that went for 58 yards. He should have drawn a penalty on another pass that came his way. He also had another deep ball that was just off target. You could actually see on the deep balls that Wentz wasn't ready for his speed. Both passes were underthrown. Those two haven't worked a lot together in practice. Treggs is easily the fastest Eagles receiver and he just ran by defensive backs. Wentz has a huge arm so this is an issue that will get worked out pretty quickly. I just think Treggs' speed caught him off-guard. 

It was great to see tight ends make some big plays. Trey Burton caught three passes for 55 yards. Zach Ertz caught eight passes for 97 yards and was an actual threat over the middle of the field. We've been waiting for him to have a big game all year. Ertz has a ton of talent. Something just wasn't clicking between him, Wentz and the playbook. That all got sorted out on Sunday and Ertz had a strong showing.

The offensive line, with backups at left guard and right tackle, gave Wentz good protection. He generally had time to sit in the pocket and find the open guy. Wentz made some terrific throws and put the ball all over the field. Any concerns about his ability to throw passes 15 to 25 yards downfield should go away. He has the arm, accuracy and patience to make those plays.

This was another week of "what if" moments. What if Darren Sproles takes the punt all the way in for the touchdown instead of getting knocked out of bounds? What if the Eagles had converted on one of the fourth-down attempts in the red zone? What if Rodney McLeod came up and tackled Odell Beckham Jr. on the play that ended up being the first touchdown of the game? What if Wentz had gotten the ball to Sproles on the screen pass late in the game? What if Wentz and Matthews hooked up for a touchdown on the fourth down play at the end of the game?

So close, but so far away. This 1-4 stretch has been utterly frustrating, but I still like this team quite a bit. They don't panic when things go wrong. They don't get down on themselves. They just keep competing and fight their way right back into games. They just need to find a way to take that effort and that heart and turn them into wins.

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