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Lawlor: Things Feel Different For Eagles


Back in 1999 the Eagles played a mid-October game in Chicago. The Eagles were 1-4, having just beaten the Dallas Cowboys. Doug Pederson started at quarterback and led the Eagles to a 20-6 halftime lead. The Bears got to within 20-16, but Jim Johnson's defense stiffened and the Eagles won their first ever game at Soldier Field. Rookie Donovan McNabb got on the field. It was a homecoming for him so coach Andy Reid came up with something special. The Eagles got down near the goal line and brought McNabb in for an option play. Unfortunately it didn't work and he went back to the bench.

Think about that and then think about the Eagles 29-14 win on Monday night, also at Soldier Field. This time the rookie quarterback started and played the whole game. He wasn't in for a gimmick package. Even more impressive, the rookie ran a complex, pro offense. Carson Wentz wasn't out there handing the ball off and throwing quick passes to the flat. The Eagles came out to start the game in an empty set and had Wentz throwing the ball on every down. Times certainly have changed.

So have the results.

The 1999 Eagles began 0-4. Their win over the Cowboys was an ugly 13-10 game. The win over the Bears was a better showing, but still not impressive. The 2016 Eagles are 2-0 and playing some of the best football in the entire NFL. Neither the Browns or Bears is considered a strong opponent, but the Eagles did what you're supposed to when you face an inferior team. The Eagles beat both of them soundly. You came away from those games clearly knowing the Eagles were the better team.

A big part of the Eagles early success is the play of Wentz. He has a quarterback rating of 94.1 and has yet to throw an interception. A coach is usually happy if his rookie can either make plays or avoid mistakes. Wentz is doing both. He also is doing a great job of adjusting plays at the line of scrimmage. The coaches trust Wentz to make good decisions before and after the snap. Right now he is rewarding their faith and helping the offense to move the ball and score points. That 1999 team had 57 points after five games. The current Eagles scored 58 points in just two weeks.

I was curious to see what the Bears would do in dealing with Wentz. They had a full game to study and had some ideas on what the Eagles would do offensively. The Bears had veteran linebackers, which allowed them to be creative with how they attacked up front. Early in the game, Chicago tried a couple of cornerback blitzes. Wentz read them perfectly and got the ball out. The Bears did get pressure with some inside blitzes, but Wentz stood tall in the pocket and got the ball out at the last minute. He doesn't seem to panic or get rattled in the least. There are times when it is really hard to believe this kid is just a rookie.

Wentz made some terrific throws. One of my favorite plays was a lob pass to Ronald Darby that went for 32 yards. Wentz couldn't throw a normal pass. He needed to put some air under the ball and the angle wasn't good so he threw a rainbow. The ball was accurate and had good touch. Probably the best throw of the night went to Matthews late in the first half. Wentz threw a beautiful ball that should have been a 35-yard touchdown, but Matthews dropped it. Ugh. The Eagles still kicked a field goal to take a 9-7 lead at the half, but that would have been such a huge play.

The Eagles struggled to run the ball, especially early. That put pressure on Wentz and the passing game to carry the load. There weren't many big plays, but the receivers did enough to get the team in scoring position a few times. Matthews led the way with six catches. Trey Burton got on the field a lot with Zach Ertz injured and Burton played the best game of his young career. He caught five passes, including his first NFL touchdown. That came on a quick screen inside the 10-yard line.

Ryan Mathews didn't post big numbers, but he scored a pair of touchdowns and had a 30-yard run. The long run came early in the fourth quarter. The Eagles had control of the game and were up 22-7. Still, there was time left and that was only a two-possession lead. Mathews got the ball and ran left. He got free to the outside and then went upfield. The run put the Eagles inside the red zone and was a nail in Chicago's coffin. Both of his touchdowns were impressive. The first came when Mathews tried to go up the middle but got stuffed. He realized no defender had actually grabbed him so he ran to the left. Mathews had to work hard to keep his balance, but did so and was fast enough to get outside for the score. That kind of effort is huge at the goal line. The other touchdown was a beautiful play design.  The Eagles ran a variation of Flip 90 and used Mathews speed to get him to the left side for the touchdown. It also helped having Jason Peters in front of him.

The Eagles defense was just as good as the offense, if not better. Through two weeks, the Eagles defense has allowed two touchdowns and a field goal. That's it. Malcolm Jenkins set the tone for the game when he blitzed on the second play and nailed Jay Cutler for a 10-yard loss. The Eagles got a lot of hits and pressure on Cutler. He can be a terrific quarterback if you let him get comfortable in the pocket. The Eagles weren't about to let that happen.

Brandon Graham led the way up front with a sack and a tackle-for-loss. Graham has been terrific this season. We're only two games in. but he is playing the best football of his career. What stands out is that he's not just rushing the passer, but Graham is also playing the run at a high level. That means setting the edge on plays that come to his side and chasing plays that go away from him. Bennie Logan came up with a big forced fumble. He was being held on the play, but battled through it, got to the runner and knocked the ball out. That's great effort. Rookie Destiny Vaeao had a strip-sack and knocked Cutler from the game.

Fletcher Cox got free up the middle and pressured Cutler into throwing a pass he shouldn't have. The ball went right to Nigel Bradham, who picked it off and returned the interception down to the two-yard line. That set up a touchdown and broke the game wide open. Middle linebacker Jordan Hicks recovered the fumble from Vaeao's strip-sack. The 4-3 defense is at its best when the line is disruptive and the linebackers make big plays. That's what the Eagles defense is doing right now.

Rookie cornerback Jalen Mills led the team with six tackles, while also covering star receiver Alshon Jeffery for much of the game. Mills made one critical mistake and that resulted in a huge play. Mills bit on a double move and Jeffery ran right by him. Cutler hit Jeffery for a 49-yard gain and that set up the Bears only offensive touchdown of the night. That was the lone big play for Jeffrery. The Eagles pressure up front helped a lot, but Mills did a solid job in coverage as well. As with Wentz, he isn't playing like a typical rookie.

Normally the Eagles have the best special teams unit in the league. That wasn't the case on Monday. Donnie Jones had a 32-yard punt early in the game. Jake Elliott, battling cramps, missed an extra point. Late in the game the Eagles allowed a punt return for a touchdown. There were some good moments as well. Sturgis nailed a 53-yard field goal. Brent Celek smoothly and easily recovered an onside kick attempt by Chicago. Rookie Wendell Smallwood had a 30-yard kickoff return. Luckily the Eagles' errors did not cost them.

Wentz and the Eagles handled playing on the road with no problem. They handled playing in the spotlight on Monday Night Football with no problem. Wentz is showing that he's a special rookie and anyone who thought the Eagles were throwing in the towel on the 2016 season when they traded Sam Bradford is sadly mistaken. This team has two convincing wins and is playing flat out good football right now.

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