Twice in his playing career, Doug Pederson reached the Super Bowl, winning once. He won Super Bowl LII in his second season as the head coach here. He knows the formula. He knows what it takes. As Pederson said on Monday, he is looking forward to having the chance to turn the Eagles around in 2021 after this disappointing 2020. And as he also said on Monday following his weekly virtual press conference, he thinks the Eagles are not all that far away from contending.
"I do believe we're close. I do," Pederson told me in our weekly one-on-one interview. "Obviously, No. 1 we've got to stay healthy and we've got to eliminate the mistakes that we've made this season. We've got to learn from this season and we've got to take that and use that as fuel for motivation as we go into the offseason. … Once we get back together we've got to use that as fuel to say, 'Hey, enough is enough.' Let's learn from it. Let's get better from it. We know we're going to add more talent and depth through the draft, through free agency, and even our own roster with the amount of young players that throughout the season have played. It's just going to give us the much-needed boost going into 2021.
"That's what I'm encouraged about. That's what I'm looking forward to."
First things first, though: The Eagles finish the season on Sunday night against Washington playing the unfamiliar role of spoiler. It is not a position in any way the Eagles expected to be in when they opened the season at Washington, and sometimes it's important to look back before we look ahead. It was in that opening-day loss, one that indeed came back to haunt the Eagles, that we saw so many of the mistakes that were prevalent through the season. I know that you, the fan base, wants to talk about the future and discuss the myriad decisions – so many of them major – that face the Eagles into 2021. Before that, though, let's revisit September 13 and how it fell apart against the Football Team and how those mistakes continued to plague the Eagles throughout the season …
1. The season starts the right way: 17-0 and looking good
Oh, what a glorious beginning to the 2020 season at FedEx Field! The Eagles' defense took the field first and forced a three-and-out series from Washington – stopping two running plays and harassing Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins into an incomplete pass. Jalen Reagor muffed the ensuing punt, but Craig James was there to recover, and quarterback Carson Wentz and the offense opened the season on the Philadelphia 38-yard line. Wentz went right to work behind a patchwork offensive line, completing a 16-yard pass to tight end Dallas Goedert and a 19-yard gain to wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Boston Scott, starting for the injured Miles Sanders, pitched in with 5 yards on the ground.
A neutral-zone infraction against Washington's Chase Young converted a third-and-5 play and Wentz then completed a pass to Goedert that moved the Eagles from the 17-yard line to the 5-yard line. Wentz to tight end Zach Ertz put the ball in the end zone, Jake Elliott converted the PAT and the Eagles, easy peasy, led 7-0.
The lead grew to 10-0 on the next possession and then 17-0 midway through the second quarter as Wentz involved everyone in the offense – spraying it around to Greg Ward and Reagor – remember that 55-yard catch!?! – and finally connecting with Goedert again for a touchdown and, oh boy, were things working to perfection! Even behind an offensive line that sprung some leaks, Wentz was a whirling dervish escaping pressure and standing tall and firing strikes down the field. His receivers stepped up on the outside and Ertz and Goedert controlled the middle of the field. The defense stymied Washington's running game and had Haskins on his heels. This was exactly the kind of start the Eagles needed.
2. And then … the giveaway that changed everything
First-and-10, Philadelphia 28-yard line, 1:44 remaining in the second quarter. Eagles 17, Washington 0. Wentz dropped back and threw left for Reagor, who maybe, probably, certainly should have come back harder for the ball. Instead, cornerback Fabian Moreau made the interception and, suddenly, everything changed. Washington put together a 45-yard drive and scored a touchdown and the Eagles' mojo was gone.
Wentz threw a second interception on the Eagles' second possession of the third quarter and Washington converted it into a touchdown the score was 17-14. On the next possession, the Eagles moved into Washington territory, but Wentz took a sack on third down, and Elliott was short on his 53-yard field goal attempt. Relying on the passing game almost exclusively, the offense failed to move the ball and Washington kept coming and coming. Washington tied the game early in the fourth quarter, took a 24-17 lead on its next offensive possession, and then upped the lead to 27-17 – scoring 13 points on three straight possessions – with 3:25 remaining in the game.
3. What we learned
Turnovers would become a killer theme for the Eagles throughout the season – their 26 giveaways are third most in the NFL and Wentz tossed 15 interceptions in the 12 games he started. The defense procured only 17 takeaways – zero that day at Washington – and only seven teams have fewer for the season.
Wentz was sacked eight times in that game by a Washington defense that has five first-round draft picks among its defensive linemen. The Eagles' offensive line, decimated by injuries that started when Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the spring, has started 13 different combinations and only center Jason Kelce, a Pro Bowl player, has been a constant during the season. A strength for the Eagles for so long, the offensive line just could not overcome the rash of injuries that reminds everyone that to win in the NFL, you have to win in the trenches.
Philadelphia gained only 57 yards in 17 attempts on the ground in the opener. Sanders was missed, for sure. He missed three games during the season and the Eagles longed for his production when he wasn't on the field. Even when Sanders played, the running game wasn't as consistent as Pederson wanted and he was asked so many times throughout the season why he "went away from the run." It all added up as the Eagles are 4-10-1 heading into Sunday night's finale.
Penalties weren't a huge issue in the opener – the Eagles committed three of them, two from the defense that converted third downs for Washington and one on a punt return that backed up the offense, so all three were costly – but they have been a problem all season. The Eagles have committed an average of 6.73 penalties per game, fourth most in the NFL. The 54.13 yards lost per game rank 10th highest in the league.
The defense allowed Washington to score three touchdowns on four red zone visits, and while the Eagles have improved at times throughout the season in that area, they rank 21st in the NFL in red zone defensive efficiency. And the secondary, now crushed with injuries, gave up 17 completions in 31 passing attempts by Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who threw a touchdown and no interceptions. Haskins, released by Washington on Monday, was 2-5 as a starter in 2020 and his best performance of the year came in the opener. Against the Eagles.
The Eagles didn't finish games well for the most part this season, something Pederson aims to improve moving forward.
"You want to be competitive and you want to give yourself a chance," Pederson said. "We've had many opportunities this season to win games. We've been very competitive in games. Games have been close and have come down to the fourth quarter. That's what we have to learn to overcome. That's what we have to do better, and that's finish these games."