It was the way the Eagles wanted to start a game that had no bearing on the standings and was, really, a chance to look at some individual talent for the future. With Gardner Minshew at the quarterback position and a surrounding cast of mostly backups, the Eagles' offense took to the field on Saturday night and went right to work. And while the game went the other way in the end, as Dallas played its starters well into the second half against the Philadelphia backups and ended up winning by the wild score of 51-26, the first drive of the game and then some is what the Eagles will remember the most.
An opening possession that consumed 11 plays and 75 yards ended on a shovel pass from Minshew to tight end Tyree Jackson for a touchdown and in between featured some attractions that will serve the Eagles well in the short term and, perhaps, in years to come. For example ...
• Wide receiver DeVonta Smith started and played with the intention of staying sharp, and in the process, he established a franchise record for most receiving yards in a season by a rookie. On that first drive, Smith caught a deflected Minshew pass off the hands of cornerback Kelvin Joseph to convert a third-and-9 play and gain 25 yards, and from there the Eagles finished impressively to get the ball into the end zone. Smith finished the night with 3 receptions for 41 yards, ending his 17-game regular season with 64 receptions for 916 yards.
"It kind of feels good just to get it out of the way," said Smith. "In the beginning, I wasn't even worried about it (the rookie record), but once it happened, everybody around me started congratulating me, just kind of felt good."
• After Smith's big play, Minshew threw short to the right side for wide receiver Jalen Reagor, who gained 12 yards on the catch and run. After a Minshew scramble gained 4 yards, the Eagles went to work on the ground.
• The featured back was rookie Kenny Gainwell, who had an outstanding night with 78 rushing yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. Gainwell also added 9 yards on 4 receptions. On the first drive, he had four consecutive touches that gained 28 yards and displayed elusiveness, power, and vision. Part of a 2021 NFL Draft Class that contributed instantly and consistently all year, Gainwell has shown he can be relied upon now and that he has an extremely bright future.
"It felt great to me," Gainwell said. "This is what I've been waiting on – to get the chance to show a lot of things and just be myself and go out there and attack everything I've learned during the week and just go out there and attack."
• Inside the 10-yard line, the Eagles used something they hadn't shown all season – twice in a row. Wide receiver Greg Ward lined up to take the direct snap and the former collegiate quarterback threw a shovel pass to tight end Richard Rodgers for a 2-yard gain. On the very next play, Minshew found tight end Tyree Jackson on a shovel pass and Jackson turned his first NFL reception into a 3-yard touchdown play.
The Eagles stayed with Dallas for most of the first half before the Cowboys, still with most of their starters in the game including quarterback Dak Prescott, pulled away. Philadelphia had 11 players on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, so they were shorthanded to begin with, and then Head Coach Nick Sirianni rested quarterback Jalen Hurts, who is still overcoming the ankle injury he suffered in November against the Giants – "to get him back to 100 percent" and others to make sure everyone is healthy and "full go next week" when the playoffs begin.
"I called a lot of people I trust and a lot of people were able to give me insight on it. I promise you I didn't leave any stone unturned," Sirianni said of his decision to rest his starters, something he had never been in a situation to do as a coach in the NFL. "We had some guys who were dinged up and I really wanted to make sure that we got some guys back to full speed, back to full health to be able to do what we want to do in the playoffs. The goal is not to just make the playoffs. The goal is to make the playoffs and then advance as far as you can advance. That's our mission."
So, the Eagles had a chance to look at some young talent and liked what they saw from several, including right tackle Le'Raven Clark and an offensive line that featured Andre Dillard at left tackle, Sua Opeta and Kayode Awosika at the guard spots, and Brett Toth at center (after Jason Kelce started his 122nd straight game and left after one snap). Jason Huntley contributed both in the offensive backfield, gaining 51 yards on the ground and adding an explosive 35-yard kickoff return. Quez Watkins completed his second regular season with more big plays as he caught 5 passes for 84 yards and a touchdown. Rookie Milton Williams had two tackles for loss and a pass knocked down at the line of scrimmage, playing both defensive tackle and defensive end.
As a team, the Eagles rushed for 149 yards on 33 attempts, setting a franchise record for most ground yards in a season. The Eagles also tied a single-season franchise record with their 25th rushing touchdown – set in 1945 and matched in 1949.
And then there was Minshew, making his second start of the season. He finished 19 of 33 for 186 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception that wasn't his fault. Minshew lamented the end result but the truth is that he played a solid game considering the thrown-together surrounding cast with whom he played.
"We had a bunch of guys who were very hungry and excited for the opportunity," Minshew said. "I wish I could have done more to lead us to the win, but any time you're in that role it's quite a responsibility and one that I don't take lightly."
Now it's on to the postseason. The Eagles will find out on Sunday who they are playing and when, so it's full speed ahead to the postseason for a team that deserves every bit of the next step.
"It's big because it's the next game," Smith said. "You play to continue. Just go out there and get a win to continue playing. I mean, that's been it the whole time. Get to the playoffs and try to win. Win it all. That's what it is and that's what it's all about. We didn't come this far just to stop now."