It was only three years ago that Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson was on top of the NFL world.
He brought the Lombardi Trophy to Philadelphia for the first time in franchise history. He slayed the ultimate dragon, outwitting Bill Belichick with a brilliant offensive game plan. Pederson had a blossoming young quarterback in Carson Wentz, who, though he was injured for the Super Bowl win, looked like he would keep the Eagles on top for a long time.
But those days feel like a lifetime ago. The Eagles have been a disaster this season.
They should be cruising to an NFC East title with Washington and New York rebuilding, and Dallas losing its starting quarterback early in the season. Instead, the Eagles enter Monday night’s game against Seattle with a 3-6-1 record, and have fallen behind 4-7 Washington for first place in the division. The Eagles’ three wins have come against the Giants, a Cowboys team playing without Dak Prescott, and the 49ers playing without Jimmy Garoppolo.
The bull’s-eyes have been painted squarely on Pederson and Wentz, whose performances this year have been astonishingly bad.
“Are we playing as good as we can as a team? No. Am I playing my best football? No,” Wentz said following the latest stinker, a 22-17 loss to the Browns. “I can take it. I can wear it. It is what it is.”
Wentz looked like he was becoming the NFL’s next superstar in 2017 when he led the Eagles to an 11-2 record before tearing his ACL. He bounced back with a couple of nice seasons in 2018 and ’19, but his performance has cratered this year, and Wentz has become a turnover machine.
His 10 fumbles this season are the most by any player (though he has only lost four). Wentz’s 14 interceptions lead the league, and his 18 total giveaways are five more than any other player.
Wentz ranks 31st out of 33 quarterbacks in passer rating (73.3), 32nd in completion percentage (58.4), and first in sacks (40) — all career-worst numbers. His decision-making has been poor, and his throwing mechanics are out of whack.
“Wentz is a guy that needs constant, repetitive mechanics teaching,” said Greg Cosell, the All-22 guru at NFL Films. “Wentz is not a natural, easy thrower. He tends to be an over-strider, and you end up not transferring your weight and you’re not comfortably throwing the ball. Anything mechanical is fixable, but it must be dealt with every day.”
It’s also possible that injuries have taken their toll. Wentz tore his ACL in 2017, fractured a vertebra in 2018, and suffered a nasty concussion in a playoff loss in January.
Of course, the Eagles’ poor offensive play is not all on Wentz. The Eagles have been hit hard by injuries at offensive line and receiver, and have used a league-high 33 players on offense, including eight receivers.
Wentz’s coaches certainly shoulder some of the blame. One AFC scout said the Eagles’ offense has been too simple and predictable.
“They are running the same things over and over and over again,” the scout said. “There’s no diversity to what they do in the pass game. They hardly ever use motion, and the way they line up is very predictable.”
That blame falls on Pederson, who calls the plays. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that in last Sunday’s loss to the Browns, the Eagles called 41 pass plays, but only one was a designed roll-out. ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky noted a similar trend in the Eagles’ previous loss to the Giants.
Pederson said this past week that he has had to simplify the offense “because of some of the mistakes that we’re making at the skill positions with some of the young guys” and because players are fighting fatigue this time of year.
“It took till 7:16 left in the third quarter for the Eagles to get their QB outside the pocket,” said Orlovsky, a former longtime NFL quarterback. “Back-to-back plays, 40 yards of offense. Never called it again. Absolutely the definition of hard-headed.”
Eagles fans aren’t known to be the most forgiving, and Pederson is feeling the heat. Pederson was asked three times in a row this past week if he was sticking with Wentz as his quarterback for Monday against the Seahawks, and he danced around the questions until finally getting a little testy with the media.
“The question was, ‘Is Carson my starter?’ He’s my starter, end of story,” Pederson said Wednesday. “You guys can blow it up however you want it, and that’s fine.”
Fortunately for the Eagles, they play in the worst division in the NFL, and still have six weeks to turn around their fortunes. The bad news, though, is that their closing schedule is brutal: Seattle, at Green Bay, New Orleans, at Arizona, before finishing at Dallas and home against Washington.
Pederson can always turn to rookie second-round pick Jalen Hurts at quarterback, but the Eagles are likely stuck with Wentz for at least another season. Wentz signed an extension in June 2019 that has him as the eighth-highest-paid quarterback in the NFL ($32 million per year), and his cap number next year will be about $34 million, whether they keep him or trade/release him.
But Pederson may be on thin ice. Though he has a 41-32-1 record in five seasons, and a Super Bowl win, the Eagles have regressed since winning the title, and are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
Pederson works for one of the NFL’s least-impulsive owners in Jeffrey Lurie, and it would likely take a disastrous finish — say 4-11-1 or worse — for Lurie to make a change.
But the Eagles should be running away with the NFC East. Instead, they are among the NFL’s biggest disappointments.
“I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t read print media,” Pederson said. “Everybody’s an expert, everybody’s an armchair quarterback, everybody has an opinion, and I respect that. People are entitled to that and I have to do what I feel is in the best interest of the Philadelphia Eagles, Mr. Lurie, and the players in that locker room.”
Offensive struggles for Brady’s Bucs
Speaking of offenses that are surprisingly dysfunctional, Tom Brady and the Buccaneers have been held to fewer than 251 total yards in two of their last three games and need to figure it out quickly.
The two biggest problems appear to be: Brady is heaving way too many deep passes, and the receivers aren’t getting many yards after the catch.
The deep ball was never Brady’s forte, but this year he has been especially bad, while also throwing an uncharacteristically high volume. Brady has attempted an NFL-high 58 passes that have traveled at least 21 yards in the air, yet he has completed just 14 for two touchdowns and four interceptions. That has resulted in a 46.1 passer rating on deep passes that ranks second-lowest among qualifying starters, ahead of only Denver’s Drew Lock. As noted by NFL Research, Brady has missed on his last 22 — twenty-two! — deep attempts.
Brady’s 58 deep pass attempts in 11 games are more than he had last year in 16 games (52). He is on pace for 84 deep passes, which would set a career high (he had 82 in 2004, and 73 in 2017).
The other major problem is Brady’s receivers are not running with the ball after the catch. In last week’s loss to the Rams, Antonio Brown made a few impressive sideline catches, but Brady was not able to get him the ball in space to utilize Brown’s elite speed.
Brady’s receivers average 4.0 yards after catch per reception, which ranks 29th among 33 qualifying quarterbacks and would be the lowest average of Brady’s career. Last year, he ranked 17th and averaged 5.3 yards after catch. In 2018, he ranked ninth (5.8). Brady has only had one season under 5.0 yards (4.6 in 2004), and in his Patriots career he averaged 5.6.
The struggles and disconnect have led to some finger-pointing. Coach Bruce Arians said he doesn’t know why Brady isn’t hitting deep passes in games, because he’s doing it in practice. Arians also said that Brady is calling a lot of his own plays, and that the Buccaneers’ offense depends on “if the quarterback plays well or not,” insinuating that the team’s struggles are on Brady.
But Arians had better be careful, because the Buccaneers are more committed to Brady than they are Arians in 2021. Brady has a fully guaranteed salary of $25 million next year, so he will be back unless he retires (don’t count on it). Arians’s contract is not known, but his salary is likely in the $5 million range.
Should the Buccaneers sputter to the finish line, and Brady and Arians continue not to click, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bucs looking for a new coach in a few months.
Ravens forfeit not reasonable
There was a lot of talk this past week that the Ravens should have to forfeit their game against the Steelers if they couldn’t suit up by Sunday, but it’s not a viable option for the NFL.
On its face, a forfeit seemed reasonable. A postponement would allow the Ravens to face the Steelers when healthy, and the Ravens should not be rewarded for their irresponsible behavior — they reportedly disciplined a strength coach for not reporting symptoms, or consistently wearing a mask and tracking device. And a forfeit would send a strong message to the other 31 teams that COVID-19 protocols must be followed to the letter.
But a forfeit is also the worst solution for both the NFL and NFL Players Association. The league’s collective bargaining agreement states that players only get paid for games played. If the Ravens were forced to forfeit, the Steelers’ players wouldn’t earn their game checks, which is highly unfair. The NFLPA could fight it with a grievance, but it may not win. And from the NFL’s perspective, a forfeited game means one fewer game that is aired on TV, which means less revenue.
So, while a forfeit could be a reasonable option, it’s not a realistic one. Instead, the NFL will do whatever it can to get the games played.
Kingsbury’s timing was perfect
From the Life Isn’t Fair Dept.: Logan Mankins was a six-time Pro Bowler with the Patriots, missed only 14 games in nine seasons with the team, and was named to the NFL’s All Decade Team of the 2010s. But Mankins’s tenure with the Patriots came during the “dark era” of their dynasty — 2005-13 — and he is one of the few Patriots legends to never win a Super Bowl.
Then you have Kliff Kingsbury, the Cardinals’ coach who will face the Patriots on Sunday. He was drafted 201st overall by the Patriots in 2003, got hurt in the preseason, spent the year on injured reserve, then was released after one season. Kingsbury played in one NFL game, completing 1 of 2 passes for 17 yards for the Jets in 2005.
Yet Kingsbury has a big, shiny Super Bowl ring at home thanks to being part of the Patriots’ organization in 2003.
“I got one of those, which was awesome to have and something that has been a lot of fun,” Kingsbury said this past week. “Especially when I was a college coach, you break it out on the recruiting visits and it was always a big hit.”
Bills owner Terry Pegula should listen to his gut more often. A recent piece by Buffalo writer Tyler Dunne detailed how Pegula was obsessed with Patrick Mahomes during the 2017 pre-draft process, but didn’t want to step on the toes of new coach Sean McDermott, who had control over the roster and didn’t want to start his program with a rookie quarterback. Neither McDermott nor then-GM Doug Whaley were pounding the table for Mahomes, but they thought they might have a chance to get him at the end of the first round, so they traded the 10th pick to the Chiefs for a package that included the 27th pick. The Chiefs then drafted Mahomes 10th, and the rest is history. So not only did the football people whiff on their evaluation, but they misread the situation. It’s not a great reflection on McDermott, who was forced to take Josh Allen the next year instead … It seems crazy to consider, but could the Texans make a late-season playoff push? They sit at 4-7 following Thursday’s beatdown of the Lions, and have won three of four games since their bye week. Deshaun Watson has been unbelievable, with 15 touchdowns and no interceptions over his last six games, and the Texans’ offense is finally rolling. Their closing schedule has the Colts, Bears, Colts, Bengals, and Titans, and winning out would get them to 9-7. It’s a long shot, but the Texans are a much better team than their record, and are finally playing like it under interim coach Romeo Crennel … The Lions made the inevitable move on Saturday when they fired coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn, both ex-Patriots. Patricia went 13-29-1 in two-plus seasons, and he and Quinn just couldn’t build a functional program together. They never had enough time to build through the draft and instead tried to piece together a team in free agency, which is rarely a recipe for success. Patricia and Bill Belichick remain very close, and it would not surprise me to see Patricia land back in New England. Quinn would be useful in the front office, as well … Greg Cosell, who breaks down film for NFL Films and ESPN’s “NFL Matchup,” was blown away by Belichick’s defensive game plan against Lamar Jackson two weeks ago. The game plan was to force every run inside. “That was unbelievable, classic Belichick,” Cosell said. “They played from the outside-in, playing [safeties] Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips as overhang players. He knew the weakness of the Ravens’ offensive line was the interior, so he just basically said, ‘My guys on the interior are going to have to win one on one, and they got good snaps from guys like Carl Davis. And therefore they played the whole game to make sure that Lamar could not outflank his defense.” … The Jaguars are an NFL-worst 39-99 since Shad Khan took ownership of the team before the 2012 season. The Browns are next at 40-97-1, followed by the Jets (49-89), Buccaneers (52-87), and Raiders (53-85) … The 0-10 Jets have two players leading their position in Pro Bowl fan voting — rookie left tackle Mekhi Becton and punter Braden Mann. Fortunately, the fan vote is just one-third of the equation.