Happy Veterans Day! If you know someone who served, please take the time to thank them, even if it’s just a quick phone call. They have truly gone the extra mile to make sure we have the freedom to follow our favorite teams and argue about them over the Internet. They absolutely deserve our recognition and gratitude. Now onto the post!
In the second installment of my “Football According to Matt” series, I take a retrospective look at how our beloved Eagles are faring. Rather than focus on specifics like Dave did with his offense report card, I’m aiming for more of a high-level “temperature reading” of what we can really take away from the season. Let’s start with everyone’s favorite: grades!
Overall Season Grade: B+
Look, the last five weeks have left a bad taste in all of our mouths, including mine. Nobody wants to see their team go through a stretch of 1-4. But every day when I go to work, I sit down and look at my custom-printed Eagles 2016 schedule, in which I humbly predicted them to go 6-10 after the news broke that Sam Bradford was traded to the Vikings. And that 6-10 serves as a reminder of the real, objective expectations we all had going into this season. Like everyone else, I bought into the hype after the 34-3 trouncing of the Steelers in Week 3, but the post-bye collapse has brought me back down to Earth. This really is the rebuilding season we all expected going into the Browns game.
And as far as rebuilding seasons go, how can we not be happy with 4-4 at the midway point? Most teams that are rebuilding languish through a few 3-13 or 2-14 seasons before they start to turn the corner. And yet, here the Eagles are, starting a rookie quarterback with a rookie head coach, and they have won half their games. Teams like the Bears, 49ers, and Jaguars would kill to have rebuilding seasons like this. I was actually tempted to bump their grade up to an A-, but their losses in winnable games against the Lions and Cowboys kept me from going that far.
Personnel Grade: C+
Carson Wentz has been a revelation so far (even with his recent uneven play), but it’s not enough to carry the roster. As we’ve noted several times before, the receivers are garbage, the offensive line is either suspended or injured, the running backs fumble, and the cornerbacks are simply passable. The Eagles lack of talent at offensive skill positions is painful, and the few bright spots of talent they do have either drop a lot of passes (Matthews) or quit on plays (Ertz).
The defense is better, but is not without its flaws. The defensive line has failed to generate pressure for two straight games; Bennie Logan is really starting to look like the keystone that brings the line together. Both Barwin and Curry are underperforming. The secondary has given up touchdowns after colliding with each other twice in the past two weeks. The bright spots here are the linebackers (even with Kendricks’ inconsistent play) and the safeties. Jenkins is a do-it-all Swiss Army knife while McLeod has been nothing but a nightmare for opposing offenses. Jaylen Watkins plays well when he’s not targeting with his helmet. And finally, Hicks constantly makes plays on the ball while Bradham has emerged as an invaluable coverage linebacker.
Given all of this, the real disappointment with the defense is their inconsistency. At this point it is safe to say that we simply cannot expect the defense to win us games on the road. The only time they went on the road and held a team to under 24 points was against the hapless Bears when they knocked Jay Cutler out of the game. They have also yet to win a game when they allow more than 14 points. The cold hard truth here is that we should expect them to continue to lose on the road - and there is a real possibly they lose all of their remaining road games (Seattle, Cincinnati, Baltimore).
And last but certainly not least, we have special teams. Dave Fipp’s unit has played to near perfection. Darren Sproles is ageless as a punt returner and Smallwood is quickly emerging as an excellent kickoff returner. Let’s also not forget about the red-hot Caleb Sturgis, who has basically turned into Mr. Automatic since missing his first attempt against the Browns. There have been a few hiccups - the blocked field goal against the Giants comes to mind - but otherwise they’ve been essentially flawless.
The final factor in the grade here is the off-field issues, and they haven’t been great. Nigel Bradham has been arrested twice and is due in court in January. If he gets convicted, the Eagles are even thinner at linebacker than they are now. Josh Huff was also arrested for a trifecta of “bonehead” charges - drug possession, unlawful gun possession, and unlawful ammunition possession - and was subsequently released. The actions of two players certainly do not paint a picture of the whole locker room, but it is an issue that could fester if left unchecked.
Coaching Grade: A-
This will probably raise the most eyebrows in this post. For the past two weeks the Eagles have been under siege with media and fan anger over Pederson’s play calling and the play of the defense. Yes, Schwartz’ unit has disappointed outside of the Linc. Yes, Doug’s calls on fourth down were questionable at best and awful at worst, especially in a five-point loss.
But I see a different picture. Nitpicking at play-calling and in-game decisions is missing the forest for the trees. In their four wins, the Eagles defeated their opponents by 19, 15, 31, and 11 points. In their four losses, they were outscored by 1, 7, 6, and 5 points. The point here is that when the Eagles win, they dominate, and when they lose, they compete. The Eagles may not beat you, but you can be damned sure they’ll play you for the full sixty minutes and make you earn that win in the eleventh hour. Their opponents have managed to do this, of course, but there is something to be said for the grit and resilience of the team. And if that is not the work of the coaching staff, then who is responsible for it?
The flip side of this is the fact that the Eagles have yet to win a game this season decided by one score or less. And that is a valid criticism. But also consider that this is Doug’s first year on the job. He was only a head coach at the high school level and had a relatively short three-year tenure as offensive coordinator before getting his coaching gig with the Eagles. This isn’t Belichick roaming the sidelines, who’s been to hell and back a million times as head coach. Doug, who has shown the ability to beat much more experienced coaches this season, deserves some patience from us as he irons out the kinks. He has displayed some great qualities, particularly with his development of Wentz and his unapologetic aggressiveness. Two losses, no matter how painful, are not enough ground to vilify a man who has shown some real potential to be a great head coach in this league.
The other questionable aspect of Doug has been his handling of off-field issues. He has taken a generous “hands-off” approach, tacitly deferring to a standard of “innocent until proven guilty” in order to establish his persona as a players’ coach. This has led to mixed reception with the media, but the locker room at large seems to have embraced it. Time will tell if it’s an approach that will keep the roster together.
We’re a little over 1300 words in here, and so what do we make of all this? I think the biggest observation by far is that the team has a bright future. There is nothing to suggest Carson Wentz isn’t the future at quarterback. The defense, with a few more pieces, can be one of the league’s best and should have Schwartz at the helm for at least one more season, if not two. There is no doubt in my mind that with a few adjustments to the roster (especially at receiver) the Eagles can make the leap and emerge as a true contender in the NFC.
But until then, we’re going to have to take the lumps that come with a rookie head coach, rookie quarterback, and a flawed roster. It sure sucks now, but things can - and will - get better.
So how about you? What do you think of the Eagles’ season so far? What’s going right? What’s going wrong? Sound off in the comments below!