This feature is a weekly piece on BleedingGreenNation.com titled From The Eagles, featuring Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro. The intention is to provide a perspective directly from the Philadelphia Eagles in this forum for the great fans who visit BGN.
The comparisons are impossible to avoid: In Week 4 in the 2016 season the Eagles were on the road, in Detroit, holding a late fourth-quarter lead when running back Ryan Mathews coughed up the football as the offense looked to ride out the clock and win to go to 4-0.
Detroit recovered the Mathews fumble, moved into field goal territory and took a 24-23 lead in the last minute of the game. Quarterback Carson Wentz threw deep for Nelson Agholor on the next possession and the pass was intercepted and the game was over. Detroit 24, Eagles 23.
Last Sunday, the Eagles were on the road, in Los Angeles, holding a late fourth-quarter lead and they used 13 plays to wind out the final 6 minutes, 44 seconds off the clock. Eagles 26, Chargers 24.
Both teams, the 2016 Eagles and the 2017 Eagles, were 3-1 after that game. Here are 10 reasons why this team is in better position than that team.
1. Lane Johnson is on the field and playing better than ever. This could be the most significant reason of all. Johnson, of course, started his 10-game suspension for violating the NFL’s Substance-Abuse Policy after that Detroit game and the offense took a direct hit. Quarterback Carson Wentz’s numbers sagged. He took more hits. The running game was not as productive. Losing Johnson was game-changing. Last year the Eagles were 5-1 with Johnson on the field. This year they’re 3-1 with him on the field. That is not a coincidence.
2. Doug Pederson is a year better as a head coach. What that means, exactly, is yet to be defined. He’s got tough in-game decisions to make every week, and a head coach is on the spot in every game. But what you see with Pederson is a coach who has more confidence having gone down this road before, who has a football team that plays hard for him every week and whose locker room really likes him. The players know that Pederson has their best interests in mind.
3. Carson Wentz has 20 NFL starts under his belt. He’s so poised, so polished and far more advanced now than he was 12 months ago. It’s not even close.
4. The defense is deep enough to withstand some injuries. No Fletcher Cox up front. No Ronald Darby at cornerback. Safety Rodney McLeod missed a game and a half. Jordan Hicks missed half a game at middle linebacker. The defense is giving up too many “X” plays, but is still taking the football away and making critical stops. This D will be very good if healthy late in the season.
5. Tight end Zach Ertz has delivered on a great start that puts him on pace for 104 receptions and 1,304 yards and in his last 16 games he’s caught 95 passes. His run blocking has also improved. Ertz is now a complete and, yes, elite tight end.
6. The running game is legit. The offensive line has come around, Pederson believes in the running game and the Eagles are three-deep at running back. As long as LeGarrette Blount continues to run like an angry man, and Wendell Smallwood stays on the field and Corey Clement continues to develop, the Eagles have something on which they can depend. The running game. Who woulda thunk it?
7. Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and, yes, Nelson Agholor, give the Eagles a wide receiver trio that threatens defenses. That wasn’t the case last year. But Jeffery commands attention, Smith has gotten open and has speed to stretch defenses and Agholor has been outstanding as the third receiver. I’m not saying these guys are the best trio in the league. I’m just saying that defenses have to respect the threat, something they didn’t have to do a season ago.
8. The Eagles can win on the road. They’ve got two wins already at Washington and at Los Angeles, and that’s going to carry them a long way in the fight for the NFC East. We can lump in here the win-the-close-games angle, a double reason here to feel like this 3-1 is better than that 3-1. Don’t you feel like a corner has been turned?
9. This is a good coaching staff. See how Jeff Stoutland is manipulating the left guard spot along the offensive line? Have you given kudos to Mike Groh for turning this wide receiver corps around? Isn’t Cory Undlin deserving of some credit for having his young cornerbacks competing so hard on every play? And doesn’t Duce Staley merit a hand clap for helping Blount shift gears and for using Smallwood in ways to replace Darren Sproles and for getting an undrafted rookie like Clement ready to go and contribute right away in the NFL?
10. Finally, the Eagles have a weapon at kicker and once again a great core on special teams. Jake Elliott has made his last six field goals and has averaged 48.7 yards per kick on those six makes. The Eagles have a new long snapper (Rick Lovato), a new placekicker (Elliott) and a new punt/kickoff return man (Kenjon Barner) and the special teams are still winning the battle of hidden yardage.
Am I right on here? Still to be determined? Certainly, the Eagles have to play at a high level with a tough stretch ahead – Arizona at home, at Carolina on a short week, Washington at home – to make good on the 3-1 start. It just feels different this year. Reason is, from this perspective, is because it is different.