Sunday’s Eagles game marks the halfway point of the season, a significant milepost for measuring the progress of a team, a quarterback and a coaching staff.
There is no question the Eagles defense, led by coordinator Jim Schwartz, is one of the top units in the league, allowing just 117 points in seven games, third in the NFL behind Minnesota (104) and Seattle (109). The Eagles are 4-3 on the season largely because of their defense and special teams. It’s the offense that’s a concern.
Heading into the last game of the first half of the season, the Eagles rank 28th in the NFL in yards per game and 29th in passing yards per game. Rookie Carson Wentz has looked good at times, but he has looked increasingly mediocre as the level of competition has increased and defenses get more games on tape to figure him out. Each week head coach Doug Pederson talks about the progress Wentz is making, lauding his decision making and ability to take what the defense gives him instead of trying to force a play, but what that patience has created for the Eagles is a dink-and-dunk offense that’s somehow less dynamic than if Sam Bradford were still running things.
None of that is to say the Eagles made the wrong decision. Wentz’s learning curve will benefit tremendously from this opportunity to play early. It’s just that, well, the stats don’t lie, and Wentz’s numbers when compared the rest of the NFC East’s quarterbacks aren’t very good.
Neither are the other skill position players. The Eagles offense, bluntly, is bad. The receivers are bad. The tight ends are bad. The running backs are bad. The offensive line is okay. The quarterback is good, but he hasn’t made the other players around him better yet.
The team had chances to upgrade their offensive skill positions before this week’s trade deadline, but they chose not to give up too much to bring in another wide receiver. San Francisco’s Torrey Smith was long rumored to be a target of the Eagles, but the 49ers were asking way too much for a receiver two years past any real productivity. Smith would not have been an upgrade for the Eagles.
And yet, the day after the deadline the team faced another problem, when receiver and special teams mainstay Josh Huff went and got himself arrested, leading to the team deciding to cut him Thursday, thereby leaving the offense with even fewer skilled players.
Truth be told, Huff was cut because he wasn’t that good, and players who aren’t that good are usually jettisoned when they screw up. That’s why Nigel Bradham has still been playing despite bringing a loaded gun into an airport. He’s a good linebacker, and the Eagles need him. The Eagles don’t need Huff, so he’s gone.
And yet, they need something. Or someone. And they didn’t get it at the deadline.
Here are how the NFC East teams rank in the major offensive categories as of November 4. The Eagles, Cowboys and Giants have all played seven games — Dallas leads the NFC East at 6-1 with the Eagles and Giants both 4-3 — while Washington has played eight games, on a bye this week, at 4-3-1.
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Two things stand out the most in those charts. First, the Eagles rank near the bottom of the 32-team league in yards per game and receiving yards per game* and are in the middle of the pack in rushing yards per game, yet have one of the top time of possession numbers in the NFL. Second, the Giants offense really stinks and has absolutely no balance.
(*We opted for receiving yards not passing yards because of yards lost via sack are not accounted for in receiving yards. That’s also why the numbers for receiving and rushing don’t add up to the same number as yards per game.)
A deeper look at the skill position players on each team sheds even more light on the Eagles’ offensive mediocrity through seven games.
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Wentz has attempted and completed more passes than Dak Prescott but has nearly 250 fewer passing yards through seven games. Eli Manning has no running game to speak of and is still averaging fewer pass attempts per game (38.5) than Kirk Cousins (40.1), who has a top-half rushing attack.
It’s important to note that Washington’s individual cumulative statistics are higher based on having played one additional game. For this, averages are more representative of how each team ranks in the league.
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Ezekiel Elliott is the class of the NFL rushers this season, on pace for more than 1,800 yards in his rookie season. The Eagles, as a team, are only on pace for 1,750 rushing yards this year.
Clearly the Giants lack a go-to running back, with Rashad Jennings leading the team in carries despite an average of 2.7 yards per rush. Darren Sproles was so good last week against Dallas that many fans in Philly are hoping Pederson keeps him in a more prominent role in the run game. But Sproles is in his mid 30s and has never been a featured back in that way in his career. Even with last week’s 15 carries, Sproles is only averaging 6.6 carries per game — plus his receptions and punt return opportunities — so increasing that production too much will potentially limit his overall effectiveness for the remainder of the nine-game schedule.
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All told, Wentz has been okay, and the Eagles’ running back by committee can work so long as the team rotates in the correct back and finds one who won’t fumble the game (read: game) away in the fourth quarter.
It’s the receivers that are the issue.
Huff’s release doesn’t help, unless bringing up a player from the practice squad suddenly makes the unit better. If that’s the case, why didn’t that happen sooner?
Jordan Matthews is a good NFL receiver. Yes, he has too many drops (he actually leads the team in dropped balls this season) but he’s the team’s most reliable and consistent receiver over the course of the last two seasons. Dorial Green-Beckham has yet to become the target man people expected when the team traded for him, but the season is still relatively young and he did come into the squad very late.
The tight ends have been a huge disappointment this season in terms of their production — specifically Zach Ertz — while the city has turned on second-year wideout Nelson Agholor so harshly that it feels almost impossible for him to succeed in Philadelphia without a drastic change in his performance and attitude. It’s somewhat of a shock the Eagles couldn’t flip Agholor for Smith, given Chip Kelly drafted the wideout last year and obviously saw something in him he has yet to show in Eagle green. Surely Pederson and Howie Roseman are higher on Agholor than the rest of us, or don’t want to give up on a first-round pick this quickly.
Again, Washington having six of the top 12 pass catchers in the NFC East right now is more a product of having played one additional game. Having said that, Cousins does air the ball out way more than Wentz. It seems everyone in the NFC East does.
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The Eagles are 4-3 and right in the Wild Card hunt as they travel up the NJ Turnpike to face the Giants on Sunday afternoon. But the Eagles then host 6-3 Atlanta, then travel to first-place Seattle, host an improving Green Bay team, go to Cincinnati the first week of December before ending the season in a stretch that includes hosting Washington, traveling to Baltimore and hosting the Giants and Cowboys to end the year.
Can the Eagles finish 10-6 and make the playoffs? Sure. They could also finish 4-12 with this schedule. Realistically they’ll be somewhere in between, but how close they get to double-digit wins isn’t going to be decided by the defense. That unit will be fine. It’s the offense that needs to step up in the NFC East. Starting Sunday.