NFL: Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles
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Eagles paradox: Doug Pederson wants Nelson Agholor to play like nobody’s watching (and we can’t stop)

The media won’t stop obsessing over whether Agholor will play. Should he is a better question.

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Doug Pederson wants Nelson Agholor to dance like nobody’s watching. One problem. Agholor can’t dance. And everyone in town is watching.

“Seeing the game…seeing it differently,” Pederson told reporters this week when asked what sitting Agholor against the Packers tried to accomplish. “The connection is not having the pressure of performing, not putting pressure on yourself to perform, me not asking him to go perform that particular week.

“You see it in practice where, we talk all the time” Pederson said, before cutting himself off to propose a more football-specific analogy. “On service team, we hold up a card that says ‘run this offense’ or ‘run this defense’ and receivers run it and sometimes they make great plays. And you’re kind of scratching your head going, ‘wow, that was a pretty nice little play; great route, great play, great catch.’

“So the connection there is, play like you’re playing that route for us as if it was a service team rep, as if it was a carded rep, where you’re not thinking, you’re just going and just reacting to what the defense or the offense presents.”

That can’t be as easy as Pederson made it sound.

“It’s easier said than done, obviously,” he allowed, “but that’s how Nelson right now needs to attack this. That’s by playing like you’re playing (on) the service team. But obviously you’re doing it with our offense, if that makes sense. And there’s a level of, sort of, comfort there, knowing you can do it that way.”

Would you believe me if I told you I’ve spent the last two days trying to figure this quote out?

Hearing Pederson at that press conference, and listening to it over again today, I half expected him to say Agholor needs to imagine the opposing defensive back naked. Hell, if it’ll help him catch the ball, imagine the whole darn stadium naked. Who knows at this point what’ll help?

What we do know is Jordan Matthews got hurt last week, and with him off the field it was glaringly obvious the Eagles have very little talent at the wide receiver position. Dorial Green-Beckham had his best game as an Eagle, but after him, Pederson was tasked with calling plays for Bryce Treggs and Paul Turner, two guys who were running those carded plays on the service team just last week.

That’s not Pederson’s fault, of course. Howie Roseman  — and, to be fair, Chip Kelly — left the team with very little in terms of skill position players on offense. Roseman spent the off-season bolstering the embarrassingly thin offensive line and strengthening the secondary, hoping the offensive skill guys would be good enough to compliment Carson Wentz.

They’re not. Even with the trade for DGB, they haven’t been close to good enough, and a lot of that has fallen on Agholor.

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It’s understandable why the first-round pick feels pressure to perform. If a service team guy who gets elevated to the gameday roster scuffles, nobody can justifiably say he’s ‘underperforming’ on Sunday. But a first round pick with all the physical tools to succeed? Dude. Come on.

That’s where Philly is right now with Agholor. Dude. Come on.

Only, he clearly can’t. After lashing out at the end of October, Agholor broke down two weeks ago, explaining in great detail how he can’t seem to get out of his own head, admitting he knows he’s letting the fans down, and the team down, but he can’t figure out how to stop screwing up.

It’s paralyzing to feel that way. It would be like trying to write an article about a struggling wide receiver and suddenly your fngrs stppd typng vwls fr n rsn.

What do you do? More importantly, what are the Eagles supposed to do?

The media tenor changed last week, certainly on Twitter, as it’s much easier to rip a guy who stinks and is a jerk than to rip a guy who stinks and knows he stinks and feels bad about how much he stinks and wishes he could stink less.

There’s an old adage that media should report the story, not become the story — fewer and fewer stick to this these days, but I digress — yet it’s hard for the media to cover the Agholor saga without also becoming a part of it. He feels this pressure because every time he drops the ball or lines up wrong or misses a block, he knows he’s going to get grilled about it later. He knows that no matter what else happens in the game, one drop or one foul or one mistake is going to lead the news cycle.

That has to be debilitating, but at the same time, the media (hell, myself included) would be doing a disservice to the audience to not bring up the mistakes, and to not grill him for it, even if the answers are inadequate, and even if the head coach is left with no other option than to suggest a first-round pick play like he’s a practice squad guy.

Even when Agholor is not playing, he can’t avoid being asked about playing. He told reporters this week, via Bob Grotz of the Delco Times, that he’s just focused on doing his job in practice now, hoping it’s enough.

“I think Coach Pederson knows or he’ll continue to evaluate me as practice goes on and then make a decision,” Agholor said of his status. “But it’s my job to make sure that I do my job and look the part so he can, you know, let me play.”

If you were directing a play, would you put an actor with terrible stage fright in a leading role? What if he was amazing in rehearsal?

What if picturing the audience naked wasn’t enough to stop him from flubbing his lines?

What if he can’t dance like nobody is watching because he knows that everyone is?

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It’s easy to write that Agholor “simply needs to relax.” That’s what people who have no pressure to perform think. That’s what people who aren’t afraid of losing their jobs with every drop, their careers with every mistake, write.

That’s what the team fed to Agholor so he could feed it back to us so it could maybe, possibly, help him alleviate this suffocating pressure. That’s not the truth, though. The truth is the guy is a liability to the team on game day, and no matter how good he is in practice, he’s going to continue to hamper Wentz’s progress by making simple mistakes that set the offense back.

So, should the Eagles play Agholor this week? That’s not what anyone seems to be asking. It’s all “will he or won’t he” without much care for should. And this is where it gets difficult, and where Pederson, Roseman and the team doctors earn their money.

John Smallwood of the Daily News wrote that Agholor’s benching last week was an eye opener, and “the only thing that matters now is what he can do, if anything, on the field for the Eagles.” Smallwood said that if the message delivered to Agholor “wasn’t enough to light a competitive fire, then he is already too far lost to ever salvage.”

But what if it’s not that? What if Pederson wasn’t sending a message to Agholor by “benching” him against the Packers. What if, after hearing the guy say he can’t get out of his own head, the Eagles organization became genuinely concerned for Agholor’s mental health? What if his exclusion from the lineup on Monday wasn’t about punishing him, or opening his eyes, but actually trying to help him, on a human level, because failure in the NFL can have devastating consequences in life, not just football.

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“Having fun is the most important thing,” Agholor said this week, via CBS Philly. “When you have fun, you don’t even think. You react. You just play hard. God gave me great ability. Right now, I just need to take advantage of it.”

Something about this feels wrong. There’s a deeper conversation that isn’t being had because we only hear from the coach a few minutes each week, the players even less, the general manager and owner and team doctors half past never. It feels wrong because we have a bunch of writers who cover football for a living trying to navigate through the week of injury reports and all-22s and defensive coordinators who don’t talk enough and hey look some players are putting religious markings on their shoes and there almost isn’t enough time or expertise to go around for something as nuanced as the pressure of the NFL conspiring to ruin a young receiver’s career.

But hey, there’s a game this week and at some point the team needs to find out if Agholor can play at this level and he’s gotta ‘man up’ or ‘relax’ or whatever other coachspeak sportswriter trope we can think of to fill our columns today.

Despite showing almost no ability to succeed at this level, the guy was a first-round pick, so he needs to ‘get out there’ and ‘prove it,’ bub. That’s what he’s paid to do, so let’s focus on if he will or he won’t. Even if everyone, including him, knows he probably can’t.