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David Murphy: The Eagles might not be the team many envisioned, but there's a reason we shouldn't leave them for dead

By David Murphy, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Football

Frank Reich isn't walking through that door, and neither is Nick Foles, and maybe those are good things, because Reich just lost to a tanking team and Foles is on the bench behind Mitch Trubisky. When you look at the Eagles' Week 1 struggles in that light, it should be easier to entertain the possibility that the biggest thing that their loss to Washington exposed was a lack of perspective on the part of the rest of us. I mean that in the most sympathetic sense. For those born and raised on Philadelphia sports, short memories are a survival mechanism. But find somebody who isn't from here and, chances are, you'll discover that one of their secret fetishes is tuning into sports talk radio the day after an Eagles loss. It's palpable. We're nuts.

That's not to say that we're wrong about our first impressions of this team. The Eagles just lost to a team that could easily end up with the first overall pick in next year's draft. They lost to a team that has the worst starting quarterback in the NFL. They lost to a team that does not have a name. They couldn't block. They couldn't run the ball. And their hundred-million-dollar defensive line was the second-best defensive line on the field. It was the kind of performance that Charlie Manuel used to refer to as, "Not good."

Yet anybody who follows NFL football as intently as this market does should understand that "not good" is a week-to-week thing. And that no week is as poor of a barometer of a team's overall capabilities as Week 1. And you shouldn't need a PhD in critical thinking to conclude that Week 1 of the 2020 season has a strong chance to go down as the least predictive Week 1 in NFL history. Sunday was the first day in a calendar year that any of the 32 teams in the league engaged in full-contact competition against a team with a different logo on its helmets. It was the first Sunday in NFL history played without fans. You could almost hear the defensive tackles' breath on the television broadcast. Who knows what other bodily functions were audible in the trenches. I have to imagine that takes some getting used to.

"I think in our business, you obviously learn from the previous game or the previous set of circumstances and it definitely wasn't our best as you guys have so eloquently written about," Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said earlier this week. "We know we've got to play better. We've got to coach better and that's what we're going to focus on this week."

None of this should imply that the Eagles deserve a pass. There are no mulligans in the NFL, particularly in one of the few games on a schedule that you can pencil in with a W. The Eagles will not win many games if they cannot find a way to shore up the offensive line, and they certainly won't win a game against a team that includes Aaron Donald. But everybody who is leaving this team for dead isn't just ignoring the track record of the NFL. They're also ignoring the track record of the coach, and the quarterback, and the organization as a whole. There's an argument to be made that Sunday's loss was the worst one of the Doug Pederson era. But that argument gets made every season: against the Dolphins last year (or was it the Lions?), and the Saints the year before (or was it the Titans?).

The only thing more consistent than inexplicable losses early in the season has been the Eagles' ability to reinvent themselves as the season moves along. Last year, they followed 1-2 with 8-5. In 2018, they followed 4-6 with 5-1. Sure, you say, but they finished 9-7 both years, and that isn't good enough. And that's fair. But the overarching point is that the Eagles are almost certainly a better football team than the one we saw in Week 1.

If you are one of the stampede of bettors who flipped this week's line from -2.5 to +1.5, you might need to take another look. Pederson has won both of his matchups against Sean McVay, the most recent of them coming in a situation where the Eagles had been left for dead. The loss to Washington wasn't without its positive signs, chief among them the play of cornerback Darius Slay, who looked very much like a shutdown corner.

 

At the same time, the Eagles probably aren't as good as most people wanted to believe that they were heading into this season. The idea that there would be a radical change in the scoring department never aligned with the reality of the personnel. On the offensive side of the ball, this is more or less the same team we've seen the past couple of seasons, absent an MVP performance by Wentz or a rejuvenated offensive line.

No doubt, that's an issue, but it's an issue whose explanation is a lot simpler than many theories suggest. The problem with the offense hasn't been the absence of Reich, who is 17-16 in his three seasons as Colts head coach, or the decision to go with Wentz over Foles, who has recently added Trubisky and Gardner Minshew to the already inglorious list of quarterbacks who have beaten him out for a starting job. The issue is talent. The Eagles were on the wrong side of too many matchups against Washington, and they did not take enough advantage of the ones they enjoyed on the defensive side of the ball.

It was ugly, but it was far too small and flawed of a sample to arrive at any conclusions. Nearly 21% of the Eagles' 748 offensive snaps were taken by a player who was appearing in his first-ever NFL game. More than a third of their snaps on the offensive line were taken by a player who had never made an NFL start. The return of Lane Johnson and a week of blitz diagnosis might be enough to get the pass protection to a point where Wentz stands a chance.

"All the wrongs we did on Sunday, we can make it up this Sunday," Johnson said on Thursday.

That's the way the NFL has always worked, especially in September. Beat the Rams, and the script flips 180 degrees. Last Sunday was ugly. This one, I'm taking the points.

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