The press box at Lincoln Financial Field early Sunday evening, quiet save for the tiny tapping on laptop keyboards and low whispers between colleagues. Not quite two hours since Jake Elliott’s 54-yard field goal cut through the uprights, since the Eagles survived the Commanders and themselves, 34-31 in overtime. A Washington-area writer had packed up and was striding toward the exit.
“That game will be ripped apart in this town,” he said, “right?”
We are nothing if not predictable.
We are also holding the Eagles to a standard that they established for themselves. Yes, they are 4-0, just as they were last season. But those identical records don’t feel the same, do they? It is one thing to be 4-0 after having been 9-8, and having been routed in a playoff game, the season before. There is a freshness to it, a realization: Hey, the Eagles are better than they used to be. They are really good. It is another thing to be 4-0, and have three of those victories be of the by-the-enamel-of-your-incisors variety, after having been to the Super Bowl. The expectations change everything. Yeah, we know the Eagles are really good. So why are they struggling so much to be really good?
And they are struggling to be that good. They spotted the Commanders a seven-point lead, fell behind later by 10, then gave up two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. They committed 11 penalties Sunday, though, in fairness, as cornerback Darius Slay put it, “They was booty.” (The Barbara Billingsley-style translation: Slay thought several of the calls were suspect.) One of those penalties, a taunting infraction by A.J. Brown, cost the Eagles 11 yards of field position on the Commanders’ final possession, which culminated in the game-tying TD catch by Jahan Dotson as regulation ended. The play-calling by offensive coordinator Brian Johnson was puzzling at times, particularly his ongoing infatuation with running the ball on third-and-long and his insistence on using Kenneth Gainwell to do it.
There was a crispness to the Eagles last season that they have rarely shown this season. Maybe they’ll regain it as Johnson and defensive coordinator Sean Desai, both new to their positions here, settle in. As Haason Reddick, who Sunday recorded his first sack after putting up 16 last year, recovers fully from the broken thumb that hampered him throughout Weeks 1-3. As Jalen Hurts grows more accustomed to Johnson’s likes, dislikes, and tendencies in orchestrating the offense.
Right now, though, the Eagles are winning mostly because they have so much high-end talent at so many important positions: offensive line, defensive line, wide receiver, tight end. Brown, his unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty notwithstanding, was a monster Sunday, with nine receptions, 175 yards, two touchdowns, and enough zig-zaggy yards after his catches that he probably covered the distance from the Linc to Atlantic City. DeVonta Smith made as acrobatic a play as a wideout can make, leaping to haul in a 37-yard completion from Hurts late in the first half. The offensive line allowed Hurts to carry the ball twice for first downs on fourth-and-short (but only once via a quarterback sneak).
This is fine, for now. Yes, the Eagles are 4-0. But this early stretch of their schedule is supposed to be the easier stretch of their schedule — no Dallas yet, no San Francisco yet, no Buffalo yet, no Miami yet, no Kansas City yet — and little about it has been smooth. Their play has been choppy, and even they acknowledge as much.
“People have to understand,” Reddick said. “Right now, we’re playing guys in positions they normally don’t play. We’re playing with a lot of young guys who we didn’t expect to have to play with, but here we are. We have to play with them. It’s just about everybody continuing to come along. We were in a defensive system last year. We’ve got a new DC this year. We’re playing some techniques a little bit differently, so we’re still finding our way. We’re still figuring it out.
“But the one thing that’s undeniable about us — and we know this is Eagles football, but just from seeing it last year — that guys are still going out there and being relentless, no matter the situation at all. That’s our identity, to continue to go out there and attack and be dogs, and no matter how it looks, I could see and I could feel it that guys are still going out there, under any type of situation, and attacking and attacking and attacking. And as long as we keep with that, I know all the other stuff will fix itself and get better.”
They are capable of that, for sure. It just would be nice, would just be reassuring, to see more of it sooner than later. Yes, they are 4-0, and no, that doesn’t get them ripped apart in this town, not really. But it does put them on notice: There’s a standard here that they themselves set, and they still have a good way to go to meet it.
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