PHILADELPHIA — The spotlit Super Bowl champions sign still looms large over Lincoln Financial Field, a constant reminder of what the Philadelphia Eagleswere so very recently. But in the silent trudge to the locker room, in Doug Pederson’s slumped demeanor, you can see what the Eagles have suddenly become. They are halting. They are mistake-prone. They are searching for consistency. They bear almost no resemblance to the confident offense that reached its apex with the swagger and precision of “Philly Special.”
In their 23-21 loss to the they-were-reeling-last-week Minnesota Vikings, the Eagles manifested all the troubling symptoms of their 2-3 start, a startling reminder that this rematch of the NFC Championship Game might have only served to make the Los Angeles Rams smile. They are slow starting and self-defeating. They commit terrible turnovers and mind-numbing penalties. They are, in short, a bit of a mess.
“Were 2-3 because we’re playing bad,” defensive end Chris Long said. “It’s one and the same. Right now we are playing like we suck. That’s the reality. We can say we’re better than this all we want. But unless we play better, we’re not.”
Actually, in the aftermath, nobody was saying the Eagles were any better. Pederson looked disgusted with the Eagles performance, which — cover your eyes, Eagles fans — included just 91 yards of offense in the first half, only two of nine third-down conversions, a Carson Wentz fumble that was returned 64 yards for a highlight reel touchdown by Linval Joseph, a call for roughing the passer against Michael Bennett that aided the Vikings‘ first touchdown drive, a Jay Ajayi fumble at the Vikings‘ 5-yard line that the Vikings parlayed into a field goal, and a sequence following a Kirk Cousins fumble, with the Eagles trailing by just six points in the fourth quarter, that included Eagles penalties for illegal formation, intentional grounding and delay of game.
After each question and before each answer, Pederson took a deep breath, let out a morose-sounding “well” and launched into a disconsolate autopsy.
“I just told them I was going to take it for the team,” said Pederson. “Way we’ve been playing and performing, it starts with me. I wanted guys to understand we can’t do these things. We can’t self-inflict. Championship teams don’t do this.”
The Eagles‘ plight is especially alarming because there is no obvious excuse for it. Carson Wentz is back and seemingly at full strength. So is receiver Alshon Jeffrey. But only seven previous Super Bowlchampions have started the next season 2-3 and only one of those — the 1996 Cowboys — pulled themselves together enough to even make the playoffs. A team that during the off-season appeared poised for a strong title defense is on very thin ice. Even the relative weakness of the NFC East can’t provide much balm, considering how many NFC teams are playing better than the Eagles. It was enough to prompt a question about whether the departures of former offensive coordinator Frank Reich (now head coach of the Colts) and former quarterbacks coach John deFilippo (the Vikings‘ offensive coordinator) could be the problem. No, Wentz said, that wasn’t it either.
They are, it seems, simply in a funk. No player in the locker room, on offense or defense, thought there were physical problems. This is strictly mental, the Eagles believe. That presumably is easier to fix than physical insufficiency, particularly for a team that has very recent proof of exactly what it is capable of. But the Eagles have not scored more than 23 points in a game this season. Last season, they scored at least 26 points in 12 of the 15 games in which the starters played. In 2017, they were the third-highest scoring team in the league. They entered Week 5 ranked 26th.
“We’ve got to take a look at ourselves in the mirror,” Wentz said. “Three straight penalties. … Little mistakes like that are just killing us. We’re playing like we’re a young rookie team and we’re not.”
Wentz said the offensive struggles remind him of his rookie season, when the Eagles were 7-9 and grappling with the growing pains expected of a young quarterback. Those issues disappeared last season. They have returned, with one slow start after another, even in the two games they have won.
“We always preach start fast,” offensive tackle Lane Johnson said. “I think if you look at all of the success we had last year, we were starting games fast. This year has been the total opposite. As bad as we want to correct that, that is what we have to do. Start seeing a late surge in the second half when it’s too late. It puts our team in a bad predicament.”
And it could get a whole lot worse. Before Sunday night’s game, there were already eight NFC teams with better winning percentages than the Eagles, suggesting that even if the Eagles prevail in the NFC East, they’ll have a long way to go to get back to the pinnacle of a conference whose dominance they put on display with their throttling of the Vikings last January.
The Eagles were quiet as they walked past the gigantic illuminated pictures of their recent triumphs that line the tunnel into their locker room. When their shoulder pads brushed the signs, it was as close as they have gotten to what they once were.
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