By: Joe Staszak
It’s not a trend any more. It’s an epidemic. Another slow start by the Eagles on Sunday night in Atlanta cost the team a win and a 2-0 start. The dreaded first half continues to have a dispiriting effect on the team. Not to mention creating the unenviable task of playing from behind. Not exactly a winning recipe.
Since the beginning of last season (that’s 20 games), the Birds have scored an average of 8.9 points in the first half (Wentz – 8.8, Foles – 9.0). They’re record in those games is 11-9.
In 2017 the Birds scored an average of 15.5 points in the first half. Wentz put up 14.3 points when he played. Nick Foles put up 16.6 when he played through the first 30 minutes. The Birds finished that season, including the playoffs, with a 16-2 record (throwing out the Dallas game in week 17). Oh and they won the Super Bowl that year too if you recall. So let’s review shall we? Bad starts equal 11-9 while good starts equal 16-2. Ergo it would behoove the Eagles to get off to better starts. Pretty profound stuff eh? Thank you.
The Birds were fortunate enough to win last week having to come from 17 points down to beat the Redskins 32-27. It is a difficult thing to do at this level. It is also very difficult, at this level, to win a lot of games playing from behind, period.
Sunday night Carson Wentz lost his top two receivers in the first quarter, Alshon Jefferey to a calf and DeSean Jackson to a groin. Tight end Dallas Goedert missed the entire game with a calf injury. So right out of the gate Carson Wentz and the Birds found themselves short-handed. But I’m not sure how much it actually mattered because Wentz was that bad in the first half Sunday night. He finished the half 6/16 for 47 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs with a passer rating of 6.2. Yeah that wasn’t a typo he had a passer rating of 6.2 in the first half.
Was this the same guy who performed so brilliantly in that Redskins game after the first quarter? It sure didn’t look like it. It didn’t help that Wentz got pinballed for most of the game too – not something you wanted to see considering his injury history. He took a shot in the ribs from Atlanta linebacker Deion Jones while in the process of throwing his first interception in the 1st quarter and was roughed up for most of the rest of the game due to a poor outing by the Eagles offensive line.
The good news was that after you sifted through the mess of the first 30 minutes, the Eagles found themselves down just 10-6.
I love that the Eagles defer when they win the coin toss because I prefer to get the ball to start the 2nd half. It just so happens to work well for the Eagles too seeing that they’re usually coming off a sluggish first 30 minutes.
It only works well though if you don’t fumble away the opening kick-off as Corey Clement did Sunday night. It was turnover number three for the Eagles and the game was only half old.
The next time the Birds would touch the ball they found themselves down 17-6, after the Falcons turned that fumble into a Julio Jones 4 yard TD reception, one of his two TD receptions on the night.
We have yet to see Carson Wentz, against a formidable team, facing adversity and other aggrevating factors, bring the Birds back with a game-winning touchdown drive or drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. This was shaping up to be one of those resume-building opportunities.
So there he was, the franchise quarterback, minus 3 of his top weapons, in hostile territory, on national television, coming off a horrific first half, trailing by 11 with an opportunity to prove himself to anyone who has ever questioned his ability, his worth and his onions.
After a six play drive that went all of 13 yards the Birds punted the ball back to Atlanta. That’s when Wentz got a little bit of help from his defensive coordinator. On a third and nine from their own 10, Jim Schwartz dialed up a rare blitz. And it worked. What do you know about that? It led to a hurried pass by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan that ended up in the waiting arms of Eagles cornerback Ron Darby, who otherwise had a God-awful game. Six plays later on a 4th and goal at the Falcons four yard line, Wentz found Nelson Agholor, one his few weapons remaining, for a touchdown. Down five the Birds decided to go for two to cut the Atlanta lead to three.
That’s when things got a little weird. Doug Pederson then called Wentz’ number with a right side boot leg. Now if you recall, Wentz blew out his knee a couple of seasons ago when he dove towards the end zone in an attempt to score a touchdown against the Rams. Flash back to Sunday night, and there is Wentz diving for the goal line with a multitude of defenders converging on him. He landed shy of the goal line but his momentum looked like it carried the ball across the stripe before he was touched down by a defender. The play was initially called “good” and the Birds were awarded two points. Now upon further review Wentz’ right knee clearly touched the ground before the ball crossed the goal line, something we already knew. But he was not touched by a defender until the ball had crossed the goal line. Sounds good right? Not so fast. A new rule was implemented last year that states that when a quarterback “gives himself up” the ball is placed where the ball is when the player is down, whether touched by a defender or not.
Well the NFL really outdid themselves this time as NBC color man Cris Collinsworth aptly pointed out during the telecast. Here is a situation that the NFL rules committee failed to think of when implementing the rule the prior year. What they failed to do was to amend the statute to state that when a quarterback is clearly diving to gain additional yardage, the quarterback in question would then not be “giving himself up”, therefore becoming fair game to the opposition and is not to be ruled down until touched by a member of the opposing team. Quite the think tank those NFL “experts” huh? Nothing like embarrassing yourself yet again with all the vision of a posterior subcapsular cataract.
Any way according to the letter of the law the officials made the right call and overturned the original ruling to a “failed conversion”. That rule would come back to haunt Wentz and his teammates before the night was through.
So he might not have gotten help from the rules committee Sunday night but he did get plenty from his counterpart, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Because on the ensuing possession Ryan inexplicably threw his third interception of the night in the red zone and in the end zone to Eagles linebacker Nate Gerry, thus, giving the Eagles life.
After both teams traded three and outs the Eagles got the ball at their own 27 yard line, down five with about 11 minutes remaining. That was the moment that I think we all had been waiting for. There it was. Fourth quarter, down five, on the road, the opposing crowd noise in a frenzied pitch, and the game on the line. Everyone wanting to know if Wentz indeed has the “clutch gene”. So what does do? He engineers a 13 play, 73 yard touchdown drive that chewed up 8:29 of the final quarter. But the best part, and maybe the most telling part of the drive, was Wentz’ composure, his leadership, his focus and his accuracy. All he did was go 8/8 for 56 yards on the drive. If you include the two-point conversion to Zach Ertz, Wentz was 9/9 on the drive. He capped it off with a one yard plunge over the top to give the Eagles a 20-17 lead.
All the defense now had to do was hold down the fort and Wentz would have his “game-winning drive”, his signature moment, to finally add to his resume. But his defense would fail him. On a fourth down play at mid field Ryan hit Julio Jones with a wide receiver screen for 54 yards and the go-ahead touchdown, 24-20.
So there it was again. Another deficit, but with less time and more pressure for Wentz. For the franchise quarterback there are no excuses. There’s no “try”. You either do or you do not do. You can’t fall back on injuries, weather conditions, the referees or my favorite – leaving the field with the lead. Some times you are asked to do it again. Its a raw deal but it comes with the job. The great ones do it in their sleep. If Wentz could do it again it would go a long way to silencing his critics, the nay-sayers and the fence jockeys.
This time it took Wentz only two plays to drive the team 67 yards for another go-ahead touchdown. This time it was Nelson Agholor on a straight go route down the left sideline. Wentz hit him in stride and Nelly did the rest. Right? Or did I just dream that? He caught that ball right? There’s no way a top flight NFL receiver drops that ball right? Incomplete? Seriously? WTH??? (Big sigh) Yeah Agholor dropped it. He flat out dropped it. It reminded me of the Brian Finneran drop on opening day in 1999. But at least on that play the Cardinals’ Kwamie Lassiter was closing in and may have actually gotten a finger on the ball causing Finneran to bobble it and ultimately it ended up as an interception.
Agholor had nothing but fake green grass in front of him. About 45 yards worth. You simply can’t make a better throw than the one Wentz made on that play. If you’re keeping score at home it wasn’t Nelly’s first drop of the night. He dropped a Wentz pass on the Birds first series of the game as well and he failed to bring in a catchable ball from Wentz in the end zone later in the half. But nothing like the touchdown drop on this play, But hey dropped balls are part of the game. Much like a goaltender, the franchise quarterback is supposed to be the “great eraser” and is often asked to do it again. On Sunday night Wentz was asked to do just that. For the third time.
And he almost did. Two plays later he went right back to Agholor on a 4th and 14 play. Nelly got behind the Falcons’ “sticks” defense and hauled in a 43 yard grab good for a first down at the Atlanta 18.
Unfortunately that is where Wentz’ story book ending came to an end. He over threw Mack Hollins deep on the next play, hit Darren Sproles for two yards on 2nd down, over threw Ertz on 3rd and then on 4th and eight , he hit Ertz for seven and a half yards, a half yard short of a first down. That last play was on Ertz. I’ve been watching football for almost five decades and I still have no idea why a receiver would run a seven and a half yard route on an eight yard play. But it does happen. And it happened to Wentz and the Eagles on Sunday night. But that should not erase the fact that Wentz had three other plays in which to pick up the ten yards.
Indeed there was a lot of blame to go around for the 24-20 loss to the Falcons Sunday night – injuries, bad rules, dropped balls, inept routes etc. But those are just excuses. The bulk of the blame has to be put on the shoulders of #11. Did he deserve a better fate? Well, not really. He had nothing to do with all of the injuries, dropped balls, short routes and fumbles. But he did have everything to do with another horrific start. Forty-seven yards in the first half to go along with two interceptions. A whopping six first half points. About nine points shy of the targeted goal for a Super Bowl contender. That’s not going to cut it. It makes the margin for error that much smaller in the 2nd half. Eight and a half points in the first half for 20 straight games might not get you fired or benched around here. But it will, if you’re lucky, get you another wild-card round road game. That’s about it.
Wentz went from a 6.2 QB rating in the first half to QB rating of 101.0 in the 2nd half (18/26, 177 yds, 1 TD, 0 INT). He went from goat to hero to goat again. The quarterback is almost always the goat when his team loses. It doesn’t matter what happened in the previous 60 minutes. The only thing that matters in the NFL is wins and losses. Right now the Birds sit at 1-1 good for 2nd place in the NFC East behind the Dallas Cowboys who are 2-0. And that’s about right. The Boys have played four good halves of football so far. The Eagles have not. You can’t just play two good halves of football in two games and expect a better result.
Right now Wentz continues to be consistently inconsistent. He’s now 6-7 in his last 13 starts. As much as he deserves most of the credit for the season opening win last week, he deserves most of the blame for Sunday’s loss to the Falcons.
I don’t know the what the answer to the first half problem is. But I do know that unless the rules committee extends games to six quarters, we’re in for more of the same until it gets fixed.