That’s why it’s important to focus on areas for potential regression….
As I said in yesterday’s season projection, two major areas of concern this season are Nick Foles turnover regression and health, particularly along the O-Line. My guess is, after yesterday, those issues are no longer under any fan’s radar. To reiterate, my theme for this season is: similar results as last season (at least record-wise), but very mixed feelings. Yesterday fit that perfectly. Fortunately, the Eagles were able to pull through, largely on the strength of excellent Special Teams (fairly big surprise) and a strong defensive performance outside of a few early breakdowns.
Now for a few individual factors I’m looking at/thinking about. As usual, I’m going to try to avoid the “obvious” story lines, you can get that elsewhere, unless they’re really important and I think I have something to add to the discussion.
Blue Chips – Pulling from yesterday, this is the most important aspect of this season. The Eagles will not become a consistent SB contender without developing a few high-impact players. Fortunately, things were fairly positive on this front for the team. Mychal Kendricks looked like one of the best players on the field. He had 6 tackles, a sack, and a pass defensed. Fletcher Cox also looked very good (despite having his best play erased by a bogus penalty.) He also had 6 tackles, plus the spread-beating fumble recovery and TD run. On the flip side, Foles obviously struggled. More on him in a second. Boykin looked good when he was on the field…but only played 23 defensive snaps. That’s less than 1/3 of all defensive plays. Hopefully one of the beat writers will ferret out the reasoning for Boykin’s lack of PT, but until then we’re left watching to see if it becomes a trend. Zach Ertz has 3 catches on 5 targets, hitting a couple of big plays on seam routes. I’d be very surprised if his role in the passing game doesn’t get bigger soon. Jordan Matthews also had strong debut with 2 catches (4 targets) for 37 yards. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but remember that rookie WRs very rarely make significant contributions. If Matthews can grab 2-3 balls each game, he’ll have done really well.
Overall, the game itself was ugly, but the long-term factors I’m paying attention to were mostly good. I say “mostly” because…
Nick Foles – I’m not going to dwell too much on Foles since every other writer will cover him. I did, however, want to toss a theory out there. Foles was pretty clearly gun-shy yesterday. Lots of double-clutching and hesitation. There are a lot of potential explanations, but I think it’s likely the whole “turnover avoidance” storyline got to him. If you had spent all offseason hearing about how great you were at not throwing interceptions, it’s probably natural for you to start trying to avoid them more consciously. Hopefully this is just a one-week issue. If he gets too far into his own head, though, things are going to get ugly.
Cody Parkey – That was an excellent performance, far beyond anything I expected. The 51 yard FG was perfect, even moreso because it was the first real NFL kick of his career. Just as important, though, were the touchbacks. Parkey kicked off 7 times. 5 of them were touchbacks (or 72%). For reference, Alex Henery recorded a touchback on 41.5% of his kicks last season. It must be noted that conditions yesterday were very good, so we shouldn’t expect Parkey to maintain that touchback rate through the fall/winter. Still, it’s an area I highlighted for potential improvement for the Eagles, and so far that’s what we’ve seen.
Marcus Smith – Not much to say here, the guy didn’t play. It’s too early to be concerned, but I’m keeping a close eye on this one. I realize he’s a “project”, but he dressed for the game and couldn’t get a single snap? That’s worrisome, especially because the Jaguars, despite the first half, are one of the more benign offenses the Eagles will face all year. If there was a time to get Smith a few live reps with relatively little risk, yesterday was it. Maybe the big deficit changed the plans. Even so, it’s hard to stomach having a healthy first round pick on the sidelines and not being able to find him a single live rep.
Special Teams – I mentioned Parkey, but it’s important to note that the entire unit was fantastic yesterday. Sproles provided a big spark as a punt returner, averaging 15.5 yards per attempt. Donnie Jones’ net average was just 33.7 yards, but that’s because he put 5 punts inside the 20 yard line. There just wasn’t room to kick it farther, and he did a great job of keeping the ball out of the end zone (with some help from the coverage team). I’ve said before that Special Teams plays a relatively small role when compared to Offense and Defense. That, however, assumes somewhat normal play from the unit. A great STs performance can have a much larger impact, as it did yesterday for the Eagles.
Finally, it’s pretty amazing that the Eagles could look so bad for so long and still win a game by 17 points. The competition probably wasn’t good, but having a 34 point swing during a game almost never happens. It could be a sign that the Eagles just weren’t ready to play or overlooked the Jaguars. Hopefully that’s the case. Even if it’s not, though, watching the Cowboys and Washington play should have reminded everyone that the Eagles don’t need to be anywhere near “great” to win the division.