QB and Resource Allocation

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

Last offseason, the Eagles took a kitchen sink approach to the quarterback position: signing Sam Bradford to a contract extension, signing Chase Daniel in free agency, and trading significant draft picks to move up in the draft and acquire Carson Wentz. In a league where the haves and have-nots are usually separated by who is manning the quarterback position, it seemed like a sensible, if not costly, approach.

The Eagles were able to capitalize on this investment to an extent. As I detailed last week, trading Bradford helped offset some of the lost draft capital used to acquire Wentz. The Eagles also got off the hook for a significant portion of the $18 million salary that Bradford is slated to make next season, which should come in handy when trying to re-sign their own players (cough, Bennie Logan) or upgrade the receiver position in free agency (cough, DeSean Jackson).

But the Eagles situation at quarterback, at least as it relates to the cap, isn’t as good as it could be. One of the chief benefits of starting a quarterback on his rookie deal is that you are getting him at well-below market value, which frees up money for improving the rest of the roster. The Seahawks were able to win a Super Bowl thanks, in part, to being able to retain some of their best defensive players while Russell Wilson was making a paltry $500,000 a year.

But based on the Eagles moves last year, they won’t get to take advantage of having Wentz on his rookie deal until 2018. Let me explain.

For starters, by trading Sam Bradford after June 1st, the Eagles are required to carry $5.5 million of Bradford’s remaining bonus to next season. (Note, if you don’t want to read the explanation about the CBA’s rules, skip these next two paragraphs). Under the CBA, the NFL uses June 1 as a deadline for how unpaid portions of a player’s bonus is treated under the salary cap. It’s essentially a rule of accounting. When a player is removed from a roster prior to June 1st — whether via trade or being released — all of his remaining unamortized bonus money immediately accelerates onto the salary cap of that season. If a player is traded or released after June 1st, like Sam Bradford (who was traded on September 3rd), only his current year’s salary and bonus remains on the cap; the balance of the bonus money accelerates onto the next year’s cap.

Taking this out of the abstract, Bradford had $11 million remaining on his bonus entering the 2016 season. $5.5 million of that bonus was paid to Bradford before he was traded and remained on the Eagles salary in 2016. However, because Bradford was traded after that June 1st cutoff, the remaining $5.5 million is on the Eagles books for year.

 

The Eagles also invested big in Chase Daniel, making him the highest paid backup quarterback in the NFL (he’s technically the second highest paid behind Tony Romo, who was relegated to backup duty after a broken back helped pave the way for Dak Prescott to become the starter). Daniel has an $8 million salary cap hit next season, $7 million of which is dead money. So there’s a snowballs chance in hell they are cutting him.

Add in Carson Wentz’s $6 million salary next season, and the Eagles will have $19.5 million in salary cap allocated to the quarterback position for 2017. According to OvertheCap.com, only 12 quarterbacks make more on a per-year basis.

So, was the Eagles approach the correct one?

One the one hand, if the Eagles didn’t have to account for Bradford’s or Daniel’s contracts, they would have an extra $13.5 million in cap space. That money would certainly come in handy given the significant holes on this roster at running back, wide receiver and cornerback.

But on the other hand, if the Eagles never re-signed Bradford, they wouldn’t have a 1st round pick this year or an extra 4th round pick next year. So I don’t necessarily disagree with the decision to re-sign Bradford (although part of that is admittedly based on the outcome of being able to trade him for a 1st and a 4th; had that trade not been made, we might be having a different discussion).

What about Daniel? On the one hand, $8 million seems like a grossly excessive amount to pay Daniel, especially given what we know about Wentz today. But on the other hand, the Eagles didn’t (a) have any idea that Wentz was going to be ready to play when they signed Daniel, and (b) we can’t discount the positive impact Daniel has had on Wentz’s development.

Consider this story from ESPN.com back in September, which discussed how Daniel was able to get Wentz to approach preparing for a game the same way Daniel was taught to prepare by Drew Brees in New Orleans:

It honestly started my rookie year,” Daniel remembers. “Drew was like, ‘Hey, we’re going to be here at 5:30 in the morning, and this is what we’re going to watch on Wednesdays, this is what we’re going to watch on Thursdays, this is what we’re going to watch on Fridays.’ And I was like, ‘OK. Yes, absolutely. I’ll do whatever you say.’ I’m a rookie, he’s throwing for 5,000 yards a season.

“As time progressed there, we sort of got into a routine. I have two pages of notes on the schedule of exactly what we’re supposed to do, and I sort of brought that to Kansas City with us. Alex [Smith] really loved it, felt he was really prepared and that’s sort of what I’ve tried to bring here with Carson.”

Daniel didn’t reveal everything about the blueprint, but did share some details. First, the quarterbacks are in the film room, clicker in hand, at 5:30 a.m. During the heavy days of prep, they remain in the building until about 7 or 7:30 at night. The “day off” — Tuesday — is a six or seven-hour day, as the quarterbacks get a head start on the film.

“We’re always staying one day ahead of the team. [Thursday], we put base behind us and we started on third down. [Friday], we put third down behind us and we get started on red zone. We’re always staying one step ahead and we’re always going back and checking, ‘OK, here’s the base plan.’ We have this schedule where it just fits. It works well for the mental reps and the mental side of things and so far Carson likes it, he enjoys it.

Is that worth $8 million next year? It’s hard to quantify. Odds are the answer is likely no — they likely could have paid him slightly less and still got the same benefit.

But at the end of the day, we are really only talking about a few million dollars. And since the Eagles will only be on the hook for Wentz’s $7.2 million in 2018 (the Eagles would save $7 million by releasing Daniel, so he is certainly gone after next season), this isn’t a problem that will hamper the Eagles long-term.

Bottom line: the Eagles won’t have the same cap flexibility that other teams have when starting a quarterback on a rookie contract. But given the circumstances, it isn’t as big of a problem as it seems at first blush.

 

The True Cost of Acquiring Carson Wentz

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

Now that the regular season has ended, we have a better understanding of just how much the Eagles traded to acquire Carson Wentz when we factor in their subsequent trade of Sam Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings. Indeed, the latter trade was made as a result of the former, and will forever be linked in determining the foreseeable future of this franchise. Here is a breakdown of the picks the Eagles sent out and received as a result of both trades:

Year Traded Received
2016 1st (8)

3rd (77)

4th (100)

1st (2)
2017 1st (12) 1st (14)

4th

2018 2nd 4th

If we look at this from a pure draft pick perspective, the Eagles only traded Sam Bradford, a 1st, 2nd and 3rd round pick in exchange for Carson Wentz and 4th round pick.

Seems like a no brainer — right?

But the Eagles got an even better ROI once we consider the actual value of each pick involved in the trade. According to the draft value chart, the number 2 overall pick the Eagles used to draft Wentz is worth 2,600 points. The number 8 overall pick they traded to acquire him was worth 1,400 points. That’s a net difference of 1,200 points.

Meanwhile, the Eagles first round pick this year that is heading to Cleveland is #12 overall, and is worth 1,200 points, while the pick they acquired from the Vikings for the Bradford trade, #14 overall, is worth 1,100 points. Meaning they lost 100 points in draft value.

Subtract that 100 points in lost value from the 1,200 in points gained as a result of moving up from 8 to 2, and the Eagles had a total net gain of 1,100 points. That is the functional equivalent of the #14 overall pick in the draft.

I might have lost some of you there with the math, so let me make this simple. The Eagles essentially traded Sam Bradford, a 1st, a 2nd and a 3rd in exchange for Carson Wentz, the #14 overall pick and a 4th round pick.

The math will change slightly as we learn the value of the other picks involved in this trade, but overall, that is unbelievable value, especially if Carson Wentz ends up being as good as we think he can be.

UPDATE: Dave Mangel of Bleeding Green Nation pointed out that we should also factor in that the Eagles traded Kiko Alonso, Byron Maxwell and DeMarco Murray. This is true, although we also need to consider what the Eagles received in return for moving these players. And that is where we start to open the Pandora’s Box a little bit.

The Eagles were able to move up from 13 to 8 thanks to trading Alonso and Maxwell, which is worth the 4th pick in the 3rd round, according to the Draft Value Chart. The Eagles also moved up to the top of the 4th round thanks to the pick swap involved in the Murray trade. Both picks were included in the Wentz deal, so both trades should be considered. Of course, we should also consider that the Birds received significant cap space as a result of all of the trades. Maxwell still had approximately  $55 million remaining on his contract, $13 million of which was guaranteed. Murray had  $9 million remaining in guaranteed money on the $42 million contract he signed. And trading Bradford removed his $18 million in salary that he was owed in 2017 (although $5.5 million in guaranteed salary from 2016 carries over to the 2017 cap). Parsing through the exact relief is a little bit tricky, but suffice it to say, the newfound cap space helped the Eagles retain Lane Johnson, Fletcher Cox and Zach Ertz, and freed up cap space to address holes on the Eagles roster in the next two seasons (as opposed to paying Bradford, Murray, and Maxwell).

I think we are extending this analysis too far, but I won’t argue if you want to take this analysis as far back as you can go. If we did that, the end result looks something like this: Bradford, #13 overall, Murray, Maxwell, Alonso, a 2nd and a 3rd for Wentz, the #14 overall pick, a high 3rd, a 4th and approximately $35 million in cap space that helped retain Cox, Johnson and Ertz. 

Bottom line: the Eagles were able to minimize the cost of acquiring their franchise quarterback of the future thanks to a series of smart trades by Howie Roseman. That the Eagles traded players they had no intentions of keeping on their roster long term is just icing on the proverbial cake.

 

Eagles are not far off from competing for the playoffs

 Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

There is a belief among some that the Eagles are a bad team in need of a complete overhaul this offseason. Even though the Eagles are 5-9, I’m not buying it. For starters, if Carson Wentz is as good as I think he is, he will be able to mask some of the holes on this roster — much like any other high level quarterback can. But I also don’t buy it because the available data doesn’t back it up.

Point Differential

Let’s start with point differential. The Eagles are 5-9, but have a +17 point differential. That is better than the following teams at or above .500:

  • Houston 8-6 (-44)
  • Tampa Bay 8-6 (-9)
  • Miami 9-5 (+1)
  • Washington 7-6-1 (+2)
  • Minnesota 7-7 (+5)
  • New Orleans 6-8 (+14)
  • Detroit 9-5 (+16)

In fact, since 2006, only six teams out of 320 finished with a losing record but positive point differential. That’s 1.8%. The Eagles are currently on track to be the 7th.

So why does this matter? Because point differential is proven to be a more reliable predictor of a team’s future win-loss record than its actual win-loss record. As Bill Barnwell explained:

We can produce an “expected” win total for each NFL team, given its point differential, by running the Pythagorean Expectation formula — Points For x 2.37 / (Points For x2.37 + Points Against x 2.37) — and multiplying it by 16, for the number of games in a season. Ever since Bill James created this for baseball and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey modified it for football, the results have shown that winning more games than your Pythagorean Expectation tends to mean a team will decline the following season, while falling short of expectations tends to mean a team will improve.

Apply that formula to the Eagles (but divide by 14 games since the season isn’t over), and we get an expected win total of 7.22 games this season, which is a net positive of 2.22 wins. If that number holds, it will likely be one of the highest in the league, meaning the Eagles have likely fallen victim to bad luck this year.

For the Doubting Thomas’ of the group, let’s put this theory to the test with concrete examples. Consider those six teams I mentioned before that finished the year with a losing record but positive point differential. Look at how they fared the following season:

Year Team Record Point Diff Record the Following Year
2008 Green Bay Packers 6-10 +39 11-5*
2010 Tennessee Titans 6-10 +17 9-7
2011 Seattle Seahawks 7-9 +6 11-5**
2011 Miami Dolphins 6-10 +16 7-9
2012 New Orleans Saints 7-9 +7 11-5**
2013 Detroit Lions 7-9 +19 11-5*

* = made the playoffs          ** = won a playoff game

Every team improved on their win total the following year, winning an average of 10 games. Four of six teams won 11 games and made the playoffs. Two of those four teams won at least one playoff game. Only one team (2012 Dolphins) had a losing record, yet they still improved on their win total from the prior year.

In other words, point differential is the more reliable metric we should be using to evaluate the Eagles, and based on that metric, the Eagles should be around 7-7. 

Look over the Eagles schedule, and it’s not that hard to see how, with a few breaks here and there, they could have easily have reached that mark. Maybe Doug Pederson doesn’t blow it against Dallas, or Wentz connects with Jordan Matthews on the final play against the Giants, or Ryan Mathews hangs onto the d*mn football against the Lions.

This isn’t cherry picking selective games. It has been a consistent theme all season. The Eagles have lost six games by seven points or less. Two of those games were decided by only one point. Conversely, the Eagles lost only one game (to the Bengals) by more than 14 points. In other words, they have been in almost every single game they lost this year. That puts them in good company league wide, as only eight teams in the NFL have fewer losses by that margin: the Falcons, Ravens, Cowboys, Broncos, Lions, Giants, Chargers and Redskins. Other teams with an equal number of 14+ point losses include the Patriots, Raiders, Seahawks and Chiefs. While the Eagles have less losses by 14+ points  than the Steelers, Packers, Dolphins or Texans, each of which are currently slated to make the playoffs.

Number of 14+ point losses Teams
0 Falcons, Ravens, Cowboys, Broncos, Lions, Giants, Chargers and Redskins
1 Eagles, Patriots, Raiders, Seahawks, Bills, Bengals, Chiefs, Vikings,  Saints, Titans
2 Steelers, Packers, Cardinals, Panthers, Colts, Jags, Dolphins
3 Bucs, Texans, Bears
4 Rams
5 Jets, 49ers
6 Browns

Football Outsiders

Other metrics rank the Eagles highly as well. According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles are 6th overall in DVOA, 10th in weighted DVOA, 22nd in offense, and (somewhat remarkably) 5th in defense.

Even Scott Kacsmar, who has drawn the ire of Eagles fans with his anti-Carson Wentz takes (AIR YARDS!!!!!!!!), concedes that the Eagles are better than their record suggests:

PFF

Finally, we reach a similar conclusion if use Pro Football Focus’ player grades to compare how the Eagles roster stacks up with the rest of the league. (And I know, I know– PFF’s rankings deserve a giant grain of salt).

Below is a chart which counts the number of players on each team that fall into certain categories of PFF’s ranking system — i.e., elite, high quality, poor, etc., etc. First, compare the difference between the Eagles and obviously terrible teams like the 49ers and Browns. The talent disparity is stark.

Team Elite High Quality Above Average Average Below Average Poor
Eagles 1 6 1 7 3 4
49ers 0 0 1 7 2 11
Browns 0 1 1 9 1 9
Packers 1 5 3 8 1 4
Seahawks 2 5 4 5 1 6
Patriots 1 6 1 5 6 2
Raiders 1 4 6 5 0 6
Chiefs 1 2 6 9 2 2
Cowboys 0 7 5 7 1 2
Steelers 0 4 6 7 1 4
Redskins 1 2 8 5 3 3
Giants 1 5 3 3 1 9
Lions 0 2 5 6 2 8
Falcons 2 3 4 11 1 2
Texans 0 4 3 5 2 8
Ravens 2 1 5 10 0 4

Next, compare the Eagles to the remaining teams on this list, which consist of the other NFC East teams and most of the teams in playoff contention. Of the 22 starters, the Eagles have 8 that rank as above average or better. That’s 36.36% of their current starters. That rank is on par with several playoff teams, including the New England Patriots, and isn’t far behind others:

Teams Above Average Starters %
Texans, Lions 7/22 31.8%
Eagles, Ravens, Patriots 8/22 36.36%
Falcons, Packers, Giants, Chiefs 9/22 40.9%
Steelers 10/22 45%
Seahawks, Raiders 11/22 50%
Cowboys 12/22 54.5%

Bottom line: all of this is not to say that the Eagles are an elite team ready to contend for the Super Bowl. They undoubtedly need to add at least 2-3 more above average players to their roster before they can even think of that happening.

But this is to say that the Eagles aren’t as bad as we think. With some smart roster improvements and internal player improvement, we should expect the Eagles to be able to do so next year. In fact, even if neither of those things happened, the Eagles point differential suggests they can still compete for the playoffs.

Offensive Line is a Massive Priority for the Eagles

While the Eagles have many holes on their roster, their offensive line is the most pressing need thanks to the units collective age and Lane Johnson’s tenuous status in the league. 

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

Andrew Luck was considered a can’t miss prospect — a once in a generation talent that was going to cement the Colts franchise as perennial contenders for the next 15 years. Luck has been a very good quarterback, but he’s been marred by inconsistency and the Colts are 14-15 over the last two seasons just as Luck should be entering his prime. What gives?

It wasn’t for a lack of skill position players. The Colts invested significant draft capital in the receiving position, using a 1st and two 3rd round picks on Phillip Dorsett, TY Hilton and Donte Moncrief, respectively. They signed the ageless Frank Gore in free agency. And they surrounded Luck with dependable(ish?) tight ends in Dwayne Allen and Luck’s favorite college target, Coby Fleener (who has since signed with the Saints).

Look instead at the big uglies — the often overlooked, but critically important offensive lineman. Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson committed managerial malpractice by neglecting that unit during the first four seasons of Luck’s career, and it showed. Luck was hit an absurd 375 times since he was drafted, most in the NFL by a considerable margin. The cumulative effect was Luck missing 9 games last season with a litany of injuries, including a lacerated lung.

Juxtapose this team building philosophy with the Oakland Raiders, who spent a league high $37.7 million on their offensive line — dubbed Carr Insurance by Oakland fans — to create one of the best lines in  the NFL. Sure, the Raiders also have stud receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. But without that offensive line, which has only given up 13 sacks on the year, odds are Derek Carr would end up more like his brother, David Carr — who was sacked a comical 76 times during his rookie season — than his current MVP-contending self. Or compare it to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team flying under the radar as a legitimate playoff contender this season. Yes, the Bucs used the number 7 overall pick on Mike Evans to pair with their young franchise quarterback, Jameis Winston. But they also used a mix of free agency and the draft (including a high second round pick on Donovan Smith) to build one of the deepest offensive lines in football. Or the Tennessee Titans, who have assisted Marcus Mariota’s ascension to the ranks of one of the best young quarterbacks in the league by building a young and talented offensive line, thanks in part to using top 10 draft picks on Chance Warmack (now on injured reserve) and Jake Conklin, the latter of which is considered one of the best young tackles in all of football.

What the above examples show is that it doesn’t matter how much capital you invest in shiny new toys because they, and your franchise quarterback, won’t be nearly as effective if their offensive line is in shambles.

Which brings me to the Eagles. We have entered that point of the season where we don our armchair general manager caps and devise ways in which we can we can improve the Eagles roster. It is an annual tradition of sorts, providing therapeutic relief from the realization that the Eagles are, yet again, missing the playoffs. Most fans focus their attention on wide receiver, cornerback, and running back, given the obvious limitations of each position. And indeed, those positions must be upgraded if the Eagles want to have any realistic chance at competing for the playoffs. But, the offensive line is often overlooked, and it is a mistake.

To an extent, I get why. The offensive line has played pretty well this year according to most metrics. Football Outsiders has the Eagles ranked 8th in pass blocking and 15th in run blocking. PFF has handed out above average grades to every offensive lineman save for Jason Kelce:

  • Peters: 84.7 (above average)
  • Barbre: 82.8 (above average)
  • Kelce: 60.2 (below average)
  • Brooks: 84.8 (above average)
  • Johnson: 87.2 (high quality)

Given that our receivers can’t catch, our corners can’t stop receivers from catching, and our best running back is a  34-year old scat back, the temptation likely exists to assume the offensive line is good enough for another year and invest our limited resources elsewhere. Maybe Isaac Seumalo challenges Kelce for the starting center job, Jason Peters defies Father Time one last time, and the Eagles get away with just injecting the line with youth vis-a-vis late round draft picks.

 

Truth be told, I’d love nothing more than to get Carson Wentz a true number one receiver and a stud running back. And while we still need to address those positions over the next two offseasons, it cannot come at the expense of the offensive line. According to Jimmy Kempski of Philly Voice, the Eagles entered this season with the oldest offensive line, in terms of average age of each lineman, in the entire league, with their average age of 29.2 years just beating out the Atlanta Falcons (29). This chart, again courtesy of Jimmy Kempski, underscores just how old the unit has become:

Player Positional rank
J. Peters 2nd oldest LT
A. Barbre 2nd oldest LG
J. Kelce 11th oldest C
B. Brooks 10th oldest RG
L. Johnson 24th oldest RT

If the Eagles do not make any changes to the above group next season, they will have an absurd average age of 30.6 years old, which is almost two-years older than the second oldest. Even if we substitute Isaac Seumalo for Allan Barbre at left guard, the units average age would be 28.8, which would rank tied for the 29th oldest unit in the league based on this year’s numbers (which shouldn’t be too far off from what we would expect next season).

That was a long way of saying the Eagles offensive line is old as dirt. This is the direct result of the Eagles failing draft a single lineman during the last two seasons of the Chip Kelly era, and the situation won’t get any better until the Eagles invest significant resources in this position in the very near future.

This investment is especially needed at the tackle position, where Peters age (he will be 35 next year) and Lane Johnson’s tenuous grasp on his NFL career paint a bleak outlook. While Peters has played better longer than anyone (including yours truly) expected, there isn’t a single starting lineman in the NFL that is 35 years old, which is how old Peters will be next year. While Johnson has been suspended twice for violating the NFL’s PED policy, meaning he is one mistake away from a 2-year suspension.

Can the Eagles risk heading into next season under those circumstances? Here are the three potential outcomes for next season:

  • Best case (unrealistic?) scenario: Peters has another solid season left in the tank, Johnson keeps himself out of trouble, and the Eagles find a way to address the right tackle position in 2017.
  • More realistic scenario: Peters regresses and/or gets hurt, forcing the Eagles to slide Johnson to left tackle and Big V to right tackle.
  • Worst case scenario: Peters gets hurt and Johnson gets suspended, forcing the Birds into relying on Barbre and Big V as their starting tackles for the season. No offense to either of those two, but that is simply not a situation in which we want to place our young franchise quarterback.

And of course, I haven’t even addressed the fact that Jason Kelce has regressed in each of the last three seasons, and Brandon Brooks — the Eagles free agent signing this offseason — just announced today that he has missed the last two weeks of football because of a serious anxiety disorder.

Simply put, as important as receiver, running back and corner back are to this team — and indeed, they are critical — offensive line should be our top priority.

Five Plays that Determined the Outcome of Eagles/Redskins

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

Apologies for going MIA for the last two weeks; the downside of being a litigator is unavoidable at times.

In one of my favorite scenes in a sports movie, Al Pacino’s Game of Inches speech perfectly encapsulates the difference between “winning and losing” in professional football:

The key moment for present purposes is delivered about halfway through the above clip, when Pacino’s vintage cadence and delivery are in full effect: “One half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half a second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game. Every minute. Every second. On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know, when we add up all those inches, that’s gonna make the f*ing difference between winning and losing.

Indeed, the NFL really is a game of inches where games turn on only a handful of plays. A good illustration of this point was the Eagles v Redskins game, which the Eagles lost 27-22. There were five plays that I zeroed in on that swung the outcome of this game in the Redskins favor.

Jordan Matthews TD Drop

The first and most obvious example is this drop from Jordan Matthews. The Eagles had their second consecutive drive in the redzone, and Carson Wentz placed a beautiful ball over two Redskins defenders where only Matthews could catch it. But, as we all know by now, Matthews didn’t drag his foot in time to make the catch.

ezgif.com-video-to-gif (1).gif

Watching it in real time, I knew Matthews messed up. But it wasn’t until I turned on the tape to see just how egregious his mistake was. This screen shot is almost exactly when the ball enters Matthews hands. He has a good two feet within which he can drag his right foot to make the catch, but fails to get it done. NFL caliber receivers need to make this catch 99 out of 100 times. And that Matthews is our best receiver but was still unable to make this play tells you everything you need to know about the state of the Eagles receiving unit this year.

We all know what happened next: a miscue between Carson Wentz and Zach Ertz led to an interception in the end zone.  On three trips inside the red zone in the first quarter, the Eagles came away with a whopping 6 points.

Zach Ertz block in the back negating Sproles’ TD

Early in the third quarter, the Eagles were up 13-7. On the Redskins opening drive to start the half, the Eagles much maligned defense forced a 3 & out thanks to a Fletcher Cox sack on third down.

The momentum swing in the Birds favor was given an emphatic exclamation point when Darren Sproles returned Tress Way’s punt 49 yards to the house, putting the Birds up 20-7….. Or so we thought.

Instead, the play was nullified by a block in the back penalty on Zach Ertz. The broadcast just showed the tail end of the play, which gave the impression that the refs made a ticky tack call at the most inopportune of times. But rewind the tape a few seconds earlier, and it’s easy to see why the penalty was called.

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As you can see, the Redskins’ gunner had his back to Ertz the ENTIRE time, yet Ertz fully extended his arms for a two-handed shove. That’s the text-book definition of a block in the back. It’s unclear why Ertz thought he could get away with something so blatant. The Eagles ended up going three-and-out on the drive and punting, which led to…..

DeSean Jackson Mid-Route Adjustment on his 80-yard Touchdown

Yup. Two plays after this punt, Kirk Cousins hit DeSean Jackson for an 80-yard score. In a game that was decided by only 5 points, this 14-point swing, separated by only 6 plays, was especially influential. Jackson’s touchdown provided the Redskins with a lead that they would never relinquish.

ezgif.com-video-to-gif (2).gif

Jackson made an adjustment mid-route to catch the football that was overlooked by the broadcast team.  But watch it unfold in slow motion; you can see how Cousins throw was inaccurate.  Jackson was running towards the center hash of the field but had to turn to his outside shoulder to make the grab.

Tracking the ball on deep routes is a subtle, yet difficult skill, and is one that Eagles receivers clearly lack (look no further than the interception Carson Wentz threw to Nelson Agholor that ended the Lions game). This play underscores the tight rope with which Wentz must walk on a weekly basis, as his receivers are simply not talented enough to bail him out on inaccurate throws like we see Jackson do here.

Brent Celek’s botched long-snap 

The parade of horrors continued in the third quarter as the Eagles wasted a potential momentum saving, 6 minute, 49 yard drive by botching a 50-yard field goal attempt. Gone was the potential 16-14 lead after Brent Celek — who was filling in for the injured Jon Dorenbos — botched the long snap.

ezgif.com-video-to-gif (4).gif

We can’t fault Celek here. He was filling in on the fly during a key moment in the game. But the broadcasters suggested that Celek was not afforded the opportunity to even practice long snapping once on the sideline before this play. That raises legitimate questions as to what the hell Doug Pederson was thinking. In a close game, every point matters. Armed with 3 timeouts, the Eagles unquestionably should have burned one to let Celek at least get a few practice snaps before rolling him out there during a critical period in the game. I thought Pederson had one of his better games of the season last week, but this was another rookie mistake from the head coach.

 

DeSean Jackson’s Toe-Tap

As if to rub salt further into the Eagles wounds, Jackson made an acrobatic catch on the very next drive that was instrumental in the Redskins scoring another touchdown. Faced with a 2nd & 10 at their own 46 yard line and clinging to a 1 point lead, Cousins hit Jackson on a 21-yard corner route, which Jackson hauled in thanks to some nifty footwork and body control.

ezgif.com-video-to-gif (5).gif

It was almost as if Jackson was making these plays to remind the Eagles organization what could have been: “oh, your best receiver can’t do a routine toe-tap in the end zone? Allow me to show you how I can stop on a dime, adjust to an outside throw and get both feet in bounds in one fluid motion.” Punch me in the face.

If you need another reason to hate your life, here is a screen shot of Jackson poised at a 45-degree angle with both feet in bounds making the catch. I can only imagine what Wentz was thinking when he saw this play.

Four plays later, the Redskins scored a touchdown to go up 21-13. For those keeping track at home, the Eagles started the third quarter up 13-7, but thanks to a series of unfortunate events were down 21-13 just four drives later.

In all, these five plays gave the Redskins 14 points while taking 17 points off the board for the Birds. That’s a thirty-one point swing in a single game. As I mentioned on Twitter a few times: this game turned on the Redskins making plays when it mattered most, and the Eagles failing to do the same.  In the infamous words of Al Pacino, those five plays contained the inches that added up and made the  “f*ing difference between winning and losing.”

Eagles v. Packers Game Preview

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

The Philadelphia Eagles host the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football. The Eagles are in a must win situation, as they likely need to win five of their last six to have a realistic shot at a wildcard spot. Meanwhile, the Packers come in losers of four straight, thanks in large part to a defense that has been devastated by injuries. Below is a breakdown of the game and key matchups to watch.

Eagles Home Field Advantage

The Eagles have been demonstrably better at home, for reasons unknown. I’ve touched on these numbers before, but they bear repeating:

  Home Away
Record 4-0 1-5
Points Scored 27 22
Points Allowed 9.5 29.6
Turnover Differential +4 +1

Meanwhile, Green Bay is 1-4 on the road and have been outscored by 162 to 122. The advantage is clearly in the Eagles favor.

Packer’s Offense v. Eagles Defense

Overall, the Packers’ offense ranks #12 in Football Outsiders DVOA metrics. They are 13th in yards per game (362.7), 10th in points per game (24.7), and 10th in time of possession (31:10).

Key Stats: I am a firm believer in turnovers, third down percentages, penalties and redzone efficiency. The team that is able to excel in these four facets of the game tend to have the best chance of winning. The Packers are strong in third down percentage, ranking 6th in the league converting 47% of their opportunities; they are also a highly disciplined team, ranking 9th best in penalties on the year with only 63. However, the Packers are middle of the pack in redzone efficiency, ranking 19th in the NFL while scoring touchdowns on 54.76% of their opportunities. And they struggle with turnovers; their 16 turnovers on the year are tied for 9th most in the NFL.

Packers Pass v. Eagles Pass Defense

Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in football, even if he has had an up and down season by his standards. On the season, Rodgers is completing 62.6% of his passes with 25 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 94. Those are good numbers for most quarterbacks, but below Rodgers historical production. In the last five weeks, however, Rodgers has looked like his vintage self:

  • Chicago: 39/56, 69%, 326 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 Ints, 102.2 Rate
  • Falcons: 28/38, 74%, 246 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 ints, 125.5 rate
  • Colts: 26/43, 60%, 297 yards, 3 TDs, 1 Int, 94.8 rate
  • Titans: 31/51, 60%, 371 yards, 2 TDs, 2 Ints, 79.8 rate
  • Redskins: 26/41, 63%, 351 yards, 3 TDs, 0 int, 115 rate

Like Russell Wilson last week, Rodgers poses a challenge to the Eagles with his legs. He is arguably the best quarterback in football at extending plays with his legs, buying time for his receivers to get open down field. Wilson gave the Eagles fits last week with just that, leading to the touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham. The Eagles defensive line will need to be more disciplined in their approach, making sure they keep containment on Rodgers in the pocket.

Key Matchup 1: Packers WRs v Eagles CBs

The biggest concern for the Eagles defense is their subpar cornerbacks taking on the Packers prolific wide receivers. The Packers likely have the best receiving unit the Eagles have faced all season, with Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb all posing unique challenges. Adams has finally started to capitalize on his potential, turning in his best season of his career so far. Meanwhile, Nelson is the most productive redzone receiver in the NFL, leading the league in red-zone targets (20), targets inside the 10-yard line (10) and touchdowns (9).

Nolan Carroll has played well in spurts, while Leodis McKelvin has been struggling with a hamstring injury all season that has made him a liability in coverage. But the biggest concern is Jalen Mills, who is the worst rated cornerback among 119 qualifiers, according to Pro Football Focus. Mills was especially brutal against the Seahawks, taking a terrible angle and giving even worse tackling effort on CJ Prosise’s long touchdown run.

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A few drives later, Mills was burned deep twice in a row to set up the Seahawks second touchdown of the game. Mills just does not have the foot speed to keep up with most NFL receivers, so don’t be surprised if Rodgers looks to pick on Mills all game.

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Key Matchup 2: Eagles D-line v Packers O-line:  The Packers rank 11th in pass protection according to Football Outsiders, allowing 24 sacks on the year, which is the 12th most. Meanwhile, the Eagles defensive line continues to excel in pass rushing situations, with the 2nd ranked pass rush DVOA, 26 sacks on the year, and a 7.9% adjusted sack rate. As we have seen all year, the Eagles defense goes as their defensive line goes, and this week will be no different. It is imperative that the Eagles front four can generate pressure on Rodgers consistently without blitzing. The Eagles can ill afford to allow Rodgers time to operate from a clean pocket, especially given the advantage the Packers receivers have on the Eagles corners.

Packers Run Offense v. Eagles Run Defense

The Packers are not particularly good at running the football. Eddie Lacy was having a decent year before suffering a season ending ankle injury, and the Packers have struggled to find his replacement. As a result, they rank 17th in run DVOA, 20th in yards per game (100.6), 5th in ypc (4.6), 30th in attempts (221), and 30th with rushing touchdowns (3).

Since his return in week 10, James Starks has been the featured back for the Packers, getting 10 and 14 touches, respectively. Ty Montgomery, a wide receiver converted to running back who was surprisingly effective in spurts, has gotten 5 and 7 touches during that time. The Packers also added Christine Michael, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks, who has 6 rushing touchdowns on the year, which is double the amount of rushing touchdowns the Packers have as a team. The Packers are expecting Michael to contribute this week, after being inactive in last week’s loss to the Redskins.

The Packers have preached the need to stick with the run game, but have done a poor job following through. In four of their last five games, Rodgers has aired it out 56, 43, 41 and 51 times, respectively. This plays into the Eagles strength as a defense, since they have been up and down against the run but excel when their defensive lineman can pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. On the season, they rank 13th in rush DVOA, giving up the 16 most rushing yards per game and the 8th highest rushing yards per attempt. They have been struggling even more as of late, giving up 728 yards, 2 touchdowns and 4.79 yards per carry in the last 7 games.

Key Matchup: Shutting Down the Run: this seems basic, but the Eagles best chance is to shut down the run and make the Packers one dimensional. Of course, telling the Packers to beat you with Aaron Rodgers is always a dangerous proposition, but the Eagles defense has demonstrated it is not effective if their lineman have to worry about the run. If the Eagles can limit the Packers anemic run game, they have a better chance of pulling this game out.

Eagles Offense

The Eagles offense continues to struggle with consistency and explosiveness. They are the 21st rated offense according to Football Outsiders, 19th in yards per game (340.4), and 14th in points per game (24.1). The one area in which they continue to excel is time of possession, as their 32.53 average is second best in the league.

Key Stats: The Eagles offense comes up short in three of the four key stats I mentioned earlier. They are the fourth highest penalized team in the NFL (83), they rank 29th in converting 3rd downs (34%), 25th in red zone touchdown efficiency (50%). The are above average at protecting the football, however, as their 12 turnovers rank 12th in the NFL.

Eagles Pass v. Packers Pass D

Wentz has played well for a rookie, inhibited by Pederson’s conservative play calling and his receivers second worst rate of drops in the NFL. But he has cooled from his torching hot start to the season. Here are his stats over the last 5 weeks:

  • Vikings: 16/28, 57%, 138 yards, 1 TD, 2 int, 52.4 Rate
  • Cowboys: 32/43, 74%, 202 yards, 1 td, 0 int, 91.4 rate
  • Giants: 27.47, 57%, 364 yards, 0 td, 2 int, 64.5 rate
  • Falcons: 25/36, 69%, 231 yards, 0 td, 0 int, 86.7 rate
  • Seahawks: 23/45, 51%, 218 yards, 2 td, 2 int, 61.2 rate

On the season, the Eagles have the 22nd ranked passing offense according to Football Outsiders. Wentz has made a concerted effort as of late to target Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz in the passing attack. Matthews has target counts of 15, 10, 10, and 10 over the last four weeks, and is on pace to eclipse 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. I cover Ertz in more detail below, but over the last three weeks he has been targeted 25 times, as he is finally starting to develop a report with Carson Wentz.

As I alluded to before, the Packers defense has been derailed by injuries, and the lack of depth is showing up in the box score. The Packers defense has surrendered at least 30 points in five of their last six games, and have given up 33, 31, 47 and 42 points in four of their last five. The Packers rank dead last in yards per pass attempt (8.1), and have the second worst quarterback rating allowed (105.6).

In other words, Carson Wentz has a juicy matchup that he must exploit if the Eagles are going to have a chance to win this game.

Key Matchup 1: Allen Barbre v Nick Perry/Clay Matthews

A key to whether Wentz will have a good game is how well the offensive line does in pass protection. The Eagles are down to their third string right tackle, as Allen Barbre replaces rookie 5th round tackle Halapouilvaati Vaitai, who suffered an MCL sprain last week against the Seahawks. Big V had a disastrous start to his career, giving up three sacks in the Eagles loss to the Redskins in Week 5, but his play has improved considerably as of late. How Barbre performs against the Packers pass rushers Nick Perry and Clay Matthews will go a long way towards determining how well the Eagles offense performs.

Key Matchup 2: Zach Ertz & Trey Burton v. Packers LBs

Zach Ertz is one of the more maligned Eagles players this year, getting considerable heat from fans over his lack of production and aversion to contact. But he has finally caught fire, as his production over the last three weeks  (20 catches, 187 yards and 1 TD) eclipsed his statistical output during the first nine weeks of the season (15 catches, 150 yards, 0 TDs), when he was inhibited by a displaced rib and chemistry concerns with Carson Wentz.

The Eagles coaching staff deserves credit for making Ertz a focal point of the Eagles offense, especially in the redzone. They sprung Ertz for a score last week against the Seahawks with this nice trip-TE play that had Celek and Burton clear-out the middle of the field for Ertz, who ran a beautiful route to turn around Kam Chancellor for the score:

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The Eagles tight ends have a chance for a strong week again, as the Packers have given up the 8th most catches (55) and second most yards (726) to opposing tight ends.

Eagles Run v. Packers Run D

The Eagles are best when they have an effective run game. They are 14th in DVOA, 6th in yards per game (118.3), 11th in yards per carry (4.3), and 11th in rushing touchdowns (10). Doug Pederson deserves credit for sticking with the run, even when it wasn’t very effective, as their 27.7 attempts per game rank 9th in the NFL.

The Packers defense has been stout for most of the season, ranking 5th in DVOA. But their run defense has been susceptible over the last four weeks, giving up 81 yards and 1 touchdown to the Falcons, 70 yards and 2 touchdowns to the Colts, 154 yards and 1 touchdown to the Titans, and 147 yards and 3 touchdowns to the Redskins. To make matters worse, the Packers will be without impressive rookie linebacker Blake Martinez, who is one of their best run defenders and leaders on defense.

Player to Watch: Wendell Smallwood: With Ryan Mathews out and Darren Sproles nursing a broken rib, Smallwood figures to get his most action of the year. On the year, Smallwood has 253 yards on 57 carries, which yields a 4.4 yard per carry average.  I expect the Eagles to continue their ball dominating approach this week to keep Aaron Rodgers and the prolific Packers offense on the sidelines. Smallwood will need to prove to the coaches he is up to the challenge, as his costly fumble earlier in the season is likely still in the back of the coaching staff’s mind.

Game Prediction: I have a hard time believing the Packers can lose 5 straight with Aaron Rodgers, and my gut instinct says the Packers pull this one off. Nevertheless, I cannot ignore the disparity in play between the Eagles at home, and the Packers on the road. I’m taking the Eagles in this one 27-23.

Philadelphia Sports Table Podcast: WR, QB and the Playoff Push

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

I had a chance to jump on the Philadelphia Sports Table Podcast today. I spoke with Jeff Warren about the Eagles receiving situation, potential receiving free agent targets, an evaluation of Carson Wentz, and the Eagles chances of making the playoffs. Give it a listen here, and make sure to follow the folks at PST on Twitter @PhiladelphiaPST, @Jeffery_Warren, and @LenHunsicker.