By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE — In many ways, the 2016 Philadelphia Eagles are like a marriage ceremony – with a shotgun included with the rice.
As the invited guests gather around, there is a sense of a beginning taking place.
And, unlike the coordinators – Frank Reich with the offense, Jim Schwartz with the defense and Dave Fipp with special teams – head coach Doug Pederson and starting quarterback Carson Wentz are rookies. When the bell rings this Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field – ironically against the Cleveland Browns team that will get the Eagles’ first-round pick in exchange for the chance to draft Wentz – it will be their first rodeo.
There will be ups and downs, but all we can do is send them off on their mystery ride with the type of warm wishes reserved for wedding videos.
There is the question of whether the Eagles, searching for their first championship since before The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, will finish at or around .500 and are good enough to contend in a weak division or are so bad that the Browns draft in the top 5 right here in Philly. But the 2016 season, the first year of the union, should not be judged in a vacuum.
With that said, Eagles Nation, boo now or forever hold your peace.
And do so knowing that the history of the combination of a first-year head coach and rookie quarterback is not going to put you line to order playoff tickets.
But also do so knowing that a strategic step back could mean the necessary steps forward that the franchise has been unable to make since 1960.
In the meantime, and despite the frustration, try to keep the proper perspective.
And don’t wave the white flag just yet.
There are reasons for optimism:
- The Eagles, according many outlets that tabulate such things – knowing, full-well, that fortunes rise and fall on a weekly basis – have one of the easier schedules around. Not only in the NFC, but in the entire NFL. The slate begins with two winnable games, even with a rookie with one preseason outing under his belt under center. Week 3 is home against Pittsburgh. Although the Steelers are clearly the more powerful squad, they will be without suspended running back Le’Veon Bell. Next is a bye week. A 2-1 record would set the right tone. And while 1-2 wouldn’t be disastrous, an 0-3 start would only make talk-radio trolls happy.
- When Schwartz was hired as the defensive coordinator, there were deserved cold sweats and flashbacks to 2012. That’s when Jim Washburn was running a Wide-9 in the trenches while overmatched defensive coordinator Juan Castillo had linebackers on a different wavelength and secondary coach Todd Bowles had the secondary on another. However, if the 4-0 preseason is any guide, dysfunction is not going to be an issue. A strength of the team is its defensive line, with Fletcher Cox (left) almost unblockable inside and a trio of defensive ends – Connor Barwin, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry – buying into the scheme that seems ideal for their skill sets. The key to the scheme is a middle linebacker who won’t become roadkill the way that Casey Matthews did in 2012 as a rookie thrown to the wolves. Jordan Hicks, on his way to possibly being the league’s top defensive rookie last year before an injury, moves from inside in a 3-4 to the middle in the 4-3. There may be a learning curve, but he has veteran assistance in Stephen Tulloch – the best at running Schwartz’s defense while in his prime – as a mentor. The talented, but oft-injured Mychal Kendricks is on the weak side and Nigel Bradham, a Schwartz disciple, is on the strong side. While the cornerback position is in question, and will rely heavily on the consistency of the pass rush (more so than the raw sack total), the safety tandem of Malcom Jenkins and free agent Rodney McLeod is one of the better combinations in the league.
- Fipp’s special teams units not only have the chance to be special – pun intended – they are going to need to be among the league’s best if some games are to be stolen. There was some overall slippage last season, but it was hard to match the 2014 campaign when special teams accounted for seven touchdowns (three on blocked punts, two on kickoff returns and two on punt returns) and played a key role in Chip Kelly’s second edition matching the 10-6 mark of the first, despite lacking the same cohesion on offense and defense as 2013. Cody Parkey was a Pro Bowl kicker in 2014 as a rookie, and Darren Sproles made his first Pro Bowl as a return man in 2014 and earned another trip last season. With special teams-first players like Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman leading the way, there is almost no reason not to expect more of the same. Hiring Fipp was one of Kelly’s best moves, and retaining him was equally worthy of plaudits.
But before you start getting delusions of grandeur, consider the following:
- Wentz may have all the requisite tools of a franchise quarterback – size, smarts, a cannon for an arm, running ability and leadership skills – but he is still a rookie from the Division I-AA level. Yes, North Dakota State is a powerhouse there. Yes, he won two championships there. But he didn’t even grab the starting job until his junior season and missed part of last season with an injury. Even big-time BCS-level quarterbacks with more experience sit for a year, sometimes longer, before taking over the reins of their offenses. What does this mean? He will have moments where natural ability takes over, and an overall strategy tailored for him to manage the game will limit mistakes. Still, there will come times – times late in games and chances need to be taken – when he will need to sink or swim on his own. He will likely swim sometimes, but he will also need a lifeline others. There are also has to be concern that some of the teams better targets, like receiver Jason Matthews and tight end Zach Ertz (left), will get frustrated. There will be weeks where Wentz just won’t get them the ball as much as they want it. All of us – teammates, coaches, front office, media and fans – need to be willing to show patience for not only this season, but into the next. Case in point, there is the groundswell of hope that receiver Dorial Green-Beckham becomes a beast at some point this season. That transformation from raw talent to polished product would have had a better chance of happening with Sam Bradford, or even Chase Daniel, running the offense. Additionally, the downside of starting Wentz from Week 1 will be that will be hard to give him the hook without risking a regression.
- Even before the trade of Bradford, the Eagles looked to be a ball-control offense without an inside-out passing attack (working the tight ends, the running backs on screens and quick hitches to the receivers). Ryan Mathews will be featured in the running game. While talented enough to be an elite back, he has a long history of injuries. Behind him is Kenjon Barner, who has proven to be the Brian Westbrook of preseason but the Robert Drummond of the regular season. Rookie Wendell Smallwood barely played in the preseason, and enters the opening game coming off a concussion protocol. Ideally, the coaches would rather use Sproles as a Swiss Army Knife more than as a pure running back, but may end up having no choice.
- The league did the Eagles zero favors by giving no firm answer on the fate of right tackle Lane Johnson, who was presumed suspended for PED use but the punishment never came. The waiting period caused a lot of shuffling of the first-unit line in the preseason in search of the right Plan B. Now, it’s back to Plan A – at least until they hear otherwise. While no team can win anything of consequence without a solid offensive line, it is even more imperative with Wentz under center and the need to run the ball consistently. The Eagles will be predictable; that much is certain. When a line dominates, it generally doesn’t matter much. That chance to do so, at least early on, may have been lost.
- While the linebackers are talented, depth is a concern. Kendricks is no stranger to the training table. Hicks, while having the talent to be drafted as early as the late first round, lasted until the late third because he missed two full seasons in college. On the north side of 30, Tulloch was on the open market until August. He could have a season left in his tank, but that would pretty much be it. The Eagles signed Kamu Grugier-Hill after final cuts but he is 215 pounds and is considered a linebacker-safety hybrid who mostly will be asked to excel on special teams.
Every season is full of surprises. When it is the first year of a marriage, anything and everything could happen. Don’t be shocked if:
- The much-maligned Josh Huff finally becomes at least semi-productive, at least enough to not be everyone’s least favorite player. Judging from how he was used in the preseason, Pederson will try to manufacture touches to Huff – screens, quick hitches, reverses – much in the way that the Rams do for Tavon Austin.
- Sproles and Ertz – or Ertz and then Sproles – are the team’s leaders in receptions. Matthews is likely to top the charts in yards (although getting to 1,000 after just falling short last year might be tough) and also touchdowns, but Wentz will likely rely on security blankets out of the backfield and at tight end.
- Speaking of tight end, also look for Trey Burton to play a larger role in the offense – finally – after being treated like the ugly girl at the dance by Kelly. It won’t be uncommon for three tight ends to be on the field, and Burton is athletic enough (he’s the emergency QB) to line up in the slot and in the backfield. We saw hints of this in the preseason.
- The play from the cornerbacks, buoyed by the front seven, may be at least adequate. Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks are Schwartz guys and, if nothing else, are not shy about coming up and making a hit in the running game. There are whispers among the players who survived the purge of Kelly’s roster that Nolan Carroll is the most improved player on the squad and ready for a breakout year.
- General Manager Howie Roseman will continue to be aggressive in shaping the roster, whether it is deals right up to trade deadline or installing a revolving door around the room where the practice squad players hang out.
And now our train has pulled into our final stop, Prediction City:
- The formula is simple. While the defensive and special teams units hold down the fort and keep games close, the offense will need to worry as much about first downs as touchdowns and complement the other two units by maintaining the field-position edge. Expect games to be scoreless well into the second quarter and still up for grabs into the fourth. It will come down to who does or doesn’t step up to make the key play when it matters. The offense will need to convert in the red zone, especially when set up there by the defense/special teams with turnovers. This is where Wentz needs to develop chemistry with Green-Beckham and Ertz.
- The division is weak, and weaker with Tony Romo’s career in limbo and the Eagles turning to Wentz a season or two earlier than expected. The main benefactor, though, will be the returning NFC East-champion Redskins, who may go 10-6. Look for the Giants, who are lethal on offense and porous on defense, to go 9-7. The Eagles will be third at 7-9, followed by the Cowboys at 6-10.
Now please return to your tables. We are ready for the first dance.
This preview also appeared at http://www.phillyphanatics.com