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5 plays were the difference between 7-9 and 12-4 for Eagles in 2016

5 plays were the difference between 7-9 and 12-4 for Eagles in 2016

Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells once stated, “You are what your record says you are,” and he was absolutely right. The Eagles finished 7-9 last season, demonstrating all the hallmarks of a 7-9 team along the way – inconsistency, inexperience, one or two crippling weaknesses and an inability to finish games. They deserved to go 7-9.

Yet, if we revisit how the 2016 campaign played out for the Eagles, it offers more reason for hope than that record suggests. That’s because five of those losses hinged on one play, which is to say if you could change the outcome of one snap, just one bounce of the ball, in theory, the Eagles could have won five more games.

Basically, five plays were the difference between 7-9 and 12-4.

Coulda, shoulda, woulda – right? Totally agree. Again, the Eagles deserved to go 7-9 last year, and nobody is trying to tell you any different.

However, what might those five plays be able to tell us about 2017? Because there doesn’t seem to be any question the Eagles are improved, either. Maybe not five games better, but if they even convert just two or three, that just might be enough to put this team in playoff contention.

Week 4 at Detroit – 24-23

On 3rd-and-2 with 2:41 remaining and a 23-21 lead, Ryan Mathews fumbles at the Eagles’ 45-yard line – short of the first down anyway, but worse still, giving the Lions the ball just outside of field-goal range. Sure enough, Detroit moves into range quickly and kicks the eventual game winner. Immediately after, a Carson Wentz interception seals the Eagles’ fate.

What might be different in 2017: The Eagles signed LeGarrette Blount, one of the best short-yardage backs in the game, making the offense more likely to convert. Even if the run is stuffed, Blount is less prone to fumble than Mathews, potentially giving the Eagles a chance to punt and make the opponent drive the length of the field for the kick.

Week 8 at Dallas – 29-23, OT

Faced with 4th-and-14 at the Dallas 36-yard-line and clinging to a 23-16 lead, Doug Pederson opts to punt rather than attempt a 54-yard field goal with 6:34 remaining, after Caleb Sturgis nailed a 55-yard try earlier. Donnie Jones’ kick pins the Cowboys at the 10, yet they proceed to march down the field anyway, tying the game at 23 apiece with 3:11 left. The stalemate drags into overtime, where Dallas gets the ball first and goes right down the field again.

What might be different in 2017: Pederson was a first-year head coach whose judgment was questionable on occasion. One would hope he improves with time. Here, a field goal would’ve left the Eagles some breathing room, so that even if the defense bends, they would own a late lead and could attempt to ice the game. Maybe Sturgis misses, and the Cowboys score anyway, although that result would’ve left more time on the clock, too. Either way, attempting the field goal increases the Eagles’ odds of winning.

Week 9 at New York Giants – 28-23

With the Eagles already trailing, a Jordan Hicks interception gave them life with 1:48 remaining. In need of a touchdown, the offense stalls at New York’s 17-yard line, and it’s 4th-and-10. Wentz’s pass to Jordan Matthews is high and wide, but the ball glances off the receiver’s outstretched fingers and falls harmlessly to the turf to end the comeback bid.

What might be different in 2017: Matthews is no longer the only playmaker the Eagles have at receiver, as the Eagles added Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency. Jeffery in particular has a knack for making circus catches, and even though the pass was slightly off target, is more likely to make the grab and win the game here.

Week 14 vs. Washington – 27-22

The Eagles lead 22-21 with 2:59 remaining in the fourth quarter and need a stop. Washington has driven down to the Eagles’ 35-yard line, but it’s 4th-and-1 and not quite in field-goal range. Kirk Cousins drops back to pass and hits Pierre Garcon, who beats Leodis McKelvin for a six-yard gain and a first down to extend the drive. Two plays later, Washington scores a touchdown, while the Eagles’ last gasp comes up short again.

What might be different in 2017: The secondary is still a concern for the Eagles, although it’s hard to do worse than McKelvin, who ranked 75th out of 79 qualifying corners in opponents’ passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2017, that could be Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson or Rasul Douglas on Garcon – maybe even Sidney Jones this late in the year. Ryan Kerrigan also beats Matt Tobin at right tackle to sack Wentz and halt the Eagles’ potential go-ahead drive, a scenario that’s unlikely to unfold this season given the improved depth along the offensive line.

Week 15 at Baltimore – 27-26

The Eagles finally complete a late scoring drive with four seconds remaining and have an opportunity to take the game to overtime. Rather than kick the extra point to tie the score, Pederson opts to go for two with the playoffs already off the table. Wentz’s pass intended for Matthews is tipped at the line of scrimmage and falls incomplete, crushing yet another comeback attempt.

What might be different in 2017: A tipped ball is a little unlucky, so maybe nothing would’ve been different. Then again, the Eagles have more depth up front, so maybe there would be less pressure in Wentz’s face. They have more weapons in the passing attack, so maybe they throw the fade to Jeffery. They have Blount, so maybe they go heavy and pound the ball into the end zone, or go play-action pass.

Maybe the Eagles have already won a few more games along the way and are playing for overtime instead.

Any way you look at it, the Eagles are better prepared for every one of these situations in 2017 than they were last season. In theory, that should result in more wins.

Jerry Jones goes after Roger Goodell over Ezekiel Elliott suspension

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Jerry Jones goes after Roger Goodell over Ezekiel Elliott suspension

Jerry Jones, the NFL's most outspoken troll, just wants to watch the world burn.

After weeks of talk and escalation, the Cowboys' owner is ready to go to war with Roger Goodell and the league's other owners over Ezekiel Elliott's suspension.

According to an ESPN report, Jones threatened the commissioner on a conference call after Elliott's suspension was announced, saying, "I'm gonna come after you with everything I have. If you think (Patriots owner) Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a p---y compared to what I'm going to do."

For weeks now, Jones has tried to disrupt talks of a contract extension for Goodell, promoted objectively bad pizza in the name of football, and landed himself in hot water with the other owners. So much so that there has reportedly been talk about removing Jones as the Cowboys' owner.

It's hard to pick a side here. Jones — the long-lost twin of Emperor Palpatine — and Goodell — a man with rulings more inconsistent than Pete Morelli. You don't really want to root for either of them, but it is fun to think about the extremely unlikely chance that Jones loses the Cowboys. 

Cowboys just another inferior opponent to Eagles

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Cowboys just another inferior opponent to Eagles

It was only a few weeks ago when it appeared this first meeting between the Eagles and Dallas Cowboys was shaping up to be a battle for NFC East supremacy. Now that we’re here, the Cowboys are just trying to save their season, and the Eagles just want to take care of business against an inferior opponent.

That’s not a stretch. Are the Cowboys a good team? Well, they’re not bad, at least based on their 5-4 record. They certainly would be a lot better were it not for injuries and suspensions. But as the team is currently constructed right now, Dallas is not on the Eagles’ level.

Name one thing the Cowboys do better than the Eagles in 2017? That’s going to be a struggle, because aside from maybe punting, or maybe having a marginally superior pass rush, or maybe running the football before Ezekiel Elliott was sent packing, there’s really nowhere Dallas possesses an edge at this point.

Doesn’t mean the Cowboys won’t pose a threat to the Eagles or even win on Sunday night. It’s simply a difficult scenario to envision when we break down the matchup on paper.

QUARTERBACKS

We’re probably going to be having this debate for many years. One-and-a-half seasons certainly isn’t enough to settle it. That being said, there’s no question who’s playing better right now, as in ‘17. Carson Wentz might be the NFL’s Most Valuable Player through 10 weeks. Wentz has thrown for more yards (2,262 to 1,994), a higher yards per attempt (7.8 to 6.9), and found the end zone with greater frequency (23 to 21) – including rushing touchdowns – compared to Dak Prescott. The Eagles’ signal caller also has just one more turnover (7 to 6) and 26 fewer yards rushing (211 to 237). Ultimately, the stats are all pretty close, but Wentz also has the more important number over Prescott right now: Wins, eight to five.

Slight advantage: Eagles

RUNNING BACKS

It’s safe to say that any combination of Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden and Rod Smith (not to be confused with Broncos great Rod Smith) is a massive drop-off from Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys simply can’t replace the explosive element Elliott brought to their offense, not with this collection of has-beens and one nobody, anyway. Not one of those ball carriers has the pure ability of a Jay Ajayi at this stage of their careers, and the Eagles wouldn’t swap LeGarrette Blount or Corey Clement with Dallas, either. Fun fact about the Cowboys backfield: The unit’s leading receiver is Smith with 38 yards.

Clear advantage: Eagles

WIDE RECEIVERS AND TIGHT ENDS

Zach Ertz is leads both teams with 43 receptions, 528 yards receiving and six touchdowns, and he even missed the Eagles’ last game. Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor are second and fourth, respectively, with 500 and 428 yards receiving, and tied for second with five touchdowns each. The Cowboys’ top receivers haven’t been as effective at getting down the field or in the red zone, though it’s a deep group. Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Cole Beasley are essentially possession receivers at this point, and even speedy Terrance Newman is averaging a career-worst 11.8 yards per catch. Dallas’ best deep threat has been Brice Butler this season with 10 receptions for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Otherwise, the vertical game has been nonexistent.

Advantage: Eagles

OFFENSIVE LINE

In retrospect, the Cowboys’ issues this season were easy to see coming. The retirement of right tackle Doug Free started a game of musical chairs up front, while the departure of guard Ronald Leary in free agency hurt the unit’s depth. Going from guard to tackle has been an adjustment for La’el Collins, and whether at left guard or left tackle, Chaz Green has been an abject failure. Dallas needs Tyron Smith healthy and covering Prescott’s blind side for this to even have a prayer of working. Meanwhile, the Eagles’ O-line keeps on ticking despite losing Jason Peters, which is a credit to Halapoulivaati Vaitai’s development. Peters or no, this continues to look like the best unit in the league.

Advantage: Eagles

DEFENSIVE LINE AND LINEBACKERS

The Eagles may have the best front four in the NFL, or one of them at least, but don’t discount the Cowboys here. Dallas is tied for fifth with 29 sacks, and Demarcus Lawrence leads the league with 11.5. The defense isn’t great against the run – 4.3 yards per carry allowed is tied for 23rd – but Lawrence, David Irving and Tyrone Crawford can all get after the quarterback. Of course, it’s not as if the Eagles aren’t scary rushing the passer, with just four fewer sacks, plus Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox and company boast the No. 1 run defense as well. Even if the lines are considered even, there’s going to be some separation at linebacker, as the Cowboys are without the heart soul of their defense, Sean Lee (hamstring).

Slight advantage: Eagles

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Despite a solid pass rush, teams have thrown on the Cowboys’ secondary. In terms of opponents’ quarterback rating, Dallas ranks 23rd (96.4). It’s a young backfield, with rookies Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods and Chidobe Awuzie – the latter returning from a hamstring injury – in outsized roles. The Eagles are young at corner themselves, with Ronald Darby finally back from an ankle and rejoining Jalen Mills, but have seasoned safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod over the top. The unit will give up some ground, coming in at 26th in terms of yards per game (249.4), yet is ninth in quarterback efficiency (81.2). Teams throw against this group because they have to, not because they want to.

Advantage: Eagles

SPECIAL TEAMS

At one point, Dan Bailey may have been the best kicker in the league, but he’s coming off his worst season as a pro and is now sidelined by a groin injury. That was the Cowboys’ primary strength on special teams. Now unreliable Mike Nugent is handling the kicking duties. Dallas punter Chris Jones has been pretty good at pinning opponents deep, which is nice, because he’s getting a lot more opportunities this year. The Eagles routinely grade among the top units in all phases, and will get the nod over most opponents, even if there is a Pro Bowl kicker.

Advantage: Eagles

COACHING

Jason Garrett is the reigning NFL Coach of the Year. He doesn’t call the plays. He doesn’t run the defense. Heck, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones probably decides when to call a timeout or throw the challenge flag. Yet, Garrett has hardware saying he’s the best. To his credit, there is a good staff in place around him, particularly defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. But as of now, Doug Pederson is well on his way to winning Coach of the Year in ’17, and will do it while actually running a team, nor are there any weak links on his staff. With an unconvincing 62-49 record, including playoffs, we’ll go ahead and chalk up Garrett’s 2016 campaign as an anomaly.

Advantage: Eagles

OVERALL

The Cowboys went 13-3 in the regular season in ‘16 on the strength of a dominant offensive line, punishing ground attack and well-coached defense. While the latter is still in place, even that aspect of the equation benefitted from ball-control offense. But Dallas’ line is an injury away from being in shambles, and the NFL’s reigning rushing champion is suspended. That leaves a young quarterback with aging weapons and adequate protection at best, and a defense that can rush the quarterback but does little else. Meanwhile, the Eagles have the best record in the league right now at 8-1, and they were firing on all cylinders heading into their bye. This is a week-to-week sport, so everything can change in the blink of an eye on Sunday night. Going in, however, there’s no denying which side is superior.

Distinct advantage: Eagles