On the heels of consecutive wins against teams who had yet to notch one in the win column, it was difficult to gauge the Eagles heading into their showdown with the 3-3 Cowboys. Returning to Lincoln Financial Field, still searching for the first home win of the Chip Kelly era, it was clear that, for at least one more week, the entire Eagles franchise wanted to see if Nick Foles could perform well enough to warrant perhaps another start. Foles had just helped the Eagles handle an impressive Tampa Bay defense the week before, and a Cowboys defensive unit with a penchant for giving up huge totals seemed like a favorable matchup for the second year quarterback.
After winning consecutive games for the first time under their first year head coach, the Eagles as a team came off as a more cohesive and confident bunch heading into the division matchup. Any potential tension between Foles and week 1 starter Michael Vick was quelled early on when the two shared a podium for a midweek press conference when it became clear that Foles would be the starter. Considering the offense had been clicking on a weekly basis for the most part, to have at least tentative confidence that the Eagles could move the ball against Dallas was certainly warranted.
The Cowboys were coming off a 31-16 win against the Redskins in Dallas that was more a result of miscues by Washington than a particularly impressive showing by Dallas. They had lost the services of top pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware and rusher DeMarco Murray and were a week removed from an emotional win over their top rival.
Even with both teams sitting at identical 3-3 records, the Cowboys look to be a team that is far closer to playoff contention. While they are going through a substantial defensive overhaul, Dallas still has several playmakers in their linebacking corps and defensive secondary that have covered up some schematic breakdowns while the team gets used to the change. Meanwhile, the Dallas offense, most notably quarterback Tony Romo, has been electric this season, posting 30.5 points per game entering the contest, good for 2nd in the NFL. The general expectation for the Eagles first game against Dallas in the 2013 season was an offense-heavy, high scoring affair. I suppose that is why you play the games, because Sunday afternoon at the Linc was anything but.
With the Eagles receiving the opening kick, Chip Kelly would have an opportunity to have his offense set the opening tempo for what many imagined to be a dynamic affair. The Eagles first play from scrimmage was an 11-yard screen pass from Nick Foles to LeSean McCoy, good for a first down. Unfortunately they do not allow you to quit while you are ahead in the NFL, because that’s about as good as things went for Foles on the afternoon. Including their opening drive, the Eagles punted on their first 7 possessions against the Cowboys, netting a total of 79 yards. All facets of the normally crisp unit looked out of sync, but nothing compares to the struggles experienced by Nick Foles. Foles was indecisive, inaccurate, and tentative with his progressions throughout the contest. On multiple occasions, he missed wide-open targets with opportunities to pick up big yards and even points. While there were a few drops that Eagles pass-catchers could have come up with in certain spots, it is tough to remember any of them that came on a perfect throw from Foles.
The Cowboys, from the get-go, looked as if they were going to make the young signal-caller beat them on his own. While the playcalling didn’t necessarily give them a choice (Eagles only attempted 23 rushes on the day), Dallas’ strategy paid huge dividends. When it was up to Foles to make a big throw to extend a drive or put points on the board, the normally accurate passer was all over the place, very rarely throwing with any sort of purpose or confidence.
Fortunately for the Eagles, early on, their counterpart was not doing much better. Tony Romo did not look nearly as off-kilter as Nick Foles did, but the Eagles defense managed to come up with key stops throughout the first half to keep the game in reach while the offense tried to get untracked. The Cowboys would punt on their first five possessions against an Eagles defensive unit that was allowing the 2nd most points in the NFL entering the game. DeMeco Ryans, in one of his best games as an Eagles, set a physical tone for the afternoon, coming up with multiple huge stops in the first half, including a stop on 3rd and short and a sack that pushed the Cowboys out of field goal range. With Billy Davis’ unit in a transitional period and short on personnel that fits the scheme, the Eagles demonstrated the sort of ‘bend-don’t-break’ ability that should have been good enough to win a game.
The Cowboys did manage to take a lead into the locker room when Dan Bailey hit a 38-yard field goal. A questionable decision by Kelly toward the end of the half almost put the Eagles and their sputtering offense in an even deeper hole. After their final drive stalled out, Kelly sent out Alex Henery to attempt a 59-yard field goal. After missing badly on the attempt, Romo would have an opportunity with 9 seconds left to toss up a hail mary. Fortunately, Earl Wolff came down with the jump ball for his first career interception and the Eagles went into the half down by just 3.
The Cowboys would take a major step toward coming away with the win out of the locker room. Romo methodically led Dallas down the field and toward the Eagles endzone. On 3rd and goal with a chance to hold Dallas to another field goal, Bradley Fletcher was flagged for pass interference while covering Dez Bryant, giving the Cowboys first and goal. The call on Fletcher was the correct one, but the pass by Romo was not a particularly good one and one could argue that Fletcher did not have to get physical with Bryant. Reserve running back Phillip Tanner punched it in from a yard out and the Cowboys would go up 10-0.
The following drive would either indicate that the Eagles had what it took to make up the deficit, or that 10 points might as well have been 100 with how the offense looked in the first half. Apparently whatever message the team tried to give to Nick Foles in the locker room did not hit home, as the team sputtered in the 2nd half just as much as they did in the 1st. DeMeco Ryans came through with a huge interception and return deep into Dallas territory. Unfortunately, much like the case all day, the offense could not capitalize on the defense’s exceptional effort. After narrowly avoiding a disaster when a Foles interception was overturned via booth review, the Eagles would get their first serious opportunity in the red zone. After picking up a huge 4th down play to give them first & goal, it looked as if the Eagles might be able to match the Cowboys touchdown. Yet, a busted run, an incompletion, and a sack on the final play of the quarter quickly diffused the threat as the Eagles would settle for a Henery field goal to make it 10-3. On the 3rd down sack, Foles took a vicious hit from the tandem of George Selvie and Jarius Wynn. After briefly appearing on the sideline, Foles would be taken to the locker room with an apparent head injury.
With Foles out of the contest and the Eagles trailing by a touchdown, Matt Barkley would be given his first NFL action with a potential chance to lead a comeback win. Barkley’s task would not be any easier after the Cowboys first drive of the 4th quarter. Building off an efficient half, the Cowboys offense manufactured their second touchdown drive of the afternoon. Using a combination of short and intermediate passing, Romo led Dallas straight down the field with little resistance. Throughout the contest, Romo on multiple occasions was able to get off passes instants before Eagles blitzes came through. Even without Murray, the Cowboys were able to utilize Dez Bryant and slot receiver Cole Beasley when they needed a big play in the low-scoring affair. Dallas’ 2nd touchdown came on a 9-yard connection between Tony Romo and Terrance Williams to make it a two-touchdown game.
So with under 10 minutes to go, unless Barkley was on the cusp of a Tom Brady-esque foray into the league, the rest of the game was probably going to be the best chance to evaluate whether the rookie was even remotely ready for the professional level. After a couple of nice throws on his opening drive, the answer to that question came with a resounding ‘NO’. On three straight possessions, Barkley was intercepted by a different Cowboy defender. Brandon Carr’s interception in the endzone proved a fitting conclusion to another deflating Eagles’ performance in front of their home crowd. Dallas would go on to win the game 17-3 and, while a spirited effort by the defense gave some sort of silver lining, once again, there are serious questions as to whether this year’s Eagles team is ready to contend.
For the better part of the contest, the Eagles were out ahead in two of the three categories of the game. Their defense made a few more ‘momentum’ plays and the special teams did an excellent job corralling Dallas return man Dwayne Harris. At the end of the day, for the first time, this game was solely on the offense and their inability to do their part in a winnable contest. One could argue whether or not it was because of Foles, but no one on the Eagles offense seemed to have the sort of explosiveness that they had shown in weeks prior. When the Eagles did run the ball, there were very few of the gaping seams that had allowed LeSean McCoy to become the league’s leading rusher, and the receivers did not achieve much separation. When they did, no one made plays for Foles and a few drops killed any opportunity to establish a rhythm. I would not fault anyone for having some issues with the playcalling on the afternoon. In a game that was closer than it probably should have been thanks to the Eagles defense, there was a great opportunity to use the run to alleviate the pressure on Foles. Yet the Eagles more than doubled their run attempts with passes and forced Foles and Matt Barkley into several difficult situations throughout the game.
It’s hard to get on a defense after a game like this. Honestly, they played well enough for as long as they had to before the game was out of reach, more at the fault of their offense. If one were to have any issues, it was probably the lack of pressure on Tony Romo. When Tony Romo is struggling, it is usually due to heavy pressure in his face. Romo is as good a passer, both in and out of the pocket, as anyone in the NFL. However, he does not always make the best decisions when it comes to whether or not to throw a ball. For all those who praise the ‘gunslinger’ mentality of Romo, it is often that cavalier approach that leads him to the interceptions he has become somewhat notorious for. The Eagles did manage a couple of sacks on Romo, but engineered very little pressure form their defensive line, and when they did blitz they were often split-seconds late. Still, allowing only 17 points to an offense like Dallas when your offense is constantly giving them the ball back is no small task and the Eagles defense should be relatively happy with their showing against the Cowboys.
From a bigger picture perspective, even though it is only one game and making snap decisions on quarterbacks is something that has often been looked down upon, I find that the Eagles are in a position where they can err on the side of overreaction when it comes to the position. When you look at a team like the Houston Texans, you see a well-run organization that demonstrated a great deal of patience and great player scouting to build a formidable, borderline championship roster. When the Texans were starting to establish themselves as a consistent winner in the NFL, Matt Schaub was able to do enough to win the games they were supposed to and compete in games they may have been overmatched in. As the rest of the roster improved, Schaub’s responsibilities became less and less and the team was able to dominate games without needing him to win them for him. Schaub was an excellent game manager who knew how to make a few throws on a consistent basis that helped pad his resume. Over the last few seasons however, Schaub’s limitations have started to catch up with him and in turn, the Texans. In their last two playoff losses, the offense was unable to score enough against an excellent Ravens defense in 2011 and in 2012, a short-handed Patriots team out-gunned Schaub and the Texans 41-28. With a roster that was good enough to put the team in prime position going into the playoffs, the Texans came up disappointingly short both years. While neither loss is necessarily Schaub’s fault, the Texans were all of a sudden in a position where, despite success in the regular season, the patience to take the next step was starting to wear thin. A team that had one of the most unique running back talents in the league and a premiere wideout in Andre Johnson, not to mention a talented duo of tight ends and a change of pace back in Ben Tate, was unable to beat teams that they might have been better than from a 53-man standpoint. However, because of their success, it was impossible for the Texans to cut ties with Schaub. Even before his dreadful 2013 season, conventional wisdom says that, if you find a quarterback that can win 10+ games for your team, you keep him and hope you get one magical year. Now the Texans sit at an organizational crossroads, as they must try to find a way to revitalize their offense while they still possess some of the All-Pro caliber players they have on defense.
Seven games into the season, the Eagles have now seen all three of their quarterbacks play in meaningful game action. With the exception of Barkley, both Nick Foles and Michael Vick have shown they can run the offense to an extent and post gaudy numbers in terms of yards and points. The Eagles have also seen that each one of them has enough shortcomings to make fans and the media wonder what one of the other options can do better. For that reason, it would appear that the Eagles do not have the answer at the most important position in sports for the foreseeable future. At this time, while we all would love to see the Eagles and Chip Kelly shock the world and make the playoffs, the team is still in the building process. Because of this, Kelly and the Eagles coaching staff can allow themselves to foster the ‘open competition’ situation with his three signal callers without making any sort of substantial long-term commitment. Michael Vick is on a one-year deal, Nick Foles is a 3rd round pick in the 2nd year of his entry-level contract, and Matt Barkley is a 4th round pick rookie. Save for a few unreasonable fans, and Marcus Vick, no one could formulate an argument against the Eagles starting from scratch at the quarterback position next season.
I do not think they will do something so drastic. Nick Foles, despite his struggles today, looks to be a pretty favorable backup compared to others in the league. Who knows? Maybe an NFL team will be desperate and offer a 2nd-3rd round pick to see if Foles can start for their team. Foles could perform better in a system that did not leave so many opportunities for a running quarterback, but he has demonstrated enough ability in his time on the field over the last two years to be a comfortable option in an important position.
Moving forward, not much is going to be changing for the Eagles on offense. If Michael Vick is 100% and ready to go, he deserves to be the starting quarterback regardless of any good or bad that Nick Foles has done. Michael Vick won the competition out of camp and, especially after Foles’ showing vs. the Cowboys, looks as if he is the option that gives the Eagles the best chance to win.
The Philadelphia Eagles will hope to rebound as they host the division rival New York Giants next week. To see this and other home games at the Linc, get your Philadelphia Eagles tickets here.