The first time the Eagles played the Cowboys this season, Nov. 19 at Dallas, Kenjon Barner made this amazing catch down the left sideline, gaining 22 yards. Barner soared way off the ground and then tapped down with both feet while being shoved out of bounds. The next play, he ran 4 yards for the first touchdown of a 37-9 Eagles victory.
I've thought about that catch a lot since that day. I've often used it as an example of the effect Carson Wentz's MVP-candidate season has had on his teammates. Barner is a really decent guy who gets the most out of what he has, but if Darren Sproles hadn't gone down in the third game of the season, and Kenjon didn't have history here, didn't know the offense, he might not have played in the league this year after being cut by the Chargers at the end of the preseason.
Wentz, and the promise he represented, elevated the players around him. Everyone on the team understood how special he was, what a precious opportunity his play afforded them, and they responded.
This phenomenon came to mind again Sunday, watching the Eagles' offense stumble and sputter with Nick Foles at the controls, again against the Cowboys. Yes, Nick was dreadful in the quarter he played. Indecisive, panicky-looking, wasn't seeing the field well, missed receivers by a mile on a handful of easy throws, couldn't shrug off pass rush pressure to save his life.
But I also was struck by how little help Foles got. Nobody soared high to make any 22-yard catches along the sideline. The first third down of the game, after Foles had hit his first two passes, he put the ball right on Torrey Smith, over the middle on third and 7 from the Dallas 39. Smith would have been inside the 30 with a first down if he had been tackled immediately, and it sure seemed he might have had room to run for another 10 yards or so. But Smith dropped the ball. On another third down, both the tight ends Foles was looking to throw to, Trey Burton and Zach Ertz, stumbled and fell.
If Wentz's play elevated everyone, having Foles run the huddle seems to have made everyone average, or less than that.
Foles has spent his last two outings playing from behind the sticks. Some of this is his fault. Some of it isn't — penalties and negative-yardage runs putting the backup in a hole he just isn't going to climb out of easily. If he could do that stuff, he'd be somebody's starter.
The Eagles have gone from being a team that wins because of its quarterback to a team trying to win despite its quarterback, which is a difficult and probably doomed transition. But if they are to have any hope of making it, they have to put Foles in more realistic situations. Run effectively. Eschew penalties. Catch the ball, every time. There is no margin for error, as there once was. No, Zach Ertz, it is not OK to false-start at home. Jason Kelce, don't block that dude in the back — if he tackles Corey Clement for a short gain on a screen, that's less of a problem than a huge penalty.
The running game struggle is Foles' fault, to an extent. You can't run effectively if the opponent doesn't fear your passing game, and can commit to stacking the box. Nobody's offensive line is that good. Even the one start when Foles looked good, the four-TD-pass day at the Giants, his longest gain through the air was 32 yards on a catch-and-run by Jay Ajayi. He's going to have to throw it a whole lot better, hitting on selected longer shots without trying to make long throws the substance of the attack, something Foles can't manage.
Everyone knows Wentz converted a lot of third-and-longs, and that with a less special quarterback, that isn't going to happen as much. So stay out of third-and-long, or make it rare, instead of magnifying that flaw with mistakes, as the Eagles did in their final two games.
"We've got two weeks to get out there and practice and get things right for this game," tight end Brent Celek said, in the divisional round Jan. 13, against the Saints, Falcons or Panthers. "We're not putting ourselves in good positions. These penalties are hurting us. We can't get behind the sticks, because it's easy for them to play defense on us when we do that. We've got to be more efficient. … We can get it done. And we gotta get it done."
*I think the criticism Nick Foles took for not completing a pass to Alshon Jeffery on Christmas night might have helped lead to that awful interception Foles threw Sunday. Foles talked during the week about how he needed to recognize that even if Jeffery is covered or double-covered, the receiver can still make a catch. So Nick, rolling right, not very nimbly, fleeing the late rush of Dallas defensive tackle Daniel Ross, tried to heave the ball downfield to Jeffery, who was covered. Pass was way short and easily picked off by Chidobie Owuzie. Meanwhile, Nelson Agholor was open, closer to Foles, for a much easier catch, along the same line of sight. Heavy sigh.
*Rookie cornerback Rasul Douglas stood up for himself after the loss, which is understandable. He has the personality Jim Schwartz likes. But Rasul, it wasn't just two plays you didn't make, during the lone scoring drive. You had a tough day. For example, you tipped a ball to Dez Bryant for a 52-yard completion that was negated by a holding call against the Cowboys' Byron Bell.
* Haven't really noticed Nate Gerry on special teams the last few months, but I sure noticed him playing linebacker in the second half Sunday. Fought off La'el Collins, brought down Ezekiel Elliott after a short gain. Knocked a pass away from Jason Witten that Gerry might have intercepted if it hadn't gotten in on his body quite as much.
*Tackles aren't an official stat — the Eagles keep their own tally separate from the league — but as far as the NFL was concerned, Nigel Bradham was the team's leading tackler this season with 88, despite sitting out the final game.
*Zach Ertz finished as the Eagles' leading receiver, with 74 catches for 824 yards and eight touchdowns. Only the TDs were a career high. If Carson Wentz hadn't gotten hurt, Ertz probably would have set career marks across the board.
*Fifth-round rookie Shelton Gibson caught his first two NFL passes Sunday, for 11 yards. Been a long road for Gibson.
*The Eagles finished the season with 38 sacks, led by Brandon Graham's 9 1/2. Graham sat out the finale.
*The Eagles gave up 18.4 points per game this season, the fourth-lowest figure in the NFL.
The Eagles' longest gain of Sunday's game came in just about the most unlikely form imaginable. In the third quarter, quarterback Nate Sudfeld, playing the first regular-season snaps of his career, dropped back to pass on third-and-3 from his 21, didn't see anything he liked, and took off for 22 yards.
"It was 'man' [coverage], and I saw Sean Lee in the middle … OK, it's me and him, I can probably make him miss and dive and get the first," Sudfeld said afterward. "I kind of pump-faked him and he bit it, so I cut underneath. Nobody was there, so I just kept runnin' and swervin'. I was like, 'I'll just run out of bounds.'" So he did.
Sudfeld, 6-foot-6, 227, had not shown a lot of elusiveness before that excursion. Fox analyst Ronde Barber had a chuckle over his earlier attempt to avoid an Anthony Brown sack. It looked like when Carson Wentz spins away from a blitzer, except for the "away" part.
"He spun in place, really," Barber noted.
That you could be a 13-3, No. 1 seed, near-certain underdog in the divisional round of the playoffs? Has that ever happened?