Taking a hike on the Eagles season
After each of us drove from different parts of Maryland to South Philly for Saturday night’s Eagles-Redskins game, my friend Brandon and I decided to walk away from Lincoln Financial Field instead of toward it.
And that symbolized, perhaps subconsciously well as consciously, our suspicion that the Birds’ season would, by the end of the night, be reduced to a meaningless Week 17 finale.
Four months earlier, Brandon and I were texting each other as the Eagles offense put on a clinic with three touchdowns in the first quarter of a preseason game at Lambeau Field. The Birds led 25-0 after that quarter — twenty-five to zero — as Bradford completed all 10 of his passes for 121 yards, and and it looked convincingly like Chip Kelly’s offseason retooling had created a juggernaut. Throw in the pick-6 by the newly acquired Walter Thurmond in that glorious 15 minutes against the Packers, and the expectations for the Eagles’ 2016 season were about as high as they could possibly be.
And now they are a team without a coach, after Kelly was handed his walking papers on Tuesday evening in a move so stunning that some players found out about it from their families or teammates before they heard from the team.
Rewind to Saturday, when the outlook supposedly looked more promising for the Eagles. Promising, at least, if you listen to the experts, several of whom predict a victory on Philly sports talk radio in the hours preceding the game.
But as I tell Brandon before we even get to Philadelphia, there is no good reason to think the Eagles will win. Comparing the Eagles’ main offensive to trio of Sam Bradford, Zach Ertz and Jordan Matthews to Washington’s trio of Kirk Cousins, Jordan Reed and DeSean Jackson, I see the undeniable truth that the Redskins are far more capable of putting up points in bunches — something the Eagles offense has done in only one game this season (Week 5 against a putrid New Orleans defense).
Even though Brandon is en route from St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore and I am driving from the Baltimore area, we end up a few car lengths apart on I-95 and he spots my blue Prius in the center lane. We arrive on Packer Avenue within minutes of each other, and we have to decide where to eat. Chickie’s & Pete’s is crowded, and the wait was an hour and a half, so that is out of the question.
In my mind, there are two options left. Celebre’s Pizzeria, which is in the same strip mall as Chickie’s, and Tony Luke’s, which is almost a two-mile walk from there. Each deserves strong consideration: Eating at Celebre’s would ensure that Brandon and I get to the stadium in plenty of time to take in some of the pregame atmosphere. On the other hand, Tony Luke’s serves the best cheesesteak that I’ve had in South Philly — and Brandon has never been there.
I originally wanted to drive to Tony Luke’s and then park somewhere near Chickie’s, but since we both have secured free parking spots, the best option is on foot.
So, we hoof it toward Tony Luke’s at West Oregon Avenue and South Front Street, which according to Google is about 1.7 miles from Chickie’s.
Walking 1.7 miles seems simple when you’re looking at the route on a phone screen. By the time we get to Tony Luke’s, the line is out the door, about 30 to 40 people deep. So much for getting to the game early. About 40 minutes later, at 7:15 or so, we grab our steaks and, with all of the roughly dozen tables at Tony Luke’s full, walk to a grimy McDonald’s across the street to devour the sandwiches. We agreed that they are worth the walk and the wait.
But the Linc is another long walk away — oddly enough, it is 1.7 miles from Tony Luke’s. By the time we make it through the logjam at the Northeast Gate security check and run up the stairs on the south end of the stadium, Tress Way is kicking off to Josh Huff.
Less than three minutes later, Ryan Mathews plows 1 yard into the south end zone below us and the building seems to be swaying.
What follows is a sequence that defines the rest of the night. On the possession after Mathews TD, the Eagles defense forces a three-and-out and the Birds take over at their 20. The first play is an 8-yard run up the middle by Darren Sproles, and on the next play Sproles picks up 3 for a first down.
The Birds have the momentum on their side, the crowd going crazy … and then Jason Peters moves early. False start. On first-and-15, Sproles is held to a 2-yard gain. On second-and-13, more or less are compelled to pass, Bradford drops back into the pocket. He sees no one open and is brought down by Will Compton for a 7-yard loss. Just like that, the drive is over.
On the ensuing drive, Washington glides 69 yards to a touchdown on just five plays, and even though Way misses the PAT (“You had one job!” a fan in front of me shouts with glee) it is a statement drive. The Eagles are unable to cover Jordan Reed.
The Iggles feebly go three-and-out. Washington moves to the Iggles 31 but faces third-and-5. That’s where Kirk Cousins finds Reed on two straight plays — a 19-yard gain and then a 12-yard score — that puts a dagger in the Eagles, who have no answer for making Cousins uncomfortable in the pocket.
Leading 16-10, Washington takes possession at its own 29-yard line, coincidentally with 29 seconds left in the first half. In a microcosm of how bad this night was for the Eagles defense, four plays later Cousins and Co. are at the Philadelphia 6, with 6 seconds on the clock (just noticed the weird link between the yard lines and the time on this drive).
After the Eagles burn a timeout — which should have helped Washington more than it helped the Birds — Cousins walks out onto the field … and takes a knee. I repeat: He takes a knee. The clock runs out, and everyone in the stands looks around, not quite sure what just happened.
“HOLY SHIT HE TOOK A KNEE!” a voice behind me shouts.
In one of most egregious blunders I’ve seen in long time, Cousins kneels instead of spiking ball. Costs #Redskins 3 should-be points. Wow.
— Grant Paulsen (@granthpaulsen) December 27, 2015
I text my friend Justin, who wisely decided not to come to this game: “That was the whole division summed up in one play. The whole division has taken a knee.”
It would be an oversimplification to say the Eagles had no chance to this game in the second half. They actually have two possessions where they could’ve taken the lead: The first of those results in a three-and-out, and the second produces a horrible decision to pitch the ball to Murray in light rain. The lateral bounces off the running back hands and is returned 17 yards for a touchdown by DeAngelo Hall.
Brandon and I head to the stairs after another Washington touchdown makes it 38-17 with 9 minutes left. It’s a sad feeling to leave any game early, but it’s even sadder to leave the last game of the season early. We trudge the mile from the Linc back to our cars and try in vain to make some sense of what we just watched.
I remember back to that preseason conversation during the preseason game vs. the Packers. It seemed the Eagles would be a sure contender for the NFC East crown, and it was tempting to consider them as a write-in candidate for the NFC championship game.
As I began to write this post on Sunday, I originally planned to end it with the following sentence: “But the truth is that not only are the Eagles are nowhere close to that level, but they seem to be slipping further away from it as the Chip Kelly regime marches into its fourth calendar year.”
Turns out there is no fourth year for the Kelly regime. The autocrat has been deposed, but not before he traded the future for Sam Bradford and a pile of magic beans, turning a team that two years ago was within one drive of a playoff win into the ridicule of the NFC and a shell of its former self.