If there was one series of plays that best summed up the Philadelphia Eagles' three weeks of frustration, it might be the drive that started the second half in the team's 27-24 loss to the Washington Redskins on Saturday night. Washington receiver Andre Roberts fumbled the kickoff, Eagles cornerback Nolan Carroll recovered it, and the Eagles started with the ball at the Redskins' 16-yard line. LeSean McCoy picked up a yard on first down, Mark Sanchez threw a pass to McCoy on second down that lost a yard to even things up, and Sanchez threw a deep incompletion to Riley Cooper to end that drive. Then, rookie kicker Cody Parkey missed a 34-yard field goal and the Eagles had nothing to show for their special teams work.
Parkey missed another field goal on the team's next drive (he had missed two all season before this game), and those misses were very costly to an Eagles team that has now lost three straight games and, after the Cowboys' blowout win over the Colts on Sunday, is officially eliminated from the playoff race. At 9-6, Chip Kelly's team has gone from nearly invincible to all-too-mortal and now eliminated in a big hurry.
The most agonizing part of this game for Kelly and the Eagles is that after trailing by 10 heading into the fourth quarter, they rallied to tie things up at 24-24 after Parkey hit a 22-yard field goal with 6:22 left in the game. Then, they held the Redskins down and received the ball at their own 15-yard line with 2:36 left in the game. Philly made it all the way to the Washington 48-yard line before Sanchez threw an interception to cornerback Bashaud Breeland with 1:36 remaining, and this time -- aided by a 23-yard pass from Robert Griffin III to Pierre Garcon and one of the Eagles' 13 penalties -- the Redskins went ahead for good when Kai Forbath kicked a 26-yard field goal with 10 seconds left on the clock.
(H/T: Bleacher Report)
The now 4-11 Redskins provided a little bit of pre-Christmas cheer to a FedEx Field crowd that hasn't had many reasons to smile this year. Football can be a strange game, and on this day, it was the Eagles who looked every bit the underdog.
Three takeaways from today's game:
1. There's life in Robert Griffin III yet.
We saw an uptick in Griffin last Sunday in the Redskins' 24-13 loss to the Giants, a losing performance that still showed the difference between the Robert Griffin III we saw against the Vikings, Buccaneers and 49ers earlier in the season, when Griffin was eventually benched and publicly rebuked by head coach Jay Gruden. Injuries to the rest of Washington's underwhelming quarterback rotation put Griffin in the starter's role for the rest of the season whether Gruden liked it or not, and for the most part, Griffin showed that there's enough in the tank for some team to take a shot on his future, whether it's the Redskins or not. Griffin finished the game with 16 completions in 23 attempts for 220 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, but several of his passes showed velocity and an understanding of the game that would have been a serious surprise a month ago.
(H/T: Bleacher Report)
The RGIII we saw then was a lost quarterback who double- and triple-clutched on easy throws, looked confused with the easiest concepts and took far too many sacks. This RGIII looked quite a bit more like the 2012 Rookie of the Year -- he was more decisive in this game, he showed off his arm, and he used his mobility more effectively. To be sure, there's still work to do. Griffin will balk and run too quickly at times when the picture gets too muddy, and his mechanics (especially his lower-body mechanics) are far from ideal. He will probably always predetermine throws too often (which he did with his fourth-quarter interception on a deep route to Jackson), but that's common among young quarterbacks.
Will Washington pick up Griffin's fifth-year option? Will another team take a shot? We don't yet have these answers, but it's pretty clear that Griffin still has the raw tools to be a functional quarterback in the right system, and with the right coach.
2. Mark Sanchez continues to stump for another chance in the NFL.
That late interception aside (which was as much a great play by Breeland as it was a weird low throw), Sanchez made a pretty good case in this game, as he has through the season, that he can help a team with the right system. And before we start throwing rotten tomatoes at that idea, it's worth remembering that Nick Foles had regressed behind a patchwork offensive line before he was injured. Sanchez made several conversions on third-and-long, helped tight end Zach Ertz set a franchise record with 15 receptions for 115 yards and continued to look decent in the driver's seat. Sanchez ended his day with 37 completions in 50 attempts for 374 yards, two touchdowns and that killer pick. One could say that Sanchez's day was not as impressive as those numbers would suggest. One could also say that any gameplan that has Mark Sanchez throwing the ball 50 times in a close game, when LeSean McCoy is ripping the Redskins' defense to bits, is highly questionable. In both cases, one would be correct.
Like Griffin, Sanchez has more than his share of issues. He waits too long to make throws at times, his accuracy will never be top-notch, and he struggles with throws that require him to read and react to coverages on crossing routes and route combinations. But, there are ways in which Sanchez has both improved, and proven to be a really nice fit for Philly's offense. He has learned to get the ball out more quickly, for the most part. He has excellent functional mobility to escape pressure out of the pocket, and he's got a better deep ball than people may realize. Like Griffin, Sanchez has amplified the potential for a future in the NFL that was once thought to be lost.
3. Someone needs to tell the Eagles that Bradley Fletcher isn't very good.
Last Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, the Eagles' starting left cornerback gave up five catches on five targets for 88 yards and three touchdowns, all to Dez Bryant. Whatever it is about Fletcher that had defensive coordinator Billy Davis matching him up against the opponent's best receiver happened again in Washington, when Fletcher was lined up against DeSean Jackson, who burned him on the aforementioned deep pass, and more. This wasn't just a two-week slide, either. Through Week 15, according to Pro Football Focus' charting stats, Fletcher has allowed 53 catches on 106 targets for 908 yards, nine touchdowns, one interception and an opponent passer rating of 103.8. It's clear that Fletcher doesn't have the vertical speed, coverage awareness and turn-and-run ability to mirror the league's best receivers, but there appears to be a curious level of inflexibility (or basic awareness) regarding this notion.
(H/T: Bleacher Report)
"I believe in Bradley Fletcher," Davis said after the Cowboys loss about replacing Fletcher in that role. "He was in phase. He didn't make the plays with the ball, but no, we didn't have that discussion. I don't know if I had a move, even if we did. Nolan [Carroll] was up, and then he was down, and then he was in again."
Fair enough, but why not put Cary Williams, who has played much better than Fletcher has this season, on those top receivers? Low bar, we know, but coming into this game, Williams had given up 46 catches on 82 targets for 620 yards, five touchdowns and two picks. Those aren't numbers that will have Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman shaking in their boots, but it's a lot closer to league average, and Fletcher clearly has a major issue covering speed receivers on vertical routes -- he just can't catch up. Griffin's fourth-quarter pick came on a deep ball from Griffin to Jackson where safety Nate Allen came over to help Fletcher in coverage, which was certainly an improvement. And the Eagles did mix Carroll in more, but still... this is a problem.
People can blame Fletcher all they want, but he is what he is -- a very limited player. This is on the Eagles' coaching staff for putting a player in position to help cost its team two crucial games. And it's the coaches who must be held accountable when these things happen.