For the third consecutive year, the Philadelphia Eagles are playing a December game for the NFC East title. They won’t be facing the Dallas Cowboys this time, though. Saturday’s game against the Washington Redskins will decide who wins the division and gets to host a wild-card playoff game in two weeks.
Washington defeated the Eagles 23-20 back in October, as Kirk Cousins capped a 90-yard touchdown drive with a 4-yard pass to Pierre Garcon. Since then, Cousins has established himself as a starting quarterback capable of winning big games. Meanwhile, Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford has begun to do a little of that himself.
ESPN.com Redskins reporter John Keim and Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan discuss Saturday’s game between the two teams.
Phil Sheridan: It has always been tempting to see Jay Gruden as the Beau Bridges of NFL coaches. Jon is the sharper, more accomplished brother. But how much credit does Jay deserve for the team’s improbable run to first place in the NFC East and for Cousins’ excellent play?
John Keim: It’s funny, because some Redskins fans have roasted both Cousins and Gruden this season. Neither will ever be good enough, because one made the decision to bench Robert Griffin III and the other replaced him.
But one of them has to be doing something right, because no one expected this type of season given the preseason expectations (low) and the injuries (high). So any coach should deserve credit for what they’ve done this season.
I do believe the team's culture changed for the better with several key additions (give general manager Scot McCloughan credit), and that’s been a big plus as well. But Gruden inserting Cousins went a long way with the players, and they do like his style of coaching -- Gruden interacts with all players, takes care of the veterans and sold his game plan better this season. Gruden has given Cousins time to grow, and Cousins, in turn, showed reason why he should be given time.
I’m not going to canonize Gruden just yet, but he has done a good job this season.
The Redskins are excited about the opportunity they have and view themselves as a team on the rise. Considering the expectations surrounding the Eagles entering the season -- and Chip Kelly’s controversial personnel decisions -- what is their state of mind? More disappointment or solely focused on a possible playoff berth?
Sheridan: I think it’s a little of both, frankly. After Sunday night’s loss to the Cardinals, there was a lot of talk in the locker room about “the playoffs start now” and how the players were grateful for the short week so they couldn’t dwell on that game.
But I also sense quite a bit of disappointment. This team was horrible for three games in a row, culminating in those blowout losses to Tampa Bay and Detroit. They rallied to beat New England and then Buffalo. I think they felt like they had righted the ship and were beyond the kind of performances they endured during that three-game slide.
So losing 40-17, even to a very good Arizona team, felt a little bit like waking up in the morning and finding the boulder back at the bottom of the mountain. The players talked about still having a chance at the postseason, and that’s something to play for, but I also think the Cardinals game was a convincing argument that this Eagles team is in no way ready to contend.
They may win the NFC East, but that says more about the state of the division than any claim the Eagles have to being a good team.
Back to Cousins for a second: His play reminds me of Nick Foles' 2013 season. Foles was drafted 14 spots ahead of Cousins in 2012. In 2013, he threw 27 touchdowns and two interceptions and was MVP of the Pro Bowl. Since then, he has been pretty pedestrian. What signs are you getting as far as Cousins’ ability to continue doing this?
Keim: The talent around him.
It’s funny, because before the season, I did not picture Cousins as the game-manager type; he had an aggressive mindset that led to forced passes and interceptions. But he’s been much better in that area the past eight games (16 touchdowns, three interceptions) and has mostly managed games well.
I also like that Cousins knows who he is and, more importantly, who he is not. He knows there’s talent around him, so he lets them do their jobs. He has an elite downfield guy (DeSean Jackson), a top tight end (Jordan Reed) and a solid target (Garcon). Cousins needs that. So as long as there’s no Chip Kelly giveaway, he’ll have that talent.
Also, Cousins does well with play-action and bootlegs -- and the run game has been bad. If they can improve that next season, it would allow him to continue playing well. I’m still not sure just how good he can be and wouldn’t be surprised by any direction he goes. But he definitely has improved and proved that Gruden made the right choice in August.
What’s your assessment of Sam Bradford?
Sheridan: Oh, boy. This is a thorny one, because there is so much at stake on it. Not on my assessment, of course. Kelly isn’t going to base his decisions on what I say. But in trying to analyze Bradford, you have to take everything into account: his current performance, his room for further growth, his contract situation, the talent around him and so forth. In short, there is no simple answer.
So let’s start with his performance during the season. Bradford looked great in the preseason, and that probably raised expectations to an unreasonable level. That made Bradford’s first seven games a little bit underwhelming: nine touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 3-4 record. It was basically what the Eagles got last year from Foles and Mark Sanchez.
But beginning with the Dallas game on Nov. 8, Bradford began playing markedly better. He missed two games because of injuries, but his work since then is pretty good: 66.5 percent completion rate, seven touchdowns and three interceptions, a 3-2 record.
If Bradford had another year on his contract, you’d look at his recent play and decide he had a chance to develop into something good next season. But the economics are tough here. Committing $15 to $20 million a year means you need a little more than a chance. And I don’t think Bradford has proved himself beyond that point.
Sunday’s game against Arizona was a perfect example. He made some really terrific throws, but he turned the ball over three times. In the five games I cited where his stats are pretty solid, the Eagles’ offense has averaged 21 points per game. Bradford cut back on his interceptions, but I think part of that equation is that he cut back on taking chances and being aggressive.
Another thing Foles and Cousins have in common: When they had their breakout seasons, they were throwing to a guy named DeSean Jackson. Two years into his tenure there, how is DeSean fitting in? Is he the problem that Chip Kelly apparently thought he was, or does his big-play capability make him worth it?
Keim: I believe that question gets asked every week. But consider this: The Redskins’ offense is much better with him on the field in almost every key statistical category than when he’s not.
He can’t be that big of a problem considering they’re a game ahead of the Eagles entering Saturday’s game. When Jackson missed OTA workouts, the common refrain from teammates was, “As long as he produces on Sundays.” He produces.
Cousins’ passer rating the past four games throwing to Jackson is 154.0, and his QBR is 98.5. Both are nearly perfect. Jackson does not block too often, can be all about himself and will miss workouts. But in 23 games the past two seasons, Jackson has 19 catches of 30 or more yards -- fifth-best in the NFL by three catches (but everyone ahead of him played more games). They could cut him this offseason and save $8 million against the cap, but then they’d have to find someone to do what he does -- and there aren’t many with his skills.
A lot has been made about the running back situation in Philadelphia, but I’m curious: What are some issues with the team that have not been discussed enough?
Sheridan: There are a few. The offensive line has been up and down all season. That has affected everything. The guards who replaced Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans have good games and bad, but I think the biggest thing is that left tackle Jason Peters has been dealing with nagging injuries all season. That probably has something to do with Peters being close to 34 years old and closer to the end than the beginning of his career.
Meanwhile, Kelly’s other offseason moves are as questionable as the running back situation. The past two seasons he let the team’s best wide receiver leave. Instead of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, Bradford is throwing to Jordan Matthews, Riley Cooper, Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff. Only Matthews has been an NFL-quality wide receiver.
Over on the defensive side, Byron Maxwell has been OK but hardly the difference-maker you'd expect for a $63 million contract. And Kiko Alonso looks nothing like the player he was in Buffalo. Whether that’s because of injuries, scheme or something else, I don’t know. I do know that it isn’t particularly promising.
That could be the title of the 2015 Eagles’ highlight video: Not Particularly Promising.