There were plenty of rookies who could have made an impact on the Eagles game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott had their moments. Carson Wentz wasn't bad either.
But the rookie everyone should be talking about it first-year head coach Doug Pederson, who will shoulder a lot of the blame for Sunday's loss.
The honeymoon is officially over.
Until last night, Doug Pederson was given a pass for his rookie mistakes. He'll learn, he'll adjust, he'll figure it out. But last night, against the hated Cowboys, on national TV, the grading curve disappeared as Pederson was out-coached down the stretch and lost his second-straight division game.
Things didn't seem too bad heading into the fourth quarter. The Eagles were playing conservatively, but they were nursing a 10-point lead with a little more than 13 minutes remaining when Pederson made his first costly mistake.
Through seven games, Pederson has proved to be a players' coach, consistently showing confidence in his guys to make the plays necessary to win. But he gave Wendell Smallwood his first carry of the game in the fourth quarter, and the rookie promptly put the ball on the turf, giving the Cowboys prime field position for a drive that would lead to three points.
Later in the game, Pederson showed confidence in a player who was silent all night when he dialed up a third-down pass to Trey Burton with the game tied and the Eagles backed up in their own end. Burton was unable to haul in the pass, ending the Eagles' drive after just three plays.
When the Cowboys were desperate for a big play they called on Dez Bryant. The Eagles called on an undrafted third-year tight end who has just 10 catches all season.
But there's one decision that everyone will be grumbling about this morning. On the fringe of Caleb Sturgis' range, with a chance to ice the game, Pederson called for a bubble screen that lost six yards and pushed the Eagles back to the Cowboys' 36-yard line. Sturgis easily made a 55-yard kick at the end of the first half, but Pederson refused to risk a 53-yarder in crunch time.
"Field position, at that time, was critical," the coach said after the game.
Pederson went on to explain that he had confidence the Eagles defense to get a stop after pinning the Cowboys at their own 11-yard line. Rational enough, but that kind of logic isn't what got the Eagles to where they are. If Pederson truly had confidence in his squad, he would've let Sturgis kick. If he missed, the defense that he had so much confidence in still had a shot to hold the Cowboys to zero or three points and preserve the lead.
But instead, the aggression that Pederson wielded during the first six games of his NFL head-coaching career wilted under his first high-pressure situation.
"This will be a great learning lesson," Pederson told reporters last night. For the team's sake, hopefully it's a lesson he picks up very quickly.
Did Not Play: Bennie Logan (groin)
Allen Barbre: The Eagles' left guard left the game after the team's first drive with a hamstring injury and never returned. Stefen Wisniewski took his place and played well, although when Jason Kelce seemed to be a bit hobbled later in the game, the Birds had no replacements for him. Pederson didn't have an update on Barbre's condition, but if it's a strained hamstring, the veteran will be evaluated on a week to week basis.
11: According to Pro Football Focus, Brandon Graham had 11 quarterback pressures last night, the most by any edge rusher this season. On a night where Fletcher Cox remained rather quiet, Graham's performance really stood out against the pass and the run. He finished the game with six tackles, one for loss, a QB hit and a pass deflection.
We mentioned last week how Graham has been playing at a Pro Bowl level in 2016 and yesterday was just another dominant performance by the defensive end.
3: Smallwood's fumble last night was the third time an Eagle fumbled with a lead in the fourth quarter. The only other team who has done that multiple times in 2016 is the San Diego Chargers who did it twice in one game. There were a lot of chances for the Eagles to put the game away, but when the main objective is chewing up clock, ball security should be everyone's priority.
The Eagles are still among the leaders in giveaways, but theirs have come at such costly times. With a noticeable decline in snaps for Ryan Mathews after his fumble last week, it will be interesting to see how Pederson handles Smallwood's touches moving forward.
4.69: Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz averaged just 4.69 yards per attempt last night, worst of his career. Wentz's stats will be a bit inflated because of his high completion percentage, but it's very hard to win football games when you don't throw the ball down the field. The Eagles attempted just one pass 20 yards down field, only it was thrown by Josh Huff. Coming into this week, teams are 4-14 when their quarterbacks average less than five yards per pass attempt.
Fifteen-play, eight-minute drives are great, but they're very hard to replicate. The Eagles are very good at controlling the ball, but big plays are necessary. Unless Wentz and his receivers can find ways to push the ball down the field, the Eagles' offense will sputter.
Isn't the basic skill needed to be an NFL wide receiver, the ability to catch the ball?
— Jim Kenney (@JimFKenney) October 31, 2016
Even the mayor is throwing shade toward the Eagles' receiving corps. It's one thing to have one receiver struggling with drops, but to have all four of your primary targets struggling to hold on to the football is a serious issue. If something doesn't change by the end of the year, Howie Roseman may decide to blow things up and start from scratch, which is a bit worrisome, considering the amount of resources they've already invested in their current group of wide receivers.
— Ron Jaworski (@jawsespn) October 31, 2016
I'm curious as to how these two came together during the game. Did Christie invite Jaws to his house? Did Jaws invite Christie to his? It's just interesting to see one of the most notorious Cowboys' fans ended up watching the game with one of the most iconic Eagles. Could you imagine Ed Rendell inviting Roger Staubach over to watch the game? Me neither.
— fletcher cox (@fcoxx_91) October 31, 2016
The Eagles, along with many fans, will have a very bitter taste in their mouths for a while.
Offensive Player of the Game: Darren Sproles
The Eagles relied heavily on Sproles last night and he delivered with one of his best performances as an Eagle. There were no game-breaking plays or 75-yard touchdowns, but Pederson utilized the diminutive speedster as a traditional tailback and he picked up 86 yards on 15 carries. It's a shame that Sproles' production hasn't come in a more successful period of Eagles football, or else he would probably be one of the most popular players in this city's history.
Not that Sproles isn't appreciated, but what this guy is able to do on a weekly basis is just incredible. He can be a force on special teams. He can be a weapon in the passing game. Or, as we learned last night, he can be the bell cow for a team. At 33-years-old, Sproles' days seem to be numbered, but he remains one of the most versatile, electric players in the league. With the exception of Wentz, He is the Eagles best offensive player.
Defensive Player of the Game: Brandon Graham
We already went into detail about Graham's big day, but it needs to be said again: Brandon Graham has been the Eagles best defensive player in 2016. That is what this franchise envisioned in 2011 when they traded up to draft him in the 2010 draft. Give credit to this guy for continuing to perform even after being labelled a bust for the first few years of his career. It's been a while since we've heard calls for Earl Thomas, hasn't it?
1. It's hard to not look at the matchup of Wentz and Dak Prescott and see them as the next great rivalry in football. Their careers will parallel each others, coming into the league into the same year and playing in the same division. Both men looked the part of rookies last night, but in five years, when they're both at the top of their game, this will be an absolute treat to to watch. Get your popcorn ready.
2. So tomorrow is the NFL trade deadline and after last night's game, the calls for Torrey Smith or Alshon Jeffery will not get any quieter over the next 24 hours. But in-season trades rarely happen in the NFL, especially at the deadline. Remember when the Eagles were going to trade for Vincent Jackson? Still, both Smith and Jeffery represent upgrades over the Eagles current group of receivers, but their contract situations make them much less valuable.
Smith is owed $9.6 million per year through 2019 and Jeffery is going to be a free agent at the end of the season, so the Eagles would have to be fairly confident they can reach an agreement with him in the offseason or risk giving up an asset for seven games. They're decent players with big names and even bigger price tags. Pass.
3. Another player whose contributions were overshadowed by last night's collapse was Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Big V played extremely well last night and looks so much better than the kid who was taken to school by Ryan Kerrigan for 60 minutes a few weeks ago. The Eagles have been in search of young players on the offensive line for about three years and it seems like they've finally found one.
The Eagles will head up to the Meadowlands to face off against the Giants in their third divisional game in four weeks. After falling to 0-2 in the division and two games behind the Cowboys for first place in the NFC East, this Sunday's tilt is a must-win for Pederson's squad if they want to have a shot at winning the division.
The New York Giants are coming off their bye, but they've won two straight, including last week's win in London over the Los Angeles Rams. Despite the return of Victor Cruz and adding Sterling Shepard to their receiving corps, Eli Manning has had an up-and-down season, throwing eight touchdowns and six interceptions. The Giants also are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry and have yet to score more than 27 points in a game this year.