8:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Philadelphia -3
Disappointing, yet bitter rivals clash tonight at AT&T Stadium, as the flailing Dallas Cowboys host the struggling Philadelphia Eagles in the second leg of their annual confrontation. Given the expectations surrounding both of these franchises heading into the 2015 campaign, there is no other way to describe them other than disappointing. But with that said, given the very mediocre nature of the NFC East (or Least) both teams remain remarkably in some kind of contention. In the case of the Eagles (3-4, 3rd in NFC East), the expectations were exceedingly high, as third-year Head Coach Chip Kelly garnered more control of the Front Office and continued to remake the roster in his own image. That included the curious exodus of longtime fixtures such as Tailback LeSean McCoy (traded to Buffalo), Guard Evan Mathis (released, later signed with Denver), and Wide Receiver Jeremy Maclin (signed with Kansas City), along with the surprise trade of starting Quarterback Nick Foles to St. Louis in exchange for Sam Bradford, the former Heisman and No. One Overall Pick in 2010. However, the cupboard wouldn’t stay bare for long; reigning rushing champion DeMarco Murray arrived via Free Agency late of Dallas, along with former Chargers’ Tailback Ryan Matthews to bolster an already prolific ground game, while Linebacker Kiko Alonso and Cornerback Byron Maxwell brought their talents to the City of Brotherly Love as well. All these comings and goings made for an abundancy of criticism and curiosity, with many around the league willing to give the innovative and unconventional Kelly the benefit of the doubt, leading to the aforementioned expectations. So with eight weeks in the books, the question on everyone’s minds is “have the Eagles met said expectations?” Well…. the jury is still out on that, folks.
The fact, that with a win tonight and a Giants’ loss, Philadelphia can still gain control of the NFC East no doubt makes their underwhelming record a bit easier to digest. However, it would be blasphemy to proclaim that they have met the lofty expectations heaped upon their shoulders during the summer. The offense, while at times explosive, has generally been a mess; Kelly’s charges have scored 22.9 points (17th Overall) on a total of 366.7 yards (13th Overall), including 252.3 yards through the air (19th Overall) on just 5.8 net yards per attempt (29th Overall), and another 114.4 yards on the ground (15th Overall) on 4.2 yards per carry (15th Overall). When compared to the numbers posted in those same categories a year ago, there is no doubt that this unit has regressed. Their struggles start with Bradford, who has really proved to be a poor fit for what Kelly is looking for on offense; statuesque and immobile in the pocket, the former Rams’ signal caller has completed 62.0% of his passes for an average of 252.3 yards per contest, tossing nine touchdowns to ten interceptions, all the while accumulating a putrid 29.6 Total QBR. The bulk of his passing yards have come in garbage time with the team trailing, and the interceptions have become prevalent without the presence of pressure. That’s right, folks, despite being largely immobile, Bradford has been pressured fewest among starting Quarterbacks around the league, and in those scenarios has amassed the worst QBR in such situations. Let’s take a look back at how he performed against the Cowboys in their earlier meeting back on September 20th, a 20-10 loss; the 28-year old completed 23-of-37 passes for 224 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, with a lost fumble to boot. In that defeat, Philadelphia looked listless until early in the Fourth Quarter, entering the final stanza trailing by thirteen points. With all that said, his poor play isn’t completely his fault, for the Offensive Line has struggled without the aforementioned Mathis and fellow Guard Todd Herremans, who was also included in the Offseason Purge. Injuries have been a persistent problem here, keeping this unit from establishing any kind of continuity; Tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson have both missed time with an assortment of ailments, while interior linemen such as Andrew Gardner (foot) and David Molk (biceps) have both landed on Injured Reserve. In fact, Peters is listed as Doubtful for tonight’s outing, due to the effects of back spasms suffered two weeks ago in a 27-16 loss at Carolina. That doesn’t bode well for just Bradford, but Murray too, who will be looking to prove a point to his former employers after they let him walk away in Free Agency. Maybe Jerry Jones was right in letting the reigning Offensive Player of the Year walk out the door after rushing for a franchise-best 1,845 yards and thirteen touchdowns in 2014, for Murray has found the grass not nearly as green on the other side. The 27-year old has disappointed greatly, averaging 51.2 yards per game on a mediocre 3.5 yards per carry, with both numbers proving to be in precipitous decline when compared to last year, when he averaged 115.3 yards on a robust 4.7 yards per attempt. Again, it’s a matter of being a poor fit for the scheme; behind Dallas’ hulking, dominant Offensive Line, Murray ran largely in I-Formations, allowing him to build a head of steam, but in Kelly’s spread attack, he has been offset from the Quarterback, a position he had very little experience in while wearing a star on his helmet. In his first encounter with the team that drafted him four years ago, Murray simply did not make much of an impact; despite gaining 53 yards on five catches, he was relegated to a mere two (two!) yards on thirteen carries. The bottom line is that this guy is a traditional North and South runner, not East and West, as he and his Quarterback continue to resemble round pegs being forced into square holes.
Meanwhile, the situation in Dallas is getting bleaker by the instant. Never mind the social backlash expected after the long awaited release of the disturbing pictures of troubled Defensive End Greg Hardy’s domestic assault case and the Front Office’s inevitable denial of knowing about them, for the Cowboys (2-5, 4th in NFC East) stand on the verge of some rather dubious history. That’s right, folks, with another loss tonight, it will mark the first time since 1989 that this proud franchise has lost six consecutive games. That was Troy Aikman’s rookie year, people, a miserable 1-15 campaign. A year after winning their first division title since 2009, Dallas has reminded us all why it is in fact so damn important to have a competent backup at the game’s most important position, Quarterback. It’s very easy to detect what ails this team: Tony Romo’s arm has been in a sling, not throwing passes on Sundays. In getting off to a 2-0 start, No. 9 suffered a fractured clavicle in the Week Two victory over the Eagles, and has proceeded to miss every game since, tirelessly rehabbing in hopes to return to the field by the end of November. It may be one of the worst kept secrets in the league, but Jason Garrett’s charges simply aren’t the same without their Pro Bowl signal caller. In the six contests without him, it’s been a mixed bag in terms of performance; some have been blowouts, while others very competitive, but the end result has continued to be the same. Journeymen passers such as Brandon Weeden and most recently Matt Cassel have each attempted to keep the offense afloat until their predecessor’s inevitable return, with both failing miserably. It doesn’t take next generation stats to make someone understand that Romo>Weeden and that Romo>Cassel, but the more relevant comparison has been Weeden/Cassel<Everyone.
All jokes aside, neither backup Quarterback has been able to get it done on Sundays this season. Weeden was up first, starting the first three outings after Romo was sent to Injured Reserve, and apart from an impressive first half against the Falcons, saw everything proceed to roll downhill since. Leading Atlanta 28-17 at halftime, the Cowboys were outscored 22-0 over the final thirty minutes that day, as Weedon was helpless to stop the bleeding. In his three starts in Romo’s absence, the 32-year old has managed to complete 70.3% of his passes for an average of 222.0 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, which while initially coming across as pretty decent is a bit misleading given that he’s done very little other than check down to his Hot Reads while dinking and dunking down the field. As was the case when he started in Cleveland, his Pocket Presence leaves a lot to be desired, even with arguably the best Offensive Line in the league protecting him, as he has been sacked eight times in those three starts. Heading into the Bye Week after a 30-6 drubbing at the hands of the Patriots, Matt Cassel was acquired in an attempt to right the ship, which gave even the most cynical of fans in Northern Texas hope given his success in previous stays in New England and Kansas City. However, that was back in 2008 and 2010 respectfully, a lifetime in the NFL, which Cassel indeed proved to be true in his two starts under Center. The 33-year old has hardly given the Dallas faithful anything to cheer about, completing just 57.7% of his passes for an average of 162.0 yards on just 5.89 net yards per attempt, one touchdown and three interceptions, leading to a Total QBR of 27.88. Though both losses to the Giants (27-20) and the Seahawks (13-12) were incredibly close contests, it’s very logical to believe that better quarterback play would have helped halt this losing streak in either instance. At MetLife Stadium, Cassel was 17-of-27 for 227 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions, with one of those picks being returned for a score, dooming an offense that accumulated a healthy 460 yards, including a staggering 233 yards on the ground. A week later, with the defense dominating the two-time defending NFC Champions and the rushing attack again churning out yards (129), No. 16 was inept in his execution, completing 13-of-25 attempts for a mere 97 yards, while Kicker Dan Bailey handled all the scoring (Four Field Goals). So as you can see, the Cowboys can’t get Romo back on the field sooner, and you better believe that Jerry Jones and Co. have tried everything short of witchcraft in an attempt to hasten his rehab. And when he does in fact make his return, he will find plenty of positives in spite of the dismal play of his successors; the rushing attack has been very productive without the departed Murray, trampling their way to 127.6 yards per game (6th Overall) on 4.5 yards per carry (8th Overall), Dez Bryant has returned from a broken foot which had sidelined him for six weeks, and the defense has continued their marked improvement from last year, ranking eighth overall in yards allowed (337.0 yards per game). Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli must be pleased with his unit’s continued development, but they must find a way to get more sacks (13.0) and force more turnovers (4), the second-fewest in the league. Thankfully, they’re playing the Eagles, who have been known to give the ball away on occasion this season (15, fourth-most).