A common refrain from head coaches in the NFL following painful losses or during losing streaks is that the team is “so close” to getting things right.
After falling 27-20 to the division-rival Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, the defending Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles have a 4-5 record, tied with Dallas and two games behind Washington in the NFC East. But while watching the Eagles’ offense at work against Dallas, it's clear the unit is really close to getting things right.
Early in the second quarter, the Eagles face a first-and-10 at the Dallas 29-yard line, trailing 3-0. They break the huddle using 11 offensive personnel and put three receivers to the left, with quarterback Carson Wentz in the shotgun. Philadelphia runs a vertical passing play to the left, with wide receiver Jordan Matthews (bottom screen) running a post while Nelson Agholor (highlighted) runs a wheel route. Tight end Zach Ertz (in the slot) runs a curl route:
Wentz wants to take a shot downfield, but the Cowboys do a good job covering Matthews. Then Agholor breaks free on his wheel route along the left sideline.
However, with the pocket starting to collapse around him, Wentz is forced to take the shorter throw, and checks the ball down to Ertz:
You can see Agholor breaking free, but Wentz has to drop his eyes down to the curl. The end-zone angle gives the best view of the pocket integrity starting to crack, and Wentz needing to get the ball out:
Thanks to the eight-yard gain, the Eagles now face a second-and-2 on the Dallas 21-yard line. But they would eventually fail on a fourth-down try and walk away from this drive without any points.
Late in the second quarter, the Eagles are driving again. Trailing 6-0, Philadelphia has the ball on the Dallas 38-yard line. The Eagles line up with Wentz under center and 12 offensive personnel on the field, with tight ends Ertz and Dallas Goedert both in the game:
The Eagles and head coach Doug Pederson draw up a beautiful throwback screen pass, working off play action:
Wentz fakes a handoff to Corey Clement and starts to roll away from the running back and toward the right sideline. But then the quarterback stops and throws back to Clement, with multiple offensive linemen pulling and ready to clear a path.
Watch how close the Eagles are to a huge gain here:
This play is set up perfectly. The Eagles’ use of misdirection draws the majority of defenders toward the middle of the field, and Clement has a convoy of blockers in front of him.
However, there's just one fly in the ointment: Dallas defensive back Xavier Woods. The safety wiggles around one lineman and gets his hands on Clement just as the throw from Wentz arrives, breaking up the pass.
Look at how much room Clement had to run if Woods doesn't break up this play:
Again, the Eagles were just a half step or so away from a huge play.
Now facing second down, Philadelphia looks to try a vertical shot downfield. The offense lines up with Wentz under center and two receivers to the right - Agholor and Alshon Jeffery - in a stack-slot look. Ertz and Goedert are in a wing alignment on the left side.
Wentz looks to target the out-and-up Jeffery is running:
The Eagles are worried about pass protection here, so they use a maximum-protection scheme. Both Ertz and Goedert stay in to block for Wentz, leaving Agholor and Jeffery as the only two receivers running routes.
But Wentz is still pressured and he can't fully step into his throw to Jeffery, who is open:
Wentz takes a shot after his release, and the throw arrives just a step too late. Defensive back Chidobe Awuzie is able to disrupt the play at the catch point, and the pass falls incomplete.
Here, you can see how the pocket again collapses around Wentz and he's throwing under duress:
The pressure forces Wentz to slide away from his target a bit, and due to the disruption, the throw gets to Jeffery late, giving Awuzie a chance to recover and make a play. Philadelphia had to settle for a field goal.
The final example comes from the third quarter. Again, the Eagles are driving, and this time they face a third-and-goal on the Dallas 7-yard line. Wentz lines up in the shotgun and with the Eagles' 12 personnel package on the field. Jeffery, Ertz, and Goedert are in a three-receiver bunch to the right:
Before the play, Philadelphia sends Jeffery in motion from right to left, which causes Dallas’ defense to adjust. But there's some pre-snap confusion from the Cowboys:
Here's the route design Philadelphia uses:
The Eagles run a variation of the spot concept to the right side, with a route to the flat, a spot route working inside, and then a deeper route cutting toward the middle of the field.
On the left side, Jeffery runs the route to watch. Dallas is using a red zone Cover 2 here, often termed “Red 2,” so there will potentially be space between the safeties. Linebacker Jaylon Smith is the defender to read. If he moves to his left and drifts away from Jeffery, Wentz has a chance to hit that route over the middle for the touchdown.
Which is exactly what happens, but the Eagles can't capitalize:
Wentz double clutches on the throw, perhaps because he sees Jeffery throttle down for a step. He still throws toward the middle of the field, but due to the hesitation, the safety is now in position to make a play.
The ball falls to the turf, and once again the Eagles are forced to settle for a field goal.
The Eagles had three different drives and multiple opportunities to make big plays with their passing game, all deep in opposing territory. Yet they came away with just six points. Settling for field goals is often a recipe for losing in close games.
Football is a game of inches and half steps, and right now the Eagles seem to be losing every small battle. Last year, those types of plays broke in their favor, but if the Eagles continue to miss chances for touchdowns, they’ll keep struggling.
There isn't a common thread to the missed opportunities, other than football being an unforgiving game - and sometimes, when we add up all those missed inches and half steps, a team can ultimately come up short.
Mark Schofield writes NFL feature content for theScore. After nearly a decade of practicing law in the Washington, D.C., area Mark changed careers and started writing about football. Drawing upon more than a decade of playing quarterback, including at the collegiate level, Mark focuses his work on quarterback evaluation and offensive scheme analysis. He lives in Maryland with his wife and two children. Find him on Twitter @MarkSchofield.