NFC Championship: A Matter of Luck For Two Snakebitten Franchises and Cities Starving for a Title.

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Can the Eagles rely on Nick Foles to take them to the Super Bowl? The Birds will take on the Minnesota Vikings in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Lincoln Financial Field. Photo By Webster Riddick.

This weekend’s NFC Championship matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings pits two hard luck franchises against each other.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and The Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Sunday’s NFC Championship game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field will be a matchup of two franchises that have lost six Super Bowls in total and have had more than their share of post-season disappointments.

From 2001 to 2008, the Eagles went to five NFC title games, losing four of them. When the team did win the NFC Championship in the 2004 season, they went on to lose to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings haven’t won a NFC title game since the 1976 season, where they lost to the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XI. Since then, they’ve lost four title games, three of which were lost in the final minute or in overtime.

(In other words, they know exactly how the New Orleans Saints, whom they defeated on Sunday on a fluke play with seconds left in the game, feel…)

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum looking to lead his team to a win over the Eagles.

Since neither team has won the Super Bowl—the Eagles won a pre-Super Bowl NFL Championship in 1960—something has to give, right? The football gods are going to reward one of these long suffering fan bases with a trip to the Super Bowl and another chance to win an elusive championship.

But now that we’ve talked about all that history, let’s talk about the game itself.

Neither of the quarterbacks participating in Sunday’s game is going to make anyone forget former Eagles great Donovan McNabb, Vikings Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton or even Vikings short-termer Brett Favre. But Nick Foles and Minnesota’s Case Keenum, two guys who didn’t distinguish themselves as part of the Los Angeles or St. Louis Rams squads in the early Oughts, have managed to get their teams to the conference final despite pronouncements to the contrary.

Foles is coming off a solid performance in the win over the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round in which he completed 23-of-30 passes for 246 yards with no touchdown passes, but also no interceptions.  He was efficient and kept the Eagles offense moving at key stretches, mixing passes to tight-end Zach Ertz, and wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor with screens to running backs Jay Ajayi and   Corey Clement and smash mouth running from running back LeGarrette Blunt.

That’s something the Eagles will have to do against a Vikings defense that ranks at the top of the NFL.

“The quick, short passing game obviously can help, the running game can help,” said head coach Doug Pederson. “Somewhere in there, if you can take a shot, you take a shot and whether you hit, like first play of the game, if you hit it or not, that kind of gets your blood flowing a little bit. And sometimes even tempo, hurry-up, no-huddle offense can get your quarterback into that kind of rhythm.”

It also helps that the Eagles running game, while not great, moved the ball well enough to keep the Falcons defense off balance. The Eagles as a group rushed for 96 yards including a couple of 10-yard plus runs on jet sweeps by Agholor.  Ajayi also averaged close to four yards per carry.

It kept the Eagles from being one-dimensional, Ertz, the tight end, said.

“Yeah, I thought we were really good on first and second down in the second half of that game last week,” he said “We kind had the RPOs (run pass options) early on first down that put us in those positions to be successful. I thought Doug [Pederson] a really good job. One of the things that stood out is that we never got in those third-and-really long situations, third-and-11-plus situations where you have to have the running back and the tight-end chip. You never want to be in those situations and we kind of stayed out of those, so that was definitely huge for us.”

Meanwhile, the Eagles defense is not taking Keenum and the Vikings offense lightly. This is an offense coming off the high of the “Minneapolis Miracle”, when Keenum hit Stefon Diggs on a 61-yard touchdown with 10 seconds left to defeat the New Orleans Saints.

Keenum, who was the NFL’s 12th rated passer, has been efficient. In the game against the Saints, Keenum was 25-of-40 for 318 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

But the Eagles defense is no slouch—they are the fourth ranked defense in the league and are first against the run.  The Vikings running game ranked seventh during the regular season despite the loss of rookie Dalvin Cook. Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon are averaging close to four yards per carry.

Defensive end Brandon Graham recognizes this and says the defense does as well.

“Oh, yeah, you can’t take nobody lightly and I think Case does a good job as far as moving in the pocket, being able to extend plays with his legs and you know just being able to trust himself going out there,” he said. “You know, going out there, making plays because he’s got the receivers. He’s got the running game that’s been helping him take a lot of pressure off of him.”

The Eagles, who managed to become the Number One seed despite a slate of injuries that includes MVP-candidate quarterback Carson Wentz, are once again the underdog despite this being a home game.

So expect the return of the Dog Masks. And a shoulder chip you can see from space.

“The disrespect continues,” said Eagles Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. “For us to be the No 1 seed and to have this championship run through the Linc, what more do you want? At the end of the day, respect is not given, we gotta go out and take it like we’ve been doing all year. I think we’ll go out and dominate.”

The NFC Championship game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings will be played on Sunday night at 6:40 p.m. at Lincoln Financial Field in South Philadelphia. Tickets are sold out, but if you want to catch the game, it’ll be on Fox-29, beginning with the Fox NFL-Sunday pregame show at 6 p.m.

Philadelphia Eagles Training Camp 2017: Improving Cornerback Position Critical to Birds Success This Season

 

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Eagles rookie cornerbacks Rasul Douglas (32) and Jomal Wiltz (30) are competing to get playing time in the Eagles secondary. Photo by Webster Riddick.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

With a group of new players and rookies and a ton of expectations, the Philadelphia Eagles 2017 squad started training camp on Monday with more questions than answers.

But fans are hoping that once the team gets these questions answered, the Eagles will be a shoo-in for a playoff spot and possibly a Super Bowl.

Among these questions fans and coaches have is How much better will quarterback Carson Wentz play now that he has more weapons to work with? The Eagles signed wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in the off-season, giving Wentz two more weapons to work with. He’ll also have running back LeGarrette Blount behind him, and the team is hoping that he can duplicate his career-high 1,161 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns from last year. Coaches will also be keeping an eye on diminutive rookie running back Donnel Pumphrey to see if he can be an every-down running back despite weighing just 178 pounds.

On the defensive side of the ball, the weakest link on the Eagles squad appears to be the secondary in general and the cornerback slot in particular. That’s because you have a group a group that hasn’t played with each other much that includes a group of talented, but untested rookies and a second-year player still trying to find his way.

“We’re going to continue to look to bring in guys, if we can, to create as much competition at that spot,” said head coach Doug Pederson during his post-practice press conference on Monday. “It’s obviously a spot we’re going to keep our eyes on throughout camp, but it gives a couple of our younger guys a chance to get some valuable reps.”

Rookie and former West Virginia star Rasul Douglas is among the group of Eagles first-year players that could crack the starting lineup or at the very least get some time on the field.  If you know something about his past, this is a young man whose motor is on all of the time.

Before transferring to West Virginia, Douglas played his collegiate ball at Nassau Community College as a walk-on and there were times he had to rely on ordering the McDonald’s dollar menu for meals because he didn’t have a lot of money. That experience fueled his determination to succeed once he got to West Virginia, he said.

Douglas will certainly need that kind of hunger (pardon the pun) to get playing time on the field, much less a starting spot. Especially since the competition appears to be really tough in his chosen slot.

“All of us have a chance to be a starting cornerback every position is open and up for grabs,” said Douglas, who intercepted eight passes in his final season at West Virginia. “We’re all trying to compete and get better every day. We’re definitely working and improving.”

The presumed starters at the cornerback positions are second-year corner Jalen Mills and 10-year veteran Patrick Robinson with Ron Brooks, who missed last 10 games with a torn quad last year, playing in the slot. The Birds also signed five-year veteran Dwayne Gratz. Also, veteran corner and former Canadian Football League standout Aaron Grymes returns to the Eagles after being cut last year.

If anything is going to prepare the Eagles young cornerback group for the upcoming season is the group of wide receivers they’ll be going up against in practice. Smith and Jeffrey are veteran receivers who know how to stretch defenses.

During the Eagles mini-camp in June, it was Jeffery who said that he liked Douglas’s potential at the cornerback spot and predicted that the rookie could have as many as five or six interceptions for the Eagles.

If that’s the case, the Birds could make a run for the division title this year.

“(Jeffery) has played against some of the best cornerbacks in the NFL,” Douglas said. “To hear something like that and being a rookie, not knowing and just playing off the athleticism means a lot.”

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said his young corners competing  against quality wide receivers in practice can only help the maturation process.

“I think the competition helps them. Whether it helps them to develop quicker, I don’t know. But I know that competition is going to bring out the best in them,” Schwartz said. “If they make a mistake in technique, it will show. You can’t cover it up against a veteran player. So I think that’s probably the biggest part of that equation.”

But players like Douglas are going to have to learn from players like Brooks and Robinson. Douglas said there were times he struggled during OTAs, but the veteran told him that there are going to those days when receivers get their catches.

“When we first came out here, we were out here just running around, trying to make a play,” he said. “They (the veterans) were like, Look young fella, they (wide receivers) get paid like you get paid. You can’t take away everything.”

The Eagles secondary will certainly need a push from the front seven to get pressure on quarterbacks. On the defensive line, former Baltimore Raven Tim Jurnigan along with defensive end Chris Long will give the Birds a solid rotation.

Meanwhile, rookie and No. I draft pick Derek Barnett is looking to join Brandon Graham as a starting defensive end.

“OTAs were very competitive. I’m competing with guys who’ve been in the league for a while and guys who’ve been in the league for two or three years. It’s all good competition,” Barnett said.

Despite breaking former Eagles great Reggie White’s all-time sack record at the University of Tennessee and being the Eagles No. 1 pick, Barnett knows he’s still got a lot of work ahead of him.

“What I did in the past doesn’t mean nothing, being a first-round pick doesn’t mean nothing,” Barnett said. “I still gotta come and go to work every day, improving my craft and showing the coaches they can trust me and showing my teammates they trust me on the field as well.”

The road to the Philadelphia Eagles 53-man roster for the 2017 season begins with the team’s first pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers on Aug. 10.

Loss to Redskins Reflective of an Awful 2016 for Eagles

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It’s been a tough year for Carson Wentz and Jordan Matthews. Photo by Webster Riddick

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

With the playoffs obviously out of the picture for the Philadelphia Eagles (5-8), the only thing that diehard Birds fans can hope for is that the team can finish a respectable .500 and not have a second straight losing season.

Considering how this team has struggled, finishing at 8-8 is going to be a struggle for the Eagles because they face three playoff contenders to close out the season starting with Sunday’s road game against the Baltimore Ravens.  The Eagles may not win another game if those games are must-wins for those teams.   The Birds close out the season at Lincoln Financial Field against the New York Giants and the first-place Dallas Cowboys.

The Eagles 27-22 loss to the Washington Redskins was quite simply a microcosm of an entire season has gone wrong. The Birds certainly had their chances to win the game, but couldn’t get out of their own way with turnovers and penalties.

“Yes, those are the things that we talk about during the week,” said head coach Doug Pederson. “Again, I mentioned it to the team at the end in the locker room that if we figure out a way to eliminate those things, great things are going to happen to your team.”

Eventually, just not this year.

Throw in injuries at key spots and that’s your 2016 Eagles season in a nutshell. In this game, the Eagles lost long snapper Jon Dorenbos to a right wrist injury, which meant long-snapping duties were split between tight ends Brent Celek and Trey Burton. Right tackle Allen Barbre left the game with a left hamstring injury and right tackle Brandon Brooks was sidelined with an illness.

One of the most devastating blows to the Eagles was the loss of punt returner Darren Sproles who got hurt fielding a punt on a vicious hit by Washington defensive back Deshazor Everett, who drew unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and several members of the Eagles wanting to kick his ass. Sproles will likely undergo the concussion protocol.

With all the reshuffling on the offensive line, Matt Tobin, who normally plays guard, was moved to right tackle. It was his inability to block Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan that sealed Eagles fate. Kerrigan’s sack and forced fumble of quarterback Carson Wentz deep in Washington territory halted the Eagles comeback.

On offense, the Eagles outgained Washington but gave up two turnovers inside the red zone that might have made a difference.   On their second possession of the game, the Birds, who were leading 3-0,  had the ball at the Washington three-yard line only to have Wentz throw an interception in the end zone.  Wentz ‘s fumble after the sack by Kerrigan put the nail in the coffin.

The Eagles had another chance to put seven points on the board when Darren Sproles ran a punt back 72 yards for an apparent touchdown, but it was called back because Zach Ertz was flagged for an illegal block in the back.  With the other two turnovers, the Eagles blew a potential 21 points that could have tilted the game in their favor.

“Obviously, we’ve had a handful mistakes, little things here and there,” Wentz said after the game.  “And a lot of these losses, we’re just one play away, two plays away. … It’s kind of frustrating, but we have to learn from it.”

If there’s a silver-lining in this latest Eagles loss, the team did play with a lot of effort after they were criticized by Pederson earlier last week.  Just not enough to walk away with a win.

Unfortunately, these are the games you lose when you are a bad team. It’s always shoulda, woulda, I wish I coulda when you find yourself at the end of another loss.

One final note-One of the enduring symbols of the debacle that was the Chip Kelly era returned to bite the Eagles again. Redskins and former Birds wide receiver DeSean Jackson caught three passes for 102 yards including an 80-yard touchdown pass.

Strangely, enough Jackson wasn’t booed or jeered by fans. That’s because there’s a sentiment around Philly that they want D-Jax, who turns 30 next year, back when he becomes a free agent after this season. He’s definitely better than what they have now at the wide receiver position.

Jackson left open the possibility that he could be back.

“I don’t know man, shoot,” Jackson said. “We’ll see what happens. You never know how it’ll play out.”

Stay tuned.

 

Run the Damn Ball: Eagles Need to Establish the Run to Help Carson Wentz

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Eagles running back Ryan Mathews attempts to elude a Minnesota Vikings defender. Can the Eagles jump start their running game and protect quarterback Carson Wentz. Photo by Webster Riddick.

By  Chris Murray 

For the Chris Murray Report and The Philadelphia Sunday Sun

In the last two games, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz has thrown the ball over 40 times.

When that’s happening, it’s usually because you’re behind by a couple of touchdowns and a couple of interceptions have been tossed along the way.

When you’re throwing the ball that much, it means that either (a) you  don’t have much of a running game or (b)!you’ve fallen behind by so many points that you have to abandon the run.

Not having a running game can be tough on a rookie quarterback, which is why Eagles head coach Doug Pederson admits that the team needs to expand it a little.

“Obviously, I think it does help Carson where you’re not putting everything, the whole game on his shoulders. We do a lot in the run game,”  Pederson said. “We  ask Carson to do a lot with RPO [run-pass option] things, with the read options, making some checks there. So, I think going forward, yeah, probably should rely on the run just a little bit more.”

Or, in the case of the Eagles, establish a consistent running game designed to  take the pressure off Wentz at the very least. A run game would keep opposing defenders from bringing the heat to Wentz, who threw two interceptions under intense pressure  against the New York Giants.

For the last two weeks, running back Darren Sproles has gotten the most carries. As shifty and speedy as he is, the 5-foot-6 Sproles is not a lead back. On one fourth down situation against the Giants, he was taken down short of the first down marker.

The guy that should have carried the ball in that situation was Ryan Mathews, who’s a more of a power running back.  So far this season, he is averaging close to four yards per carry. He hasn’t gotten a lot of playing time in recent weeks. That might be because of a fourth-quarter fumble against the Detroit Lions in a crucial situation.

And then there’s rookie Wendell Smallwood. At some point this season, I would love to see him as the Eagles lead back.  I think he has the speed and  power to run through people. He reminds me of former Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, but with more of a willingness to run between the tackles.  Like Sproles, Smallwood is a threat to hit the big play in the running game. In other words,  I like his home-run potential.

But because Smallwood had a fumble in a crucial situation against the Dallas Cowboys, the coaches aren’t trusting him. But the fumble problems can be fixed through coaching and practice.  They also need to get Kenjon Barner out there, too.

The bottom line here is that they can’t have their rookie quarterback slinging the ball all over the place at 40 times per game because, that could land him on the injured reserve list eventually. For all the things I like about Carson Wentz, the most important ability he needs to have is availability.

That’s why Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich really need to concentrate on the ground game.  Even if you don’t settle in on one lead back, figure out a way to utilize what those guys do well.

For example, Mathews is a good power back, especially in the red zone and when you need short yardage.  That’s the guy you use in third down and fourth down situations when you need to get a yard or two.

I would definitely mix in Smallwood between the 20s because I think he’s the most versatile back they have and has that big play potential.

Of course, the Eagles patchwork offensive line has to open those holes, but the offensive line is decent enough to be strong in the running game.

More importantly, you have to take the pressure off the quarterback because while Wentz has the tools to be a solid quarterback, he needs the help of a consistent running game.

And if the Eagles want to make the playoffs, they might want to get that together sooner rather than later.

 

Catch the Damn Ball: Eagles Receivers Not Making the Grade

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Eagles wide receiver and Carson Wentz shake hands after they connected on a 12-yard touchdown pass in the Birds 34-3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers back in Week 3. Photo by Webster Riddick.

Last Sunday ’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys shows how badly the Philadelphia Eagles need a quality wide receiver.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Throughout Organized Team Activities and training camp, Doug Pederson was often asked about whether or not the Philadelphia Eagles would get a game-breaking wide receiver.

Pederson’s response was to say that wide receivers were going to make big plays through the Eagles scheme and then he went and added Dorial Green-Beckham in hopes that he would be that guy to stretch the field.

Seven games into the season, we are still talking about dropped passes and a lack of separation. There was talk this week that the Birds were looking for a wide receiver before Tuesday’s trade deadline, with San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Torrey Smith being the biggest name mentioned in possible trade talks.

Although it would be more excusable if it were, the problem with the Eagles’ passing game isn’t quarterback Carson Wentz. The rookie signal caller had an efficient game in Sunday’s 29-23 overtime loss to Dallas.

The problem is that the Birds receivers scare no one going deep. When the scariest receiver in your passing game is running back Darren Sproles, you have a problem that’s going to keep you out of the playoffs. In the last four games, the Eagles have had just one play beyond 30 yards. In fact, the team’s wideouts have made only two catches beyond 30 yards.

Were it not for a 73-yard touchdown pass from Wentz to Sproles on what turned out to be a broken play, the passing game would look even worse than it already does. Jordan Matthews, the team’s best wide receiver, is a go-to guy in the red zone and a solid possession receiver, but he’s not going to flip field position on one play for you, something the Eagles really need right now.

While doing it may make fans crazy, Pederson said that the old “dink and dunk” passes down field can work.

“Yeah, we went 9-0 in Kansas City and didn’t do it,” Pederson said. “I’ve seen it done. You can do that. It’s just we have to figure out and find ways to get the ball, obviously, down the field. You have to trust protection, you have to trust reads and progressions and you’ve got to trust the guys to get down the field.”

I guess that’s a politically correct answer to give to reporters during a press conference to mask an obvious weakness in your passing game. But let’s be honest here. In the games that the Eagles lost to their NFC East rivals—the Cowboys and the Washington Redskins— big play receivers Dez Bryant and DeSean Jackson made, well, big plays.

And most importantly, they caught the ball. That’s another problem that the Eagles receivers seem to be having right now. When it comes to dropped passes, the Eagles are among the worst teams in the NFL. In fact, the website ChartingSports.com puts them at the top of the league in dropped balls when you measure the ratio of targets to balls dropped.

One of the most glaring examples of this during Sunday’s game was when wide receiver Nelson Agholor mishandled a ball that could have converted a third down deep in Cowboys territory on the Eagles first possession of the game.

While he wasn’t the only one dropping balls, Agholor was the only one getting testy with reporters when asked about it.

Now I understand why Agholor, the number one pick in the Eagles 2015 draft, might be tired of this particular topic coming up.

But if you want us to stop asking you about dropped passes, you could, I don’t know, Stop. Dropping. Passes.

If Agholor spent as much time living up the hype that a number one draft pick is supposed to generate as he does ranting at reporters asking him why he can’t seem to do the job he was drafted to do, which is to get open and catch the ball, he might get a little further along.

You would think the Eagles would have learned something from the NFC title games the team lost during the Donovan McNabb Era. During that time, the Eagles had a group of wide receivers similar to the crop the team has now: serviceable guys who scared no one.

Once Terrell Owens came to the Eagles, however, the team had a deep threat that the league had to respect. They won the NFC Championship, and while they didn’t win the Super Bowl, at least they went.

So while Pederson can dress it up anyway he likes, his current crop of mediocre receivers has made things a lot easier for defensive coordinators.

And until the team does something about that, they’ll be watching the Super Bowl from the living room like the rest of us.

A Tale of Two Successful Rookies: Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott

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Carson Wentz shares a few words with Jordan Matthews during the Eagles win over the Minnesota Vikings. Photo by Webster Riddick

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

When the Philadelphia Eagles drafted Carson Wentz in the first round and the Dallas Cowboys selected Dak Prescott in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, most pro football observers thought that both rookies would have to spend time holding their team’s clipboards.

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Rookie Dak Prescott has led the Dallas Cowboys to a 5-1 record and first place in the NFC East.

But a funny thing happened on their way to their apprenticeships.

Both Wentz and Prescott became starters. Granted, the circumstances that put them there were kind of strange, but hey.

The Cowboys not only lost starting quarterback Tony Romo in the third game of the preseason, but also backup Kellen Moore. Prescott, who had a solid preseason, was thrust into the starting quarterback role.

Meanwhile. Wentz was thrown to the wolves eight days prior to the start of the regular season when the Eagles traded Sam Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings who had lost their starter Teddy Bridgewater to a broken leg.

Usually, rookies struggle under such conditions.

But Wentz and Prescott haven’t played like rookies.

Because of this, the two rookies will take the field for NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcast to fight for control of the NFC East. The Cowboys are in first place at 5-1 with the Eagles nipping at their heels at 4-2.

Prescott has completed 68 percent of his passes and has seven touchdown passes against one interception. He has thrown for 1,486 yards and has quarterback rating of 103.9.  Wentz has eight touchdown passes with three interceptions and has completed 63.8 percent of his passes and has a 92.7 quarterback rating. He has 1,324 passing yards.

“They know how to win. They know how to lead their teams. Nothing seems to be too big for either one of them,” said Eagles head coach Doug Pederson. “They take it in stride. The ability to protect the football through these first six, seven games has been crucial.”

One of the things that both Wentz and Prescott have in common is that they are both athletic, mobile quarterbacks that can make plays with their legs.  The work that both players have put in has paid off to the point that Prescott and Wentz have looked like poised NFL veterans.

“I think in our case, how well he [Wentz] prepares himself during the week, his leadership ability,” Pederson said.  “And all that is just taught at an early age and you kind of just have it, and some guys have it, some guys don’t. Both of these guys have it.”

Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett coached Wentz during the Senior Bowl and was high on him because of his work ethic and his football IQ. Even though he was the third-string quarterback, Prescott prepared for his moment on the stage.

“It’s starts with his preparation. He always ready,” Garrett said. “Always was able to handle the offense, call plays and handle himself at the line of scrimmage. You can tell he was prepared.”

At one point during this season, Wentz and Prescott were trying to break the NFL-record for the most passing attempts without an interception. Wentz went 135 pass attempts without tossing interception. Meanwhile, Prescott did eventually break Tom Brady’s NFL record, making 155 pass attempts without an interception.

Prescott and Wentz met during last year’s Senior Bowl and again during the Scouting Combine. Both players praised each other for the success they’ve had so far.

“It’s exciting to see that he’s having been have some successes as well,” Wentz said. “It’s going to be fun to go see him play.”

Prescott said he’s not surprised at how well Wentz is performing as the Eagles starting quarterback because of his intelligence and his work ethic.

“He’s a smart guy, great player, a great athlete,” Prescott said. “He’s doing exactly what I thought he would do. I figured he’d be a good player in this league. He’s been doing well.”

In an age of trash talk and obnoxious self-promotion, both Prescott and Wentz are a breath of fresh air and are humble in their approach to Sunday’s game.  When a reporter asked Prescott about going up against Wentz, he quickly deflected the question to emphasize team.

“It’s Cowboys versus Eagles.” Prescott said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eagles Defense and Rookie Carson Wentz Has Philly Buzzing After 3-0 Start

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Eagles wide receiver and Carson Wentz shake hands after they connected on a 12-yard touchdown pass in the Birds 34-3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday.

 

During bye week, there’s a lot for Birds fans to feel good about.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

The Philadelphia Eagles enter the bye-week on the kind of good note that they probably weren’t expecting at this point in the season with an untested rookie quarterback.

The Birds are 3-0 for the first time since 2014, thanks to a stout defense and an offense designed around the skills of rookie Carson Wentz and the City of Brotherly Love is buzzing with excitement again, especially after last Sunday’s 34-3 thrashing of a Pittsburgh Steelers team considered a major contender in the AFC

While it’s easy to focus on the stellar play of Wentz, the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Week, the defense has managed to shut down opposing offenses.  So far, this season the Eagles defense has allowed just two touchdowns in three games.

The Eagles are fourth in the NFL in total defense, second in stopping the run, allowing just 71 yards per game, and eighth against the pass.  In fact, the Eagles defense has yet to allow a touchdown pass this season.

Yes, it’s only three games into the season, but considering that they were next-to-last in touchdown passes allowed and 28th in passing yardage allowed last season, it’s definitely an  improvement. If they can maintain this level of play, the Eagles will be tough to beat for the rest of the season.

But don’t tell the team that.

“We can still be better,” said Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who had two sacks in Sunday’s game. “We can grow. We’re not comfortable. That’s what I think about this team. Nobody is comfortable or patting themselves on the back.”

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz deserves credit for creating an aggressive, attacking 4-3 defense that puts pressure on opposing quarterbacks and gives very little yardage in the running game. Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said Schwartz does a good job of rotating fresh bodies on the defensive line.

“It’s a good thing because when you rotate, you do not want to drop off,” said Graham, who had a sack and a fumble recovery against the Steelers. “The backups are just as good as the one guys. When you have a good rotation, you have a good bench. You don’t want it to drop off.”

The Eagles shut down down one of the league’s best ground attacKD when they held the Steelers to just 29 yards on the ground for the game. The Birds made the Steelers a one-dimensional team and sacked Ben Rothlisberger four times and forced two turnovers.

“[The]Defense has been getting big stops whenever we get the opportunity. Getting pressure on the quarterback; doing a great job stopping the run,” said Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins.  “And as a team, we just are staying patient in these games and as soon as our opponents make mistakes we pile it on. Just a patient team.”

Meanwhile, on the offensive side of the ball, Wentz is doing a good job of managing the game thanks to a short, but accurate passing game that patiently moves the ball down the field and lulls the defense to sleep to come up with the big play.

Wentz, who completed 23-of-31 passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns, spread the ball around to seven different receivers. He didn’t try to force anything and didn’t make any mistakes with the football.

“He puts himself in a position where he doesn’t have to put pressure on himself,” said Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who caught a 12-yard touchdown from the rookie in Sunday’s game. “He works his butt off every day.”

It also helps that Wentz has enough mobility to buy time when rushers are on his heels.  In the third quarter of Sunday’s game, Wentz escaped the Pittsburgh rush and found a wide-open Darren Sproles, who sped into the end zone untouched for a 73-yard touchdown pass.

One of the things that will help the Eagles down the road is if they improve the running game.  Both Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner showed speed and quickness in the running game. Smallwood gained 79 yards on 17 carries with one touchdown. Barner added 42 with a touchdown as well.

“(Smallwood) is a downhill runner. A one-cut runner. He did a great job for us,” Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, said. “Darren, Kenjon and Wendell really stepped up and did a nice job.”

After taking this week off, the Eagles will hit the road to Motown to take on a lackluster Detroit Lions squad Oct. 9th at Ford Field.

Injuries Give Barner An Opportunity To Display His Skills

Kenjon Barner

Philadelphia Eagles running back Kenjon Barner (34) looks on from the sidelines as he watches the action on the playing field during a preseason NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday, August 29, 2015 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Eagles defeated they Packers 39-26. (Scott Boehm via AP) Photo courtesy of the Philadephia Sunday Sun

By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

With Ryan Mathews and rookie Wendell Smallwood on the shelf nursing minor injuries, running back Kenjon Barner has been getting extra reps in practice in their absence.

Barner’s all-around game as a running back has been impressing Eagles coaches since the beginning of minicamp. On a team that’s looking for someone to be the featured back, Barner has been turning the heads of head coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich.

“Kenjon [Barner], I think is a really good, all-around back. He can make you miss in the open field,” Reich said. “I like his vision. He’s doing great in protections. I’ve been very impressed with him the whole offseason. Of course, when we got here everyone was in my ear about how good this guy is going to be a player, and that’s what we’re seeing.”

Since his days at Oregon, Barner has always had the speed and elusiveness needed to be a good running back. Last season, Barner got some time at running back and had one 19-yard run. During last year’s preseason, he showed flashes of what he can do in the open field with a couple of long punt returns.

When former head coach Chip Kelly brought Barner to Philadelphia in a trade with Carolina, he was seen as another one of the guys who was familiar with Kelly’s offense and some even expected him to be gone once Pederson arrived.

But Barner is definitely on the new regime’s radar and it likes what it sees.

“He’s an explosive guy with the ball in his hands, and he’s pretty good out of the backfield as a receiver,” Pederson said. “I love the fact that anytime you put the ball in his hand, he has the ability to make some big plays for you. He’s shown that here in the first week of camp.”

With Smallwood and Mathews not on the field, Barner is getting valuable time in front of the team video camera so the coaching staff can evaluate his progress.

“I thought he handled it well. His conditioning is good. It’s improving,” Pederson said. “He got a little tired towards the end of practice, but, again, that’s just the nature of the camp practice. Overall, I thought he did a good job. This will be a good film for him to watch: a good practice tape for him to watch to be able to make the necessary corrections. He’s headed in the right direction.”

Prior to training camp, Barner told philadephiaeagles.com that he has spent the offseason doing everything from changing his diet to working on his footwork. He said he wants to do everything he can to put himself in the position to compete with the other running backs.

“It’s about me wanting to be the best me I could be and I knew that in order to the that I had to take the necessary steps,” Barner said back in June. “I lost a lot of body fat, gained muscle mass. It was a lot different than what’ve I done I in the past.”

Barner said he hasn’t had any difficulty learning Pederson’s offense during the course of mini-camp, something that’s coming through in the first week of training camp.
For him, it comes down the basics of being an NFL running back.

“Your job is to run the ball, make the right cuts, catch the ball out of the backfield and block,” he said. “The scheme may be different, but my mindset is the same.”

The Running Man: Wendell Smallwood Hopes to be the Eagles Next Star Back

Wendell Smallwood

West Virginia running back Wendell Smallwood (4) during the Cactus Bowl NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, in Phoenix, Ariz. (Rick Scuteri via AP)

By Chris Murray

For the Philadelphia Sunday Sun and the Chris Murray Report

At this time last year, Philadelphia Eagles fans were salivating at the prospect of former Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, the league’s leading rusher at the time, leading the team to the Super Bowl Promised Land.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way.  Between a patchwork offensive line and an offensive scheme that didn’t play to his strengths,  Murray couldn’t duplicate what he did in Dallas. Throw in the fact that he really wasn’t happy with the Eagles and had no problem letting anyone, including team management, know it, he was ultimately traded.

While Murray’s departure leaves a pretty sizable hole for the Birds, it also gives a rare opportunity to the team’s fifth-round draft pick, former West Virginia star Wendell Smallwood to make some real noise, starting with this week’s Rookie Mini-Camp. If he plays his cards right, he could be the starting running back for the team.

Of course, running backs Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles might have something to say about that, but what bodes well for Smallwood is that he appears to be a good fit for head coach Doug Pederson’s West Coast offense.

Playing for a usually pass-happy West Virginia squad, Smallwood led the Big 12 in rushing, gaining 1,512 yards and scoring nine touchdowns. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry and ran a 4.4 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Smallwood also caught 26 passes for 160 yards and has experience as a pass blocker.

“When you look at his numbers this year (2015) and you watch the tape, it’s like doubles all the time,” said Howie Roseman, Eagles vice-president of football operations. “Fifty-eight 10-plus yard runs and it’s play after play. He runs with a determination. You see the speed on tape and you see the speed in testing.”

Smallwood fits into Pederson’s offense the way Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles or former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook fit into Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense because of his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.

But Smallwood comes into his first rookie camp with some minor baggage. In July 2014, he was arrested for allegedly trying to get a witness to change a story that implicated his friend in a robbery attempt.  No criminal charges were filed.

Smallwood also got noticed here in Philadelphia for some offensive statements he made about the city in 2011 on, you guessed it, Twitter. He has since apologized and deactivated his Twitter account.

Most of Smallwood’s first press conference with the Philly media was spent fielding questions about his past social media activities and his arrest. To his credit, he handled the onslaught well and said he was happy that Eagles picked him.

“This organization trusted and believed in me and had confidence in me to know that’s not the person I am,” Smallwood said. “I think the impression that I left with the Eagles was good enough to get me drafted.”

While the scrutiny is understandable on one level, they amount to youthful indiscretion and bad judgment. If folks got judged on the stupid things that they did and said they were 18 or 19 years old,  a lot of people wouldn’t have jobs.

Did it have anything to do with why he was a fifth round pick? Not really. Had Smallwood stayed for his senior year at West Virginia, he might have been a Heisman Trophy candidate or Doak Walker Award candidate as the nation’s best running back.

Smallwood said he’s going to come into the Eagles camp with something to prove in the way he did in his final year at West Virginia.

“I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder since I started playing the game,” Smallwood said. “That’s because I wasn’t getting the respect that I deserved. Just wanting to work for everything and wanting to prove to people that I’m better than whoever put me against. I’m a competitor and I love to compete.  I approach the game that way and its paid off that way in getting me here.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Other Guys The Eagles Drafted

Sure, Carson Wentz got a lot of the attention as the Philadelphia Eagles first round draft pick. But the team picked up a few other pieces in the 2016 NFL Draft.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Wendell Smallwood

Can Wendell Small be the next great running back for the Eagles. Photo by wvusports.com

The 2016 NFL Draft will obviously be remembered for the Philadelphia Eagles wheeling and dealing into the No. 2 spot to get quarterback Carson Wentz, the man they hope will be the Birds next franchise quarterback.

But I thought that there were a few more things that the Eagles needed to do in the draft on the offensive side of the ball in addition to getting a new number one quarterback.

I think they addressed the things that they needed. The only problem is, we won’t really know for quite some time how good the pieces they picked up in the draft will be.

That said, I thought the Eagles did a good job of adding some depth on their offensive line and finding a running back that would fit head coach Doug Pederson’s scheme.

Perhaps the most intriguing Eagles draft  pick in is former West Virginia running back Wendell Smallwood (5-11, 208).  When you look at what he did at the collegiate level, Smallwood, a back similar to the Kansas City Chiefs Jamaal Charles is an ideal fit for Pederson’s version of the West Coast offense.

In 2015, Smallwood led the Big 12 in rushing, gaining 1,512 yards and scoring nine touchdowns. He averaged 6.4 yard per carry and ran a 4.4 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Smallwood also caught 26 passes for 160 yards and has experience as a pass blocker.

Smallwood has a good shot to get some playing time alongside guys like Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. He’s definitely a good three-down back and reminds me of, dare I say, LeSean McCoy.

But the downside for Smallwood, a native Wilmington, Delaware, is that he’s had some off-field incidents that have raised more than a few eyebrows. In July 2014, he was arrested for allegedly trying to get a witness change her story implicating a friend in a robbery attempt.  No charges were filed against Smallwood. He’s also made a few offensive statements on social media.

But from most accounts and from the Eagles extensive background checks, Smallwood is a mature young man who has stayed out of trouble since  and is looking to do the right thing.

“We spent a lot of time with him and we feel that this is a good kid,” said Howie Roseman, Eagles vice president of football operations. “He’s got to prove it on and off the field, but we have no doubts about what kind of player and person he is.”

After former coach Chip Kelly inexplicably refused to bring in more offensive linemen last season via the draft last season, Pederson and Roseman made sure that the Birds brought in some beef on the offensive line after the team struggled in that department last year.

Third round draft pick Isaac Seumalo (6-4, 303) played just about every position on the offensive line during his collegiate career at Oregon State.  He will probably challenge Allen Barbre for the left guard spot and some observers are saying that Seumalo could be the team’s next center.

According to Pro Football Focus.com, Seumalo is a solid pass protect who can locate and knock down opposing defenders while on the move. More importantly, Seumalo is probably better than anyone the Eagles currently have on the roster.

Former TCU tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai (6-6, 320), is big enough to block out the sun and most opposing defenders. He has played at both left and the right tackle. He will probably back up veteran Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jason Peters, who’s at the tail end of his career.

Vaitai will eventually be playing at one of those tackle positions if Peters retires or gets hurt during the season. If that does happen, Vaitai would move to the right tackle slot while Lane Johnson would take Peters’s spot.

But let’s not put the cart before the horse here, Vaitai and Seumalo both have to show that they can beat out guys who are already immersed in the Eagles offensive scheme.

But at the end of the day, having solid depth at the offensive line position can only help an offense that couldn’t block many people last year.