Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Guarded optimism

Posted by Eric Fisher On September 7

Fisher column logo2The Eagles are better. They are better at receiver. They are better at cornerback. They appear to be better along the defensive line.

It seems logical that Carson Wentz will be better in his second season.

But will that improvement translate into victories?

If everything goes right, the Eagles could win 10 or 11 games and win a playoff game for the first time in nearly a decade. That’s the optimistic talk heard crackling out of the sports radio stations.

Perhaps it’s due to a lifetime of following the Eagles, but I find it difficult to believe that everything will go right. Not for this team.

Even if most things go right for the Eagles, double-digit wins and a playoff berth would be a vast improvement over last season. Yes, the Eagles were 7-9 last season, but those last two wins were virtually meaningless – except that they cost the Eagles a few spots in the NFL Draft.

If not for the star on the helmets, the team the Eagles handed a 27-13 defeat in the season finale was barely recognizable as the Cowboys. I think the starting safety was Jerry Jones’ niece.

In games that mattered last season, the Eagles were a five-win team. And two of those wins came against the downtrodden Browns and Bears during the first two weeks of the season.

After their Week 4 bye, the Eagles only won twice before those final two meaningless games. One of those wins came against the Falcons, who reached – and should have won – the Super Bowl. The victory before the bye week was a 34-3 shellacking of the Steelers. Those are the victories that should give Eagles fans hope.

There were some would’ve, could’ve, should’ve games, too. The Eagles should’ve beaten the Lions if not for a late-game fumble. They could’ve beaten the Cowboys if head coach Doug Pederson hadn’t experience some rookie coach brain cramps.

Even if we take last year’s record at face value, a 10-win season would represent a three-game improvement. That’s far from a sure thing with a suspect rushing attack.

Preseason statistics are far from gospel, but it would have been nice to see the Eagles move the ball on the ground. The running backs didn’t look particularly good, and the offensive line looked worse.

The Eagles are taking it on faith that left tackle Jason Peters can remain healthy and play at a high level. If he can’t stay healthy, Lane Johnson slides from right tackle to the unfamiliar left tackle, with Halapoulivaati Vaitai filling in at right tackle. If Peters has lost a significant amount of effectiveness, the Eagles might have an even bigger problem.

Except for Johnson at right tackle, there are question marks across the offensive line. Can second-year starter Isaac Seumalo hold his ground at left guard? Can Jason Kelce survive against larger defensive linemen? Can Barrett Brooks keep his anxiety under control? The odds are against all of those questions, including the one about Peters, being answered in the affirmative.

As for the running backs, the Eagles treated veteran Darren Sproles like a glass figurine during the preseason. They didn’t want to expose him to injury. At least Sproles is in what is expected to be the final year of his career. But Wendell Smallwood, who is in his second season, was also treated with kid gloves. That’s a lot of fragility in the backfield.

LeGarrette Blount is far from fragile, but the big man looked slow and ineffective during the preseason. You have to wonder if he will get even half of the league-leading 18 rushing touchdowns he had last season. If the Eagles have to turn to Donnel Pumphrey or Corey Clement as the featured back, it means they have serious problems.

If the Eagles can’t establish the running game, that will put more pressure on Wentz. It will put more pressure on him to succeed. It also will put more pressure on him from pass rushers who don’t have to be overly concerned about the run.

The more pressure there is on Wentz, the more likely it is that he will get injured. That will force the Eagles to rely on Nick Foles, whose elbow soreness is going to celebrate a birthday in the not-too-distant future.

I’m not predicting doom and gloom. I’ve already said the Eagles have improved. But there are too many concerns on offense, which is supposed to be the strength of this team.

Just because the receivers are better, that doesn’t mean they’re good. Alshon Jeffery, if he stays healthy, should make a significant impact. Torrey Smith has speed, but what has he done the past few years? And I’m not foolish enough to count on Nelson Agholor.

The same is true of the cornerbacks. There’s no doubt that the addition of Ronald Darby improves the secondary, but that doesn’t mean the cornerbacks are good — or even mediocre. As I pointed out in my most recent Fish ‘n Chips column, the Eagles didn’t face a decent starting quarterback during the preseason. The starters for the Bills and Jets are among the worst in the league, the Dolphins’ Jay Cutler was trying to shake off the rust after coming out of retirement and the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers didn’t play against the Eagles. Furthermore, the Eagles’ cornerbacks are all between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot, so there is a question about how well they can cover big receivers.

I’ve almost talked myself out of the 9-7 record I predicted for Eagles in my NFL preview, but I’m going to stick with it. A 9-7 record probably won’t be good enough to secure a playoff berth, but it represents significant progress, and that’s all I’m willing to hope for.

A few weeks ago, Eagles fan Jeffrey Clayton Riegel of New Jersey requested, as one of his final wishes before dying of cancer, that eight members of the Eagles serve as his pall bearers so that the Eagles could “let him down one last time.”

I’m afraid that the fans and media members predicting double-digit wins are setting themselves up for another letdown. That’s why I’m sticking with 9-7 – and even that prediction makes me a little nervous about being overly optimistic.

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