Eventually, the Eagles players may find solace in the fact that they overachieved in their first year under Chip Kelly. They might look at the foundation that was built and realize their time and effort was well-invested. But on Saturday night, following a gut-wrenching home playoff loss to the Saints, they were in no mood to feed into that narrative.
Instead, they were struggling with the reality that they had let a very winnable game slip out of their hands.
“We lost to a team that wasn’t necessarily better than us,” said Cary Williams. “They weren’t better than us, but they were better tonight. They got the job done. It was more mental than physical out there, and we had a lot of mental busts.”
The one freshest in Williams’ mind was the special teams letdown that he was part of. The Eagles, having just taken a 24-23 lead late in the fourth quarter, lost contain on the ensuing kickoff and Darren Sproles sprung loose for 39 yards. Williams brought him down with a horse-collar tackle, adding 15 yards to the play and setting up New Orleans at the Philadelphia 48. The Saints didn’t have far to go to get in field goal range, and were able to set up the game-winner as time expired.
That was just one several letdowns that proved costly in a tight game.
There was the sequence following Bradley Fletcher‘s first-half interception in which the offense marched all the way down to the Saints’ 15-yard line, only to lose 19 yards on the next two plays. An eight-yard loss on a Brent Celek screen and an 11-yard Nick Foles sack, in which he held onto the ball for entirely too long, altered the fortunes of the drive. After a four-yard LeSean McCoy run, Alex Henery knuckled a 48-yard field goal attempt wide left.
“We did a good job of protecting the ball but we didn’t do a very good job offensively of capitalizing off of their turnovers,” said Chip Kelly. “We need to come away with seven instead of three to begin with…I think they did a better job than us at executing in these situations, and their red zone defense was better than our red-zone offense.”
Then there was the drop.
Riley Cooper sat near the end of the bench, head down, as receivers coach Bob Bicknell hovered above him. Once the position coach was finished giving his two cents, the injured Jeremy Maclin walked over to deliver a fist bump and some encouragement. Then came Foles, who took a seat to Cooper’s left. A pat on the leg, a few words, three quick pats on the back of the helmet. Head back down.
Cooper had just dropped an easy ball on a crossing route, turning a huge gainer into a three-and-out, and at a most critical point in the game. It came in the third quarter immediately following a Lance Moore touchdown that put the Saints up 13-7. Instead of regaining the momentum, the Eagles had to punt it right back to New Orleans, which promptly drove right down the field for another touchdown.
“It’s a part of the game. It happened at a crappy time, for sure. It was my second drop of the year,” said Cooper. “It’s tough, definitely, but name one receiver who catches them all, you know?”
Was it a matter of turning your head upfield before it was secured?
“Yeah,” Cooper said dismissively. “Y’all got anything else to talk about?”
Another reporter turned the line of questioning towards his touchdown catch. “There you go,” Cooper said before going into detail about that play.
It went beyond those individual moments. Jason Avant noted that it took the offense longer than it should have to decode and adjust to what Rob Ryan and the Saints were doing on defense. What should have taken a series or two, he said, took an entire half.
“Once you get it, the game plan starts to unfold in our favor,” said the veteran receiver, “and we didn’t see it in time.”
Maybe some of this can be chalked up to youth and inexperience. That wasn’t how most of the players in the locker room were looking at it. They just saw an opportunity squandered.
“When you’re playing in a playoff game and everything is so magnified and every play is huge and critical to the success of the team, you can’t have mental busts out there,” said Williams. “It’s frustrating because we were the better team but they beat us tonight.”