What is the point of this Eagles’ season? That question might sound nihilistic, as if anyone who asked it were already resigned to a bleak and desolate future: an unacceptable candidate’s ascension to the presidency, Social Security’s bankruptcy, the sea levels’ unstoppable rise, or, worst of all, the Cowboys’ winning the NFC East with a rookie quarterback. I don’t mean it that way. I mean it sincerely: What is the point? What is the goal? What are the Eagles trying to accomplish?
It’s a question that has been worth asking for a while, and every time you think you have it answered, the Eagles seem to change their plan or articulate a different set of objectives. They’re firing Chip Kelly because they should have been a playoff team. They’re hiring Doug Pederson, who has never been an NFL head coach before, let alone of a playoff team. They’re signing Sam Bradford. They’re trading up to draft Carson Wentz. They’re starting Bradford and sitting Wentz. No, they’re trading Bradford and starting Wentz. Are they rebuilding? Are they trying to win now? Sometimes they say and do things that make you wonder whether they themselves know.
Monday was the latest example. As expected, coach Doug Pederson was asked about Halapoulivaati Vaitai, the rookie right tackle who on Sunday couldn’t have done more to put Carson Wentz’s well-being in jeopardy if he’d blindfolded him and shoved him into oncoming traffic. Pederson stood by Vaitai, announcing that Vaitai would start again Sunday against the Vikings, arguing not only that the kid was the team’s best option at right tackle while Lane Johnson served his 10-game PED suspension but that Vaitai “was going to gain valuable experience week in and week out.”
Let’s dig into Pederson’s defense of Vaitai and consider all its possible meanings and ramifications, because nothing about what he said – and nothing about what the Eagles have been doing for months – is clear-cut.
If Vaitai had been close to competent against the Redskins on Sunday, it would be easier to accept Pederson’s endorsement of him and foresee the Eagles’ course of action. In theory, the Eagles could play Vaitai now because he’s already good and will get better, and assuming Johnson stays clean and replaces Jason Peters at left tackle someday, maybe the Eagles will have discovered their new right tackle. It’s not necessarily an either-or scenario: An inexperienced player might be an adequate replacement for a starter, and he still might need time to develop and reach his full potential. Two birds, one accurately deployed rock, etc.
But Vaitai struggled so much – even with Pederson’s calling plays and keeping in more blockers to try to help him – that his performance cast doubt on Pederson’s initial assertion: that lining up Vaitai across from Ryan Kerrigan, one of the NFL’s top pass rushers, gave the Eagles their optimal opportunity to win that particular game. So why would Pederson do it?
That’s the murky part. The alternative to starting Vaitai was to make two changes along the offensive line: slide Allen Barbre to right tackle and insert Stefen Wisniewski into the lineup at Barbre’s left guard spot. This was the Eagles’ original plan once the news broke that Johnson would be suspended, and on paper, it was the logical move. Barbre and Wisniewski have started a combined 106 NFL games. There would seem much less risk in playing two seasoned professionals than in playing a fifth-round draft pick – even if Barbre and Wisniewski (a center for most of his career) would have been out of position. Given this context, it’s natural for an outsider to argue that Pederson made a mistake Sunday by starting Vaitai.
But Pederson isn’t an outsider. He watches practice every day, breaks down film, and presumably has all the evidence and information he would need to make an informed evaluation. There are a few possible explanations, then, for his decision to stick with Vaitai, some of which are more probable than others:
1. The Eagles are trying to win now, and they should have started Barbre at right tackle and Wisniewski at left guard. But Pederson is dumb, so he started Vaitai instead. (He’d have to be pretty dumb.)
2. The Eagles are trying to win now, and based on Barbre’s and Wisniewski’s respective abilities, their performances during training camp and at practice, and the position changes they would have been required to make, Vaitai really was Pederson’s best option. (If this is true, it only underscores the roster’s terrifying lack of depth.)
3. The Eagles are rebuilding, and Pederson believes that the difference in quality between the Barbre/Wisniewski combo and Vaitai was marginal. So he went with the younger player with the greater potential for growth. Vaitai just so happened to have a particularly terrible game. (Understandable, if you assume the Eagles still ought to be thinking of this as a rebuilding season after a 3-0 start. Me, I’d argue expectations have risen.)
4. The Eagles are rebuilding, and no matter who helps them more in the short term, they’re better served over time by playing Vaitai and learning whether he has a future as a starting right tackle. (This makes sense only if they’re also willing to put Wentz, the franchise’s meal ticket, in as much peril as possible.)
None of these theories are all that satisfying, mostly because it’s difficult to know what the Eagles most want to achieve over the next 11 weeks. Come Sunday and Vaitai’s second start, the question may answer itself. They just have to hope, if it does, that Wentz can still walk afterward.