LANDOVER, Md. – The mirage lingered there, just out of reach. Mark Sanchez was zipping the ball this way and that and led the Eagles to one, two, three scoring drives. After falling behind to the 3-11 team from Washington, D.C., on Saturday, the Eagles tied the game and were making a fourth drive.
They were on the edge of field-goal range when the mirage evaporated.
Sanchez’s second turnover of the game, an interception to Washington rookie Bashaud Breeland, ended the Eagles’ chance of completing the comeback. Washington drove to the game-winning field goal, which ended more than the Eagles’ already faint chances of getting back into the playoff picture.
The 27-24 loss also dashed the illusion that Chip Kelly’s program was on a steady upward climb. Once 9-3, the Eagles are suddenly 9-6. They can equal the previous season’s record by beating the Giants on Sunday, but their chances to take another step forward disappeared with Kai Forbath’s 26-yard field goal. The Eagles will now be rooting for Indianapolis to beat the Cowboys (10-4) on Sunday. A Dallas win eliminates Philadelphia. A Dallas loss keeps a modicum of hope alive.
Sanchez was making his seventh start since starting quarterback Nick Foles fractured his collarbone. When the Eagles were 9-3, coming off that big win in Dallas on Thanksgiving, anything seemed possible. Sanchez could be re-signed and brought back as the No. 1 QB. Foles could return and, rising to the challenge posed by Sanchez, reassert himself as the starter.
After three consecutive losses, Sanchez looks more like the turnover-prone, limited quarterback who inspired the New York Jets to move on last year. With Foles not cleared by doctors, there is little chance for him to show he deserves to be the No. 1 quarterback when training camp opens in July.
“You have to win games,” Sanchez said. “The head coach and the quarterback, we are the only ones who they keep a record [on]. So it goes with the territory of this position. There have been three really tough games, and this one came down to the wire, and we came up a little short.”
Kelly will be going into his third NFL season without knowing if he has a legitimate No. 1 quarterback. That was the risk he took when he got to Philadelphia last year. Kelly had Foles and Michael Vick on his roster and decided to let them compete for the job. He wanted to try to win right away -- no building around a young quarterback for Kelly -- and, for a while, that’s exactly what he did.
Foles’ astonishing 2013 season (27 touchdowns, two interceptions, 7-1 second-half record) created the impression Kelly had his quarterback. But Foles was nowhere near that level of excellence this season. His injury forced Kelly to make a decision he might have come close to making soon anyway.
Foles and Sanchez have each thrown 10 interceptions this season.
“I think we’re currently minus-9 in turnover margin,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “So us having nine wins is impressive. We’re living on borrowed time playing that style of football. If we had come out and run the table in December with that kind of football, it would have been surprising.”
The 26 turnovers from quarterbacks is the most in the NFL. There is no good time to turn the ball over, but there are especially bad times. Sanchez fumbled the ball away to end a drive that had started in promising fashion. But the interception, which gave the ball to Washington with under two minutes left in a tie game, was a killer.
Because of the Oregon connection, there already has been speculation Kelly will try to get in position to draft Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota in April. That would mean finding a team willing to trade down and giving up multiple draft choices, but it would give Kelly a cornerstone player at the most important position in sports.
If it’s not Mariota, the Eagles still have to find someone. Kelly tried to get by with the quarterbacks at hand, and he got the Eagles to the playoffs last year. They lost in the first round. This year, it seems likely they will miss the playoffs altogether. That is not progress. It is not enough to provide a fig leaf over the lack of a franchise quarterback.
They deserved to lose this game. They committed too many penalties, made too many mistakes and dropped too many passes.
“You aren’t going to win a football game that way,” Kelly said. “Thirteen penalties and two turnovers is not going to win football games in this league.”
That’s true. But a special quarterback would have erased all those mistakes by completing that final drive. The ball was in Sanchez’s hands. He threw it to the other team.