It was a season of highs, lows and new beginnings for Zach Ertz and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Despite missing two games due to injury, No. 86 led the Eagles in receptions with 78, and yards with 816, equating to a career-high 58.3 receiving yards per contest. Philly finished just shy of the playoffs at 7-9 but finished with back-to-back wins over NFC East opponents in the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, putting Zach and Co. in a positive place going into the offseason.
“It puts a little bit of a positive stamp on the season,” Zach said. “Obviously it’s a disappointing season not going to the playoffs, but 7-9 is a lot better than 5-11 if we had lost these last two games. Especially winning two NFC East rivalries.”
There was plenty to talk about surrounding the Eagles offseason, in which they hired first-time head coach Doug Pederson to lead the team into 2016. One of Pederson’s first moves as head coach was to select dynamic quarterback Carson Wentz with the second overall pick, who was quickly thrust into a starting role following Sam Bradford’s departure to Minnesota in the preseason.
“When Carson was drafted, it made us so excited for us position players,” said Ertz of his QB. “We knew we were finally going to have the opportunity to build that chemistry with one quarterback for a long time.”
The Eagles got out to a hot start behind the efforts of their new QB. In the season opener against Cleveland, Zach and Wentz connected six times on seven targets for 58 yards before Ertz left with a rib injury late in the game. Despite a rare displaced rib underneath his collarbone, Zach finished the game.
“It just shows the toughness, the physical toughness that he has,” Pederson said. “It’s a credit to him to fight through and battle through and keep himself available for the game.”
The injury kept Zach out of action for two weeks, in which the Eagles recorded two more wins against the Bears and the Steelers.
Following Zach’s return, Philadelphia endured its first two losses of the season. Between Zach’s injury and Wentz’s adjustments as a pro QB, the team struggled at times—losing two single-score games before knocking off the then-undefeated Vikings, who had begun their season 5-0.
The defense delivered a big-time performance against their former QB, pressuring Bradford and holding Minnesota to just 10 points. Following the win, the Eagles endured two similar losses—both by a single score—to divisional foes Dallas and New York. Despite the losses, Zach and Wentz began to connect more often, achieving a 100 percent target-to-catch rate with 12 receptions on 12 targets.
Ertz exploded for 97 yards on eight receptions against the G-men averaging over 12 yards per catch. It looked as if Carson and Zach were building a chemistry that isn’t developed overnight.
“I think we’re really excited about it,” Ertz said. “Obviously, I’ve had five quarterbacks in four years. It’s hard to build that trust and that chemistry consistently with a quarterback if they’re constantly getting shipped out of here.”
Despite consecutive losses, the Eagles entered their matchup with offensive powerhouse Atlanta with confidence. The Birds took it to the eventual NFC Champions, securing a 24-15 victory over a team that went on to win the conference and nearly the Super Bowl. Zach recorded six catches for 55 yards in the big win, while the defense shut down a vaunted offensive attack led by Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, the momentum didn’t last. The Eagles fell to their next five consecutive opponents, the first three of which featured double-digit losses. Philly nearly found its way in each of the final two games of that streak, falling by just five to NFC East foe Washington and by a single point to Baltimore. Ertz was a bright spot in several of the losses, delivering several monster performances including an 11-catch, 112-yard day against Washington and a nine-catch, 79-yard stat line against Cincinnati. No. 86 also hauled in two TDs during this stretch, including one against the vaunted Seattle Seahawks secondary.
EAGLES TAKE FLIGHT LATE
In the final two weeks, Philly was able to right the ship and show how dangerous they can be heading into the 2017 season. The Eagles secured two important victories over divisional rivals New York and Dallas. In a game in which Philly had nothing on the line in terms of postseason implications, while the Giants were fighting for a higher seed in the NFC playoff bracket, the Eagles came up big to upset the G-Men.
“We needed this one bad,” No. 86 said after the victory. “Finally to win a close game. Our defense stepped up big tonight, they had a ton of turnovers, put us in situations to be successful as an offense, and it wasn’t lost on us that we didn’t have a division win yet this year. So it felt good to go finally out there and beat a really good football team.”
The following week, the Eagles flashed their potential in a feel-good win over another playoff- bound rival in Dallas. Zach had his biggest game of the season, hauling in 13 passes for 139 yards and two TDs, including a beautiful corner-endzone grab on a 20-yard Wentz pass to give Philly a two-score lead.
“When in doubt, get something where we can get the ball to Ertz,” Wentz told Doug Pederson on the sidelines at one point. “He’s the guy that’s winning every time.”
Zach finished out the final four weeks of the season with 31 catches, 314 yards, and 2 TDs—a pace that would give him 124 receptions, 1,256 yards and eight touchdowns over a 16-game season. For No. 86, the season finale was all about setting the bar even higher as a player.
“Believe me, I want to have 100 yards each and every game,” Ertz said.
Ertz credited his numbers to the chemistry he began to establish with Wentz late in the season.
“I don’t think people really understand how much trust and chemistry is involved to being successful between a receiver and a quarterback, and if it’s man coverage, [I want] to be the guy that [Carson] goes to regardless of what the play is, regardless of what the progression is,” Zach said. “There are just times on third down that I’ve got to be the guy and I think we finally started developing that trust at the end of the year, and I think it’s going to take us a long way.”
Wentz is also encouraged by what he saw from his tight end late in the year.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Wentz said. “He creates mismatches all over the field. So it’s just been one of those things, when things break down or when I know I need somebody, Ertz has been that guy. He’s has been that guy that steps up for us.”
While a 7-9 record was not what Philly set out for in 2017, the team weathered adversity while growing accustomed to a new coach and QB and were able to finish their season strong and heading into the offseason on a positive note.
“I’m my hardest critic each and every day,” Pederson said of the 2016 season. “We didn’t do enough to reach the postseason and that is ultimately what this is all about. There are a lot of things I can improve on. I think every day in this business you need to be moving forward. Staying the same is moving in the wrong direction in the NFL.”
Zach echoed the sentiments of his head coach. And now begins the crucial offseason for the Philly tight end.
“I shoot to be the best, and when I’m done, whatever happens happens, I can look back and say I did everything I could to leave it all out there and play with no regrets,” Zach said.