Better Late Than Never
Birds Vet WR Emerging Again
Facing a crucial 3rd-and-long on Washington’s 31-yard line, on the opening drive of the third quarter, Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts hastily called for the snap as the play clock ticked toward zero.
Smoothly eluding pressure from defensive tackle Daron Payne, Hurts rolled to his right while intently scanning the field for an open receiver. After buying himself enough time, the second-year quarterback found seldom-used wide receiver Greg Ward for a 27-yard connection.
Four plays later, running back Boston Scott capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown plunge, cutting the Philadelphia deficit to two points.
But the play that awarded the Eagles a fresh set of downs – that catch by Ward inside the Washington 5 – was nearly doomed from the start.
“The play clock was just going down,” Ward recalled. “[Jalen] just had to call a 3rd-and-long play. He called it, and he was able to make some people miss and get out of the pocket. He found me, and we moved the chains.”
The poise Hurts needed to seamlessly execute an unscripted play in a critical moment speaks volumes to the mental makeup of the Eagles’ young quarterback.
However, the other end of the play reflects the preparation and maturity of Ward, the team’s lone veteran at the position.
Ward, who only a season ago led all Eagles pass catchers in snaps (791), targets (79) and touchdowns (6), has mired in relative anonymity this season.
After playing 70 percent of the team’s snaps last season, yielding 53 receptions for 419 yards and six touchdowns, Ward entered the season buried on depth chart.
In a league where offense is predicated on speed and mismatches – and less on steady, sure-handed chain-movers – Ward was essentially phased out of the offense in favor of 2020 sixth-round pick Quez Watkins, who turned in a terrific summer and offers the kind blistering speed that strikes fear in secondaries.
With first-rounders DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor also firmly entrenched, few snaps remained for Ward.
Through 16 games, Ward has accounted for just over 19 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, compiling six catches for 93 yards and four touchdowns on nine targets.
But adversity is nothing new to Ward, who spent the better part of his first three seasons toiling in limbo, between the waiver wire and the Eagles’ practice squad, with a stint in the now-defunct AAF in between.
It’s been Ward’s work ethic, determination, and keen attention to detail that’s set him apart and propelled him to NFL relevance.
His timely reception on Sunday served as a microcosm of Ward’s season, one that’s required patience, engagement, leadership, and being prepared for when his number is called.
“I stay ready by staying on my routine, staying on my body,” Ward said. “Doing all the extra little things, staying after practice. Just sharpening my tools, just so whenever my number is called, I’m ready. The young guys always ask me questions. I ask them questions. We always talk all the time. So, no, it isn’t difficult. Of course, I want to be out there more, but like I said, I’m gonna stay ready.”
Even without an opportunity to reprise his role from last season, the 26-year-old has left his fingerprints on the receiver room, one of the youngest groups on the team.
“Just him being a veteran,” Reagor said. “With our receiver room being real young, [Ward] just leads regardless of the circumstance in situations. He’s always the last one off the field, putting in extra work.
“If I recall, it was like two weeks ago after a home game, he asked me to bring him over here after the game and he came in here to lift. So, I mean, that’s just a testament to who he is and his character.”
As the Eagles prepare for the postseason – uncharted territory for virtually every other receiver on the roster – the team knows it can call on Ward to come through with the tough catch when stakes are highest.
“I’m just gonna stay ready when my name is called,” he said. “That’s all I’m focused on.”
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.