The vanishing of Travis Fulgham is a great mystery of an Eagles season full of great mysteries. That five-game stretch when he caught 29 passes, including 10 in one game, for 435 yards and four touchdowns has the feel of an illusion, a trick on our collective memory. Did he really do that? He has been an afterthought since the Eagles came back from the bye week. He has four receptions in five games and has ceded, or has been forced to cede, so much playing time to Alshon Jeffery that Fulgham was on the field for just 11 snaps in the Eagles’ victory Sunday over the Saints.
On the surface, the situation makes no sense. Though Jeffery did haul in a back-shoulder throw from Jalen Hurts for a touchdown Sunday, he has otherwise been a ghost of the receiver he was in 2017 and 2018 – slower when he was never that fast to begin with, running his routes as if he were trying not to wake up a sleeping baby, injuries and age taking their toll. It appears as though the team is suiting him up only to justify its misbegotten decision to restructure his contract and guarantee him his salary this season.
But the Eagles are 4-8-1. Jeffery isn’t part of their future, and given his physical condition and the possibility that the Eagles could still qualify for the playoffs, one could argue he’s not even part of their present. As soon as they can cut him at a reasonable cost under the salary cap, they will, or should. And until Hurts’ promising first start, Fulgham’s emergence was the highlight of the Eagles season. Why not play him more?
Someone asked Doug Pederson that question Wednesday, and Pederson delivered a mostly cryptic response. At one point, he said, “We’re going to play the guys on that particular play who are in the game based on the game plan,” a sentence that, if you reread it too many times, will hurtle you into a soundlessly spinning ethereal void. But there was one portion of Pederson’s answer that could cut glass: “He has to do better. He has to play better.”
This was not the first time that Pederson has spoken in this manner about Fulgham. He did so last month during three separate Zoom calls with the media: “I’m concerned about Travis’ production and getting him better and helping him get better. He needs to get better. … He really has to focus in and practice hard and fast and just prepare himself. … He’s got to continue to work hard each week.”
More, this is not the first time that a coach has felt it necessary to push Fulgham, to demand that he bear down. Fulgham began his career at Old Dominion University on special teams and the scout team, and those early lessons were “not always peaches and cream,” said Mike Zyskowski, who recruited Fulgham to ODU and was the Monarchs’ special teams coach.
“Obviously, the ups outweighed the downs,” Zyskowski continued. “But he had to learn how to work. He had to learn how to give maximum effort, how to be a professional every day. I don’t think he knew those practice habits. I think he just knew he had to go hard when the ball was coming to him. He didn’t understand he had to block, to be a scout-team guy, to give effort on every rep on offense and on special teams.”
Fulgham had a breakout 2016 season as a sophomore, averaging 16.5 yards a reception and catching eight touchdowns. Then he backslid as a junior – 13.1 yards per catch, one touchdown. So did the Monarchs. Their starting quarterback was a freshman, and they changed from a spread offense to a zone-read system, and their No. 1 running back was injured. It wasn’t just that Fulgham’s numbers fell off, either. His confidence and diligence did, too.
“He went from getting seven or eight targets a game to getting two or three targets a game,” former ODU head coach Bobby Wilder said, “and those targets weren’t until late in the second quarter, early in the third. Part of his maturation was his learning these things. This had never happened to him before. He hadn’t run 10 straight routes in a row and not gotten a ball thrown to him. He hadn’t learned that.”
It wouldn’t be surprising if Fulgham, who drew increased attention from opposing defenses after his rip-roaring start with the Eagles, was going through another rite-of-passage moment in what seems a repeating pattern of them. It wouldn’t be surprising if Pederson thought the way a lot of NFL coaches think: that in developing a young player, sometimes the better course of action is to withhold playing time to remind him that he has to earn it. And it wouldn’t be surprising if, within the Eagles’ locker room, the desire to give Fulgham this opportunity to grow isn’t as strong as it is among the team’s fans and followers.
“At all times in the NFL, the focus should be winning the football game,” center Jason Kelce said. “Nothing else takes precedence, no player evaluation, no amount of curiosity from anybody within the organization. …
“Nothing takes precedence over trying to win a football game. I don’t care who you’re trying to evaluate. I don’t care if you’ve lost every game, you’re 0-15, and it’s the last one you’ve got. Everything is about winning in this league, and I know that that won’t appease a lot of people out there who always want to talk about getting good draft positions or getting looks at certain guys to see what you’ve got for the future.”
No, it probably won’t. But for better or worse, when it comes to Travis Fulgham and his mysterious disappearance, it might be the truth.