After a dismal 2020 season, the Eagles are, surprisingly, back
By Mike Tanier
No NFL team has gone through a 2021 calendar year as strange, tumultuous and ultimately successful as the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Eagles entered 2021 as fractious, crumbling former Super Bowl champions mired in what looked like an intractable quarterback controversy. They are finishing the year as plucky playoff hopefuls with a bright future. Along the way, the Eagles changed identities as often as a college freshman changes majors.
The Eagles opened the year on Jan. 3 with a 20-14 loss to the Washington Football Team, ending their 2020 season with a 4-11-1 record. Their would-be franchise quarterback Carson Wentz had already long been benched in favor of rookie Jalen Hurts. Coach Doug Pederson replaced Hurts with third-stringer Nate Sudfeld in the fourth quarter of that final game in what was either a shrewd attempt for a higher draft pick or an act of oppositional defiance against upper management.
Pederson, general manager Howie Roseman and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie were clearly at odds over both Wentz’s future and the direction of the franchise. But with Wentz in the second year of a four-year, $128 million contract and Pederson entitled to the extra benefit of the doubt traditionally granted to all Super Bowl-winning coaches, the Eagles appeared to have no choice but to hunker down for another year of grim squabbling and quarterback shuffling.
What occurred instead was a cross between a standard corporate restructuring and the red wedding from “Game of Thrones.” Lurie fired Pederson on Jan. 11, one week after the end of the 2020 regular season, leaving the Eagles behind schedule in their search for a replacement. Nick Sirianni, the unheralded Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator, replaced Pederson two weeks later. Roseman then engineered a mid-February trade that sent Wentz to the Colts in exchange for draft picks, including what will almost certainly be a first-round pick in 2022.
Sirianni, just 39 years old when hired, babbled through his introductory news conference like someone who walked into the wrong job interview. Hurts, a second-round pick in 2020, completed just 52% of his passes as a rookie. It appeared that Lurie and Roseman chose a yes-man coach and a placeholder quarterback in preparation for a long, dreary rebuilding cycle. That perception was reinforced when Roseman traded down in the 2021 draft to acquire yet another first-round pick in 2022. The Eagles’ apparent goals this year would be to climb out of cap debt and plot their next steps, not win games.
Eagles veterans praised Hurts’ leadership and Sirianni’s high-energy style throughout the summer, but the quarterback and coach endured some early-season growing pains. Hurts is an elusive scrambler and daring deep passer, but he was initially reluctant to throw over the middle. Sirianni’s early game plans relied too heavily on screen passes and misdirection tactics. Opponents quickly caught on. The Eagles started the season 2-5, including a humiliating 41-21 Monday night loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
Soon after, Sirianni apparently realized that a veteran offensive line led by perennial Pro Bowlers Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson was the strength of his roster. Whatever the reason, the Eagles transformed midway through the season from a gadget-happy passing team into a rugged option-running team. They now lead the NFL with 2,448 rushing yards and rank third with 5.1 yards per carry. Hurts has run for 740 yards and 10 touchdowns, with running backs Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell each contributing more than 200 yards. The Eagles even became the first team since the 1985 Chicago Bears to rush for 175 or more yards in seven consecutive games, winning five of them.
The rushing success has helped Hurts settle in as a passer and has taken pressure off the defense. After a slow start Sunday, the Eagles rolled to an easy 34-10 victory over the New York Giants, lifting their record to 8-7. Football Outsiders now gives them a 74.3% chance of reaching the playoffs.
The Eagles have by no means solved all of their problems. Most of their wins came against stumbling opponents like the New York Jets, Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers. Hurts still endures slumps and turnover sprees, most recently in his three-interception performance in a Week 12 loss to the Giants. Sirianni still gets carried away with misdirection passing tactics early in games before remembering that the Eagles are at their best when hammering away at the line of scrimmage. The team still faces potential 2022 cap headaches and relies a little too heavily on aging Super Bowl holdovers. Assuming they reach the playoffs, the Eagles will probably be steamrollered by one of the NFC powerhouses.
The Eagles have proved, however, that painful multiyear rebuilding plans are unnecessary if an organization is demanding of its coaches, aggressive on the trade market and proactive about searching for a quarterback before it faces a crisis instead of after. Hurts now looks like a viable long-term starter, Sirianni a flexible, player-friendly coach, and multiple first-round picks will go a long way toward upgrading the Eagles roster next year.
Whatever their fate over the next few weeks, the Eagles made the bold changes they felt were needed, replaced the pressure of trying to repeat success with a more upbeat attitude, dared to try new things, then dared to try newer things when the first new things did not work out. They’re ending the 2021 calendar year with their 2020 woes receding into history and plenty of reasons to feel optimistic for 2022 and beyond.
May we all be so fortunate in the year to come.