Every August, there’s a sense of undeterred optimism in the northeast (and I’m sure around every other football team) all revolving around the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia. ‘This is the year we surprise everyone!’ ‘Nobody’s giving us a chance, we’ll show em!’ they’ll tell you, while also trying to convince you that a good defense doesn’t really need linebackers.
After a 1-3 start, some will fall into a deep disappointment that another year will go by without the meaningful January and February football that we were promised in 2018.
Some fans, like me, prefer to look at the long game. This was never the year that they wanted to compete. This was never going to be the year they chased wins, trying to squeeze open the door into the playoffs only for it to be slammed shut by a real team all while not having the draft capital to truly rebuild.
The 2021 Eagles were always going to be about growth, progress and finding a way forward. If you’re that fan who thinks this team should be 2-2 or 3-1, fighting for every competitive inch, just stop reading and save yourself the trouble.
Now, with a quarter (or 23.5%, whatever) of the season in the books, here’s just one person's take on what the Eagles need to do in order to keep the train on the tracks, both short and long term.
On the surface, being concerned about Dak Prescott and Patrick Mahomes lighting up your defense in consecutive weeks seems pointless. But it’s way more about how Jonathan Gannon coached than the big numbers on the scoreboard. In both the Dallas Disaster and Mahomes’ Field Day, Gannon was happy to sit back conservatively (even on select third and shorts) in conservative two-high shells. Even while KC and Dallas were on their way to totaling 360 (!) rushing yards and taking advantage of everything underneath (Prescott especially had a field day finding space between zones), Gannon never really adjusted. No creativity, just playing mostly the same way and asking a poor group of defensive talent to execute. Gannon never threw his changeup even when they had figured out everything else.
Diving deeper into the dearth of defensive talent, it’s such a blow to lose Brandon Graham. In a lot of ways he’s been the soul of every Eagles team since he made the biggest play in Eagles history and could do nothing but smile after. Him setting the edge in the run game and wrecking offensive tackles week in and week out made everyone else’s job simpler, and it would be a tragedy if 2021 is somehow his final year with the team.
And for the rest of the defense, Javon Hargrave and Darius Slay have played well, I guess? Hargrave has taken the leap on his way to making a ludicrous impact from the inside. On the outside, Slay has been mostly pretty good, just like how he’s always been in an Eagles uniform. But aside from those two it’s been hard to watch. Alex Singleton and Eric Wilson both have serious, serious issues. Anthony Harris has not looked sharp, and Steven Nelson has been seriously underwhelming, Ryan Kerrigan is so invisible some people forgot he’s even here. The defense seriously needs and infusion of talent and energy, and their best sources of that are Josh Sweat (who’s been solid but unspectacular this year) and Derek Barnett, who’s last good play was forever ago. That isn’t ideal. It probably also doesn't help that the last time the Eagles drafted a defensive Pro Bowler, Jonathan Gannon was a defensive quality control coach for the Tennessee Titans.
For the rest of the season, I just want to see Gannon change it up more and use his young talent, and try to develop them. He’s talked about being ‘multiple’ with his defensive formations, but we haven’t seen much of that. I’d also prefer to see someone like Ryan Kerrigan’s playing time get scaled back to make room for Milton Williams and Josh Sweat. Kerrigan not only looks washed but both Williams and Sweat could further develop in extra opportunities. I’d say that should go for the defensive backs too, but the Eagles haven’t had a young, good DB since who knows how long. If they're somehow in position, both Kyle Hamilton and Derek Stingley should be targets at the top of Philly's 2022 draft board.
Sharing the Blame on Offense
Through for weeks, the Eagles have been streaky. They've had exhilarating highs, crushing lows and a lot in-between. Currently, they're the 19th best offense in the NFL scoring 23.5 points an outing, but there's more to look into than that.
The biggest bright spot on offense is clearly Devonta Smith for me. Everything he’s shown at Alabama has translated to the NFL. He combined quick twitch athleticism with deceptively fast speed, all while being an outstanding technician for someone his age. The way he moves in and out of route stems is something most veterans can’t do. That’s not even talking about his ball skills combined with his long frame, which allows him to make plays like this look easy.
It really is a tragedy that because Smith is 166 pounds, he won't hold up against NFL competition.
Smith is worth the hype and then some. The other Eagles receivers cloudy this picture up. Jalen Reagor has just been ok for a first round pick. All that talk of a second year breakout in a new system with a healthy offseason has faded. I’m not trying to call Reagor a bust, but just watching Reagor run routes and watching Justin Jefferson run routes is just night and day. The TCU product has talent but still seems so raw and unpolished. Quez Watkins has been a really nice surprise compared to what he did last year, and has shown some real explosion down the field, highlighted by the contested 41 yard grab on Monday Night Football.
Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz have both looked like themselves, and form what’s probably the best TE duo in football even if neither's numbers aren't jumping off the page.
For the Eagles running backs, yes it’s true they’ve been suffering from Sirianni’s hiccups, but Miles Sanders still looks explosive when he gets the ball, and Kenny Gainwell has been a revelation, stepping into the passing game as a versatile weapon that Hurts has found early and often. Over his career, Miles Sanders averages 5.7 yards per touch. Gainwell has averaged 6.2 yards per touch over his first four games. Both of these guys are pretty good, and with an offense focused on the short game it’d be nice to get them both involved.
Talking about involvement from the running backs, let’s get to everyone’s favorite point of contention, running the ball. Yes, it’s true that we should be worried that Nick Sirianni has avoided calling true runs like the plague. Nick Sirianni also isn’t lying when he says that the RPO game has to factor into that, and numbers don’t tell the whole story. The usage of running backs just feels strange, considering Sirianni was Frank Reich's OC. Reich has always gotten his backfield swiss army knives touches, but I get the impression that the Eagles lead man is just learning on the job, which isn't a bad thing for a 40 year old first time play caller to be doing.
Both in week 1 in Atlanta and in week 4 vs. KC, Sirianni was pretty great early in the game, putting guys in motion, creating easy, split second decisions for Hurts that got guys like Devonta Smith, Quez Watkins and Miles Sanders with space to maneuver. That’s also when Hurts is at his best. He’s looked amazingly in command at times, and even when his first read isn’t there, it's not like he’s someone who freezes. Jalen Hurts with confidence is a bad, bad man.
Both of those are amazing plays, the kind that a franchise QB does make. There were also plenty of examples both in weeks 1 and 4 where Sirianni showed he was competent, and while he wasn’t perfect, it was more than enough to have some confidence.
But as you might have realized, the Eagles also played football during weeks 2 and 3. And both the coach and the quarterback were pretty bad in both those games. But going back to the big picture stuff, my concerts about Sirianni are about his situational awareness and his in-game management. In week 3, he looked at his offense and decided he wanted to win a shootout against Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper and Tony Pollard. By the time the Eagles had called a designed run to a runningback, the Cowboys had 100 yards on the ground. It was just so tone deaf to try and win a game like that, especially when it goes against Hurts’ strengths to try and rip off big play after big play out of the gate. And with the situational decisions, it feels like the Eagles have been too timid this year.
In Dallas, they punted twice in the first half, down by 13 points, in Dallas territory with 3 and 5 yards to go. Against KC, they kicked field goals of 29, 25 and 31 yards. It’s not enough to set alarm bells off, but Sirianni should look to be more aggressive. Especially so if they find themselves in a game with a far superior team like the Chiefs.
The final piece to the puzzle that is the Eagles offense is Jalen Hurts. Before I even talk about him, it’s important to say that how fans see Hurts versus how Howie Roseman sees Hurts isn’t even comparable. The fans are looking to see if the 23 year old Hurts could be a franchise quarterback. Howie Roseman is looking to see if he has a 23 year old franchise QB. Philadelphia has placed an unmatched emphasis on the QB position. Roseman will not rest until he has a QB he perceives as an elite, young, and on the rise (think of Justin Herbert, Kyler Murray). He thought he had that in Carson Wentz, and now it seems like he’ll give Hurts one year before deciding if they want to officially move forward. Hurts may even be back in 2022, depending on what Roseman thinks of college passers Spencer Rattler and Malik Willis, among others. But the standard for Hurts among the Eagles top decision makers will always be comparing the second rounder to whatever top passers could come into the NFL over the next couple of years.
So how has Hurts played? Well, it’s mostly been positive! The good is that Hurts has been (mostly) accurate in 2021. Sports Info Solutions has tracked over 77% of Hurts’ passes as catchable, up 9% from last year. As shown earlier, he’s clearly able to make plays, especially on the move where his athleticism takes over.
But, it hasn’t quite all been great. There are some concerns I have about Hurts and his relationship with the offense. If Jalen Hurts is going to be the franchise QB in Philadelphia, he’s going to have to start the game in a rhythm finding guys in the short passing game in space, then work into the intermediate and deep areas of the field after that. That’s what we saw in Atlanta and versus KC. Both first drives were easy, quick and simple designed reads. And as the game went on, the offense opened up and the Eagles put up points.
But I’m worried that the Dallas game provides the ‘formula’ for stopping Hurts in his current form. Only 38.2% of Hurts passing yards have come through air yards, ranking him above only Trey Lance and Tua Tagovailoa among qualified quarterbacks. Hurts air yards to the sticks are also in the bottom half of the league at -1.8 (meaning the average Hurts pass is targeted at a receiver 1.8 yards short of the first down line).
What that tells us is that the Eagles have largely ran a conservative offense, which the eye test (and Next Gen Stats passing charts) backs up. The current Eagles offense is all about finding guys underneath, almost to a fault. Against the Chiefs, it felt like there were multiple third downs where Hurts just threw to the first guy he saw, even if that receiver was well short of the line.
A lot of Hurts attempts are both within 15 yards of scrimmage and on the outer thirds of the field. Hurts has avoided the middle of the field dating back to last season, and his deep passing has looked out of sync. My current chief concern is that defenses start to play aggressive and take away those short passes along the outside early, which makes Hurts panic and try to attempt something he’ll never have the arm strength for (think the underthrown interception to Reagor against Dallas). Once Hurts is rattled, it’s easy to throw him off his rhythm if he’s not comfortable. And when he doesn't feel in control, it's when things like this start happening. One of these isn't back breaking, but it became just too prevalent in Dallas and at times vs. the 49ers.
Just look at the pick-six to Trevon Diggs. Hurts comes into his drop, stares Devonta Smith down and Diggs immediately makes an aggressive play on the ball, after both reading Hurts eyes and knowing his tendencies. Whether or not Smith falls coming out of his break, that’s six the other way.
But remember how I talked about making progress, and how stats or scores don’t really matter to me? That’s still 100% true for both Hurts and Sirianni. The Eagles didn’t put these guys in place to compete for a division crown, they put them in place for the long term. So focusing on the long term, what I want to see over the next 4-5 weeks is progression and improvement. And with the improvements Jalen Hurts has already shown from 2020, it’s possible. The defenses aren't getting any easier, but more time in the system should lead to more success.
And the record does not matter for the upcoming slate, but it's worth a look at for what you might expect to see.
Week 5: @ Panthers
Carolina’s suffered a rough outing against Dallas, but their scheme has the key to beating Philadelphia up front. If guys like Brian Burns and Derrick Brown are consistently getting into the backfield, it’ll be hard to get anything going. I have exactly 0 trust in Sam Darnold, but I think the Panthers bounce back at home.
Prediction: 21-18, Panthers Win (Record: 1-4)
Week 6: vs. Buccaneers
Tom Brady in Philadelphia would be a lot more intriguing with Brandon Graham in the fold, but in this Thursday Night tilt both sides of the ball will find it tough to do their jobs against an uber-talented Tampa Bay Squad
Prediction: 31-19, Buccaneers Win (Record: 1-5)
Week 7: @ Raiders
Traveling to a stadium full of Raiders fans is tough, but the Eagles do in theory have the talent to disrupt Derek Carr like the Chargers did Monday Night. It also doesn’t help that the Raiders defense isn’t good, and hasn’t been for a while.
Prediction: 28-24, Eagles Win (Record: 2-5)
Week 8: @ Lions
A winning streak? Looks like it! Dan Campbell looks like he’s establishing a strong culture, but Detroit should not be in this game with the talent deficiency on their roster.
Prediction: 34-16, Eagles Win (Record: 3-5)
Week 9: vs. Chargers
Justin Herbert is an ascendant talent, with talent at the skill positions on offense. Scoring shouldn’t be a problem for LA. It also doesn’t hurt they have Brandon Staley coordinating a defense with guys like Derwin James and Joey Bosa. Staley and his scheme have already gotten Delaware safety Nasir Adderley to take the leap, and LA is just overall a more complete and more talented team than the 2021 Eagles
Prediction: 29-15, Chargers Win (Record: 3-6)
No, I don’t think the Eagles will be that great as a team moving into the second quadrant of 2021. But there’s still plenty of individual progress to root for, and here’s to hoping we see it. Every one of these games will still be worth watching, as whatever young talent is on the Eagles roster should be getting development time.