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OPINION: Is an Eagles Collapse Inevitable? No, But...

Dec. 15, 2023

Morgan Killian-Moseley

The Philadelphia Eagles entered their bye week at the halfway point of the season with the best record in the NFL, and looked like legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

But all the work they’d done to prove themselves as the NFC’s top dogs in their first eleven games has been completely negated by their last two.

After back-to-back losses by at least 20 points to the San Francisco 49ers and the eternal rival Dallas Cowboys, the Eagles have been emphatically knocked from “contender” to “pretender”.

The Birds have yet to put forth a complete effort this season, they will admit that fact themselves. Nearly every win the Eagles have had this season seems to see them snatching victory from the jaws of defeat- while their gameplay made it feel as if they’d been trying to do the reverse.

In Week 1 against the New England Patriots, the Eagles made Mac Jones look like an NFL-caliber quarterback, something which has not happened since. Week 2 against Minnesota was another nail-biter which the Vikings could have snatched away at multiple points. Road efforts against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and L.A. Rams saw the Birds letting their opponents remain in the game to the very end, despite the two-possession margin of victory in both. Twice the Eagles barely hung on to beat the Washington Commanders, needing overtime at home in Week 4 to do so, and making Sam Howell look like a potential franchise quarterback in both tilts. A Sunday Night matchup against the Miami Dolphins looked to be the Birds’ most complete effort, but there was still much that could have gone wrong. Their win against Dallas at home going into the bye could have easily gone the other way if not for multiple lucky breaks, as could their victory in the Super Bowl rematch against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead coming out of the bye. And of course, the Week 12 OT thriller against the Buffalo Bills could have been lost on multiple occasions. As many critics are quick to point out, if not for those breaks and a few controversial calls, this team could be below .500.

And of course, the unthinkable happened in Week 6 when the Birds lost to the New York Jets (the Zach Wilson-led Jets, mind you) for the first time in franchise history. Looking back, that defeat should have been a warning sign for the team as a whole.

But as has been said, “Winning masks a lot of ugly.” And the Birds’ two latest efforts have exposed that ugly to the world.

So the question has to be asked: Is the sky falling for the Eagles? Not yet, but it’s hanging by a thread; and that thread is fraying fast.

The Eagles face the Seattle Seahawks at Lumen Field Monday night. Seattle may be 6-7, but they are still in playoff contention, and they always play the Eagles tough, leading the all-time series against Philadelphia 12-7.

But even so, the Hawks could be without quarterback Geno Smith, who is dealing with a groin injury that he suffered against San Francisco. So this should be an easy game for Philly to turn things around, right? That’s a negative, Ghost Rider. The Eagles haven’t beaten the Seahawks since 2008, when Mike Holmgren was their head coach and Seneca Wallace was filling in for the injured Matt Hasselbeck under center. Seattle is 7-0, 3-0 in front of the 12’s, against the Eagles overall since Pete Carroll became head coach in 2010; including a 17-9 victory in the 2020 Wild Card Round at the Linc which was the beginning of the end of Carson Wentz’s Eagles career.

And even if it’s Drew Lock under center for Seattle, considering the Eagles’ recent displays on defense, including Deebo Samuel’s absolute manhandling of Shawn Desai’s unit, plus the fact that D.K. Metcalf possesses a similar body type and skill set to Samuel and will likely hold a grudge against the Eagles for his entire career for drafting Jalen Reagor instead of him (as will the overwhelming majority of the Birds’ fanbase), there’s very little reason to believe history won’t repeat itself.

The only saving grace the Eagles may have is the fact that two of their last three games are against the 5-win New York Giants, and the other is against the 3-win Arizona Cardinals. The Cowboys, meanwhile, have three straight games against teams currently in playoff contention (Bills and Dolphins on the road, then Lions at home; though Buffalo’s playoff hopes look shaky despite their win in K.C.) before finishing the season against the Commanders at FedEx Field.

Of course, the Birds’ New Year’s Eve matchup against the Cardinals would essentially be Arizona’s Super Bowl, especially for Cards head coach and former Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathon Gannon, so they’ll be pulling out all the stops.

And despite Boston Scott’s track record against Big Blue (as Chris Berman would say, “Boston Scott against the New York Football Giants: normally good. Against anyone else: not so much”), Birds fans can’t expect him to go off against the Giants twice more considering their recent lack of attention to the run game. (More on that later) Not to mention the fact that the Philadelphia defense has tended to make lower-tier opposing quarterbacks look competent all season (Jones, Baker Mayfield, Howell twice, and Wilson are all prime examples), so the Meadowlands’ newest cult hero Tommy DeVito is probably thinking he’ll devour the Birds like his mom’s chicken cutlets. Capisce?

As of right now, the Birds would need to either run the table or get some help to take back the NFC East lead from Dallas, who currently holds the tiebreaker. As for any chance at taking the #1 seed from San Francisco, only the Baltimore Ravens on Christmas Night, who share the NFL’s best record with San Fran, Dallas, and Philly, pose any real threat to the 49ers. Hoping for Arizona (road, Week 15), Washington (road, Week 17), or the Rams (home, Week 18) to shock the Niners is probably too much to ask for.

If the standings hold as they are now and the Eagles do enter the playoffs as the 5-seed, they probably would have to hope that one of their fellow wild cards, if not both, pull off an upset or two; because as this team stands they have no chance of defeating the Boys in Dallas or the Niners at Levi’s Stadium (or at the Linc for that matter, if Week 13 was any indication).

In fact after these last two debacles it’s no longer a lock to believe that the Eagles won’t fall lower than the 5-seed; or that they would defeat whoever wins the NFC South (quite possibly with a sub-.500 record) if they do remain in the top wild card spot. There even exists, though improbable and dreadful to think about, an absolute nightmare scenario where the Birds lose out and fall completely out of the playoffs.

So what do the Eagles have to do to avoid complete disaster? It’s time for everyone in the Philadelphia locker room to hold themselves accountable and start playing like a team. And it starts with the coaches.

Offensive coordinator Brian Johnson has not acquitted himself well since he was promoted to his current position after Shane Steichen became head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. His play calling has been inconsistent at best, inexplicable at worst, and most of the time flat-out predictable. It feels as though Johnson’s sole gameplan has been to get the offense into “Brotherly Shove” situations to move the chains or break the plane. Of course opposing defenses tend to do all they can to make sure those situations come up as little as possible, usually by sending the blitz on passing downs to force bad throws from Jalen Hurts. Johnson seems to shy away from leaving backs and tight ends in to block on blitzing downs, which forces Hurts to get throws away quicker, often with negative results.

Of course the best way to alleviate the pressure on a passing game is with a complimentary running game. And though D’Andre Swift has proven he can be a bell cow back when needed, Johnson seems reluctant to put the game in anyone else’s hands besides those of Hurts. It’s as if Hurts is the feature running back and Swift is the change of pace.

Though the Eagles have attempted to work the ground attack more into the gameplan recently, there is a palpable difference between Johnson’s offense and Steichen’s. Last year’s offense under Steichen was a run-first scheme; in which A.J. Brown, Devonta Smith, Dallas Goedert, and the rest of the Philadelphia receiving corps were set up to succeed by the ground efforts of Hurts, Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell, and Scott. Steichen’s offense allowed the Eagles’ O-Line, widely regarded as the best in the NFL, to go out and pound their opponents into the turf; to grind down opposing defenses to set up chunk and home run plays in the passing game.

With Johnson, it feels as though Hurts is expected to get chunk plays from the first snap he takes; that he can be a world-beater and needs to be in order for the Eagles to succeed. This added pressure on Hurts may be one of the reasons why he seems to have regressed as a passer this year; often finding no one to throw to in critical situations and either taking a sack or forcing a throw downfield into double coverage or over everyone’s head.

Johnson’s added emphasis on Hurts has also put more pressure on Brown, Smith, and Goedert to make plays, which has led to costly giveaways. Olamide Zacchaeus and Quez Watkins, despite having shown flashes of brilliance, have not done enough with their few opportunities. The signing of Julio Jones has been mostly sizzle and very little steak. And Jack Stoll and Grant Calcaterra simply don’t have the skills to make a difference as NFL pass catchers, nor has there been anything of note whatsoever from Albert Okuwegbunam. So meager their combined contribution has been that Eagles fans have been clamoring for GM Howie Roseman to bring back Zach Ertz, and there’s no denying he would be an instant two-tier upgrade over the reserve tight end trio.

And of course, not only has Swift’s impact been greatly diminished by Johnson’s playcalling, but Gainwell’s and Scott’s impact has been virtually eliminated altogether. And the fact that Rashad “Mr. DNP- Coach’s Decision” Penny, who has only carried the ball five times, hasn’t requested his release yet is stunning. Dude must need the paycheck more than he needs to see the field.

Speaking of Brown, his talent and bond with Hurts are both undeniable. But let’s also call a spade a spade and acknowledge that Brown is an instigator on the field. There are plenty of wideouts throughout the history of the game who love to get in their opponents’ heads. And the Eagles are certainly well familiar with that type; Terrell Owens and DeSean Jackson had prominent years in midnight green, after all. But there have been multiple instances this season where Brown got a taunting penalty after a score which led to the Eagles’ opponents getting a score that kept them in the game. And if that didn’t happen, Brown’s words motivated the opponent to shut him down. Such was the case with Dallas’s Stephon Gilmore; who did an excellent job at containing Brown, including stopping him on a 4th-&-9 late in the third, after Brown called Gilmore an “old man” if Dov Kleimann’s tweet is to be believed.

WIth Brown’s talent, sometimes you have to take the bad with the good. But considering Brown’s mind games have backfired spectacularly and the bad has outweighed the good by quite a bit these past few weeks, maybe Brown should take some advice from Kendrick Lamar: “Sit down, be humble.”

There’s no denying that Johnson and Hurts have a connection that has lasted a long time. But the fact that the Eagles offense as a whole, and their skill players to a man, have all taken at least one step back this season makes it look as though that connection is the only reason why Johnson got the job, and that he may be treating the franchise QB with kid gloves rather than giving him the honest critical assessment or “tough love” he seems to need right now.

As for Desai, his unit has looked sub-par the entire season. Despite Haason Reddick still being able to get home with consistency (though repeating his 20-sack performance of last year is by no means possible), the rest of the pass rush has not followed suit. Though rookie Jalen Carter has performed well this season, including scoring his first NFL touchdown on a scoop-and-score against Dallas, it feels as though the pass rush can't get the quarterback enough. This is a marked difference between Desai’s defense and Gannon’s, who led the league in pressures last season and had all-franchise defensive end Brandon Graham earning the first double-digit sack season of his 15-year career.

The linebacking corps still seems like a weakness despite the promise shown by Zach Cunningham and a surprisingly solid effort from Nicholas Morrow. The signing of Shaq Leonard seems like a desperation move and may prove to be, like the signing of Julio Jones, to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

And the highly-touted, highly-paid corner duo of Darius Slay and James Bradberry seem to be performing below their pay grade. And their fellow defensive backs, with the exception of Reed Blankenship, seem solid, but not outstanding.

As a whole, the eye test could tell you that the Eagles defense seems to struggle at the most fundamental aspect of defense: tackling. It's to be expected at the NFL level that backs and receivers are excellent at breaking tackles, but defensive players are supposed to be excellent at tackling as well. Granted, the ability to tackle seems to be a degenerating skill across the board at every level of football, as if players are only willing to do what it takes to get paid. Understandable, seeing as football is likely the only way to escape poverty for these athletes. But the fundamentals seem to be taught less across the board as well.

And for Desai, like Johnson, his play calling seems uninspired and too conservative. This may be the reason why the Eagles defense can't get off the field. On 2nd, 3rd, & 4th down, Eagles opponents have a 48% conversion rate, the worst stop percentage in the NFL. If a defense can't get off the field, they're going to give up a lot of points; as evidenced by the Birds giving up at least 30 points in each of their last three matchups.

Yet despite the shortcomings of the coordinators, if elephants in the room are being addressed, then it's time to address the biggest one of them all.

Nick Sirianni, despite winning at least ten games in two of his three seasons as Eagles head coach, including this one; despite taking this team to the Super Bowl last season, despite being tied for the best record in the NFL, has yet to prove that he truly has what it takes to be an NFL head coach.

Sirianni definitely has the passion to win, that's undeniable. That passion seems to be what won Eagles fans over in his first two seasons. But passion alone does not make a good coach. And that passion seems to only display itself when things are going the Birds’ way. When the Eagles have hit lean times, like the past two weeks, his press conferences seem like they come straight out of a Coachspeak 101 textbook.

In fact, the team as a whole seems to use cliché after cliché every time they talk to the media. Granted, athletes and coaches have to know their Media Miranda rights: Anything you say can and will be twisted, manipulated, and outright fabricated, and then used against you in the court of opinion. So it can be understood that a lot of sports people don't want to reveal anything. But Sirianni's words seem to ring even more hollow, especially to Eagles fans who have heard every excuse and platitude in the book, and quite a few that aren't.

It's like asking your Madden-playing buddies to coach your kid's Pop Warner team. They may know a lot about the game, and they may want to be a good teacher and get the team to win. But there's a difference between having the knowledge and being able to apply it. Some people are brilliant scholars, but can't teach their way out of a paper bag.

It can also be argued that the talent level of this team has dropped a bit after their Super Bowl run. This team misses Javon Hargrave. They miss Kyzir White. They miss C.J. Gardner-Johnson, despite the ugly breakup and the comments that came after. And they miss Miles Sanders, even though they know they couldn't afford to keep him.

But football, like every sport, is a game of adjustments. You have to adjust your game plan to maximize your players’ impact and minimize the impact of your opponents. The Eagles’ opponents have proven they can make adjustments; the 49ers and Cowboys proved that. But the Eagles' coaching staff has yet to prove they can make the necessary counter-adjustments. In fact, it feels as though Sirianni, Johnson, and Desai have minimized the impact of their own players. The fact that the Eagles have barely beaten opponents that they should have dominated, coupled with the manner of their losses, makes it feel like their wins have come in spite of their coaches. Though special teams coordinator Michael Clay may be the exception, as the fake punt from Brayden Mann may have been the Eagles best offensive play against Dallas, as well as the first display of ingenuity shown from the Birds in quite some time.

Make no mistake, this is still one of the better teams in the NFL. They have the talent to make another deep run. But unless the coaches are willing and able to make the necessary changes to their plans, which they have failed to show they are capable of doing, this team may be one of the biggest disappointments in NFL history. Perhaps the coordinators can do a better job at coordinating their efforts. Desai came from Seattle's coaching staff and could have some insight on their scheme that could be useful to Johnson. But Sirianni needs to make sure that all three phases of the game are able to work together and set each other up for success in the final four games of the season. If one hand doesn't work with the other the task fails.

So to answer the question at the top: No, a collapse is not inevitable- as long as this team stops trying to run directly into it. The start of the season had Birds fans believing another Super Bowl was guaranteed. That belief has been wiped out completely by the last two weeks.

The honeymoon period is over for Nick Sirianni. For someone who uses a lot of coachspeak and says that he understands the fans’ frustration, it's time for him to put his money where his mouth is. If not, people may have a lot more than signs and trash cans outside the NovaCare Complex in the coming weeks. Torches and pitchforks may not be out of the question.

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