I've struggled with this first question only because the path for the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams from, essentially, mid-January 2016 to this point is actually quite divergent. From our side, there's a significant weight of unpredictability that this season carries. Does the Eagles' 2017 feel all that unprepared for? Did starting QB Carson Wentz from Week 1 and tying a three-game winning streak from the the opening schedule to the two-game winning streak at the tail end against playoff-bound NFC East teams perhaps build into this year? Was there a sense that HC Doug Pederson was building off of 2016 with the struggles of November and December?
At the risk of tooting my own horn, I’m not surprised that the Eagles have improved from last year. I was bullish on them They may have only gone 7-9, but they ranked tied for ninth in point differential and fourth overall in DVOA. I was convinced they were better than their record indicated in 2016.
Now, I’d be lying if I told you I thought there were going to be this good. Prior to the season, I predicted 9-7 or 10-6 at most for this year’s Eagles team. They’re already at 10-2 with four games remaining.
I think the 2016 season was about laying the foundation. The Eagles then addressed a lot of needs during the 2017 offseason. They invested heavily in the offensive and defensive lines, which just so happen to be the strengths of the team. They also got some much-needed weapons for Carson Wentz.
Wentz’s improved supporting cast has certainly helped him this season. But so did working on his craft in the off-season. Starting 16 games as a rookie probably aided him in figuring out what he needed to improve.
Doug Pederson has also helped Wentz’s development. The Eagles’ head coach has mostly done a strong job with play-calling this year. He’s creative and aggressive (although uncharacteriscally a little less so against the Seahawks). There were signs of this in 2016. The problem was that Pederson just didn’t have much talent to work with. He could only do so much.
Wentz and Pederson have been able to deliver on the promise they showed in 2016. Now the team is greatly benefiting from their improved contributions.
You guys have had some fine offenses over the last two decades. For all his faults, Chip Kelly is a brilliant offensive coach and oversaw two very good offenses in his first two years in charge. What really dipped off in 2015 and 2016 that you guys have corrected this year when you have the ball?
Man, I thought we were cool 3k. You had to go and bring up the 2015 Eagles?!
Kelly’s offense had really grown stale and predictable by his third season in the league. The volume numbers looked OK (12th in yards per game, 13th in points per game) but the efficiency metrics were below average (23rd in yards per play, 22nd in DVOA). The Eagles traded for some dude named Sam Bradford — you may have heard of him? — at quarterback and the wide receivers were pretty trash. No real good running game to speak of, either, despite signing DeMarco Murray to a huge contract in free agency.
Kelly’s insistence on getting rid of DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy for not much in return left the Eagles depleted of offensive weapons. That much was present in 2016, when Wentz had very little help around him. The scheme improved last season, but Pederson could only do so much with very limited talent.
I mean, a number of the Eagles’ 2016 skill players are no longer even in the league. Dorial Green-Beckham has been a free agent since the Eagles cut him. He was Philly’s second best receiver last year. Jordan Matthews was the best. It’s been a lost season for him in Buffalo. It seems 2016 Eagles leading rusher Ryan Mathews might never play in the NFL again.
The Eagles fixed the lack of talent at receiver by signing Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Jeffery gives the team a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver, even though he got off to a slow start. As for Smith, he’s not having a great season, but at least he gives the Eagles the idea of a deep threat. That wasn’t even really present last year. Trading Matthews has opened up playing time for Nelson Agholor in the slot. The 2015 first-round pick has really worked hard to improve. Matthews’ absence has also opened up more targets for tight end Zach Ertz. At running back, the Eagles have a good mix of guys who can contribute in LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, and even Kenjon Barner to some extent.
Wentz has been able to take advantage of having actual NFL skill players around him in 2017. He’s spread the ball around and gotten everyone involved. Pederson deserves a lot of credit for creative play-calling, as well. The offensive line’s contributions can’t be unlooked either.
So I’d say the improvement has been a team effort, which sounds cliche. But it certainly wouldn’t be possible without the quarterback in place.
While we can speak about the Eagles' offenses in glowing terms over the last several seasons, the defense on the other hand...well, yeah. Two years ago, you guys were 28th in points allowed and put up the third-worst defense in the entire NFL in yards allowed. This year, you guys are 6th and 3rd (!) overall in those very simple metrics. How have you transformed the defense so quickly and what is it you're doing so well that you can lean into as we head into the playoff push?
Kelly’s fast-paced offense put a lot of pressure on the defense to play a lot more extra snaps than usual. If you looked at how the Eagles’ defense ranked in terms of efficiency metrics, it wasn’t as bad as the volume numbers indicated. In 2015, the Eagles ranked 22nd in opponent yards per play and 17th in defensive DVOA. That’s certainly not great, but it’s not AS bad as the volume stats would suggest. The Eagles had some pieces in place to work with moving forward.
Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham were among those building blocks on the defensive line. That’s arguably the strength of this entire Eagles team right now. Cox and Graham are among the top players at their positions. Starting defensive end Vinny Curry has been having a good season, for his standards, at least. Tim Jernigan has proved to be a real good defensive tackle in this scheme after previously playing in the 3-4.
Philadelphia’s ability to generate pressure starts in the trenches. That’s where the impact of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who was hired in 2016, comes in. He’s not all about blitzing as much as he is relying on the front four to get pressure. The Eagles have guys who can do that, which can take pressure off their secondary. According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles lead the NFL in total pressures.
The Eagles aren’t just great at rushing the passer, though. They’ve been really strong at stopping the run. Some teams don’t even try to get their rushing attack going against Philly since they know it’s useless. The Eagles are only allowing 68.1 rush yards per game, which is the best rate in the league.
Philly can stop the run, make their opponent one-dimensional in the passing game, and then tee off on the opposing quarterback. Not a bad formula for victory.
Clearly, this game enforces a theme across the league of a new era opening up with teams like the Rams and the Jacksonville Jaguars erasing recent history while some other notable powers (looking at you, Denver Broncos) falter under the new NFL heatlamp. How wide is the window open for you guys? Is this shaping up to be a multi-year run or is there something major impending that the Eagles will have to get right to keep this going?
As long as Carson Wentz is under center, I can’t think the Eagles’ window will be closing any time soon. We’ll see how he continues to progress, but the fact that he’s already in the MVP conversation in Year 2 certainly bodes well for this team moving forward. A legitimate franchise quarterback should give his team the chance to at least theoretically contend every season.
There are some concerns when it comes to the Eagles being able to sustain their success. As is the case with any successful team, they’re bound to lose some of their coaching assistants. Eagles quarterback coach John DeFilippo, who has received a lot of credit for Wentz’s development, could move on. So could offensive coordinator Frank Reich. And maybe defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz as well.
The Eagles also currently have some key contributors on one-year deals. Patrick Robinson has been great for Philly in the slot. LeGarrette Blount leads the Eagles in rushing. It’s possible those players won’t be re-signed since the Eagles’ cap situation is tight. Not to mention those guys are on the wrong side of 30.
But the good news for the Eagles is that they have a lot of their core players locked up for the long-term. 20 of 22 Eagles starters are signed through at least 2018.
So there’s definitely pressure to win this year and take advantage of what the Eagles have going for them now. But I don’t think they’ll be totally doomed if they don’t win it all this season.
What makes the difference for the Eagles on Sunday? In a vacuum against any team, what determines yall's success or failure?
If I could describe the Eagles’ loss to the Seahawks on Sunday night in one word (other than “frustrating”) I’d say: uncharacteristic. Wentz missed some wide open receivers. The Eagles, who have been great in the red zone this year, went 0-2 there against Seattle, including a fumble that went out of the end zone for a touchback. It just didn’t feel like the Eagles team we were used to this year.
If the Eagles don’t clean up those mistakes, they could certainly drop this game to the Rams. The margin of error for Philadelphia isn’t very big.
Correcting these issues will help the Eagles win. But beyond that, it’ll also come down to generating pressure on Jared Goff. Russell Wilson is a huge matchup for Philly because he can mitigate the Eagles’ pressure with his mobility. I saw a statistic that Goff spends more time in the pocket than any other quarterback, so I’m interested to see how he fares against this Eagles defense. The Rams might have to do with a quick passing attack in order to hold off against the pressure Philly can generate.