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Taking Stock in the Philadelphia Eagles

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And on the tenth week, Carson rested

NFL: Denver Broncos at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Before I dive into this, a shoutout to BGN users Shock and Awe and SwoopThereItIs. I saw your comments on the Doug Pederson victory speech article and it’s nice to see other Eagles fans repping in Connecticut! If there are other Connecticut Eagles fans out there, I’m typing this from my home in rural Salem. Would totally be down for meeting up at a bar to watch a game sometime, hit me up if you’re in.

Also, Happy Veterans Day! If you know a veteran, make sure to catch up with them and thank them for their service.

After a whirlwind of a first nine games, the Eagles are screaming into their bye at a league-best 8-1. “League best” doesn’t even begin to describe it, as they have a 1.5 game lead on the next most competitive teams. Even if every “good” team won next week, the Eagles will still have a 1-game lead over the rest of the league. Yeah. That’s how good they’ve been.

Since I do not have an opponent to analyze for “Crunching The Numbers” this week, I thought I’d help fill the bye week lull by offering my observations of the season so far. To start with this exercise, I looked back on my rant from the beginning of the season that tried to throw some water on the negative narratives being thrown around everywhere at the time. Those narratives concerned the poor offensive line play, Doug Pederson’s pass-heavy play-calling, and the usage of the running backs.

In a nutshell, my counters to these narratives were:

  1. Offensive line: bench Seumalo and start Wiz (done - eventually)
  2. The Eagles’ first two opponents were stout against the run, causing the imbalanced play calling, and Doug would find a way to get the run game going (Eagles are now 3rd in rushing)
  3. The Eagles don’t have a “feature back” but could “manufacture” one by cultivating the screen game (Okay so I might have gotten too cute with this, as LeGarrette Blount is now having a career year and the Eagles traded for an actual feature back in Jay Ajayi)

So yeah, turns out those narratives were a big overreaction. There were a lot of takes in that article that are laughable now - specifically my comment on how Kelce “needs to go,” but most of what I wrote has held up. In particular, I’m enjoying how I ended that article:

These narratives are way overblown and don’t deserve our attention after only the first two games of the season. This is an Eagles team with good talent and decent coaching. Good things will happen in time - but patience is the key.

Funny how that worked out, huh?

Okay, so now that I’m done patting myself on the back for taking shots in the dark that just happened to come up roses, let’s look at what exactly is happening with the Eagles now that they’ve reached their bye.

Doug Pederson and Jim Schwartz are Bill Belichicking the crap out of this team

Interestingly enough, in that linked post I assured everyone I did not believe Doug Pederson was the “next” Bill Belichick, and yet now I find myself comparing him to ol’ BB for two reasons: injury resiliency and personnel usage.

The injury resiliency is really the big one here. Over the first nine weeks of the season, the following players have either missed time in-game, entire games, or have been placed on injured reserve (an “S” in parenthesis indicates starter):

  • Ronald Darby (S)
  • Rodney McLeod (S)
  • Corey Graham
  • Jaylen Watkins
  • Fletcher Cox (S)
  • Jordan Hicks (S-IR)
  • Mychal Kendricks (S)
  • Darren Sproles (IR)
  • Jason Peters (S-IR)
  • Zach Ertz (S)
  • Wendell Smallwood
  • Chris Maragos (S-IR)
  • Caleb Sturgis (S-IR)

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s thirteen total players, nine starters (if you count Maragos as a special teams captain), and five on injured reserve. Of those five on IR, only Sproles wasn’t a “starter,” and depending on how you feel about him he was basically a starter. Also, these were just the players I could think of off the top of my head. Feel free to inform me of anyone I’ve missed.

There was a time, not long ago, when losing any players of that caliber would be enough to send the entire season off the rails (*cough*Lane Johnson 2016*cough*). And yet, somehow, whenever a player goes down this season another seems to fill in and the team keeps on chugging as if nothing was wrong. I’ve only seen resiliency like this in the New England Patriots, where Bill Belichick’s “do your job” and “next man up” mantras seem to motivate practice squad players to turn in Pro Bowl performances when their name is called. The next closest example I can think of is the 2010 Packers, who won the Super Bowl with double-digit players on injured reserve, but they had to squeak into the playoffs as a sixth seed. They didn’t show nearly the amount of dominance the 2017 Eagles or Bill Belichick Patriots have shown fielding random backups. Hell, the Patriots practically cruised into a Super Bowl in 2011 playing a wide receiver as a defensive back. That’s just insane. And yet Pederson and Schwartz are somehow making similar magic happen. If that’s not enough to win Dougie P over for you, I don’t know what is.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The next Bill Belichick facet of this coaching staff is personnel usage. What makes the Eagles almost impossible to game plan for on offense is that they put up “unstoppable” numbers but seemingly lack an “unstoppable” player, outside of the quarterback. Get this: Carson Wentz is fourth in the league in passing with 2262 yards. And yet, after nine weeks not a single receiver has yet to post 100 yards. The Eagles are spreading the ball around with such effectiveness that even if you scheme one player out of the game, someone else you may not have even heard of will pick up the slack.

As a bonus, I think the personnel usage feeds into the injury resiliency. By spreading responsibility around all positions, when one player goes down the backup does not feel like the world is suddenly thrust upon their shoulders. If Belichick’s mantra is “Do your job,” Pederson’s would be, “Fill your role.”

Just look at last week’s game against the Broncos. Zach Ertz was out and the Broncos clearly focused on containing Nelson Agholor, who had a quiet day at the office. As a result, Celek and Burton combined for 86 yards and a touchdown while UFA rookie running back Corey Clement scored two rushing touchdowns and added a third through the air. This is reminiscent of the countless times Belichick has plugged some no-name in at running back or wide receiver and they suddenly channeled their inner Barry Sanders or Randy Moss. One of their best receivers now, Chris Hogan, didn’t even play football in college. He was a lacrosse player at my alma mater, Penn State.

Okay, so before I go too far, let me reiterate that obviously neither Doug nor Jim are on the same level of coaching as Bill Belichick. But it’s hard not to notice the similarities between what the Eagles have done this year and what the Patriots have been doing for the past seventeen.

The historic run defense holds the key to success in January

Much has been made of the Eagles’ incredibly stout run defense this season. However, rushing metrics are a notable exception to my Crunching The Numbers series. While I do maintain that yards per rush doesn’t really mean a lot, there is a notable connection between the number of rushing attempts and winning. In short, the fewer rush attempts your opponent has against you, the more likely you’ll win.

This is good news for the Eagles, as their 166 attempts against are the fewest in NFL history through nine games. What’s amazing is that this is not only because the Eagles are pulling away and forcing their opponents to pass. The Eagles are able to shut down the run right out of the gate, meaning that opposing teams are abandoning the run when games are still technically competitive. Their reputation is starting to precede them - opponents know they’ll need to score points to win, and when the run game doesn’t work immediately it fades fast from play calls.

These are the types of narratives that form for Super Bowl teams. If the Eagles can keep their foot on the gas, they’ll be playing through January and into February for the first time in thirteen years.

Scouting the path to Homefield Advantage

As an Eagles fan, down in the recesses of my brain I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. But the reality is that the Eagles are 8-1, look very much like the best team in the conference (and the league), and with seven games left predictions must look beyond simply winning the division.

By my count, the three biggest threats to the Eagles right now are easily the Cowboys, Saints, and Rams. Dallas took a huge blow with the Elliott suspension, but they have capable backups in Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. Additionally, as division rivals they get two chances to upend the Eagles and will be going all-out to take them down.

The Saints are an interesting case in that the Eagles do not play them. They have the second-longest win streak in the league (6), are playing very well on both sides of the ball, and have a sure-fire HOF quarterback in Drew Brees. Should they finish with the same record, tiebreaker between the two teams will be conference record. Philadelphia currently holds the advantage here, as they have yet to lose a conference game, but only one of the Saints’ two losses has come within the NFC. There is little margin for error, especially since the Eagles only have one AFC opponent left in their schedule. The Eagles may be the pace setters for the league, but in a way the Saints are the pace setters for the Eagles. As long as they continue to win, the pressure will be on the Eagles to win.

And finally, the Rams are the team that terrify me the most. While the Eagles are the league’s only one-loss team, the Rams are a dropped touchdown pass away from being in that category themselves. Like the Eagles, they have a great defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips, an intimidating defensive line, and a talented secondary. They are also much healthier than the Eagles, which has played into their success, but also bodes well for them in the playoffs. If Philadelphia beats Dallas next Sunday night (and don’t have any slip-ups along the way), their game in Los Angeles will almost certainly be the deciding game for homefield advantage in January.

But beyond that, what does the path to the #1 seed look like? The Eagles’ remaining opponents are Dallas, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, and Dallas again. For this exercise, let’s say the Eagles don’t lay an egg against the teams they’re supposed to beat (Chicago, New York, Oakland). That automatically puts them at 11 wins. If they lose both games to the Cowboys, that means Dallas has probably played well enough without Elliot to take the division. So let’s say they’ll need to win at least one of those games. 12 wins, with a 5-1 division record, should give them the NFC East crown. It probably would not be enough to secure homefield advantage, and it might not even be enough for a first-round bye.

This leaves us with the last two NFC West games: Seattle and Los Angeles. I think with this schedule, the game against Seattle is essentially meaningless. Winning in CenturyLink Field would be awesome, and the Seahawks certainly do not look as imposing this year, but for me it’s all about the Rams game. If the Eagles lose to the Seahawks and Cowboys once, and win the rest of their games, they will hold the tiebreaker over the Rams even if THEY win all of their other games. Both teams would be 13-3 but the Eagles would own the head-to-head tiebreaker. As a bonus, in that scenario the best the Seahawks could finish is 12-4 since they already have three losses and would lose another game to the Rams.

The only wild card here (pun intended) is still the Saints. Will they lose at least two more games? In this projection, they’ll lose at least once to the Rams (the two teams meet on November 26). That gives them two conference losses, the same amount the Eagles would have. From here we’re diving deep into tie-breaking procedures, and it’s not worth speculating at this point who would win. The takeaway here: root against the Saints. It’ll make life easier for the Eagles.

Ultimately, the Eagles should be in line for at least a first round bye should they take care of business against the Cowboys and Rams. They’ve done a good job avoiding the letdown game - and should take all of their remaining games seriously - but right now they really need to circle the Dallas and Los Angeles games. Multiple times.

Closing Thoughts

As someone who didn’t start following the Eagles until 2006, I missed out on the excitement of the prime Andy Reid years. An experience like this - where the team I root for is considered the best in the league, a team other teams fear playing, a team where you need to “figure out” how to beat them - is new to me. It’s incredibly fun and incredibly exhausting at the same time. But maybe the best part about this is regardless of how the season ends, it’s hard not to imagine that there are going to be many more seasons like this in the years to come.