The story of the 2017 Eagles is one of overcoming significant injuries to go on to win the Super Bowl. That team had relatively few injuries, they were just concentrated at key roles. The 11 personnel quintuple of Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, Torrey Smith and Zach Ertz missed all of 2 games, both by Ertz. The loss of Darren Sproles hurt, but LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement and Jay Ajayi missed only one game, and that was Ajayi being rested in Week 17. Seven defensive starters played in every meaningful game, two missed one game, and one missed two. The Eagles finished the season 13th best in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost. By quantity, they were an average-ish healthy team, the quality of the rest of the roster helped carry them.
This season has been pretty much the opposite. The IR list is considerably less impactful, but the game by game attrition is just too much to overcome. Only five skill position players on offense have played in every game: Nelson Agholor, Zach Ertz, Wendell Smallwood, Dallas Goedert, and Shelton Gibson. Only four defensive starters have played every game: Jordan Hicks, Fletcher Cox, Malcolm Jenkins and Brandon Graham.
One needs to look no further than the snap counts in dismal loss to the Saints and compare that to the late season 2017 team to see the impact.
As injuries came, the 2017 Eagles added several street free agents and waiver claims. These are the very definition of the term “replacement player”: they were freely available talent. All of them were no more than role players. Kenjon Barner played 125 snaps on special teams and just 77 snaps on offense. Bryan Braman and Nate Gerry were, except for the meaningless Week 17 game, exclusively special teams players. Dannell Ellerbe was a situational player, while Elijah Qualls and Justin Hamilton were part time bottom of the depth chart fill ins. Will Beatty and Taylor Hart didn’t dress until Week 17. Trae Elston spent ten days on the team.
In their penultimate game of the 2017 season, a win against the Raiders that sealed the top seed in the NFC, the Eagles were at their peak of injuries. In addition to season-ending injuries that had piled up, the attrition of the season was taking its toll. In their next game all seven inactive players were key players who needed a week off: Jay Ajayi, Derek Barnett, Nigel Bradham, Brandon Graham, Timmy Jernigan, Rodney McLeod, and Jalen Mills. But all of them had played at least 30% of snaps against the Raiders, with most of them playing the majority of the game. The replacement players were barely seen. On offense, Barner played one snap, on defense, Ellerbe played 40% of snaps. They were role players playing a role.
Against the Saints, the replacement players were relied on. Josh Adams started and played a majority of snaps. Cre’Von LeBlanc, Chandon Sullivan and De’Vante Bausby were three of the top four cornerbacks in playing time. Treyvon Hester and T.Y. McGill combined for 76% of snaps. Jordan Matthews saw his playing time drop from previous weeks but he was targeted more than Nelson Agholor, who started. That sounds more like a Week 1 preseason game than a must win game in November.
Taking a step back to view the league as a whole, we should expect a team going through the injury problems the Eagles are to stink. There are problems that the Eagles have that have little to do with injuries, such as their embarrassingly bad 1st quarters, the offensive line’s decline, and playcallling on both sides of the ball. But having a healthy team would certainly help. It’s hard to overcome key injuries in the NFL. The 2017 Eagles were special for their ability to do so, the 2018 Eagles are just another team because of them.