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Just how good can this Eagles offense be?

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Lofty projections abound for the 2019 Eagles, who seem deeper and more dangerous than ever. Can this new group reach the offensive dominance the 2017 squad rode to Super Bowl 54? And what, if anything, will get them there?

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It’s Week 14 of the 2017 NFL season. The Philadelphia Eagles, fresh off their first loss in 10 weeks, find themselves in a four-quarter slugfest with the Los Angeles Rams: the winner takes sole possession of first seed in the NFC. With just over two minutes left in the third quarter, Carson Wentz will throw a 4th and goal touchdown to Alshon Jeffery to retake the lead.

It’s Wentz’s 33rd touchdown pass of the year — it puts him on pace for 41 total, a Top-10 season in NFL history. It gives him a 33:7 TD:INT ratio, which is the best figure among quarterbacks this season, despite the fact that he’s the only QB with more than 30 touchdowns. It adds to Philadelphia’s league-leading 47.3% conversion rate on 3rd/4th down, and their league-dominating 10.8% touchdown rate on 3rd/4th down. Carson Wentz has yet to throw an interception on 58 red zone attempts, but he has scored 23 touchdowns, which is — you guessed it — the best raw production and rate in the NFL.

In this moment, he is second in MVP odds behind Tom Brady, captain of the future Super Bowl champions, and playing on an ACL torn not five plays earlier.

We like to call Wentz’s 2017 his “MVP season” ‘round these parts, though we have no proof he would have won, had he stayed healthy. Regardless of the results of the award — Wentz would end up grabbing a total of two votes — that 2017 season indeed was MVP-caliber, MVP-worthy; bright enough to overshadow the subsequent, lackluster 2018 campaign. 2017 Wentz is the prince that was promised — and now that we know he exists, that’s who we will always expect him to be.

It’s that logic that has galvanized Wentz’s early run in 2019 MVP voting, over a year removed from his torn ACL, eight months removed from his fractured back. ESPN’s Louis Riddick, who famously prognosticated Jared Goff’s 2017 rebound and Patrick Mahomes’ 2018 rise, has pegged Wentz as his 2019 pick for MVP. Wentz has the fourth-best odds to win the award at 10-1.

But if you’re betting on Carson Wentz for the 2019 MVP, you’re (a degenerate) banking on more than just a return to full health. You’re banking on the Eagles offense as a whole returning to those 2017 forms: when Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount were pounding the rock; when Alshon Jeffery arrived and Nelson Agholor dawned; when Doug Pederson and Frank Reich and John DeFilippo couldn’t fail a 4th and 3 if they tried.

And many rightfully are backing that horse. PhillyVoice’s Jimmy Kempski thinks the offense is stacked; ESPN’s Mina Kimes is struck by the depth; Yahoo’s Charles Robinson believes it’s a Top-3 group. Pro Football Focus thinks the Eagles have the best offensive line and receiving corps in the NFL; head coach Doug Pederson thinks the offensive skill positions have never been better in his time here.

The comparison to 2017 is an interesting one — and one many players have emphatically made in favor of 2019. That team won the Super Bowl with its backup quarterback, ne’er wanting for an explosive play or clutch conversion. But we seem so far removed from Trey Burton and Brent Celek, Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount, Torrey Smith and, indeed, Nick Foles. So much has happened between now and then.

What will it take for the Eagles to return to their 2017 form? It won’t take a lot to get close — a healthy Carson Wentz and a few dynamic additions should more than do the trick — but to really reach Super Bowl and MVP levels, we have to examine that which makes the Eagles’ offense unique among the league’s best. To be good is to do what’s done, well; to be great is to do something extra, even better.

Carson Wentz: Run Around And Sling That Pill

When Carson Wentz was worse in 2018 — and he was worse, though conventional stats don’t bear that out clearly — he was still quite good. This is good news for Philadelphia and of absolutely no interest to our exercise here. The goal is to figure out what he did indeed lose from 2017 to 2018, when he never seemed fully back from injury. Many conjectures were cast, including:

  • He isn’t as mobile
  • He’s afraid of contact
  • He’s not throwing deep anymore

The problem with these theories is that they’re all simple sentences. Quarterback play is a complex thing, and issues with it are hardly explained briefly. The truth, as it often is, is somewhere in the middle of these three.

The most deficient areas of Carson Wentz’s 2018 play, relative to 2017, were the impact of his legs and his tendency/willingness to throw deep.

As a passer, Wentz’s average depth of target (aDOT) dropped over 20% from 2017 to 2018, per Josh Hermsmeyer of airyards.com. Among qualifying passers in the Next Gen Stats database, Wentz fell from the fourth-deepest passer in 2017 to the 21st-deepest in 2018.

Carson Wentz Air Yards Data: 2017 v. 2018

Measure 2017 2018
Measure 2017 2018
aDOT 9.9 7.7
xComp% 62.70% 65.60%
Comp% 60.20% 70.50%
CPOE -2.50% 4.70%
via Josh Hermsmeyer and Air Yards

It’s worth noting here that shallower passes increase a quarterback’s expected completion percentage, or xComp%. This makes sense — shorter passes are completed more often than deep ones, in that they are easier, so quarterbacks who attempt more short passes should have a higher completion percentage than quarterbacks who attempt deep ones. Wentz’s xComp% accordingly climbed in 2018 — but that’s not what’s interesting.

What’s interesting is that, in 2017, he was below his xComp% in actual performance: -2.5% CPOE (Completion Percentage Over Expectation); and in 2018, he was considerably above, at +4.7%. So Carson wasn’t going deep as often, and some attributed the sense of his diminished play to this fact — but the change in target depth had a tremendous effect on his completion percentage. In terms of completion percentage, he went from a below-average quarterback when adjusting for depth in 2017 to a significantly above-average quarterback in 2018. While he was worse in one measure, he was markedly better in another measure — and arguably, one of more importance.

Now, when we ask ourselves why Wentz’s depth of target fell, there’s room for an argument regarding a philosophy shift here. The Eagles’ offensive coaching staff lost two of its three primary minds in Frank Reich and John DeFilippo; Mike Groh and Press Taylor replaced them, bringing their own experiences, theories, and predilections. The Eagles found success with Nick Foles’ offense in the playoffs of 2017, which immediately relied more on the short game (8.2 aDOT) than the Wentz-led system — perhaps they wanted to continue building off of those ideas.

But this discussion of target depth is inextricably tied to the discussion of Carson Wentz’s mobility. Anecdotally, mobile quarterbacks tend to have a deeper aDOT, in that they are able to avoid rushers and extend plays, and extended plays frequently go deeper than timing/rhythm/on-schedule plays. Wentz was both visibly and analytically less mobile in 2018, and that likely had a greater effect on his depth of target than any shift in coaching philosophy.

Wentz’s lack of mobility is revealed in his pocket management. With both the agility to avoid sacks and the lower body strength to withstand them, Wentz was lauded for his ability to escape pressure by draft analysts when coming out of North Dakota State. From Lance Zierlein’s report: “Has athleticism to escape pressure and hurt defenses with his legs. Already able to feel pressure on the edges and slide around in pocket without dropping his eyes.

In 2017, Wentz only took two sacks within 2.5 seconds of the snap, per PFF — this despite the fact that he was pressured on 35.7% of his dropbacks. This number, when compared to the 26 sacks Wentz took beyond 2.5 seconds of the snap, illustrates Wentz’s ability to make the first defender miss and extend plays. Comparatively, Wentz took eight sacks within 2.5 seconds in 2018, and 23 beyond 2.5 seconds — proportionally, a significant shift, especially when you consider that Wentz was actually pressured less frequently (31.3% of his dropbacks) in 2018.

In short: Wentz took more sacks in 2018 than in 2017, despite taking less snaps overall, and being pressured on fewer snaps. Critically, that change was reflected in sacks that occurred within 2.5 seconds of the snap, when Wentz was almost certainly still within the pocket.

Instinctively, you might assume that those quick sacks were the result of poor offensive line play — but again, the line generally allowed fewer pressures. Having returned Jason Peters over Halapoulivaati Vaitai and replaced Stefen Wisniewski with Isaac Seumalo, there wasn’t a significant drop-off in talent to explain the change. And, on top of everything, Eric Eager just elucidated PFF’s argument that pressures and sacks are both more descriptive of QB play than they are of offensive line play.

If we throw the OL explanation out the window, then we have a top athlete at quarterback, effective at escaping pressure, who took on less pressure but more sacks following an ACL injury. It seems evident that the injury decreased Wentz’s mobility, which made it harder for him to escape pressure, and accordingly, the offense adjusted with shorter and quicker throws — Wentz’s Time To Throw (TTT), via Next Gen Stats, went from 2.72 seconds (15th) in 2017 to 2.66 (25th) in 2018.

And when we watch film, we see much the same. Perhaps we’re only confirming our treacherous priors, but Wentz didn’t look nearly as spry or explosive in the pocket. He was used less on designed runs and was less effective creating yardage with his legs when scrambling. It isn’t surprising that a pre-ACL player was faster and nimbler than his post-ACL iteration — but it matters.

Because, if Wentz has returned to full health, we expect him to run more often; we expect him to escape more pressure and take fewer quick sacks; we expect those sacks he doesn’t take to turn into extended plays; we expect those extended plays to attack downfield; we expect his depth of target to rise.

Does that mean he’ll return to the form of his 2017 MVP season (see, I did it again, just there)? Not necessarily — we aren’t there yet — but the offense will look more like it did when he was playing at that caliber.

DeSean Jackson And The RPO Game: Damned If You Do

And you thought you were done hearing about RPOs. Pshaw. You should never think that. It has cemented itself as a buzzphrase, a broadcast crutch. What is dead my never die.

Grafted from the college ranks (some 30 years ago, but only popularized recently), the Run-Pass Option packages a pass play and a run play together, and in doing so, stresses those defenders who have responsibilities against both the pass and the run — namely, conflict defenders. Conflict defenders are frequently linebackers and nickel corners — coaches might call them overhang defenders — who play up near the line of scrimmage and must flow with running plays, but are also responsible for bailing into shallow zones when the quarterback drops back. They are the ribbon tied over the middle of the rope, and their run and pass responsibilities tug them in opposite directions. They are in conflict.

The best way to relieve conflict defenders is by playing man coverage. Success rates of RPOs show that they’re particularly effective against zone, which tasks linebackers and safeties with reading releases, offensive line movements, and the backfield, all at once. Show these unfortunate second-level defenders both receiver routes and offensive line pullers — like an RPO does — and those defenders must commit. Make them wrong by electing the option — run or pass — that they do not cover.

In man coverage, that invisible string that tugs zone defenders downfield doesn’t pull as hard. The “conflict” defenders can slow-play their man coverage responsibilities as the receivers come downfield, or disrupt their releases at the line of scrimmage, while evaluating the offensive line’s action and the potential for a run. Now, pure man coverage isn’t perfect: it often leaves you with disadvantageous box numbers against the run, or worse, isolates bad cover men on good receivers. But man coverage alleviates the conflicts that RPOs exploit, if not erasing it completely — and so, it’s a worthy response.

We know that the Eagles 2017 offense survived the aforementioned Wentz injury via the RPO — it was the magic that got the ball in and out of Nick Foles’ hands, lickety-split. Famously a one-read quarterback, Foles suddenly didn’t have to be more, as the Eagles ran RPO concepts on 19.2% of their offensive snaps. But that number dropped in 2018 — the Eagles were third in RPO usage at 15.4%, falling behind another Andy Reid sapling in Chicago HC Matt Nagy, and Big Red himself, whose Chiefs ran RPOs on a whopping 25% of their snaps.

The Eagles moved away from their RPO game in 2018, and accordingly lost the ability to dictate man coverage as frequently, as teams weren’t as worried about the RPO.

Why would the Eagles run fewer RPOs. While buzzy, RPOs are not the apex of offensive evolution; they are not the ideal to which all teams trend. In 2018, of the top 10 teams who used play-action, only two were among the top-10 of those who incorporated a run option into their play-action pass — or, in other words, ran an RPO. (Numbers via Football Outsiders.) Play-action still holds value without a run option attached.

Like most free things, the yardage offered by an RPO isn’t all that valuable. While run-pass options often make conflict defenders wrong, thereby simplifying the read and generating easy yardage, they are shorter targets and quicker plays than your average play-action pass, which also looks to threaten conflict defenders. The 2017 depth of target for RPOs league-wide was 1.85. In 2018, the Eagles averaged 5.0 yards per RPO pass — not just RPO play — and 9.5 yards on traditional play-action concepts; in 2017, when they ran an overwhelming number of RPOs, their aDOT was actually lower on play-action passes than on dropback passes, because of how shallow their frequent RPO passes ran.

Take this play for example: the Eagles get man coverage, and run an RPO built to attack man coverage, with a pick concept on the playside. It’s highly effective at opening Alshon Jeffery for an easy gain; but doesn’t offer much room for yardage after the catch.

It’s worth noting that Jeffery — the Eagles’ favorite RPO target, and targeted here — was 10th in Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception charting in terms of % of targets contested, and had the 3rd-lowest rate of targets that gave him an opportunity to break a tackle.

While the RPO game is valuable, in that a successful RPO system dictates man coverage, while decreasing time to throw and increasing completion percentage, it is not conducive to an explosive, downfield offense. Accordingly, the 2019 Eagles have a problem: how can they find the success of 2017 — which relied heavily on RPOs — without further truncating the offense? How can Carson Wentz go deeper while relying more heavily on shorter passes?

The answer is DeSean Jackson.

The Eagles had a titular deep threat in 2017 with veteran journeyman Torrey Smith. He only caught 36 balls for 430 yards, so his production wasn’t tough to replace in 2019; but his role — anecdotally “taking the top off a defense” — did prove difficult to replicate.

Average Depth of Target (aDOT) by season

Name 2017 2018
Name 2017 2018
Torrey Smith 13.2 N/A
Nelson Agholor 10.5 10.2
Zach Ertz 7.8 7.5
Alshon Jeffery 13.9 10.9
Golden Tate N/A 7.5
Jordan Matthews N/A 9.7

Mike Wallace, another veteran journeyman, was meant to fill the void Torrey Smith left roughly 13.2 yards down the field — but he was injured in Week 2, and snagged not a single pass in midnight green. Jordan Matthews and eventually Golden Tate largely absorbed the leftover targets, but neither represented a downfield threat — and the whole Eagles offense shrunk as a whole.

DeSean Jackson has only ever slipped below 13.2 aDOT once in his career — 2013, his last year with Philly, in which he was frequently targeted underneath in Chip Kelly’s spread. He has never come anywhere close to producing only 36 catches for 430 yards. He is the consummate NFL deep threat, and his speed, ball tracking, and intelligence categorically demand a safety over the top.

DeSean Jackson’s deep presence unlocks the RPO game. RPOs dictate man coverage, and Jackson requires a safety over the top to help — those are two requirements that most coverage shells fail to fulfill. If you want to go single-high, with Wentz’s arm strength and Jackson’s speed...that free safety better be Earl Thomas on a jet ski.

If you line up with split safeties — a rarity in today’s NFL, unless you’re the Indianapolis Colts — the Eagles can run packaged plays, put your underneath defenders in conflict, and win on the quick-breaking underneath concepts that characterize Doug Pederson’s West Coast spread. If you go single-high to rotate another player in the box and alleviate the conflict on your underneath defenders, you need a man coverage corner who can carry Jackson downfield — which will not go well — or you need to play country Cover 3, give the Eagles’ weapons the underneath routes, and rally to tackle.

That will also not go well.

Dallas Goedert: The 4th-Most Valuable Tight End In The NFL

Dallas Goedert, a 24-year-old sophomore with 33 NFL catches to his name, had this to say about his role in the Eagles’ offense.

Yeah, I haven’t beat out Zach yet. And I’ll give it to [Kansas City’s] Travis Kelce for being Travis Kelce. And I’ll give it to [San Francisco’s George] Kittle. What he did last year was pretty impressive. I’m not saying I’m not better than him, but he had a pretty good year. Those are three pretty good tight ends. Just put me at number four and I’ll be content.”

While Goedert’s claim to the title of fourth-best tight end in the NFL might be a smidge overzealous, the role that he plays in the Eagles’ 2019 offense, while not as visible or measurable as Wentz’s or Jackson’s, might be just as valuable.

12 personnel — that’s 1 running back, 2 tight ends — was the Eagles’ saving grace last season. Concurrent with starting Nick Foles and dropping Wentz on a sick bed for the remainder of what seemed a lost season, the Eagles finally sunk the cost of the Golden Tate trade and cut down on his snaps, giving them instead to a burgeoning Dallas Goedert.

With more Goedert came more 12 personnel on the field, which had long been the Eagles more successful personnel grouping. They ended the season with a 50% success rate in 12 personnel as opposed to a 46% success rate in 11, and ran more 12 personnel — 36% of their snaps — than any other team in the league.

Now, it’s easy to call 12 personnel the cause and improved offensive play the effect — but matchups are the straw that stirs every drink on the offensive side of the football. Really, 12 personnel was valuable for the same reason that RPOs work: conflict defenders. However, instead of attacking them with schematic machinations, the Eagles attacked them with a player: Dallas Goedert.

As the fifth offensive weapon on the field, Goedert brings a terrifying versatility onto the defense’s radar. Like Ertz, Goedert is able to line up out wide and run every route in the tree — his size, speed, and agility require the attention of an advanced cover defender, not just your run-of-the-mill MIKE ‘backer. And unlike Ertz, Goedert’s a highly effective blocker with his hand in the dirt. When he’s inline, he handles defensive ends one-on-one with frequency and success, which proves highly advantageous in the running game. Now that safety you put on the field to cover him is significantly out of his depth, trying to fill the B-gap without the requisite size, strength, or instincts.

RPOs create conflict by packaging two play calls into one. Goedert creates conflict by being valuable — and viable — in both play calls.

A narrative example: In Week 14, the Eagles took the Dallas Cowboys all the way to the final minutes, losing on a PBU that popped into Amari Cooper’s arms. The Cowboys, enamored with their young linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, left three linebackers on the field regularly against the Eagles’ 12 personnel sets: the Eagles hit a 60% success rate when passing out of 12 personnel, scoring all three of their touchdowns, and watching Goedert’s crowning play slip through their fingers.

That’s a four-wide formation with two tight ends on the field — and subsequently, Vander Esch flexed over Dallas Goedert in man coverage. Very few linebackers can handle a responsibility like this — the list pretty much starts and ends with Bobby Wagner — and Vander Esch gets beat.

The very next week, the Eagles beat the NFC-leading Los Angeles Rams (wow, full circle) to keep their season alive. The Rams regularly deployed nickel and dime packages against the Eagles’ 12 personnel sets, asking safeties to play at linebacker depths and fill against the run. This time, the Eagles ran it to the tune of a 65% success rate — an astronomical number for running plays — and again, scored all of their points on the back of 12 personnel plays. Just this time, they ran the football.

Goedert ran only 8 routes against the Rams — it didn’t matter. It wasn’t the matchup his presence dictated, so it wasn’t the role he filled. That’s what it is to be versatile.

With the additions of Jackson and rookie WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside, it is worth wondering just how many targets Goedert will garner in 2019. But targets only come from snaps, and for as long as 12 personnel remains as effective in generating advantageous matchups for Philadelphia, Goedert will see more snaps than any other TE2 in the league. Goedert doesn’t dictate coverage the way an RPO does, but they are similar in that they both make the defense wrong. They win matchups, putting defenders in impossible conundrums and making life easier on their quarterback.

Goedert represents the Jimmy and Joe, who follows closely behind the X’s and O’s in the old coaching adage: “It’s not the X’s and O’s, it’s the Jimmies and Joes.” Scheme will only take you so far, as playbook diagrams and late-night film review don’t win contested catches or break tackles. That’s not to say DeSean Jackson is an O and not a Joe — he’ll still win on a go route regardless of the coverage he got and the chess match that produced it. But while RPOs challenge your chalkboard acumen, Goedert challenges your second-best tight end cover man, in flesh and bone and living color.

He’s going to win that matchup, a lot. So are most of the Eagles’ receivers. That, independent of RPOs, target depth, and time to throw, is what an offense needs to be successful.

The Best Offense In the League

Do you believe? Are you rushing to your bookie to throw a few Benjamins on Carson Wentz for the 2019 MVP? (Don’t do that.)

From a matchup perspective, the Eagles are the best offense in the league. No team has as many players who regularly win one-on-one against their defensive counterparts — Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, DeSean Jackson, Dallas Goedert, JJ Arcega-Whiteside (in the red zone), Darren Sproles (in space) — and few have a quarterback as capable of attacking those matchups. Accordingly, scheme doesn’t have to do as much work, but that doesn’t mean it won’t. That’s what we saw in 2017, when Wentz fell and the team needed a save: scheme doing the work that players couldn’t.

The Eagles are more likely to finish the 2019 season a Top-5 offense in the league — by whatever metric you’d like to measure that — than not. Cataclysmic injury, of course, can always strike. Some would argue it’s more likely for the Eagles, given Wentz’s recent history. But casting aside the blind fury of fate, we’re left with that which we can examine, understand, and predict: the Eagles have every offensive tool imaginable, an offensive maestro with proven success, and an MVP(-caliber) quarterback as motivated as he is talented.

What remains is merely execution.