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State of the Eagles: Quarter Season Report Card

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The Eagles sit at .500 after a thrilling win over the Packers in Lambeau. What are the big takeaways from September, and what’s the outlook moving forward?

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Four games are in the books, and our beloved Eagles are 2-2, just as I predicted (well, sort of, anyway). I want to give a tip of my cap to deg0ey, who in the true spirit of Eagles fandom called for my head on Thursday after I was the sole writer to pick the Packers - a prediction that I am immensely glad was wrong. But I would like to reassure you, dear reader, that I was not bailing on the Eagles after their frustrating losses to the Falcons and Lions. It’s hard to pick against the Packers in Green Bay on a short week, and I would not have been super concerned about the season if the Eagles fell to 1-3. Why not, you ask? We’ll get to that - and more - in our first in-season edition of State of the Eagles!

In this article:

  • September football - should we care about it? (Spoiler: not really)
  • Quick hits on some early-season narratives
  • Looking ahead to games 5-8

Wake Me Up When September Ends

Dropping 3 of your first 4 games isn’t ideal, of course, but I’ve said it before and I’ll save it again: September football doesn’t really matter all that much. I don’t really follow baseball, but I believe there is a rule of thumb that you should be around ~0.500 before the All-Star break if you want a chance at playing in October. In other words, you can’t be awful to start the year, but you don’t need to set the world on fire either. In the shortened season of the NFL, games definitely matter more than they do in baseball, but with the new trend of holding starters out of preseason September has become the league’s version of “before the All-Star break.” You simply don’t need to be playing your best football in the waning weeks of summer - you really just need to not be the Dolphins.

Just look at the past few seasons: the Patriots have begun a somewhat regular habit of starting the season 2-2 (they were even 1-2 last year). The 2018 Cowboys looked horrible at the opening bell and ended up winning the division. The 2018 Seahawks started 0-2 and finished 10-6. The 2014 Green Bay Packers started 1-2 in the famous “R-E-L-A-X” season and were 1 botched onside kick recovery from beating the Seahawks in Seattle to go to the Super Bowl.

Even the 2017 Eagles, who started 3-1, did not look like world-beaters that September. They beat the Redskins in Week 1 off a fumble recovery that easily could have been ruled a forward pass. Then they lost to the Chiefs, beat the Giants on a miraculous 61-yard field goal after blowing a 14-0 lead, and then narrowly edged out the Chargers. They didn’t really take off until their 34-7 beatdown of the Cardinals... in October.

Those are just a few examples - but yes, I know I’m cherry-picking a little bit. The 2018 Saints and Rams both started hot and ended up in the NFC Championship Game. They also both faded down the stretch, with the Saints potentially one dropped pass away from a one-and-done exit and the Rams setting a record for lowest score in a Super Bowl after they were thoroughly outclassed by the same Patriots team that fell to 1-2 against the Lions the previous autumn.

Now, there is a difference between 1-3 and 2-2, obviously. If the Eagles were 1-3 I would have downgraded my season outlook from division title to wild-card spot. But at 2-2 homefield advantage is still firmly in play. Would 4-0 have been nice? Yeah, sure. But I’d rather hit my stride in November instead of September. Dallas can have their comfortable wins in nice weather against cupcake opponents that have next to zero tape on Kellen Moore’s fancy new offense. I’ll take getting hot when everything else is growing colder every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Narrative Checkdowns: Games 1-4

Here I’ll briefly offer my own takes on the various narratives that have bubbled up around the team:

  • The secondary sucks! This is easily the most pressing narrative, and it’s largely true. Darby, their most athletic cornerback, was picked on constantly in man coverage; Douglas is slow and needs safety help; Maddox has been disappointing in the slot; Jones has been “just okay” but hasn’t stayed healthy. (Of course, really nobody in the secondary has stayed healthy, but we’ll get to that later.) Schwartz, per usual, is slow to make adjustments to what his defensive backs can do well, but the glimpses we’ve seen have been somewhat promising. The deficiencies in talent are stark enough that Howie should make a strong a push as possible to land Ramsey (in spite of rumors that Jacksonville is no longer entertaining offers), although the additional injuries on Thursday underscore how much he dropped the ball on Fitzpatrick, who is younger, cheaper, and possibly more talented. But I digress.

    The one silver lining here is that Kamu Grugier-Hill is healthy, and the team will soon be able to add LeBlanc and Mills back in the coming weeks. Those two aren’t shutdown corners by any means, but given the way the current secondary has played, they couldn’t realistically be much worse. And there’s always the possibility LeBlanc actually builds off of his strong play from last year, instead of regress like Maddox has. (To be clear, like everyone else I am hoping a speedy recovery for Maddox after he suffered an awful friendly-fire hit from Andrew Sendejo.)
  • The pass rush sucks! Unfortunately, this is one of the more heartbreaking takes, as the Eagles appeared to have one of the deepest defensive line rotations in the league going into the season. This has been quickly derailed by injuries in consecutive weeks, and it’s unlikely to get better - no team is shopping star defensive linemen. Schwartz earned praise last year for making late-season adjustments to shore up a patchwork secondary, and we’ll have to hope he delivers again to restore the pass rush. This is crucial considering how offenses have adapted to Schwartz’s scheme in recent years, as excellently documented by our own Ben Solak. To Schwartz’s credit, he has blitzed more, but the results have been mixed at best. However, there’s a lot of season left for him to work out the kinks. I think patience, more than anything else, is key here.
  • The offense can’t start games strong! A well-documented fact, the Eagles have a habit of faltering early in games, usually hitting their stride midway through the second quarter. It’s commonplace now for offensive play callers to script the first 10-15 plays, and a consistent theme of the Eagles’ slow starts is the lack of comfort Carson seems to have executing these plays. What if a game script simply “isn’t his thing”? The Eagles were able to start hot in their Super Bowl season, sure, but Wentz was also making a lot of plays outside of structure that year. I’d love to see Doug open a game with a no-huddle offense, empowering Carson to make calls at the line of scrimmage (think back to the opening drive of the Bears game in 2016). I’m not saying this would cure the opening quarter woes for the Eagles, but certainly couldn’t hurt to try something different.
  • Another season, another rash of injuries. Injuries, to an extent, are random. But having this serious of an issue three seasons in a row is not random, especially with players like Malik Jackson and Richard Rodgers having a squeaky clean injury record before promptly finding themselves on IR as soon as they sign with the Eagles. It’s even more frustrating that the team’s medical staff turnover has had little effect on the problem. This makes me curious if the analytics have bled over to free agent signings at all - I’m not an actuary, but I am an engineer, and I know if you can quantify something there’s usually a useful conclusion you can draw from it. With the right infrastructure, it would not be hard to compile historical injury data across positions over the course of a career and feed that data into machine learning software that could tell you what kind of risks Player X might have for future injuries. Another consideration is Shaun Huls’ employment on the staff. He’s the sports science holdover from the Chip Kelly days (when the team was absurdly healthy in spite of the ridiculous amount of extra snaps they played), but the team has dropped most of Kelly’s more draconian biometric policies. It’s probably worth bringing in the Chip Kelly veterans and asking which of his biomonitoring programs would be good candidates to re-introduce - the worst that can happen is they say “none of them” and nothing changes.
  • How good is this team, really? This is probably less concerning now that the team walked out of Lambeau with an improbable victory, but all of the alarm bells were ringing in the two weeks before that. While I had my concerns, I didn’t think it was as bad as it looked. The Eagles lost two games by a combined 7 points in which they lost 3 of their top 5 pass catchers in pre-game warmups, lost a starting defensive tackle, finished -2 on the turnover differential, allowed a kickoff return touchdown, and dealt with historically bad drop rates. Most teams couldn’t overcome half of those issues, and yet had a few plays gone differently the Eagles would have one both of them. Doug Pederson has his limitations - namely he seems to need a top-notch offensive staff to unleash the full potential of his roster - but he almost always puts his team in a position to win games, no matter what happens. And so as long as Dougie P roams the sidelines, I will have hope for the Eagles.

Win-Loss Predictions: Games 5-8

The Eagles escaped September at 2-2, but how do things look for the next 4 games?

  • Week 5, vs New York Jets: It’s hard to predict a comfortable win for the Eagles at this point, but Darnold might still be out with mono (your franchise QB getting mono is the MOST Jets thing ever, by the way), Adam Gase is less inspiring than a wet carrot, and the game is being played at the Linc. Eagles win, 33-16
  • Week 6, at Minnesota Vikings: Dalvin Cook is the real deal and Kurt Coupons seems to save his best football for games against the Eagles. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs have the potential to annihilate Philly’s abysmal secondary. I don’t see the Eagles having the same issues on offense that lost them the game in 2018, however, and they take this one in a barn burner. Eagles win, 38-34
  • Week 7, at Dallas Cowboys: The Eagles go on the road for the second straight week riding a three-game win streak. The Cowboys have looked good, no doubt, but they’re not unbeatable. Zeke and Cooper will get theirs between the 20s but with Jernigan potentially being back for this game I think Schwartz tightens up that red zone defense. Dallas’ defense has quietly been “just okay,” which won’t be enough to stop the Eagles’ arsenal of weapons. Eagles win, 27-19
  • Week 8, at Buffalo Bills: The Bills may have just lost to the Patriots in heartbreaking fashion in a game where Josh Allen looked truly awful, but that defense is legit. Coming off 2 exhausting road games, I think the Birds drop one here. Bills win, 20-17

A 3-1 run (with 3 road games) puts the Eagles at 5-3 at the midway point. Not super ideal, but certainly not a record that can’t be leveraged into a dominating playoff push. The key thing to remember is that the Eagles will in fact get some important contributors back from injury down the road. As the season goes on, this team will get stronger - but it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Go Birds.