After seven weeks of seemingly having a fear of running the ball, Nick Sirianni has suddenly turned the Eagles into a run first offense. Four weeks ago they handed the ball off 9 times. In the last two games Eagles running backs had 37 and 29 rushing attempts, which is 41% of running back carries for the season so far, they also mixed in a couple of WR runs.
A dramatic change like this is usually the result of one of three events: an injury to the starting QB necessitating a change in approach to shelter the backup QB; an embarrassing loss that causes a coach to re-evaluate his team; or after the self scouting of a bye week. None apply to the Eagles. There has been an injury that should affect the running game but rather than the starting QB it is the starting RB who is out. The Eagles do have an embarrassing loss where they didn’t run the ball, but it was a month prior. The bye week isn’t for another four weeks, though Sirianni did show glimpses of a change after the mini-bye following the Thursday Night loss to the Buccaneers. He called five run plays to three pass plays on the opening possession the following week against the Raiders, but then reverted to type with five pass plays to one run to start the second possession before Miles Sanders was injured.
So why did the Eagles suddenly change course if not for those reasons? Maybe it’s because they’ve already decided to move on from Jalen Hurts after the season.
There are two pieces of evidence to consider.
One, the Eagles swiftly reduced Jalen Hurts’ role over the past two games.
Three games ago against the Raiders, Hurts had 34 pass attempts. In the next two games Hurts had 31 combined attempts. Hurts has surpassed that total in five individual games. Less Hurts has been more gain for Eagles, he’s been efficient in a reduced role. 64% and 65% completion percentages, 7.4 and 9.5 yards per passing attempt, 10.1 and 6.2 yards per rushing attempts—his best rushing rates since Week 2. The weakest of those rate stats is still better than his season average. And he had just one sack, and no turnovers. While It certainly helps to play defenses that have not been able to stop anyone on the ground, the Chiefs have one of the worst run defenses this season and the Cowboys had a depleted front seven when the Eagles faced them, Sirianni ran the ball a combined 14 times in those games. The opportunities to go with a run heavy approach were there earlier in the season.
As a result after seven games of a scattershot offense the Eagles have looked much more like a real, live functional offense. 44 points against the Lions is a pummelling, Detroit is terrible but that’s the most anyone has put up on them this year. 24 points won’t win a lot of games, but it gave the Eagles a chance against the Chargers. Devonta Smith and Dallas Goedert were the targets of 22 of Hurts’ 34 attempts while running backs were targeted just once. That’s an extreme overcorrection from the screen heavy start to the season. But it also follows that a team that has decided to move on from its QB would no longer care about developing him and force feed their top two pass catchers.
The second thing to consider is an off the field event.
Howie Roseman rarely, if ever, scouts college football games anymore. So his attendance to watch, presumably Pitt QB Kenny Pickett, is noteworthy. https://t.co/fNCEU2gnIT— Jeff McLane (@Jeff_McLane) November 11, 2021
We can debate the merits of drafting Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, who will be 24 at the start of next season and was unimpressive prior to this year; or North Carolina’s Sam Howell (if he declares), who has regressed this year after two impressive seasons as a starter. And we’ll have plenty of time to have that debate when the season ends. But GMs who don’t usually travel don’t go see a game with two draft caliber QBs if they’re not interested in drafting a QB. GMs with three 1st round picks in their pocket don’t take a trip to a Thursday night divisional ACC game just to see a game. Roseman did however miss a chance to see Matt Corral vs Malik Willis two weeks ago, but that was a Saturday noon game and if you want to get into some game theory not seeing the game live is a way to not tip your hand unless it’s a way to tip your hand.
Yes, to keep the QB factory running you have to import materials, but you also don’t throttle down production of the current model unless you’re going to roll out a new one.
The Eagles have never been committed to Jalen Hurts. They waited until after the preseason ended to make official what everyone knew was inevitable in naming him the starter. They gave Joe Flacco a raise after a terrible season and traded for Gardner Minshew. They pursued Deshaun Watson this year before he turned them down. They reportedly explored trading up to 3rd overall to draft Zach Wilson but we’ll never know if they would have since he went 2nd overall. These are not moves that a team that is all in on the young QB on their roster make or try to make. They will likely see what it would take to land Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers next year. They’re already looking at QBs in the draft. And they have the draft capital this year alone to move up to get a QB or to give up for a veteran.
When the season ends they’ll scapegoat Jonathan Gannon and no one will complain because he hasn’t done anything to deserve retention. Unless they go 1-7 or 0-8 to end the season they’ll keep Nick Sirianni because paying for three coaches at one time—they will still owe Doug Pederson salary for 2022—is not something owners usually do. (If Pederson has offset language in his contract that gets the Eagles out of paying him if he’s hired they would have to wait until he’s hired and then fire Sirianni, which would be the second season in a row they make a late coaching change, which is even more embarrassing than firing a coach after one year.)
If the QB is a rookie they’ll try to sell the QB change as Sirianni not having his own guy, which won’t really add up if/when they change coaches after the 2022 season or compute with his enthusiasm for Hurts, but it won’t matter. If it’s a veteran they won’t need to do much PR beyond “it’s Russell Wilson” but they might try to sell Sirianni’s past experience working with veteran QBs, but that too won’t matter.
The Eagles are going to do what they do and they won’t care how it looks. They fired their Super Bowl winning coach a week after his end of season press conference. They had no compunction moving on from Carson Wentz so soon after giving him a contract extension that said extension had yet to start when they traded him. They’ll have even less pause moving on from Jalen Hurts.
It seems they already have started to.