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Why the 2021 Eagles could be really bad

It’s always darkest before dawn

Washington Football Team v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

As the Carson Wentz trade saga drags on and on and mentally drains us and Bears and Colts fans, it also overshadows that the 2021 Eagles have a really good chance to be a really bad team. We’re talking historically bad for the franchise. The 4 wins in 2020 were the 2nd worst win total in a 16 game season in Eagles history, behind only the 3-13 1998 team. The 2012 Eagles also won 4 games, those three teams had the worst records in Eagles history in the 16 game era.

The 2021 Eagles may improve on the 2020 team. But they also have a fair shot to be even worse. Every truly terrible team hits a trifecta of awfulness: bad management, bad offense, and bad defense. It’s not hard to see the Eagles having all three.

Management

We don’t know what kind of coach Nick Sirianni is yet. We may not even know a year from now considering the Eagles roster is in such bad shape. But a “new coach bounce” isn’t guaranteed, there have been first-year head coaches in the not too distant past who won three or fewer games: Zac Taylor with the Bengals in 2019, Steve Wilks with the Cardinals in 2018, a trio of coaches in 2009: Steve Spagnuolo with the Rams, Raheem Morris with the Buccaneers, and Jim Schwartz with the Lions (though he took over a winless team, so he improved their record, he’s an outlier here), Cam Cameron with the Dolphins in 2007, Rod Marinelli with the Lions in 2006… it doesn’t happen often, but it can happen.

Those coaches didn’t have a lot of NFL experience above position coach, and they were mostly young for a head coach. Morris was 33 and Taylor 35, while Schwartz and Cameron were in their early 40s. Taylor, Morris, and Marinelli had never been coordinators (well, Morris technically was, he was named as Monte Kiffin’s replacement at defensive coordinator before the season ended, but then was promoted to head coach after the Bucs fired Jon Gruden), while Wilks had been for one season, and Spagnuolo was for two seasons.

If you wanted to create a coach in over his head, Sirianni has a lot of choice ingredients to work with. He’ll be 40 when the season starts, was a coordinator for only three seasons, and is stepping into multiple roles (head coach and play-caller) for the first time. His staff is one of the youngest in recent history, if not the youngest. His defensive coordinator has just three seasons as a position coach, his offensive coordinator has less than two years of experience in the role, and his special teams coordinator is 29. Of the nine coordinator and position coaches hired under Sirianni, just three are older than him. Two are in their 20s. Most of the coaching staff has never had the job they have before. No one who is calling plays for the Eagles has ever called plays before at any level. There isn’t much experience for these coaches to fall back on when things get tough, and his offensive and defensive coordinators being coworkers from his previous two teams means there isn’t a whole lot of diversity of experience. Sirianni wasn’t brought up through a consistently successful franchise or coaching tree (though that can change over time, starting with Sirianni). And the process that led to the Eagles hiring him was uninspiring. The team initially zeroed in on Josh McDaniels, then changed course and scrambled to interview a coach a day before being wowed by Sirianni.

None of this guarantees he’s in over his head or that the Eagles will be one of the worst teams in the league in 2021. Plenty of coaches with stellar credentials have failed spectacularly, plenty with uninspiring resumes have turned out to be great. But add it all up and there’s a lot of potential for things to get ugly.

And management isn’t just coaching. Those coaches were also saddled with a bad roster. Nick Sirianni has one too.

Howie Roseman’s drafts have been abysmal, and due to his salary cap mismanagement in recent years, there will be no large scale roster turnover with free agents, the Eagles will not have the cap space to sign impact players. There’s little reason to believe that the additions that Howie Roseman will make for 2021 will be any different from the ones he’s made in the past few seasons. And his poor drafting record extends beyond the past few seasons, it is the primary avenue of roster building the Eagles will have this year.

Offense

Like many coaches, Nick Sirianni’s offenses have gone as the QB has. The 2018 Colts with Andrew Luck were 5th in points and 7th in yards, the 2020 team was 9th in points and 10th in yards with Philip Rivers. In 2019 the Colts QB was Jacoby Brissett, the team was 16th in points and 25th in yards. For 2021, he’s likely to have a bad QB.

Perhaps Jalen Hurts as the starter, at least to begin the season. Hurts sparked an upset over the Saints, but as a starter he was poor. Prorating his four starts to a 16 game season, he would have finished 32nd in passer rating, 23rd in yards per attempt, 21st in interception rate, and he completed just 52% of his passes. His first and second half splits were enormous: Hurts had a 105.3 passer rating in the first half of games, and 55.2 in the second half. Some of that is on coaching, the 2020 staff did a poor job of adjusting, and some of that is on the player for not adjusting as the game went on. But there was also an element of luck in the first half, as Hurts completed only 59.1% of his passes in the first half (to 46.3% in the second half) but with an 8.4 yards per attempt (to 6.2 in the second half). Completing that few passes for that high a yards per attempt is unsustainable.

Perhaps with an offseason of development and practice reps as the #1 he takes a leap. But Hurts’ 2020 play was about what was to be expected from him coming out of college, he wasn’t massively underperforming his draft expectations. He wasn’t a top prospect, he was the 5th QB drafted and he was taken in the middle of the 2nd round. The knocks on him entering the draft were his arm strength, accuracy issues, and turnover problems, particularly fumbles. All of those were true in his rookie year as he struggled with the deep ball, he struggled with accuracy, and he turned the ball over at a high rate: in addition to the interceptions, he fumbled at a higher rate than Carson Wentz. Can he improve some of those areas for 2021? Of course. But the odds are stacked against him because the odds are stacked against any QB, and even more so for a QB who wasn’t a top prospect. And he has to improve in just about everything, this isn’t a case of fixing one or two flaws in his game to turn him into an above-average QB.

Or perhaps the Eagles draft a QB in the first round this year. At best they’ll get the third QB drafted. There’s no guarantee that QB can even match Hurt’s level of play. If they’re lucky they get Justin Herbert or Deshaun Watson, who were the third QBs taken in their drafts. Or they could get Dwayne Haskins. Or maybe Josh Allen, who had a stellar year in 2020 but in his rookie season couldn’t beat out Nathan Peterman to start the year and was miserable when he played.

Eagles QBs had virtually no help in 2020, and they’re going to run it back in 2021 with largely the same group of players who didn’t make any major improvements as the season progressed.

The 2021 WR depth chart will be 2020’s minus the expensive veterans, and possibly with the addition of a draft pick. The WRs in 2020 were, aside from Travis Fulgham, awful. Jalen Reagor wasn’t the answer, while John Hightower and Quez Watkins were not draft steals, Greg Ward’s 7.9 yards per reception were the second-worst by any WR with at least his 53 catches. JJ Arcega-Whiteside has been a waste of a roster spot. On the upside, Fulgham is the oldest of these receivers, he’ll be 26 when the season starts. Sirianni’s background is as a WR coach, and he’s gotten good seasons from his WRs at all his stops. However, improvement from within or from the 2021 draft would run counter to every wide receiver drafted by Howie Roseman. The best WR drafted by Roseman was Jordan Matthews, who was able to hit the ground running as a rookie but also never improved from that season. Miles Sanders, who of course is a running back, has more receiving yards than every other receiver drafted by Roseman.

At running back, Sanders and Boston Scott are locked in as the top two. Sanders was 5th among RBs in yards per carry, and the Eagles' run blocking was their one strength. There’s not a lot of room to improve in efficiency.

At tight end, Dallas Goedert should easily step into the starting job, but behind him is a blank slate. Zach Ertz will be traded or, more likely, released and Richard Rodgers is a 29-year-old free agent to be. They combined for 60 catches on 103 targets for 680 yards for 11.3 yards per catch. As bad as Zach Ertz was in 2020, most of that production not just has to be replaced (the Eagles have used tight ends more than the Colts during Sirianni’s tenure, we should expect tight ends to see a little less share of the offense in 2021), it has to be exceeded for the Eagles to improve.

The offensive line was one of the very few bright spots for 2020 as the team played a different lineup nearly every game and didn’t embarrass the team week in and week out. Small victories. The development of depth in 2020 should be beneficial for 2021, as the starters are getting older and brittle. Lane Johnson will be 31 and Brandon Brooks will be 32 when the season starts, while Jason Kelce is 33, and Isaac Seumalo is 27. Johnson has missed 13 games in the previous two seasons, Brooks is coming off a season-long injury, Kelce may retire, Seumalo missed 7 games. And then there’s Andre Dillard, awful in 2019 and injured for all of 2020.

Defense

The Eagles' offense was bad and young, which is certainly better than bad and old. But whatever potential gains the offense makes may be erased by the defense, which is in a position to fall apart. The core of the defense is old. 20 players played at least 200 offensive snaps in 2020, 12 were 25 or younger, on defense 19 players did, but only seven were 25 or younger. When the season starts Brandon Graham will be 33, Rodney McLeod 31, Fletcher Cox, and Darius Slay 30. These four were in the top six of defensive snaps in 2020. Every area of defense has its concerns.

With half the starting defensive line for 2021 being 30+, where is improvement going to come from? Cox took a step back in 2020, and while Graham made the Pro Bowl he recorded one sack in the second half of the season. Derek Barnett has injury and penalty problems and his physical limitations likely mean he’s at or near his ceiling. Josh Sweat is one of the few quality draft picks by Roseman recently, but he was already third among DEs in snaps played, there isn’t much room for his back up role to grow, and if he takes over a starting job it will be at the expense of Barnett, another young player. The only defensive tackle who was 25 or younger is Raequan Williams, who played 98 snaps. In new defensive line coach Tracy Rocker’s only NFL stint, the Titans finished 31st, 10th, and 18th in sack rate, the year before he was hired they were 15th, the year after 14th.

At linebacker, Alex Singleton was one of the few positives of 2020, but he is 27 and there’s no guarantee that he’ll be as effective in a new system, as we don’t even know what that system looks like. TJ Edwards was a respectable rotational player, but the rest of the LB depth chart is full of players who aren’t the answer. And the 2020 Eagles defensive staff was strong on linebacker coaching: Jim Schwartz was a LB coach before becoming a defensive coordinator, Ken Flajole was in his 15th season as a LB coach, and Matt Burke had eight seasons as a LB coach. Jonathan Gannon is a DB coach, LB coach Nick Rallis is only a few months older than Singleton and will be in his first year as a position coach. As unremarkable as linebacker play may have been the past few seasons, it’s reasonable to expect it to decline further with a coaching staff with next to no experience with the position.

The secondary is once again a mess. What a surprise. Like WR, Howie Roseman and his staff have shown no ability to draft defensive backs. Avonte Maddox is fine as a slot corner, but was completely overmatched on the outside. Julian Blackmon, who the Colts drafted with the 3rd round pick the Lions got from the Eagles for Darius Slay, had as many passes defensed and more interceptions than Slay. The third CB in playing time was Nickell Robey-Coleman, who was awful. No other CB played at least 20% snaps, and none of them showed they deserved to. At safety, Jalen Mills is a free agent to be and the primary reason to re-sign him is that they can’t afford anyone else if they don’t feel comfortable promoting Marcus Epps or K’Von Wallace to a starting role, which neither showed they were. The hope with the secondary is that Jonathan Gannon’s background in defensive backs and a change of scheme can elevate a unit beyond what Jim Schwartz, Cory Undlin and Marquand Manuel could, all of whom had more experience as a defensive coordinator or defensive backs coach than Gannon has.

And once a strength under Chip Kelly, the Eagles' special teams have wilted away over the years. The team simply does not have the talent it had when Chris Maragos, Bryan Braman, and Trey Burton leading the way. Hiring a 29-year-old as special teams coordinator — the youngest coordinator in the entire NFL — would indicate that the Eagles and Sirianni don’t put much value in special teams, though Michael Clay was an assistant special teams coach under Kelly with both the Eagles and 49ers.

So how bad will it be?

None of this is to say the Eagles are absolutely going to be so bad they go 2-14, or if the 17 game season happens, 3-14, or worse. They very well may improve their win total, and not just from 4 to 5. The 2020 Eagles had bad game plans, bad in-game adjustments, and the coaching staff bizarrely kept going back to veterans over younger players who were clearly outperforming them. Travis Fulgham’s first 8 games prorate to 71 catches for 1031 yards and 9 TDs, after that he played 50+% of snaps once. Greg Ward and his good for a RB, putrid for a WR 7.9 yards per catch season was the team’s leader in targets, that shouldn’t happen in 2021. Dallas Goedert starting every game should lead to more consistent and productive starting TE production than the team got from 2020. It’s not hard to see the offensive line being better in 2021 with better health and so many young players getting experience in 2020. As great as Jason Peters has been in his career, he was a negative in 2020. A secondary focused defensive coordinator getting better play out of the secondary won’t be a surprise. All of Nate Gerry’s fans are no longer employed by the Eagles. You don’t need to squint too hard to see a 6 win team.

But it also isn’t too hard to see a team that continues to slide. It is not hard to see a group of young players who largely did not progress under a veteran coaching staff continue to not progress under a hugely inexperienced coaching staff. It is not hard to see the defense going from mediocre to lousy because most of the key players on it get a year older and worse. It is not hard to see a non-top prospect QB who played mostly to non-franchise QB expectations not take a big leap in his second season. It is not hard to see a group of key players who have had multiple injuries in recent seasons continue to have injury problems. It’s not hard to see a coaching staff with a grand total of 24 games as an NFL play-caller and whose play-callers have never called plays before struggle at play calling. It’s not too hard to see Nick Sirianni going for it less often on 4th downs and 2 point conversions than Doug Pederson did. It’s not too hard to see another draft class full of players who don’t contribute. You don’t need to squint too hard to see a team that ends up with a top-two draft pick.

On the bright side, maybe that’s enough to get Howie Roseman fired.

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