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NFL: NFC Wild Card Playoffs-Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

State of the Eagles, Part II: 2021 Final Exams

In Part I, we discussed (and graded) Nick Sirianni. Read on for an assessment of Hurts, Gannon, and more!

In Part I of my 2021 review, I took an in-depth look at Nick Sirianni. I eventually graded him, and gave him an “A-” for his efforts in 2021. For Part II, I’ll put the rest of the Eagles under the microscope and continue to hand out grades. In this article:

  • What should we make of Jalen Hurts after one full season as the starter?
  • Gannon might be on his way to a head coaching gig - could this be addition by subtraction for the Eagles?
  • Running the ball is overrated (or: why you should learn to stop worrying and love the pass).
  • Offseason sneak-peak (spoiler - trading for Wilson or Rodgers doesn’t make a lot of sense).

Jalen Hurts: The Tools and Intangibles

Way back in August, I wrote my annual season preview and had this to say about Jalen Hurts:

It’s important to point out that Hurts does not necessarily have to set the world on fire to earn himself another season with as the Eagles’ starter. He just needs to make the Eagles’ brass believe that next year’s free agent moves and draft capital is better spent supporting Hurts rather than replacing him. In other words, if Hurts can convince Howie, Nick, and Lurie that he would be a top-5 quarterback with a better roster, he will have largely been successful in 2021, even if he isn’t a top-10 quarterback this year.

Okay, so did Hurts do enough to make people believe he would be a top-5 quarterback with a better roster? I would say no, especially based on how badly he regressed in the playoffs. However, he did benefit from the fact that the quality of the 2022 rookie quarterback class absolutely cratered when Spencer Rattler imploded this season. Even with the questions surrounding Hurts, the smart move seems to use their resources at other positions.

Given all that, what can we say about Hurts? Obviously, his mindset and leadership skills are second to none, and he is a supremely gifted athlete that can take an entire stadium’s breath away when he takes off and runs. But his developments as a passer left much to be desired, as he often failed to read the entire field and throw with anticipation. Additionally, Sirianni had schemed up a simple passing game dependent on the success of the run to function. When the Eagles needed Hurts to “win the game with his arm,” he came up short. In the modern NFL, you need to have a “standalone” passing game to be competitive, and we haven’t seen if Hurts is really capable of delivering on that front.

Ultimately, how you (and the Eagles) feel about Hurts depends on whether or not you fall into the “he is what he is” camp. People in that camp feel that this is the player Hurts has been for his entire football career and he is unlikely to change. People outside that camp believe he’s young, has only started 21 games, and has the mindset to grow and improve under the right conditions.

I tend to lean towards the “he is who he is” camp, but I would be more than happy to see Hurts make a Josh Allen-type leap in 2022. If he is going to develop into a true NFL quarterback, he will need to put in more work than just the typical offseason routine, and should be hiring passing coaches that can help him with the mental side of the position.

Nevertheless, Hurts led several successful comeback efforts, took his team to the playoffs, and made the Eagles fun to watch. That is quite a notable resume in a season that had so few expectations. Grade: B+

Poll

At this point in his career, what do you think of Hurts’ future prospects?

This poll is closed

  • 39%
    He "is who he is" and will not end up being the Eagles’ franchise QB.
    (1245 votes)
  • 60%
    He could still develop into the Eagles’ franchise QB, but he should be replaced in 2023 if he can’t prove it next season.
    (1873 votes)
3118 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Grade Jalen Hurts’ 2021 season.

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A/A+
    (31 votes)
  • 17%
    B+/A-
    (553 votes)
  • 54%
    B-/B
    (1755 votes)
  • 22%
    C/C+
    (734 votes)
  • 2%
    D+/C-
    (89 votes)
  • 0%
    D-/D
    (21 votes)
  • 0%
    F
    (15 votes)
3198 votes total Vote Now

Note For Gannon: The Eagles Don’t Have Darius Leonard

I don’t have as much to say about Gannon, who may be on his way out of Philadelphia if he (somewhat inexplicably) lands a head coaching job elsewhere. I do think criticism of Gannon downplayed the dearth of talent the Eagles had on defense. Of course, it’s the coach’s job to understand the limitations of his roster, and Gannon spent much of the season scheming as if he was still on a team that employs a linebacker like Darius Leonard.

Generally, I like bend-but-don’t-break defenses. After watching receivers torch the cornerbacks Jim Schwartz would exile to islands for several seasons, I welcomed a defense that would give up some dink-and-dunk plays if it meant stopping a backbreaking 40-yard bomb. Of course, a bend-but-don’t-break defense doesn’t work if it actually breaks, which the Eagles did far too often under Gannon. The defense also lacked teeth, routinely failing to register sacks or turnovers against quality opponents.

If Gannon doesn’t leave for greener pastures, I’d be curious to see if he improves as a coordinator, assuming the Eagles use the offseason to beef up the defense. Interestingly, Gannon’s scheme necessitates talent at a position - linebacker - that the Eagles have historically ignored. Would Howie change his ways to help Gannon out? I’m not so sure.

I also wouldn’t complain if Gannon does leave, but a lot of that is because of who’s available to replace him. My top choice is Zimmer, and while Fangio and Bradley are both excellent defensive coordinators, they prefer a 3-4 and the Eagles simply do not like to run that alignment.

The final assessment? Gannon wasn’t given a lot to work with, and he did a good job against lesser opponents, but he was very slow to adapt to the talent he had and was usually outclassed against better offenses. Grade: C

Poll

Who should replace Gannon if he gets a head coaching job?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    Mike Zimmer
    (647 votes)
  • 42%
    Vic Fangio
    (918 votes)
  • 10%
    Gus Bradley
    (233 votes)
  • 16%
    Someone else (explain in comments)
    (357 votes)
2155 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Grade Jonathan Gannon’s 2021 season.

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A/A+
    (10 votes)
  • 1%
    B+/A-
    (42 votes)
  • 15%
    B-/B
    (376 votes)
  • 50%
    C/C+
    (1232 votes)
  • 23%
    D+/C-
    (556 votes)
  • 5%
    D-/D
    (128 votes)
  • 2%
    F
    (72 votes)
2416 votes total Vote Now

You Can’t Run To The Promised Land

The blue-collar appeal of the running game is obvious - there are few NFL plays more exhilarating than hitting your opponent in the mouth and rumbling through them for an explosive run. Likewise, Philly is a blue-collar town, and Eagles fandom’s obsession with the running game has a long and storied history back to the Andy Reid days.

Unfortunately, this isn’t really a sustainable, winning strategy. In the modern NFL, the passing game carries more weight - championship teams win through the air, and they often do so independently of the running game. For example, the good people at Football Outsiders have put together some good evidence challenging the notions that you need to establish the run to win in the NFL and that play-action passing only works when the run game is effective. Even when you look at the current “running” team - the Titans - you’ll find that over the past few seasons their offenses have been buoyed by Top-10 DVOA passing rankings.

I’m not saying that the Eagles should abandon the run, or that I wasn’t appalled when they didn’t run even 10 times against Dallas back in September. But to try and build the team through the running game is a fools’ errand. We all want to see “smashmouth runs,” but those runs are more effective when they are a product of the passing game, as opposed to the identity of the offense.

2017 is a good example of this. I’ve seen some revisionist history going around that the Eagles were a “run-first” team when they won the Super Bowl. This is false! Carson Wentz broke the franchise passing touchdown record after only 13 games. In 2017 they scored 38 passing touchdowns against 9 rushing touchdowns. Yes, they averaged 132 yards per game on the ground, but that was because they accomplished the “gold standard” of the ground game - running out of 11 personnel.

Every modern offense wants to run effectively out of 11 personnel. You’re taking a linebacker off the field and spreading out the defense. But you can’t just line up in 11 personnel and run the ball - the defense needs to believe that you are a threat to pass. You need a great offensive line, 3 good receivers, a good quarterback, and a tight end that can both catch and block. In other words, you need a functional passing offense!

This is what the Eagles did in 2017. They lined up in 11 personnel and dared every team - including the Patriots - to leave their nickel cornerback on the bench. And when that nickel corner came on to the field, they ran it down their throats.

The Eagles opponents in 2021 could leave that corner on the bench, if they wanted. The Eagles still found success on the ground, but it was lightning in a bottle. We know from early in the season and the lone game that Minshew started that Nick wants to pass the ball. We should applaud that mindset and be glad we have a coach that isn’t stuck in the 1950s.

Offseason Sneak Peak

I’ll offer more on the offseason when the new league year officially starts. But I’ll offer a few nuggets here while the season is still fresh:

  • Trading for Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers is a bad idea. Currently, the Eagles have about $12M in cap space. Using Spotrac’s roster management tool, I was able to bring that up to about $31M (I focused only on moves that would increase cap space). Currently, Aaron Rodgers’ cap hit in 2022 is over $46M (base is just over $26M) while Russell Wilson’s is $37M (base is $19M). Trading for either player will cost them most of their great draft capital this year, inhibit their ability to sign any real impactful free agents, and likely require more cap casualties. For a team that is not “a quarterback away,” trading for one would move them even farther away, and so that’s a hard pass from me.
  • Howie should be fired for malpractice if he doesn’t make every attempt to trade the 15th pick for a 2023 1st rounder. The Eagles are in an enviable situation where they have back-to-back first round picks. This means if a guy they like falls to 15th, they can trade out to a team that doesn’t want him and scoop him up at 16th (assuming a trade partner materializes). It’s an easy way to give them more draft picks in 2023 to take a quarterback in case Hurts doesn’t pan out. The only exception to this, of course, is if there are 2 guys they really like when they are on the clock, but even then I’d think long and hard about trading that pick.

Closing Thoughts

The 2021 season was a wild ride for Eagles fans, but it was an enjoyable one. Given the expectations and what they accomplished, it’s difficult not to be happy with the results. And the best news is they are well-positioned to build on what they started in a hurry with their offseason outlook. The playoff game was a stinker for sure, but if you told any Eagles fan in August they would be playing in a wild card game I am pretty sure they’d be thrilled.

And as for 2022, I really think they are good hands with Nick Sirianni. It’s really up to Roseman to show that he can take the resources at his disposal and kickstart something special.

Oh, and that final grade? Eh, considering our expectations for the team in August, we’ll go with an A.

Go Birds.

Poll

Grade the Eagles 2021 Season.

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    A/A+
    (287 votes)
  • 42%
    B+/A-
    (938 votes)
  • 32%
    B-/B
    (712 votes)
  • 10%
    C/C+
    (222 votes)
  • 1%
    D+/C-
    (28 votes)
  • 0%
    D-/D
    (6 votes)
  • 0%
    F
    (8 votes)
2201 votes total Vote Now
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