A home blowout. Followed by a divisional blowout. Followed by a coaching change that isn’t a coaching change but that is a coaching change. The Eagles are on the brink of a December disaster.
There were signs. On Saturday Brooks Kubena of The Athletic published a story of how the players went to the coaches and asked to take on more responsibility for preparing against the Seahawks. It was good to see players take ownership of their poor performance, but it raised several alarms. Kevin Byard, who is both new and has not been good, has taken over a leadership role. James Bradberry saying that this is what Joe Judge would do, and with Joe Judge being another Patriots lifer assistant, the implication that this was a Patriots Way thing, an interesting flag considering Matt Patricia lurked in the shadows. The players went to Desai with the idea, but the meeting with the staff did not involve Desai. And of course the implication that the team has spent the whole season not doing enough preparation. The problems with the Eagles defense originate from the talent not being good enough, but there’s little the team can do about that at this point. They are all they have got.
So when the news broke on Sunday that Sean Desai was stripped of his play calling duties and they were handed to Matt Patricia, I can’t say I was completely shocked. Demoting Desai, and despite the Eagles PR department’s pleas that this is not a demotion this absolutely is one, was an extreme reaction. But one they set themselves up for.
When this team decided to go with two young and inexperienced play callers they put themselves at risk for failure. Brian Johnson had never called plays at the NFL level and hadn’t called plays in college since 2017 (where he struggled). His elevation made sense, he’s working under an offensive head coach and he’s been on staff for two years. Sean Desai, an outsider, had just one year of play calling experience, and had only been a position coach for two. These light resumes are fine for a rebuilding team, but for a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations was a potential liability.
There were things to like about Desai: Pete Carroll, Vic Fangio, John Fox, Mel Tucker, and Al Golden, all quality or better defensive coaches, either hired him or kept him on staff. He did a respectable job in his one year as a defensive coordinator, dealing with injuries to Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks, and getting strong seasons out of Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith.
And the Eagles hand was a bit forced in hiring him, their top choice would have been Vic Fangio but Jonathan Gannon and the Cardinals lying about their mutual attraction prevented that. And with the Eagles reaching the Super Bowl, they were behind everyone else in hiring coordinators: Ryan Nielsen was hired in January, Brian Flores, Ejiro Evero and Joe Woods were hired a week before the Super Bowl, and Steve Wilks and Matt Burke the week of it. Vance Joseph was the only defensive coordinator hired after Desai was. It’s one reason why they interviewed college coordinators Jim Leonard and Jesse Minter, the pool of available coaches was thin.
To put all of this on Desai, who will probably be officially stripped of his DC title before the season ends, is unfair. He’s not the one who assembled a linebacking core so weak that they brought in a guy who retired two weeks after joining the team. He’s not the one who paired outside corners in their 30s and a slot corner who can’t stay healthy with a depth chart of UDFAs. He’s not the one who has a turnstyle of a depth chart at safety. He’s not the one who has spent just two top 100 draft picks on a linebacker or defensive back since 2017.
As for Matt Patricia, as unattractive an option he is, he was the only one. Another risk you run when you have such a young coaching staff in support of a young play caller: LB coach DJ Eliot is the only other defensive coach with coordinator experience, it was all in college and for bad teams. If instead of having keys taken away Sean Desai had come down with a horrible illness or injury that prevented him from coaching, the Eagles would have Matt Patricia calling plays tonight. There was no other choice.
Succeeding after a change like this is rare but not unprecedented. Jim Caldwell took over play calling for the Ravens in 2012 and they won the Super Bowl, but the next year they went from 10th in scoring to 25th and missed the playoffs. But they won the Super Bowl. But that’s pretty much the only recent success story. Usually, and fairly, an in-season play caller change signals panic.
This is a panic move. There’s no other way to describe it. And it feels front office and/or ownership driven rather than head coach. We’ll almost certainly find out more after the season when the process stories come out. But Super Bowl contending teams aren’t supposed to make changes like this.
But I get it. Demoting Sean Desai is unfair, but the world isn’t fair, and the NFL is a cruel world. Super Bowl contending teams aren’t supposed to give up ten straight scoring drives, or 33+ points in three straight games, or 31 points twice against a 4-9 division rival, or have the 7th worst takeaway rate, or rank 31st in first half scoring against. If the team had already made up its mind that Desai wasn’t going to return next season, then there wasn’t much point in keeping him in charge. The status quo couldn’t continue.
The Eagles tried the player route, doing what they could to bring in something more than warm bodies with Zach Cunningham, Bradley Roby, Kevin Byard, and Shaquille Leonard all added starting in August. Predictably, adding players from the scrap heap hasn’t been enough. Adding a coach from it probably won’t either. But sitting still wasn’t going to improve things.
Everyone shares blame for this. The players could have played better, and they know it. The coaches could have coached better, and they know it. The front office could have done better, and they know it.
Fortunately in sports there is one cure for all ills: win. A Drew Lock-led Seahawks, the Giants twice, and the Cardinals are all that remains until the playoffs, where a mediocre team likely awaits in the first round. Win out the rest of the regular season against very beatable opponents and the Eagles win the division, and possibly the 1 seed. Win out and everything looks a little better, even if only for a little while.