Through the decade the Philadelphia Eagles have played football, we’ve seen all kinds of disappointment.
There have been years stacked upon years where the team was uncompetitive and a borderline laughingstock of the league. There have been eras with buffoon head coaches, quarterbacks who couldn’t find Broad Street with a guide and a GPS, and defenses with no-names trying to make names for themselves getting pushed around the field.
We’ve seen good teams suffer devastating playoff losses. We’ve seen seasons done in by fog, Super Bowls lost to teams that probably cheated (2004 Patriots) and titles stolen by slippery turf and questionable officials’ calls.
But never have we ever seen what the 2023 Eagles did. In fact, the NFL has never seen a team like these underachieving, finger-pointing, malcontent Eagles.
To start 10-1 coming off a Super Bowl appearance and finish the season with a -18 point differential following their humiliating 32-9 loss to Baker Mayfield and the Bucs is an unmitigated disaster. In losing six of their last seven, they ended the season with a -82 point differential over the final seven weeks.
In short, they morphed from a Super Bowl contender to, literally, the worst team in the NFL.
After a collapse like this, there are so many unanswered questions. These are the biggest.
Why Did the Veteran Leadership Fail to Heal Locker Room Rifts?
One of the reasons the Eagles were perceived to be an elite organization was the culture that had been built under Jeffrey Lurie, Howie Roseman, Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts. It was a culture that prided itself on a tightly-knit locker room, dozens of men all rowing in the same direction with a cadre of veteran leaders, an emotionally intelligent head coach and a quarterback who was the unquestioned heartbeat of the team.
AJ Brown is not happy with Jalen Hurts pic.twitter.com/k5STo7uj2r— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) September 15, 2023
At some point this year, all that fell apart. This week, in three separate articles that all came out just hours before kickoff in Tampa, different factions from inside the organization did their best to make it clear to various reporters that Sirianni, Hurts, and/or Brian Johnson were to blame for the epic meltdown that was to follow. Leaders like Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox tried to sound encouraging as the black hole worsened, but not even they were strong enough to manage a group of egos that seemingly couldn’t work together.
At some point, this locker room became fractured to the point no amount of veteran leadership was enough to stop it. So much for that firewall.
Are Sirianni and Johnson Competent?
It sounds like a ridiculous question but it’s one that Lurie and Roseman need to come to grips with, because they cannot waste another year of A.J. Brown’s, DeVonta Smith’s, Jalen Hurts’, or Dallas Goedert’s prime in 2024. They need to know right now whether Sirianni and/or Johnson have answers for why the offense completely fell apart at the end of this season, and why it was rickety throughout the ‘23 campaign.
Their failure to adjust for blitzing at any point this year, but particularly over these last few weeks and in last night’s wild card loss, is inexplicable. I can’t imagine how they will justify their decision-making to Lurie in their end-of-year meetings.
Jalen Hurts was under pressure in under 2.5 seconds (i.e., quick pressure) 13 times against the Buccaneers defense, tying a career-high.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 16, 2024
The Buccaneers generated 10 unblocked pressures, tied for the most in a game by any defense this season.#PHIvsTB | #RaiseTheFlags
TEN. UNBLOCKED. PRESSURES.
This was not a surprise game plan by Tampa. These were not exotic blitzes. Todd Bowles telegraphed where they were coming from and Sirianni continued to motion backs and tight ends out of the backfield and send receivers on vertical routes, resulting in an insanely low time to throw for Hurts. Maybe they should have tried to consult some outside experts to help in this area?
The level of incompetence and/or arrogance is astounding for a coach that went to the Super Bowl just a year ago, but perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Back in September, Sirianni essentially admitted he wasn’t going to change anything about his scheme, no matter how the rest of the NFL caught up to him.
“So, one thing we wanted to do with our team offensively, let’s say, is … try to really— it’s not always about coming up with new plays and new wrinkles and new things like that. Sometimes it’s just getting better, and a lot of times it’s just getting better at your base stuff. And how do you coach it better. And how do you do it better. And, off of that, what are some wrinkles off of that? Not necessarily new things. But things that are wrinkles. I guess I would say, where I’m going with that, is that’s the same way I thought about Year 3. I don’t think it’s anything new, it’s about how do we get better at what we’re already doing?”
Has Sirianni Lost the Locker Room?
Something Troy Aikman said on the broadcast last night perhaps said more about Sirianni’s effect on this locker room than anything else.
"It's a defeated team, and they were when they came in." - Troy Aikman on the Eagles pic.twitter.com/7uCOrLkzLi— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) January 16, 2024
The Eagles came into last night’s playoff game, as a defeated team.
No matter what kinds of X’s and O’s Sirianni and whoever is left on his staff say they can draw up for next year, one has to wonder if his demeanor and failure to right the ship means he’s lost the locker room.
Oh sure, most players have said the right thing, but when given a chance to vociferously support his head coach last night, the team’s franchise QB most assuredly did not do that.
Jalen Hurts on whether he wants Nick Sirianni back: "I didn't know he was going anywhere."— Zach Berman (@ZBerm) January 16, 2024
On his confidence in Sirianni: "I have a ton of confidence in everyone in this building."
First, there is no world in which Hurts wasn’t aware of the criticism surrounding his head coach. None. Second, Hurts’ comments above cannot be construed as anything other than non-committal at best.
If Sirianni has lost the confidence of the Eagles’ $200 million franchise quarterback, it’s hard to see how Lurie can retain him.
What Happened to Jalen Hurts’ Running Ability?
So much of the Eagles’ success on offense last year was based on Hurts’ dynamic running game. Teams had to account for the QB tucking the ball and running in the RPO game, and Hurts routinely took off for huge chunk plays by juking guys in the middle of the field, making them miss, and accelerating to the outside. There were times he had to bowl over defenders in order to get a key 3rd down conversion, and while there is always concern that kind of play can lead to injury, it was an invaluable part of what the Eagles did.
I mean, just LOOK at these highlights of Hurts running last year.
We did not see that at ALL in 2023. Not once.
If the team decided early to prioritize Hurts’ availability over his game-breaking running ability, it runs counter to Sirianni’s claims after the contract was signed that they didn’t want to take that aspect of his game away from him. Perhaps it was Hurts himself who decided to eschew running the football in exchange for avoiding injury.
Whatever the reason, when Hurts did decide to run this year, it was without his usual explosiveness or agility. He was a north-and-south, slide-first runner exclusively. He could not get to the outside, and he could not make guys miss. He looked slower. Designed runs for Hurts were usually dead plays on arrival, and his scrambling ability when under pressure largely disappeared as well.
And yet, Sirianni continued running the same shotgun-only, RPO offense in which Hurts’ ability as a runner became a non-factor. Teams no longer had to gameplan for him to run, effectively removing a player from the Eagles’ offense. Is that aspect of his game gone for good? If so, they’re going to need a brand new scheme to account for that.
Does Jalen Hurts’ Personality/Leadership Style Matter?
Eagles insiders have told Jeff McLane that Hurts’ stoic demeanor worries them, especially when times are tough. We have no idea if that’s true or not, but it’s clear Hurts doesn’t seem to have had much fun this season, even when they were building up a 10-1 record.
Certainly, it would be awesome if Hurts was able to adapt his personality based on the circumstances. Teammates sometimes need their leaders to meet them where they are, pump them up when they need it, take some of the pressure off when it’s called for, and call them on the carpet when necessary. The Eagles, at no point this year, appeared to be having any fun, and sometimes you need your leaders to let you know that it’s OK to enjoy the moment and have a good time.
This is not to say this is all on Hurts’ shoulders. By all accounts, he’s a solid dude and, coming into the season, his leadership ability was one of his greatest attributes. That didn’t suddenly all go away overnight. And it shouldn’t be up to the franchise QB to exclusively keep the team’s pulse, but players do look to their leaders when times are tough, and sometimes demeanor and body language does matter.
Can Hurts grow in that area? Does he need to? It’s hard to say, but it’s certainly one of the narratives that some inside the Eagles are pushing, a la Carson Wentz in 2019 and ‘20.
Why Did the Defense Fail So Spectacularly?
To answer this unanswered question, we need to ask a few other unanswered questions:
- Why did the defensive line’s production drop off so severely over the last two months?
- Has Father Time officially caught up with Darius Slay and James Bradberry?
- Why did Sirianni feel Matt Patricia was the answer after realizing the team’s veterans had lost confidence in Desai?
- Has the league figured out the Vic Fangio scheme?
- Will Howie Roseman finally admit they need to invest in real linebackers?
It’s clear the change from Desai to Patricia was an unmitigated disaster and may have been the final nail in the coffin for the 2023 Eagles. By changing defensive coordinators with just five weeks left in the season, the Birds went from being a less-than-great defense to the worst defense this franchise has ever seen. The young defensive tackles played poorly, seemingly hitting a rookie wall. Sweat and Reddick were ineffective for long stretches and probably played too many snaps, but the overall lack of production really is tough to figure.
Roseman came into the season figuring he could just grab linebackers and safeties off the trade market or scrap heap and spin them into gold, like he did last year. But Kevin Bayard, Zach Cunningham, Nicholas Morrow, Bradley Roby and the rest were all mediocre-to-poor at best.
The team missed too many tackles, played poor fundamental football, and the fall of Bradberry was difficult to watch. This defense is like one of those houses on an HGTV show that some cute, Midwest couple is going to come in and tear down to the studs. An overhaul is coming, and they need to get this next hire right. Desai and Patricia were disasters.
Can the Eagles’ Survive the Retirement of Jason Kelce?
They drafted Cam Jurgens with Kelce’s eventual retirement in mind, and while Jurgens had a decent season (earning a Pro Bowl alternate slot this year), he was inconsistent. Still, he has they physical tools to mimic some of what Kelce has been able to do over the years.
When he got some reps at center in his first preseason game, he looked a lot like Kelce.
But you don’t replace a first ballot Hall of Famer overnight, and the Eagles will need Tyler Steen to step in at right guard and provide immediate help during what will certainly be a difficult transition.
How Angry is Jeffrey Lurie?
We’ve all seen what happens when Lurie decides he cannot move forward with a head coach, and we all know the Eagles’ owner doesn’t like to be embarrassed.
Blow the whole thing up Lurie. pic.twitter.com/cOI71XrcdJ— Brenden Deeg (@BrendenDeeg_) January 16, 2024
That is not a happy man.
But Lurie cannot make a decision based on emotion, and it’s unlikely he will. The best argument for retaining Sirianni is that it may be perceived as premature around the league. He certainly doesn’t want a reputation of firing head coaches willy-nilly, because it will be more difficult to hire top candidates in the future if he garners a quick-hook reputation. And the argument could be made that giving Sirianni a season to fix what happened is fair, especially given the success he had in 2022.
But that would also be a big roll of the dice. The coaching staff at no point showed any ability or willingness to adjust. They failed to put players in a position to succeed and, in many cases, put them in positions to fail. They indecisive and panicky, and it seems clear to everyone watching that most of the players on the field last night gave up.
The fanbase will revolt if Lurie doesn’t fire Sirianni, but the fanbase is not always right. Canning Nick will feel good, just like canning Jonathan Gannon felt good last off-season. But one could argue being able to retain Gannon might have prevented the out-and-out failure of the defense over the final two months.
Either way, Lurie and Roseman have a decision to make in the coming days that could change the course of the franchise for the foreseeable future.