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The Eagles’ collapse was inevitable

Fun fact: I drafted this post in the second quarter of the playoff game

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Philadelphia Eagles v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In my last piece, penned over the bye week, I referred to the Eagles as “the NFC’s inevitable team,” and so I am here to eat my crow. I fully admit it – I bought into the narrative that, in spite of the mental errors and nail-biting wins, that the Eagles were just built different. That they had the secret sauce of talent, coaching, and culture to simply outlast their opponents. That the bounces and drops that went their way weren’t luck – they were the errors of inferior teams, cracking under the pressure applied by the Eagles, who demanded perfection from their opponents in order to be beaten. The Eagles were so good that they didn’t make those errors, and they would overcome the ones they did.

And now, with the green-tinted glasses long since cracked and discarded, hindsight suggests that the only thing that was inevitable was this collapse. A collapse wrought in the furnaces of an organizational philosophy that, while sound, was stressed to its breaking point.

That philosophy is, essentially, K.I.S.S – keep it simple, stupid. In football, that philosophy manifests in a way that I call “trenches and fringes.” Focus your resources on your offensive line, defensive line (the trenches), receivers, and corners (the fringes). Find bargains everywhere else (except quarterback). It is a smart, timeless philosophy that has kept the Eagles relevant throughout the majority of Jeffrey Lurie’s tenure as owner, and Howie Roseman’s reign as general manager.

But every philosophy has its limits. And the Eagles found those limits in every facet of team building – roster construction, defensive scheme, and offensive scheme.

Roster Construction & Defense

I will cover these two together since the Eagles’ preference for offensive-minded head coaches allows their roster construction to have an outsized impact on the defensive scheme. The “trenches and fringes” philosophy is most obvious on this side of the ball, where Howie has dumped draft resources on the defensive line while backing up the Brinks truck for cornerbacks. The rub, then, is to find value with linebackers and safeties.

But “value” is dependent on the skillset of the line and corners. If you have a ferocious defensive line and good zone corners, then you need linebackers and safeties that can play zone – and guess what: they aren’t cheap! If you haven’t found a gem in the draft, undrafted free agency, or trades (like they found with T.J. Edwards and CJGJ), then you need to either pay up for one, or acquire a full complement of great man corners, which will be even more expensive.

It’s obvious Howie’s plan was for Nakobe Dean to become that draft gem. It wasn’t a terrible plan, but it was one that required contingencies. Hoping that an undersized linebacker who produced on historically talented college defenses would suddenly become a formidable pass defender in his second NFL season isn’t a strategy. At minimum, it’s not a strategy that can be complemented by signing linebackers off the street in August.

And then there are the safeties. To Howie’s credit, he made a significant effort to sign CJGJ, who probably has the worst representation in the NFL. But I wonder if that really was Howie valuing what good safety play brings to a defense or if it was more an attempt to capitalize on a cold safety market. It’s impossible to say for sure, but the end result is the same – CJGJ is in Detroit, while Marcus Epps quietly signed with the Raiders, leaving a gulf in the middle of the defense.

It’s hard to watch the Eagles defense this season and not conclude that Howie’s love affair with positional value and market inefficiencies was taken too far. As bad as the defensive coordinators were – and they were bad – it was still putting lipstick on a pig. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” is never a place you want to leave your coaching staff.

The Bruce Lee Offense

The disaster that has been the Eagles offense is a bit trickier to unpack. The “trenches and fringes” philosophy is more straightforward – and more effective – when applied to the offense. If you have a great offensive line, a great receiving corps, and (of course) a quarterback, then you can “plug and play” a running back. So what’s wrong with the offense? It goes back to K.I.S.S., with an emphasis on “simple,” which in this case tastes like vanilla.

The Eagles offense is vanilla by design. Everyone knows this. Sirianni has admitted as much. We’ve known this for that past two seasons, and for much of that time, it’s been unstoppable. And that’s because Sirianni, as that quote above implies, adopts a “Bruce Lee” approach to his scheme.

Bruce Lee has a famous quote: “I fear not the man who has practiced 1000 kicks one time, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 1000 times.” And that’s what it appears the Eagles did after trading for A.J. Brown. My guess is that in the spring of 2022, Sirianni and Steichen reviewed film and identified the handful of passing concepts that Jalen Hurts could run well. Then they repped those concepts to death in practice, assuming that with their talent they would win, say, seven out of every ten reps in a game. Unpredictability could then be manufactured with strong play-calling, zone reads, and RPOs, which they already knew worked from the 2021 campaign.

That approach worked really well. Too well. So well that they rode them all the way to four points shy of a Super Bowl victory. Any hypothetical notions that they would one day introduce wrinkles into their basic, execution-focused offense faded into obscurity.

Then, Steichen took the Colts job and the reins were handed over to Brian Johnson, who had zero experience as an NFL playcaller. By this point, given his soundbite with Jeff McLane, Sirianni had convinced himself he had outsmarted everyone else by out-simplifying everyone else. The players at his disposal would win their reps, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. Talent beats scheme.

That is, until it doesn’t. Defenses finally caught up to the talent – or more specifically, they caught on to Sirianni’s complete lack of answers for the blitz. And incredibly, unbelievably, no adjustments were made. The only response Sirianni had was a stubborn, undying belief that eventually talent would win out.

A Fancy Pit

Some may call the 2023 Philadelphia Eagles a house of cards. I disagree – they were the opposite. The 2023 Eagles poured everything they had into laying the sturdiest, most resilient, most beautiful foundation you’ve ever seen… and then they realized they had nothing left to build a house. And so what did they have?

A fancy pit.

Sure, a fancy pit can function just fine as a house – as long as it’s warm and sunny. And the Eagles learned the hard way what happens when it’s not warm and sunny. What’s critical now is to see what they do in the pouring rain. Do they realize that a house is more than just its foundation? Or do they double down and say their only mistake was not buying a tarp?

These critical questions will be answered in the coming days, complicated by the painfully obvious observation that the players had lost total interest in playing football. It’s almost unfathomable to bring back a coach when that happens – but potential replacements might think it’s unfathomable to fire a coach who has accomplished what Sirianni has in his three years at the helm. Would top candidates be willing to sign up for that perceived lack of job security, especially when the general manager enjoys the opposite?

All these questions paint a clear picture of the hole – the fancy pit – that the Eagles have dug for themselves. And unfortunately, with so much uncertainty on the horizon, the only solace the fans have is that we’re all in it together.

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