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A closer look at the 2023 Eagles’ historic collapse

NFL sources dish on why Philadelphia’s season went wrong.

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Jeffrey Lurie walked up the tunnel ramp of Lincoln Financial Field fuming. The squinting eyes of the refined Eagles’ owner spit swords. His gnarled, sneering veneer screamed “I want to punch someone in the face,” after the Eagles’ 35-31 loss to the three-win Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 31.

It marked the fourth time in five games Lurie saw his team lose—and he clearly was not pleased. Connected by the ghostly cord of general manager Howie Roseman and team president Don Smolenski, it may have been the angriest anyone may have ever seen Lurie after an Eagles’ loss.

The 2023 Eagles were an epic disappointment. Lurie has been deflated. He has been depressed. He may have never been as angry as his face expressed that night.

The inescapable fact is Lurie and Roseman failed. Head coach Nick Sirianni failed. The coaching staff failed. The players certainly failed. The media, in a sense, failed to see that the 2023 Eagles, projected to be Super Bowl contenders, would be seriously marred by coordinator and player defections, especially on the defensive side.

And some fans, who bought in early and suffered late, failed to see it as it gradually unfolded before their eyes—with the continuous, collective refrain “but we still won,” despite portends of trouble.

This is a look back at the debacle that was the 2023 Eagles.

Philadelphia Eagles v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Fixing the quarterback

Sources within and around the team say Jalen Hurts “changed” since signing the big $255 million contract extension. His accessibility to media, fans, teammates had been limited. He became less accessible this season, according to numerous sources. In fairness to Hurts, who is very guarded to begin with, his defensive walls went up even higher with the many open hands coming at him pulling him in various directions last offseason—striking on his popularity when his brand was hot.

Hurts was coming off a Super Bowl where he arguably outplayed the Super Bowl and NFL MVP, Patrick Mahomes. Hurts’ representation (LeBron James’ Klutch Sports Group) put him out there. He was on magazine covers. He was doing commercials. His face was in many places it was not before. Hurts is a creature of routine. His schedule was altered. According to those who know Hurts, he would have rather been wiping sweat from his face throwing passes in Texas heat than doing commercials and “brand building.”

But he did “change.”

He can come across as aloof to begin with.

There are two versions of Jalen Hurts. The one the public sees, and the one behind closed doors at the NovaCare Complex that the Eagles protect—as they tried to do with Carson Wentz. The public, well, some of the fanbase, sees a leader. His teammates may not. Sources close to and around the team say Hurts should have been a better leader—and is capable of being a better leader. He shuts himself off from others and he defers to A.J. Brown, who has a great reputation among his teammates as a “family guy” and will hold himself and his teammates “accountable.”

One source on the team described Hurts as a “good dude” who sometimes does not realize the times he’s acting like a prima-donna “expletive” (we’ll use the word “jerk”). Multiple sources close to and inside the Eagles confirmed this. Teammates wanted to include him in functions. Hurts would wave them off. He’s been described as “detached,” “stoic,” “isolated,” “unapproachable.”

It was emphatically stated, according to numerous sources, that Hurts is NOT “like the other guy (Carson Wentz).”

“He is not exactly ‘Mr. Personality,’ but he’s someone who will get up when he’s knocked down, get up stronger and he will do it on his own,” one source said about Hurts. “He won’t ask for help. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. From what I know of the other guy, he wouldn’t get up at all, or blame someone else why he got knocked down.”

This could be telling: When Giants’ linebacker Bobby Okereke came leaping over the line on a “Brotherly Shove” play on third-and-one at the Eagles’ 23, he was called for encroachment—and smacked Hurts. Not one teammate came running to Hurts’ defense in the season finale with :58 left in the first quarter of the Eagles’ ugly 27-10 loss on January 7.

Another glaring example came in the playoff loss to Tampa Bay. With the Eagles trailing 16-9 with 3:41 left in the third quarter, and the Eagles with the ball on their 10-yard line, Hurts handed off to Kenneth Gainwell going left to right. As the Tampa Bay defense converged on Gainwell, he reversed field. As he did, Hurts, you will notice on the replay, makes a token gesture to block Bucs’ linebacker Lavonte David, who drags down Gainwell for a six-yard loss.

Two plays later, Hurts was tackled in the end zone for a safety. The NFL locker room is a culture of machismo—a culture of risk. Notice teams go off when a quarterback makes a key block down field?

Those moments may speak volumes as to what the team thought about Hurts and what Hurts may be willing to risk.

There may be an underlying concern about trust. Will Hurts throw that block for a teammate in the future? Will teammates defend him when he is physically provoked after a play? In that respect, Hurts’ 2023 season was reminiscent of Wentz’s last years with the Eagles.

It will be an area Hurts may need to address before the 2024 season.

“There were things that were once said (about him) to make me great, to make me a special individual, a special leader, an impacting and uplifting guy that one may find is an issue now,” Hurts said during locker room clean-out day. “But I’ve said this whole time it is all based off of results. You all know the results that I want, so it’s about that process and navigating that process to get those things.

“Winning takes a team. It takes everyone. No individual, no man is an island, you must draw strength from others. That is something that is so true. As the leader and the quarterback of this team and franchise, this is an opportunity to grow. This is an opportunity to take that next step to what we desire and what we want to be, and it’s going to take everyone. It’s going to take everyone, and I believe in everyone here.

“We plan on fixing everything we have done and growing together.”

Hurts did not exactly get much help in 2023. For one, he was playing on a bad wheel. Do not be surprised if it comes out that Hurts has to undergo exploratory offseason surgery to clean out his left knee. It was bothering him after the Week 7 win over Miami, opting to wear a sleeve over the knee in the second half. He reportedly re-injured the knee in the Week 9 victory over Dallas and played through it.

In Tim McManus’ revealing ESPN piece on Jan. 15, 2024, he noted some interesting stats involving Hurts:

“He believed they were overly reliant on vertical routes and not utilizing short-to-intermediate throws, particularly over the middle of the field, where Brown has thrived in his career. In short, the belief was there was too much flash over substance — a sentiment others on the offensive side of the ball shared. Some examples: 5.2% of Hurts’ pass attempts were between the hashes during the regular season, the lowest rate of the 30 QBR-qualified quarterbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information; 27.2% of the Eagles’ routes were verticals, the 10th-highest rate in the NFL; Philly threw downfield 20-plus yards on 11.4% of its passing attempts, the 11th-highest rate in the league; Hurts had 77 attempts to receivers running vertical routes. He completed 30 of them (39%) with 11 touchdowns to eight interceptions and 10.8 yards per attempt.”

Hurts circa 2022, when the MVP candidate threw 22 touchdowns and was intercepted just six times, throwing for 3,701 yards over 15 games, may not be who Hurts is moving forward. In 2023, Hurts tossed 23 TDs over 17 starts against a career-high 15 interceptions, which is what he threw combined over the previous two years, and a career-best 3,858 yards. More telling was he averaged a career-low 11 yards per completion in 2023, and a career-tying low of 7.2 adjusted yards gained per pass attempt.

The biggest gripe about Hurts internally, according to a multitude of sources, is that he failed to get the ball out fast enough this season. Maybe it was a lack of defensive recognition, maybe it was his lack of trust in his options—other than A.J. Brown.

He held the ball longer in 2023 than he did in 2022. He ended the 2023 season ranked 42nd out of 45 quarterbacks (minimum 20% of the snaps) in average time to throw (3.11 seconds). Sports Illustrated’s John McMullen made the point through 12 games that Hurts went from getting the ball out at “3.39 seconds as a rookie over a small sample size and 3.19 in his first season as the starter. Last season when he took off, Hurts was down to 2.86 seconds which was middle of the road as the 14th slowest quarterback. The regression in 2023 is back to 3.23, worse than 2021 and the second slowest time in the NFL.”

Teams knew how to attack Hurts. He was blitzed 185 times, the third-highest total among active NFL starters, only behind Green Bay’s Jordan Love (215) and Detroit’s Jared Goff (212). He was hurried the third highest amount (59), behind Seattle’s Geno Smith (63) and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (60).

Compounding that, the Eagles faced more zone coverage, especially on early downs in 2023. After last season, a general template was created in facing Hurts. Against zone coverage in 2023, Hurts was more hesitant. He took more time getting the ball out against the zone (2.9 seconds vs. 2.7 in 2022), going shorter (5.8 air yards vs. 8.6 air yards in 2022).

The other issue was opposing teams scheming out Brown, clearly the Eagles’ best player. Offensive coordinator Brian Johnson and Sirianni could not exactly find a way to scheme him back open.

Brown adds a dynamic dimension to this team, and when absent, like the playoff loss to Tampa Bay, the offense is flat. The Eagles’ offense revolves around Brown, not Hurts, though there may be some inside the NovaCare Complex that would push against that notion.

In the journey to winning the 2022 NFC championship, Hurts may have received more credit than he deserved. He was vaulted among the top quarterbacks in the league, with Mahomes, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson.

What needs to be understood was that the 2022 Eagles were an anomaly. The bubble was bound to burst. They had a team-record 70 sacks. Hurts benefited from working with Shane Steichen’s play-calling for the second-straight year (his first time with the same play-caller for consecutive seasons since playing for his father in high school), coupled with an exceptionally deep, talented defense. Like him or not, Jonathan Gannon did a quality job in 2022, though he had considerably more talent to work with than the 2023 Eagles.

According to numerous NFL scouts, Hurts is not a pure thrower. It is a part of his game that needs constant attention. And he knows it. He wins with the combination of his legs and his arm. Hurts is capable of winning. His 36-20 record as a starter shows that.

He may, however, not be that go-to guy he was projected to be, not the dominant Jordan-esque talent who can overcome surrounding deficiencies. Throwing down the middle of the field may not fit Hurts’ skill set. It could be the reason why a scant 5.2% of his pass attempts went to that area of the field.

Johnson and Sirianni know Hurts has a cannon for an arm. They know the throws he can make. They met prior to every game to discus with Hurts what the coaching staff likes, and had Hurts choose what he likes to create a collaborative game plan—so the heavy reliance on the vertical game may have been part of Hurts’ doing, and in doing so, he may have restricted himself by negating a portion of the field where Brown flourishes.

The coaching staff, assigned to protecting their quarterback, did not help Hurts.

For example, in the Eagles’ playoff farce against Tampa Bay, Hurts spent most of the night running from blitzes. Sirianni and Johnson made no adjustments to the Tampa Bay pressure. The Eagles knew Tampa Bay would blitz and had no answers. There were no built-in hot reads nor built-in sight adjustments.

That was not the fault of Hurts nor the receivers. It was part of the reason why Hurts was left holding the ball and waiting for someone to get open. Hurts was often left scrambling on a bum leg with no time to look up.

Hurts is very salvageable, and the least of the Eagles’ troubles. Though if his limitations are not addressed soon, they may fester to a point of being irreparable.

Hurts is fixable. Is he willing to be fixed? He will work harder this offseason than he did last offseason, because he will allot his time better.

As was the case five years ago with Wentz, everyone spoken to for this story envision and want positive outcomes for Hurts, who does not have the outsized sway the Eagles’ organization mistakenly gave Wentz when he first arrived. One thing is certain: Hurts is on the clock. Time is ticking to piece together a Super Bowl-contending team with a shrinking budget—and Hurts now bears the franchise face. The Eagles went all-in on Hurts. In 2024, his cap hit doubles to $13.5 million from where it was in 2023 ($6.1). It grows exponentially from there to $21.7 million in 2025, to $31.7 million in 2026, to $45.8 million in 2027.

The Eagles need to figure out who and what Jalen Hurts is—and fast.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Coaching

It’s very obvious the impact Gannon and Steichen had on the 2022 NFC champion Eagles.

According to two current NFL coaches and two former NFL coaches, NFL teams run similar things. That is no great revelation. It is a matter of how teams disguise their plays, offensively and defensively, with movement, motion and formations.

Gannon and Steichen knew how to mask schemes. Apparently, Johnson and defensive coordinator Sean Desai were not as good at the facade game.

In a glaring case of hubris before the season opener, Sirianni said this about the offense:

“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?”

The 2023 Eagles were poorly coached. There is no revelation here, either. The 2023 Eagles arrived with almost the same blueprint as they won the NFC championship with.

It is no wonder it fell to pieces.

When Gannon left, Roseman wanted someone similar in place as defensive coordinator. Sean Desai was his choice. He came from the Vic Fangio mentality, as did Gannon.

Even before the season, omens were springing early something was wrong. Sirianni was far more vocal in training camp than he was the previous year, doing more correcting than coaching, and spending time coaching the coaches, plugging up myriad mistakes as to the right personnel on the field and what Hurts should be recognizing.

That sloppiness spilled over into the season opener against Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. As a refresher, Desai allowed New England’s mediocre quarterback Mac Jones to throw for 316 yards and three touchdowns, while Johnson oversaw an offense that produced one touchdown—off a turnover—and that somehow forgot tailback D’Andre Swift, who had two touches (to Gainwell’s 18), and tight end Dallas Goedert, who was targeted just once.

The Eagles blew a timeout because of miscommunication with 8:52 left in the third quarter, prior to a Jake Elliott 56-yard field goal. As Elliott set up, he raised in arms in frustration because the right personnel were not on the field, causing Sirianni to burn the timeout.

Sound familiar?

It was a microcosm of the 2023 season.

In the 2022 Super Bowl season, the Eagles owned the second quarter. The 2023 season opener produced four-straight three-and-outs in the second quarter, which happened only once in 2022. The Eagles scored an NFL-high 207 points in the second quarter in 2022. This season, they produced 97 points—110 points less—and were 21st in the NFL in scoring in that quarter.

This is interesting: Ten of the 11 top-scoring teams in the second quarter in 2023 were playoff teams. That may come from offensive coordinators getting a good look at what a defense presents, then adjusts. Steichen’s Colts were No. 17, producing 108 second-quarter points—with rifle-armed Gardner Minshew.

Did the Eagles adjust to anything in 2023?

Philadelphia Eagles v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Panic sets in

Advancing Matt Patricia to de facto defensive coordinator in place of Desai on Dec. 17 had the appearance of a panic move. The Eagles went 1-4 under Patricia, giving up 27.8 points a game, to the 24.6 points a game the defense yielded under Desai (against more potent offenses). At the time of the move, the Eagles had just given up a combined 75 points and 850 yards of total offense in lopsided losses to San Francisco and Dallas.

When Desai was downgraded, the Eagles were 10-3 and holding some faint grasp of going deep into the NFC playoffs. Under Patricia, forced to piece together a defense that had no reliable linebackers, no reliable safeties, a sagging defensive front and two aged cornerbacks, the Eagles were arguably the worst team in the NFL by the end of the season.

According to those who have worked with Sirianni, and two former NFL personnel people who know him, Sirianni’s “histrionic pandering” are unbecoming for an NFL head coach. But each one also stated emphatically, almost verbatim, Sirianni is a “coach’s coach,” who lives by a coach’s credo. He holds deep respect for the profession.

They doubt Sirianni would have made the late-season move to demote Desai in place of Patricia without being told from above to do it, regardless of what Sirianni has said publicly. One source who knows Sirianni well said, “It’s not in his nature to do that to another coach” on his own.

One former Eagles personnel executive said the organization has a tendency to have non-football people make football decisions; that they stepped over Sirianni and forced his hand.

Though, it is important to note, Desai was a Roseman choice, not a Sirianni choice, numerous sources in and around the team stated. And Sirianni, it was learned, was incrementally giving more and more responsibility to Patricia before the defensive damn broke in consecutive losses to San Francisco and Dallas.

It currently looks like Sirianni will be staying. It will be up to him to revamp the coaching staff, starting with the defensive side of the ball. But reports have already surfaced that Colts offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter could be a candidate as offensive coordinator.

And do not be surprised if Georgia co-defensive coordinator Glenn Schumann, given his familiarity with the Eagles-Georgia connection and last year’s DC interview, gets a look at defensive coordinator. Another possible sleeper candidate is Marquand Manuel, currently the New York Jets’ safeties coach, formerly the Eagles’ defensive backs coach on Doug Pederson’s staff in 2020.

Though impaired at times on the drama side, the Eagles have a strong, commitment-to-winning organization, that has a history of spotting coaching talent.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

The 2023 Eagles were built to win by outscoring teams and have the defense make a few key stops to hang on and win (See: Super Bowl LII). That was blatant by the 11-6 Eagles outscoring their opponents during the regular season by a mere five points (433-428).

The Eagles were ranked No. 30 in the NFL in fourth-quarter average points given up (7.7).

For a team that landed 11-7 overall, the Eagles became only the fourth double-digit winning team in NFL history to finish with a minus-point differential, at minus-18 (442/460) overall behind of the 2021 Las Vegas Raiders, who finished 10-8 with a minus-72 point differential (393/465), and the minus-34 difference posted by the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers (321/355) that went 10-8. The Eagles finished ahead of the minus-10 differential by the 13-5 Minnesota Vikings (448/458) in 2022.

Needless to say all four were one-and-done playoff teams.

The Eagles were No. 30 in points given up in 2023 (428 points/25.1 ppg), in stark contrast from finishing No. 8 in 2022 (344/20.2 pts per game).

There is an easy explanation why, when Roseman saw the guts of the defense walk out the door in the free agent departures of safeties Marcus Epps and C.J. Gardner-Johnson, linebackers Kyzir White and T.J. Edwards, and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave.

In the season opener in their place stepped in Nakobe Dean, who has been injury prone and may be too small to be an every-down linebacker; Zach Cunningham, who showed sporadic glimpses of quality play, though overall would be on Dallas’ or San Francisco’s special teams; safety Justin Evans, another stopgap measure who signed as a free agent and started the first four games before being lost for the season with an ankle injury, and safety Reed Blankenship, who has proven to be serviceable defensive back though possibly not an every-down safety.

The Eagles’ defense could be summed by one play: Against San Francisco, linebacker Nick Morrow literally bouncing off Deebo Samuel like a tennis ball on Samuel’s catch-and-burn 48-yard third-quarter touchdown. Morrow was in position to make the play. He had Samuel lined up and did not deliver.

There were many times this season Desai had the defense in position to make plays (see Miami, Kansas City, Tampa Bay-regular season), and many times, as in the case of Morrow on Samuel, when they simply did not have the personnel to finish.

At times, it was comical, like when cornerback James Bradberry missed Trey Palmer on his 56-yard touchdown reception in the Tampa Bay playoff loss. Bradberry tried pulling Palmer down by the waist at the 50 and lost his grip, as Bradley Roby and Morrow converged from behind. Safety Kevin Byard, who turned into another trade deadline bust, whiffed badly when Palmer cut back. In his wake, Roby fell over Byard, as Palmer ran into the end zone.

Regrettably, that’s how the 2023 Eagles may be best remembered—running into each other, along with Troy Aikman’s cutting playoff epitaph the Eagles were … “a defeated team and they were when they came in.”


Joseph Santoliquito is a hall of fame, award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has written feature stories for SI.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, MLB.com, Deadspin and The Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News. In 2006, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for a special project piece for ESPN.com called “Love at First Beep.” He is most noted for his award-winning ESPN.com feature on high school wrestler A.J. Detwiler in February 2006, which appeared on SportsCenter. In 2015, he was elected president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

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