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Arrogance, incompetence and/or ignorance: The story of the 2023 Eagles collapse

The game was over before the Eagles even walked on the field on Sunday.

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

One of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits was a recurring gag from the late 1980s in which a house cat, named Toonces, supposedly was able to drive a car.

For the first part of the sketch, Toonces amazed those in the car with his driving skills. He steered the car, used the accelerator and brake and was seemingly very good at it. Especially for a cat.

However, Toonces’ expertise at the wheel never lasted. Every time, without fail, Toonces would drive the car off a cliff and into a ravine with devastating consequences.

Watching that car plummet to earth, driven by a cat with unsuspecting riders inside, almost perfectly describes the last six weeks of a 2023 Philadelphia Eagles season, one in which the Eagles whiplashed from being one of NFL’s elite, a can’t-lose group of winners, to a team that has lost five of their final six games in increasingly distressing fashion.

Since starting the 2021 season 2-5, the Eagles had won 30 of 36 regular season games after this season’s 10-1 start. Since the start of ‘22, they had gone 24-4, winning 24 of 26 games with Jalen Hurts under center. After their dramatic overtime defeat of the Bills in Week 12, they held a two-game advantage over every other team in the NFL. Despite a point differential that indicated they weren’t quite that good, it was apparent this team was a true Super Bowl contender.

They were the NFL’s biggest bullies. Now, they can’t stop getting punched.

After Sunday’s disastrous 27-10 loss to the Giants that was nowhere near as close as the final score indicated, it’s hard to argue that the Eagles haven’t morphed from Super Bowl contender to perhaps the worst team in the NFL.

Yes, the worst.

How could one argue otherwise? The defense, already a middling unit that ranked last in third down stops and 30th in red zone defense under Sean Desai, has somehow gotten worse under Matt Patricia. If you watch this mash-up of plays from Sunday’s horror show against Tyrod Taylor and the Giants by Brian Baldinger, you see a collection of players who appear to be completely confused and befuddled by even the simplest concepts — concepts like motion, empty sets, and play action — that have been in existence for the better part of three generations of football.

While horribly deficient at linebacker, with slow and poor tacklers in the back seven, Patricia not only has no answers to what the lackluster Giants offense was doing, the amount of confusion, lack of awareness and communication on the defensive side of the ball is something you’d expect from a group of raw rookies who have never played together before and hadn’t adjusted to the speed of the league.

No doubt, some of this is on Howie Roseman and the collection of players he put on the field this season...

...but it’s clear the players don’t trust or believe in the coaching staff. They know their coaches have no answers for them, which is shocking given some of these coaches have been in the league for a decade or more. Not having answers to simple concepts reeks of incompetence, and it’s clear after the Eagles lose in Tampa next week that most, if not all, of the defensive coaching staff will be gone.

Offensively, there really is no excuse for some of the things we’re seeing from this group. Against Wink Martindale’s blitz-heavy scheme, a scheme they played against just two weeks ago, Sirianni and Jalen Hurts performed as if they had never seen a blitz before in their lives. Again, Baldinger did a remarkable job highlighting the sheer lunacy of Sirianni’s approach to dealing with extra attackers.

Against a defense that blitzes about 75% of the time, Sirianni and Johnson apparently had not game planned for a way to beat the quick pressure they were certain to see. No hot reads. Few slants. No involvement from Dallas Goedert. The offensive line unable to pick up extra rushers. Yes, the Eagles were without DeVonta Smith and D’Andre Swift, but this is not a new problem. The Eagles have been getting killed with blitzes going back to last year, but Sirianni and the coaching staff have steadfastly refused, or are not smart enough, to change anything.

The Eagles have responded by doing... nothing.

It is either arrogance in their belief that their players will win their one-on-one battles no matter what, incompetence in being unable to come up with a solution to this fairly obvious and hardly-new problem, or ignorance that there is anything that needs to be fixed.

Which one of these three things does the offensive coaching want to be?

Given the Eagles have had 18 weeks to come up with a solution and haven’t, it’s unlikely things will be any better on Monday night against Todd Bowles’ blitz-heavy defense, or against their two, 1,000-yard receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Sure, Baker Mayfield is a pretty lousy quarterback, but he’s as good or better than Taylor, Kyler Murray, or Drew Lock, all of whom have torched the Birds in recent weeks.

This epic collapse, as bad as anything we’ve seen in Philadelphia since the 1964 Phillies and ‘81 Eagles, is the kind of thing that could result in the unthinkable: a head coach coming off a Super Bowl appearance with the 10th-highest winning percentage of any coach with 50 games under his belt, to be fired.

Jeff Lurie and Howie Roseman have to believe that Sirianni has an answer to these problems or else they should look for a new voice. But if he had an answer, wouldn’t he have pushed those buttons already, at least on offense? Injuries haven’t been a factor on either side of the ball. It’s just bad coaching and bad play by a team that was talented enough to beat the Dolphins, Chiefs, Bills and Cowboys this year.

The Eagles’ 10-1 start, which most folks rightly said was not a real indication of how they had played, may have been their worst enemy. Had they started 8-3 or 7-4 and then embarked on this race to the bottom of the barrel, the whiplash effect wouldn’t be as great and most would chalk the 2023 Birds up to a lost year/Super Bowl hangover effect. It wouldn’t be seen as a collapse. The fact they were 10-1, two games up on everyone in the NFL and then bottomed out like this, is a big part of the narrative around Nick Sirianni’s future.

The players, meanwhile, are offering the same platitudes as they have for the last few weeks, but the words ring as hollow as their play on the field. They showed no fight against a dead-team-walking New York squad this week, falling behind big even as Washington jumped out to a quick, albeit short-lived, lead over the Cowboys. And while they may like Sirianni and the rest of the staff personally (or maybe they don’t, who knows?), and while A.J. Brown is organizing players-only team meetings and escape room outings, their performance against Tampa in the wild card game this week will speak louder than anything uttered into a microphone standing by their lockers.

Getting to the heart of why this all happened will be key to whether Sirianni is retained in 2024, and to be clear, it’s more likely than not he’ll be back. But even if he loses both coordinators and doesn’t have much say in who is brought in to replace them, if Lurie and Roseman demand he change his scheme in a significant way through a new offensive coordinator, what exactly is Sirianni’s role moving forward? What is the argument for keeping him?

A win in Tampa next week would silence those questions for now, but it’s clear this collapse ultimately falls at the feet of the head coach.

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