A year ago at this time, we were in a much different place.
After blitzing through the regular season and demolishing the Giants and 49ers in the playoffs, Nick Sirianni and his Eagles were getting ready to play the Chiefs in Super Bowl 57. And while it is disappointing a slippery field, a bad luck fumble, a distracted and incompetent defensive coordinator and a questionable referee’s decision prevented the Birds from winning their second Lombardi Trophy 12 months ago, it seemed the Eagles were destined to play in this game on a regular basis for years to come.
And yet, despite racing out to a 10-1 record, fans on Sunday night will be forced to watch their old coach take on a smack-talking 49ers team in a Super Bowl very few in Philadelphia will enjoy watching.
It should have been the Eagles playing in a rematch against the Chiefs, but alas, the football gods have a way of ruining our best-laid plans.
How do we avoid a similar fate in 2024? How do the Eagles scale the mountain and get back to the Super Bowl once again next season?
Reinvent the Offense
On Monday, the Eagles officially named former Cowboys and Chargers offensive coordinator Kellen Moore their new OC. He is tasked with bringing fresh ideas and a new perspective to an offense that grew stale and tired under Sirianni and former offensive coordinator Brian Johnson.
Moore is expected to bring more pre-snap motion into the mix, as well as schematic changes that will hopefully make life easier for Jalen Hurts and help A.J. Brown, Devonta Smith, Dallas Goedert and the rest of the skill players find open spaces in opposing defenses. Last year, Sirianni simply wanted the Eagles to perfect what they had been doing in previous years, but by the end of the season, defenses had caught up. Suddenly, there were no running lanes for Hurts, the team became allergic to throwing the ball over the middle of the field, Goedert was a ghost, and the Eagles were incompetent against the blitz. By the end of it all, the players had given up on the coaching staff.
The front office will certainly look to bring in more talent on the defensive side of the ball this off-season, but even if they do, it’s clear the offense will be the driving force behind any success they may have in ‘24, and it will need to be totally reinvented in order for that to happen.
Figure Out What’s Up With Hurts
Something was off with the franchise QB all season long. It likely all started with a shorter-than-normal off-season thanks to playing in the Super Bowl, but there were more distractions, too. He almost certainly was not left out of the negotiations over his life-altering contract extension (if you don’t think trying to lock down $250 million is a distraction then you’re a better person than me) and as Hurts’ star ascended, the demands on him in terms of media interviews and sponsor/team obligations had to have left him less time to physically and mentally prepare for last season.
Those are not excuses, but factors. And to be fair, Hurts was a decent QB this year, an MVP candidate through the first 11 games, but he also had his struggles. He finished 20th in QB rating (89.1), 14th in yards (3,858), tied for 14th in TD passes (23) and threw the third-most interceptions (15). He did set a new NFL record for rushing TDs by a QB this year (15), and whether most of them were with the Tush Push or not, they all count as six points. Still, he was not as dynamic a runner this season.
Was it because of injury? Scheme? Conscious decisions not to run and avoid contact to ensure playing all 17 regular season games? A truncated off-season?
And then there has been the talk of Hurts’ leadership and some questions within the organization about his perceived stoicism. Does Hurts need to change how he leads his teammates, adjusting his demeanor a bit depending on what the team is going through? Can he grow in that area? Does he need to?
Something just seemed off all season. Here’s hoping a full off-season with fewer distractions brings most of 2022 Hurts back again.
Let Vic Fangio Cook
Jonathan Gannon and Sean Desai were trying to use Fangio’s kitchen to recreate his recipes for success. Now, the Eagles have decided to let the master chef don the apron.
I’m not convinced the league hasn’t figured out the Fangio, two-deep safeties, take away the big play style of defense, but if there is a guy who can get it to hang around for another few years, it’s the man who invented it. Who knows if the 2023 season would have gone differently had Fangio not taken the job in Miami after Gannon screwed the team over with his late-in-the-game courting from Arizona, but certainly we wouldn’t have been suggested to Matt Patricia for the final five weeks.
At the end of the day, Fangio is the best defensive coordinator option that was out there, and he’s a darn good DC. Does that mean the Eagles are suddenly going to have a top-10 defense next year? Probably not, although it can’t be ruled out. But Howie Roseman also has to do more to give Fangio the ingredients he needs to cook up his masterpiece, including revamping a cornerback room that went from one of the best in the league in 2022 to one of the biggest underperforming units in the league in ‘23.
Prioritize LBs and Safeties
Howie Roseman also has to realize that, if he’s going to play the Fangio defense, he needs to do more than hand waive at the linebacker and safety positions. The loss of T.J. Edwards and even Kyzir White hurt more than the team anticipated, and Nakobe Dean’s 2023 season was a mix of underperformance and injury. There’s still a belief Dean will be a major contributor moving forward, but they cannot enter the season counting the third-year former Bulldog as a lynchpin like they did this year.
They also underestimated the loss of CJ Gardner-Johnson, missing both his playmaking ability and swagger in the secondary. Reed Blankenship was decent, but is not a Pro Bowler. One hopes Roseman will spend an early round pick or two on at least one of these positions and address the others in free agency, but that doesn’t mean you should expect Tampa safety Antoine Winfield Jr. or linebackers Brian Burns or Josh Allen to be wearing Eagles green next year, as all should receive franchise tags and would likely cost too much anyway.
If the Eagles bring in a high-priced free agent, finding a replacement for James Bradberry, like Kansas City’s L’Jarius Sneed, would match Roseman’s history of prioritizing corner. Safeties Kyle Dugger, Kamren Curl, and pass-rushing, off-ball linebacker Frankie Luvu and Tampa’s Lavonte David might interest the Eagles, if they don’t cost too much.
Give Fangio the ingredients, Howie!
Coach Up the Young Players
Much attention has been focused on the new positional coaches coming with Moore and Fangio, and that is because very few, if any, of the Eagles’ young players got better in 2023.
Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter, playing as part of a regular defensive line rotation in a 17-game season for the first time, tired at the end of the season. Josh Sweat, no longer a “young” player, disappeared in the second of the season. When he was on the field, Dean was lost in pass coverage, and Blankenship’s play suffered in the second half as well. Cam Jurgens seemed to play inconsistently at guard. Sydney Brown was perhaps the only young player on the roster to improve as the team faded down the stretch.
Let’s also not forget that Jalen Hurts is still a young player. We entered this season wondering what, if anything, the 25-year-old could improve upon and, as it turns out, progression is not linear. Hurts’ ability to see the whole field, make quick decisions, and play efficient football took a step in the wrong direction with the departure of Shane Steichen and Johnson’s elevation from QB coach to coordinator.
The hope is a new message from new voices will help get more out of what the Eagles already have in-house as well as the players they select from college this April.
Convince Kelce to Return
When the final gun sounded following the Eagles’ dismal defeat in the wild card game to Tampa, it sure looked and sounded like Jason Kelce’s career was over. But time heals most wounds, and for Kelce, it’s sounding more and more like he could come back for one more final season in 2024.
Despite the appearance of the offensive line not being as effective as it was a year ago, Pro Football Focus still rated the Eagles’ front five as the best in the NFL once again this season.
While the Eagles’ offensive line, mainly due to injuries, could not keep up its 2022 form for all 18 weeks of the 2023 regular season, the unit at full strength and playing to its potential was still the best in the NFL.
Mailata (85.9), Kelce (84.8) and Johnson (82.9) were each among the five highest-graded players at their positions this season.
Mailata was the only NFL offensive tackle this season to earn at least an 83.0 grade in both run blocking and pass blocking.
Jurgens was drafted to one day replace Kelce, but it’s clear the team would be better next season if the future Hall of Famer were to return for one more go-round under Moore. Hopefully he can get on the horn and convince Taylor’s future brother-in-law to hang around for one more shot at a title.
Minimize the Chaos
The Eagles have specialized in drama the last two years under Nick Sirianni. As head coach and Official Captain of Team Morale, he has to do a better job of calming things down inside the locker room.
The most disturbing part of the 2023 season was that, in the days leading up to their playoff game against Tampa, it appeared different factions of the locker room spent more time finger-pointing and deflecting blame for the inevitable collapse of the season than thinking about how to win an important football game. The Eagles need to get past the mid-season demotion of Desai and elevation of Patricia. The sideline blowouts need to stop. Sirianni needs to present a calming influence when the storm clouds begin to form and, hopefully, the team will learn to shut out the noise and focus on working together to get the job done.
One can also hope the schedule isn’t as wacky, although a season-opening game in Brazil is a bit of a chaotic way to kick things off. A couple more 1 o’clock Sunday starts would be welcome, if for no other reason than they would get the Eagles on more of a regular schedule. But this is a marquee franchise, so it’s likely they’ll have more than their fair share of prime time and 4pm starts, but the more crazy they can put on a shelf, the better.
Have Some Fun
Did you notice this at the Pro Bowl this weekend?
Jalen Hurts couldn’t finish the Philly Special in the Pro Bowl on the day Eagles won the Super Bowl 6 years ago— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) February 4, 2024
But Jalen has a big smile on his face
Look at that Hurts smile. I don’t think we saw that once all season.
At no point were the Eagles having fun this year. Even when they were running up a 10-1 record they were, according to Jeff McLane’s internal team source, the most “miserable 10-1 team” in NFL history.
Everyone understands the goal was to reach the Super Bowl and that no one was satisfied with 10-1 for its own sake. But even as the team was pulling off dramatic wins against juggernauts like Dallas, Kansas City, Miami and Buffalo, the Eagles still couldn’t seem to muster up enough enjoyment from those victories to crack a smile.
Winning football games in the NFL is hard enough, and it seemed like the coaches and the quarterback didn’t foster an atmosphere that allowed the players to enjoy themselves during their run.
Yes, the Super Bowl is the goal, but there has to be a balance between intense focus on that goal and nonchalance. The coaches need to understand that it’s OK to have fun on the field, to enjoy this kids’ game they all play, and then convince the quarterback of the same. That doesn’t mean you work any less hard or lose any focus, it just means you take enjoyment from that effort and focus on the good as well as what needs to be improved upon. If that message is coming from the top, it will trickle down to the players and loosen things up when the going gets rough.
Finding that smile on the field is not necessarily a quantifiable part of the blueprint for a Super Bowl return, but I believe it is key for this team returning the The Big Game once again next season.