Three seasons ago, the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings met in the NFC Championship Game to determine the class of the conference. Six weeks into 2020, they both looked dysfunctional: Their quarterbacks were turning the ball over at an alarming rate. Their defenses were getting gashed at inopportune times. Their veteran head coaches had no answers.
Only one of those teams has returned to normalcy in the weeks since. And it's not the team that won that NFC championship back in 2017.
As such, it's no longer a weekly practice to dissect what's gone wrong with the Eagles' 2020 season after three straight playoff appearances from Philly. Now, the conversations are far grimmer ...
Who's going to get the ax?
Team owner Jeffrey Lurie has been notoriously loyal to his leadership. Besides Chip Kelly (2013-2015), he's waited until each of his previous head coaches (Rich Kotite, Ray Rhodes, Andy Reid) have had two straight non-winning seasons before making a change. General manager Howie Roseman, meanwhile, who was first hired back in 2000, has survived two different head coaching changes since first assuming GM roles in 2010.
But this season is begging for Lurie's early intervention. In a historically bad NFC East, the Eagles are 3-7-1 with three more tough games on deck. Even in the increasingly unlikely event Philly is less bad than its rivals in the two divisional games that close the year and somehow stumbles into a home playoff game, this much is clear: The Birds must make at least one major change ahead of 2021.
"Major" would not qualify as more toying with coach Doug Pederson's offensive staff. It would qualify as replacing Doug. Or Howie. Or their franchise quarterback, Carson Wentz, who looks less and less like one by the week.
No one can change the truth: The triumvirate of Wentz, Roseman and Pederson was borderline magical in 2017. Wentz was legitimately and rightfully the talk of the NFL, cruising to a division title with MVP-caliber brilliance. Pederson out-schemed everyone, including Bill Belichick on the game's biggest stage. And Roseman hit on almost every one of his gambles, adding countless key veterans (Nick Foles, Alshon Jeffery, Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Chris Long, Patrick Robinson) at precisely the right time. In 20 years, Eagles fans will only look fondly upon their dance with destiny. They rewrote Philly sports history.
And yet, in 2020, all three of the Eagles' major leaders have teamed up for something worse: A total collapse. As was obvious weeks ago, the Birds are not underwhelming because of Wentz. They are not underwhelming because of Pederson. They are not underwhelming because of Roseman. They are underwhelming because of all of them.
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So ... who will (or should) pay the price?
The first priority for Lurie should not, and likely will not, be determining Wentz's future. It should be determining the future of those around him -- those tasked with salvaging, supporting and/or replacing him. As the focal point on the field, Wentz has been an easy (and often justified) target for criticism in 2020. But even if the Eagles were to turn to Jalen Hurts for the remainder of the year, and even if Hurts then lit it up, you don't fully solve the QB position without identifying who's actually in charge in 2021 and beyond. Put it like this: Whether it's Wentz or Hurts or someone else, do you want any of those guys being shepherded by the current staff, or surrounded with "talent" culled by the current front office?
That brings us to Roseman, Lurie's homegrown right-hand man. Howie has been adept at manipulating the salary cap and getting creative for splashy moves, but neither of those specialties has been apparent in close to three years. His most egregious contributions to the 2018-2020 Eagles suggests he's the chief culprit for the current mess if Lurie is intent on identifying one:
- A steady dependence on older and predictably oft-injured veterans (Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Jason Peters, etc.), particularly at spots critical to the quarterback's growth and health, like wide receiver and offensive line.
- A failure to make more than a handful of meaningful draft picks in addition to repeatedly cutting down his own draft capital in trades (note the non-contributions of J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Sidney Jones, Shareef Miller and countless others).
- An odd hesitancy to pull the trigger on ideal trade targets, again at critical positions (see: DeAndre Hopkins, Stefon Diggs).
Have the Eagles fielded outright bad rosters since the Super Bowl run? Not necessarily on the surface. But you can be the judge of whether consistently re-signing retreads like Jay Ajayi, Jordan Matthews and Vinny Curry speaks to deep roster assembly. And again, those critical spots? Yikes. Take wide receiver as just one example: Instead of paying a justified premium for Diggs or Hopkins, or spending a few million on Robby Anderson, or drafting Justin Jefferson, Roseman has been content, from 2018 on, to let Carson Wentz throw to Greg Ward, Nelson Agholor, Richard Rodgers, etc. while guys like Jeffery, DeSean, Arcega-Whiteside and Mike Wallace take turns in the tub or on the sidelines.
Roseman hasn't just failed his head coach and franchise QB by saddling them with unreliable lineups. He's also put the Eagles in one of the worst salary-cap positions of 2021. (A nice parting gift for the new GM!) There's reason to believe Lurie may gift Howie yet another chance at redemption, but if one piece of the Eagles' Big Three must go, it should probably be the one most responsible for building the team. And that's with or without a December miracle from either Pederson or Wentz.
Doug, as it turns out, should not be in the clear, either. It would've seemed unfathomable even a year ago to cut ties with him so soon; he won the Eagles their first Super Bowl, for crying out loud, and he did it by outsmarting the Patriots dynasty with Nick Foles and a bunch of backups! He also has one thing always going for him: The players never quit. Unlike the last days of Andy Reid and Chip Kelly, neither this season nor any before it has suggested Pederson has "lost the locker room." He's been a master at rallying the troops at the very last second.
He was not a bad coach entering 2020, either. He did more than enough to earn trust. The problem is, he's been so bad in 2020 that his 2018-2019 shortcomings are now amplified, appearing more like inevitable products of his coaching rather than slight aberrations. Pederson deserves all the credit in the world for his crunch-time success; you don't go 13-6 in December and make three straight playoff trips by accident. But his teams have gone a combined 22-23-1, including playoffs, since the Super Bowl and are now guaranteed to have posted a worse record in three straight seasons. That, friends, is concerning.
Even worse: Offense is supposed to be Pederson's specialty. (It also happens to be the recipe for success in today's NFL.) And right now, there are few teams -- the winless Jets? the rebuilding Giants? the Dolphins, with rotating QBs? -- with a worse offense than Pederson's Eagles. Just take a peek at how his offenses have progressively declined during his head-coaching run:
|Season||NFL rank, yards per game||NFL rank, points per game|
As you can see, things have been mostly mediocre and, now, catastrophic since the Super Bowl. It'd be one thing if Pederson's unit took a slight dip in 2020, but it's completely fallen off the map. And it looks even more atrocious. When Seattle and the NFL's worst pass defense came to town on Monday night, anyone who'd watched Pederson's listless, un-creative attack all year knew the Seahawks' ineptitude did not matter, because the Eagles were destined to stumble over themselves anyway.
And guess what? They did. Wentz's off-mark throws did not help, but neither did another weekly dose of questionable lineup decisions -- let's start an aging, rehabbing Alshon Jeffery over up-and-coming Travis Fulgham! let's sit Wentz for Jalen Hurts only to reinsert Wentz on third down! and let's not use Miles Sanders, who led all rookies in scrimmage yards a year ago!
The Athletic's Sheil Kapadia sums Pederson's predicament up perfectly:
Lurie wants an offensive mind who's on the cutting edge of what's next, a trend-setter. With Pederson, he's watched a coach who is apparently incapable of finding answers. The initial plan when Lurie hired Pederson was to find a coach who could be a quarterback whisperer. But instead, Wentz has performed like one of the league's worst quarterbacks and regressed in 2020.
It's conceivable that Pederson can secure his job with yet another "underdog" finish, but if the offense just skirts by -- or even if it doesn't, against vulnerable defenses in Green Bay, Arizona, etc. -- there's still a case to be made that change is possible, if not smart. As with Roseman and Wentz, the blame does not fall solely on him, and he still deserves the statue erected in his name outside of Lincoln Financial Field. But it's not as if Lurie would be devoid of "trend-setter" offensive types in eyeing potential replacements, either: The freshness of a Joe Brady, Eric Bieniemy, Nathaniel Hackett, Graham Harrell, Arthur Smith, Lincoln Riley could be enticing, especially if resurrecting Wentz and/or unearthing another QB is the top priority.
And what about Wentz?
That leaves us with Wentz, maybe the most confounding of all, considering his meteoric rise to MVP candidacy and equally abrupt fall to the bottom tier of NFL QBs. Eleven straight weeks of mostly bad, occasionally awful and rarely fine performances are nothing to sneeze at, but Wentz also has four solid, occasionally elite, seasons on his resume. Unless Hurts comes in and looks like an instant hit, the dust will settle after the season and Lurie will assuredly have an easier time convincing himself his one-time superstar is salvageable.
Make no mistake: Wentz going from burden-bearer to one of the Eagles' biggest burdens in 2020 is downright scary considering he's in Year Five and should have enough in the tank to rise above his circumstances. And if you're restarting the whole operation in 2021, complete with a new coach and GM, it's not crazy at all to think the Eagles could (or should) use their presumptive top-10 draft pick to target a top QB prospect. Even in the scenario where Wentz sticks around, you could potentially add a new QB of the future, allow Wentz and/or Hurts a shot at proving their worth before selling one or both returning QBs to a team with an urgent or later need.
Still, if you're looking to throw any of the Eagles' top dogs on the chopping block, there are several reasons Wentz will not be first in line. His $128 million contract, while not entirely un-tradeable (hello, Colts?), dictates the Eagles will save themselves lots of money and effort, not to mention a chance at redemption for their formerly top-10 QB, by keeping Wentz through at least 2021. It stands to reason that if Wentz is going to make a serious return to form, it's not going to happen until after this ruined, discombobulated season is in the books anyway.
After that, for the sake of his QB, whoever is coaching his team, and for a city already desperate to re-taste the football glory so recently realized, it's up to Jeffrey Lurie to do something.