Three Weeks in September: Reviewing the 2016 Philadelphia Eagles

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Photo Courtesy: Bill Streicher, USA TODAY Sports

by: Ryan Waldis

Browsing through the comments of a Reddit post this morning, I was treated to an interesting factoid courtesy of /u/LP99: the Los Angeles Rams haven’t had a season over .500 in 14 years. From 2007 to 2011, they lost 65 of their 80 games, which is the worst five year stretch in NFL history. I had to look up the second statistic, because it didn’t seem possible for a team to be that bad. Alas, from ’07-’11, the Rams went 3-13, 2-14, 1-15, 7-9, and 2-14.

The Eagles haven’t performed quite that badly; in fact, over the past ten years, they actually have the 13th-best record in the league, at 84-75-1. In this city, though, going nine games over .500 doesn’t mean anything if you can’t win when it matters which, as everyone knows, is in January. It’s well documented that the Eagles haven’t won a playoff game since 2008, when they snuck in as the 6th seed, defeated Minnesota, and upset the top-seeded Giants before losing to the Arizona Larry Fitzgerald’s in the conference championship game. Despite the organization’s relative success over the past decade, it doesn’t get any less upsetting seeing the season end prematurely year after year after year.

That’s not to say the Eagles were supposed to make the playoffs this season. A rookie head coach, a rookie QB, playing in what turned out to be one of the better divisions in football? The fact that the Eagles finished 7-9 is pretty impressive, especially when you take into account all of the holes on this roster. Still, it’s the way they got to 7-9 that leaves a bitter taste in many people’s mouths as the fanbase, for the fifth time in six years, won’t get to watch the Eagles in the playoffs. Let’s talk about that.

What Goes Up…

Member when Carson Wentz was the Rookie of the Year? Member when the Eagles throttled the Super Bowl-favorite Steelers 34-3?  Member when the Eagles were 3-0? I member.

Those first three weeks were magical. Sure, two of the wins came against the Browns and Bears, who finished the season with a combined four wins. Still, a lot of people felt that the Eagles could start 2-0. Not many envisioned the team starting 3-0, which made the blowout win over the Steelers even sweeter.

Chase Stuart of FiveThiryEight ran an article several days after the Eagles surprise victory over a trendy preseason Super Bowl pick discussing how the Eagles had started 3-0, and why it might (or might not continue). Of course, the following statistic had to be presented:

“Starting 3-0 is typically a very good thing. From 1990 to 2015, 3-0 teams won, on average, 7.7 more games over the rest of the season and made the playoffs 76 percent of the time.”

Theoretically, the Eagles had to go 7-6 over their final 13 games to clinch a playoff berth. Easy enough, right? At the time, it seemed simple, especially when you take into account the below graphic (once again, via FiveThirtyEight and Pro-Football-Reference):

stuart-week4-preview-1

While the Eagles might have gotten lucky in regards to the first three opponents on their schedule, they weren’t getting lucky on the field. This team was firing on all cylinders on the offensive side of the ball. They were moving the ball almost effortlessly. Carson Wentz looked like the bonafide franchise quarterback that the Eagles had been searching for since McNabb was traded. Take a look at some of Wentz’s best moments from the first few weeks.

(Note: the highlights linked are GIFs. To view them, simply click on the link, which will open in a different window)

First TD (vs. CLE)

Angle 1 Angle 2

Simple dropback out of the gun, perfect throw by Wentz. He placed it where only Matthews could get it. Kudos to J-Matt for also making two steps in bounds before stepping out. This throw was an excellent sign of things to come for the North Dakota State product.

Completing a Pass Under Pressure (at CHI)

Angle 1 Angle 2

Although this play was negated due to a Jason Kelce holding call, this was a great job by Wentz getting rid of the ball quickly and avoiding the sack. Seeing Jerrell Freeman running at you with a full head of steam is never a good thing, but Wentz managed to find Celek for what would have been a nice 19-yard completion.

Making Something Out of Nothing (vs. PIT)

Angle 1

At the risk of sounding too dramatic, it would have been easy for Wentz to panic, perhaps simply fall on top of the ball, and call it a day. Instead, he stayed with the play, refocused his eyes downfield, and managed to find Sproles for a short two-yard completion.

Bringing it back to the team as a whole, the receivers didn’t look completely inept and the offensive line was solid. The Dave Fipp-led special teams group looked as good as ever. More than anything, though, the defense looked unbreakable. It’s been a while since the Eagles have given fans a defense they can be proud of, but for three weeks in September, Jim Schwartz looked like a genius. His unit was forcing turnovers and wreaking havoc (admittedly, against two sub-par offenses and one that didn’t have LeVeon Bell, but I digress). Unfortunately, the good times weren’t here to stay and, after the bye, the Eagles resembled the previously mentioned Rams more-so than an adequate football team.

…Must Come Down

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Photo Courtesy: philly.com

Aye, after those first three weeks and the unnecessarily early bye week, the Eagles really took a nosedive. Four losses in five weeks. The lone win came at home against the previously unbeaten Vikings. The four losses came on the road. After losing to the Giants, the Eagles managed to win at home against the Atlanta Falcons, who would end up clinching the second seed in the NFC. Then, after the Falcons game, a five game losing streak ensued, leaving some to wonder whether the Eagles were capable of winning a game before the season ended. Of course, they ended up beating two more playoff teams (naturally) in the Giants and Cowboys over the final two weeks. The games were meaningless by that point, but the Eagles rallied to finish 7-9 as opposed to 5-11 or 6-10.

If you would have told me before the season that the Eagles would win seven games, I would have agreed with you. If you would have told me that they would finish with seven wins after starting 3-0, I would have been a little upset. As I said earlier, the Eagles were never going to make the playoffs this season. They had too many holes and obstacles to overcome. Still, after starting as well as they did, it is disappointing that the Eagles are sitting at home right now instead of preparing for a game.

This season was essentially a big “what-if?” In fact, each “what-if?” question seemingly opens up more of the same.

  • What if Lane Johnson doesn’t miss 10 games due to suspension? With Lane in the starting lineup, the Eagles were 5-1. Without Lane, the Eagles were 2-8. That’s not a coincidence. Lane isn’t just one of the best players on the Eagles–he’s one of the best offensive tackles in the entire league. Without using a new bullet point for this question, what if Lane isn’t suspended for that Washington game? Is Ryan Kerrigan able to bull-rush Wentz repeatedly? Do the Eagles somehow find a way to pull out a W in their first divisional match-up of the year?
  • eagles-lions-ryan-mathews-fumble-call-video
    Photo Courtesy: Sports Illustrated 

    What if Ryan Mathews doesn’t fumble the ball with just under three minutes to go in the fourth quarter of a 23-21 game? To add on, what if the refs correctly overturn the fumble ruling instead of giving Detroit possession? By rule, the Eagles should have maintained possession. In any case, if Mathews doesn’t fumble (and assuming everything else played out the same way), the Eagles and Lions are both 8-8 right now.

  • What if the Eagles don’t blow a ten-point lead in the fourth quarter at Dallas? If the Eagles held on to win, they would have been 5-2, tied with the Cowboys for first in the division. Instead, they lose a heart-breaker, and fall to 4-3. You know how they talk about four-point games in hockey, especially later in the season? The first Philly-Dallas match-up was the equivalent of a four-point game, and the Eagles couldn’t capitalize.
  • What if Carson Wentz doesn’t throw two interceptions on his first two drives against New York, which led to a quick 14-0 Giants lead? Maybe the Eagles still lose, but at least they wouldn’t have to crawl back from an early 14 point deficit on the road against a divisional opponent.
  • What if the Eagles actually show up to play against a floundering Bengals team instead of seemingly mailing it in? The Eagles were down 29-0 at one point to a 3-7-1 team with nothing to play for missing key players. Carson Wentz had to throw the ball 60 times. Wendell Smallwood was the Eagles leading rusher. He ran the ball eight times for a grand total of 19 yards. Wentz was the teams second leading rusher, gaining 16 yards on three carries.
  • What if the Eagles get a different right tackle substituted in during Wentz’s potential game-winning drive against the Redskins? Do they win? Who knows, but at least Wentz has a fighting chance this time as opposed to what actually happened.
  • What if the Eagles convert that two-point conversion against Baltimore?
  • Looking at the roster, what if the Eagles had just one good wide receiver? Or just one good cornerback? Or just one edge rusher that could consistently generate pressure on the opposing QB?
  • What if they don’t go 1-7 on the road?
  • What if they don’t lose six games by a TD or less?
  • What if the schedule wasn’t as taxing?

It’s dejecting looking back at all of the games the Eagles could have conceivably won. Think about it: they could have easily picked up a dub against the Lions, Cowboys, and Ravens. That puts them at 10-6, in a playoff spot. Maybe in another universe, things went the Eagles way. Not this one, though.

mmqb-doug-pederson
Photo Courtesy: Chris Szagola, AP

Dougie Not-So-Fresh?

I’ve met Doug Pederson. He’s an extremely nice guy. Having said that, I don’t recall ever being pissed off at Reid or Chip more than I was with Doug this year. Between that stupid challenge against the Packers and some of the BS quotes I’ve heard during press conferences and everything in between, there was a point where I was fully on the #FireDoug squad. I’ve since stepped off that train–my emotions definitely got the best of me–but if this team goes 6-10 or worse next year (not due to injuries and with added talent) and Wentz regresses, you do have to consider letting this guy go and holding a proper coaching search, because one clearly didn’t occur this time last year.

I’m willing to give Doug at least one more year because I realized I was being hypocritical. I’ve said multiple times that you can’t judge Brett Brown (the 76ers head coach for those not aware) until he has talent around him. It’d be stupid of me to want to fire Doug even though this roster is severely lacking in talent. When your best playmaker is a running back on the wrong side of 30, I guess I can’t accurately judge you. He’ll never be Belichick, but maybe Doug proves me wrong and becomes a great head coach. Maybe he’ll be the one at the helm when the Eagles finally win a Super Bowl. I’m rooting for him, but I’d be lying if I said that I wouldn’t prefer seeing Gase or Matt Patricia roaming the sidelines for the Eagles.

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Photo Courtesy: Bill Streicher, USA TODAY Sports

New at Six Flags: Carson Wentz – The Ride

Carson Wentz’s rookie campaign could definitely be described as a roller coaster ride. He went from Rookie of the Year front-runner to a below-average QB (and, some weeks, that might be putting it nicely) back to potential franchise QB in the span of 17 weeks.

Allow me to say what seems to be an unpopular opinion in these parts, if I may be afforded the opportunity: I’m not 100 percent sold on Carson Wentz as our franchise QB. That’s not a hot take, and it doesn’t mean that I think he’s a bust. I think he has immense potential, and I can definitely see him holding this organization’s first Lombardi Trophy up several years from now. Having said that, Wentz had a below-average season. (*ducks*)

I understand the “BUT HE HAS NO WEAPONS YOU IDIOT” argument, trust me. I know it’s not easy throwing the ball to the trio of Nelson Agholor, Dorial Green-Beckham, and Bryce Treggs every week. I know it’s got to be difficult to pass the ball upwards of 40 times almost every game because you have no running attack. If drops infuriate us as fans, imagine how Wentz must feel. I get it, believe me. Just because Wentz doesn’t have a talented supporting cast around him, though, doesn’t make him immune to criticism. Here are some of main criticisms regarding Wentz’s first NFL season:

  • He tried to play the hero too much.
    • I wasn’t surprised when Wentz tried to put the team solely on his back, especially during the stretch where they went 1-7. Still, Wentz has to learn that he can’t do everything himself. Things that worked at an FCS school in North Dakota State aren’t going to fly here. There were numerous times this season where Wentz would evade pressure, roll out to the left or right and, instead of simply throwing the ball away, try to make something happen. Whether this was passing into the middle of three defenders, or running out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage, Wentz tried too hard to win games on his own. A number of the interceptions he threw this season could be brought back to this argument.
  • He is still sailing passes.
    • This was a problem of Wentz’s in college, and he didn’t quite get in under control this year. You can sail passes in college and get away with it, but in the NFL there will always be a ball-hawking safety or cornerback waiting for your errant pass.
  • His accuracy could use some work.
    • During the second Eagles-Giants game, I asked Cian Fahey whether it seems like Wentz has a tendency to underthrow receivers. Below is the response I got, which I agreed with. I think Wentz’s accuracy will improve with time, but for this season alone, his accuracy wasn’t exactly average consistently.

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Photo Courtesy: ESPN

A Look Ahead

So, we’ve looked back at the 2016 Philadelphia Eagles season. Let’s look, then, at the challenges facing them in 2017.

Things don’t get any easier. If you thought the schedule this season was rough, it’s almost as rough next season. The Eagles are slated to play both the AFC and NFC West, along with Carolina, Chicago, and, of course, their divisional opponents:

  • HOME: Dallas, New York, Washington, San Francisco, Arizona, Denver, Oakland, Chicago
  • AWAY: Dallas, New York, Washington, Seattle, Los Angeles, Kansas City, San Diego (although, they might move to LA this offseason, so who knows), Carolina

The Eagles avoided a London trip, but they’ll have to make three west coast trips to LA, Seattle, and, at this point, San Diego. I’ve seen a plethora of people ask why we have to travel to Seattle again since we just did that this year. The answer: the Eagles play each NFC division once every three years. The last time we played the NFC West was 2014, so we’re scheduled to play them again in 2017 (this rotation is pre-determined, so in 2018 we’ll play the NFC South, in 2019 we’ll play the NFC North, and in 2020 we’ll play the NFC West again). In 2014, we were home against Seattle, so in 2017 we’ll travel to Seattle.

As for why we had to travel to Seattle this year: we were slated to play the NFC West team that finished in second place on the road (this was pre-determined years in advance as well, it wasn’t something the league just dropped on the Eagles). As it turned out, that team was Seattle. If Arizona finished in second place, we would have traveled to Arizona, if San Francisco finished second, we would have traveled to San Francisco, and so on.

Moving away from the schedule, the Eagles will hold either the 14th or 15th pick in the draft, depending on a coinflip that will occur at the scouting combine in February. Howie Roseman recently said that the Eagles will take the best player available, but you have to think they’ll choose either a WR or a CB. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Eagles draft a running-back, edge rusher, and some type of offensive lineman in the draft, as well.

I imagine they’ll sign a receiver or cornerback (or, perhaps, both) in free agency. The popular rumors seem to be DeSean Jackson reuniting with the organization that drafted him, and Stephon Gilmore reuniting with his old defensive coordinator in Schwartz. Whatever happens, it will be interesting to see who Doug and Howie add to the mix to help the Eagles perform better next year.

It’s also worth watching who doesn’t stick with the team. Jason Peters and Connor Barwin are popular names in regards to cap casualties (the Eagles don’t really have a ton of cap flexibility at this point), and Bennie Logan is the big homegrown FA name. The full list of team free agents, per Spotrac:

  • Stephen Tulloch, LB (32 years old) UFA
  • Nolan Carroll II, CB (29) UFA
  • Stefan Wisniewski, OL (27) UFA
  • Bryan Braman, OLB/ST (29) UFA
  • Najee Goode, LB  (27) UFA
  • Dwayne Gratz, CB (26) UFA
  • Michael Johnson, WR (25) UFA
  • Kenjon Barner, RB (27) RFA
  • Jaylen Watkins, S (24) RFA
  • Trey Burton, TE (25) RFA
  • Rick Lovato, LS (24) ERFA
  • Terrell Watson, RB (23) ERFA
  • C.J. Smith, CB (23) ERFA

One final thing: the Eagles are one of the eight eligible teams (Cleveland, Baltimore, Tennessee, Indianapolis, Chicago, New Orleans and Tampa Bay are the other seven) that could be selected for HBO’s “Hard Knocks” show, due in part to the fact that:

  • They haven’t just hired a new coach
  • They haven’t made the playoffs in the last two seasons
  • They haven’t been on the show in the last ten years

One thought on “Three Weeks in September: Reviewing the 2016 Philadelphia Eagles

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