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January 03, 2022

With Eagles clinching playoff berth, it's time to admit I was wrong about this team

Opinion Eagles
Jalen_Hurts_Lane_Johnson_celebrate_Eagles_Giants_1226211_Kate_Frese78.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts celebrates with right tackle Lane Johnson.

Making season-long predictions before a game is even played is pointless, but we all do it anyway in our rush to get something down on paper in the hopes that when the season is over, we can look around and say, "I told you so."

Really, there's no other reason to do it. And sometimes, sure, you get to puff out your chest and act like some sort of clairvoyant who knew things no one could ever possibly know — like the fact that the Eagles could finish with double-digit wins, something they can accomplish with a win over the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night in Week 18 after clinching a playoff berth on Sunday. But other times — like when you said the Eagles are more likely to win five games than seven back when you predicted a 6-11 season for the Birds — you're left playing the fool. 

This year, that's me. I'm the fool. I'm the guy who said the Eagles would only win six games this season — and the guy who doubled down on that when, at 2-5, rookie head coach Nick Sirianni compared his team to a flower that was about to bloom. I called bullshit — but little did I know that pile of shit was precisely the fertilizer Sirianni's team needed. And in the weeks following that proclamation, the Birds went 7-2 and locked down a playoff spot, something they failed to do in Doug Pederson's first season (before winning a Super Bowl in Year 2).

Do I think the Eagles are on that same trajectory? Given my recent track record predicting this team's future, I think I'll abstain from answering that. But it's clear that this team has wildly outperformed expectations this season, with most sports books predicting a 7.5-win total prior to the year and the majority of analysts (and even most fans) picking them to finish below .500. With their win over Washington, the Eagles guaranteed not only a playoff spot, but an above .500 record with a chance reach 10 wins. 

Now, this isn't a column I would be writing if I had been correct, but since I was wrong — and was wrong in spectacular fashion — I figured it's high time for a mea culpa of sorts. After some deep reflection over the holiday break, here's why I was so wrong... 

Nick Sirianni flipped the script

A lot can happen over the course of an NFL season, but it's very rare that you see a team completely remake its identity on the fly. It's even more rare when you see that from a first-year head coach and a quarterback getting his first full season as a starter. However, that's exactly what the Eagles did. And it's not just like they went from being a pass-heavy team to a run-heavy team. They went from being the most pass-heavy team in the league, one that was finishing games with just three carries by their running backs, to the most dominant run unit in the NFL. 

The funny thing here is that coming into this season, that's the identity I thought this team was going to embrace, with a mobile QB in Hurts and a stable of talented running backs that included Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Jordan Howard and rookie Kenneth Gainwell. That, combined with two stud tight ends and a top receiver who had yet to take an NFL snap, it seemed like this was primed to be a team that kept it between the tackles and used its dominant offensive line to win games. I was envisioning Baltimore Lite.

Instead, they came out with the opposite game plan, letting Hurts throw the ball all over the field and barely running at all. Eventually, that changed, and in the nine games since it did the Eagles are a whopping 7-2. Sure, some of that had to do with an easier second-half slate (more on that in a bit), but you can only play the games on your schedule. And if the Eagles had stuck with their pass-heavy attack that defined the first half of their season, they likely wouldn't have won all seven of those games. 

Should they have been a running team for the entire season? Probably, and you can maybe knock Sirianni and Co. for not realizing earlier something that seemed so obvious. But he eventually did. And he made the change. And for that, he deserves credit. 

Jalen Hurts is one hell of a leader

The jury may still be out on Jalen Hurts the passer, but the verdict is in on Jalen Hurts the leader. And he's guilty, which in this case is the good one. 

We all knew Hurts could run. And we knew his passing acumen left something to be desired. But the one question we really wanted to learn this year was whether or not he could lead an NFL football team. The writing was on the wall, as he had gotten rave reviews for his leadership at the collegiate level, but we had yet to fully see that in the pros, when the competition would be tougher and the adversity greater. There were some whispers late last season that he was winning over the locker room after Carson Wentz was benched, but the real test in 2021 was going to come for Hurts when the chips were down. Last year, he came on in relief during a lost season and the pressure was relatively low. But this season, we got to see how Hurts (and in turn his teammates) reacted when things went sideways, like they were back in late October, with the Eagles sporting one of the worst records in the NFL. 

We all know what's happened since, and for as much credit as Sirianni deserves for finding this team's identity, Hurts deserves just as much for putting his coach's plan into action. And for not backing down when it didn't work. Following the worst personal game of his professional career, one in which he suffered an ankle injury that cause him to miss a game, Hurts responded by running off three straight NFC East wins in 13 days and clinching a postseason berth for his team.

I was not convinced coming into the season that Hurts would be good enough to get the job done — more so that his struggles through the air coupled with the Eagles' overall lack of talent would cause some serious issues — but once again, I was proven wrong.

MORE: OK, I'm convinced — Jalen Hurts is good enough to lead the Eagles

They dominated in the trenches

Perhaps this is the one that I should've seen coming more than any. The Eagles have had dominant lines for the last several years, and coming into this season they were once again looking to be the team's strength on both sides of the ball. Following early-season injuries that cost the Eagles two starters on offense (Brandon Brooks and Isaac Seumalo) and arguably the heart and soul of their defense in Brandon Graham, there was a bit of a stretch where it felt like this was going to be a repeat of 2020. But as the season went on, Jeff Stoutland and his counterpart on the defensive line Tracy Rocker were able to turn things around, not to mention the improved play from guys like Fletcher Cox and an inspired season from Jason Kelce. 

Sure, the transition to a run-first offense certainly helped the offensive line, but even in passing situations, it just seemed like Hurts was getting more time and more security in the pocket, which has helped him grow as a passer. Where he was bailing on plays too quickly earlier in the season, Hurts now looks more comfortable in the pocket, stepping up when he needs and not taking off after the first read isn't there. And on the defensive side, the Eagles went from a team that couldn't stop anyone on the ground to one of the better run-stuffing units in the NFL, not to mention 7.5 sacks a piece from Javon Hargrave and Josh Sweat, the latter of which has helped the Birds get over the loss of Brandon Graham. 

I may have thought in the preseason that the lines would hold up, but once this Eagles team got out to that 2-5 start and were missing key players on both sides, I didn't quite see this turnaround coming. I don't think many people did, but that doesn't make me any less wrong. 

Their younger players stepped up and they were healthier than expected

These two kind of go hand-in-hand — and are also related to our last topic. We just mentioned Sweat as a player who stepped up in the absence of a more established veteran, but there were examples of this all over the place. Landon Dickerson started 13 games for this team. DeVonta Smith, obviously, proved he's going to a problem for opposing defenses for years to come. Second-year players like Quez Watkins, Jack Driscoll and, obviously, Hurts, all contributed. As did other young guys like Miles Sanders, Dallas Goedert, Jordan Mailata, Nate Herbig, Boston Scott, Avonte Maddox and T.J. Edwards. All of those players have less than four years experience. The future is looking brighter than it has in a while for Philly fans. 

Beyond that, the more unpolished rookies and second-year players weren't forced into too much action. That's because after years of constantly being one of the most injured teams in the NFL, the Birds were actually among the healthier squads this season, the aforementioned injuries aside. But once they got those out of the way, the Eagles seemed to be healthier than their opponents almost every week. That was something I certainly didn't see coming.

Their schedule was softer than a pillow (and they caught some breaks along the way)

And, finally, there was the Eagles schedule. As we already mentioned, pointing out an easy slate of games is not a knock against the Eagles. They played the teams that were on their schedule. And they won when they needed to down the stretch. Sure, they caught some breaks with Washington dealing with COVID issues along the way and some other timely injuries to opponents that let the Eagles face, say, Jake Fromm and Mike Glennon over Daniel Jones or a Saints team without Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas or Jameis Winston.

I knew they'd be getting a last-place schedule after a 4-11-1 campaign in 2020, but I didn't think it was going to be this soft. Kudos to them for taking advantage of it and winning when it mattered most. Unfortunately, after a game this week in which both the Eagles and Cowboys could rest their starters, the competition is only going to get tougher — much tougher — for the Birds as they return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2019 season. 

But anything that happens from here is gravy. Jalen Hurts and Nick Sirianni are going to get some playoff experience. Howie Roseman is going to get three first-round draft picks following one of his better drafts in recent memories. And the Birds are going to have some cap room to work with in the offseason. 

With things finally looking up for the Eagles, here's hoping my predictions about this team also improve in 2022. 

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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