With just one week to go in a surprisingly disappointing season, it’s time for a big review of where the team stands. Seeing some panicked takes out there from people watching the Cowboys light it up and worrying the Eagles just won’t be able to keep up. So let’s try to restore some sanity to Eagles fandom just before the new year.
First things first – THE EAGLES ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE. Or rather, they’re a little better! Here are excerpts from my pre-season prediction piece:
On Offense – “I think the offense will be worse this year than it was last year. Weaker OL, weaker QB play, and nobody on the WR/RB side that can pick up the slack or help hide the holes. That’s an ugly combination.”
The Eagles, at least by DVOA, actually improved this year. They are ranked 22nd at the moment, and finished 26th last year.
On Defense – “I think the defense will be much better this year. I think the scheme fits the personnel much better than it did last year….The scheme change is as big a factor as any of the personnel changes…..However, given the lack of depth and the injury concerns, there is a LOT of uncertainty here. The unit could be among the best in the league. Or it could suffer 1-2 key injuries and the entire house of cards could collapse. Imagine if Cox and Hicks missed significant time.”
Football Outsiders has the Eagles’ Defensive Line ranked #1 against the run this year, and #7 against the pass. That’s a significant improvement from last year, when the unit ranked #23 against the run and #13 against the pass. The adjusted sack rate is 7.1%, up from 6.8% last year.
Overall – “That puts us at 320 points scored, 383 points allowed. With a 2.67 exponent, that’s a 38% win percentage. In practical terms, that’s a 6-10 season.”
The Eagles are currently 6-9. They’ve scored 340 points and allowed 318. In other words, the team has performed better than I had projected, but the record might come out the same. Why? They’ve been unlucky, plain and simple.
Also worth noting, on Special Teams – “Unlikely to have a significant impact this year. The unit was 10th in the league by DVOA last year, but was dead last in “Hidden Points”. That means they were fairly unlucky….Without significant reason to believe STs will be either great or terrible, there isn’t much reason to adjust the overall projection.”
The Eagles have been fantastic on Special Teams, leading the league in both kick coverage and kick returns. Current DVOA is 8.1%, which is the 3rd best measure of any team from the last 5 years, behind just the 2012 Ravens and the 2013 Eagles.
But what about Carson Wentz?
In the post referenced above, I pulled the stats for every QB drafted in the 1st and 2nd round from the last 10 years that played at least 10 games their rookie year. Now let’s look at the table again, but this time with Wentz shown for comparison.
Hmmm…what’s that? Wentz performed almost exactly as we could/should have expected him to? Despite having perhaps the worst supporting cast in the league? I think I’ll take it and be happy. He clearly played a more conservative game than his rookie counterparts, as shown by a lower TD rate, a lower INT rate, and lower yards per attempt.
Don’t worry about Carson Wentz.
Is Doug Pederson a keeper?
We don’t know. He’s shown a willingness to be aggressive, which I like (and is the statistically correct posture most of the time). The Eagles lead the league with 26 4th down conversion attempts. 2nd place has just 18 attempts. The team has converted 50% of them. That’s all positive as far as I’m concerned.
Some have questioned his play-calling, which is fair. I won’t recount all the controversial calls here, because I don’t think it means anything…yet. Frankly, Pederson has been constrained by the lack of weapons on offense just as much as Wentz has. So while we can harangue him for calls that don’t work, it’s not clear any alternative plays would have had a higher likelihood of success. This isn’t a case of ignoring your best players for mediocre ones, or forgetting to run the ball in short yardage situations (generally the right move). There are no good answers right now, so we can’t blame Pederson for getting them wrong….yet. I keep saying yet, because I want to be clear that I’m not completely absolving Doug of responsibility. He MIGHT be making bad decisions. But we don’t know that yet. In the absence of greater certainty, we just can’t make a judgment on Pederson as a coach yet.
His time management/replay calls have had some issues though, and for THAT we can blame him. He’s been around the league long enough to get these things right, so the leash here is really short. Unfortunately, almost every coach around the league messes these things up routinely, so it’s a more difficult critique to make. The baseline rate of boneheaded time management decisions is much higher than we’d all expect/hope.
Wrap It Up
So where does that leave us? The Eagles are in a pretty good spot. They’ve likely found their QB for the next 10 years. That’s a very big deal. They might also have found their coach (not as sure about that one). The defense has improved significantly after the shift to the 4-3. The offense is bad. But that’s nothing that 2 productive offseason can’t fix.
And that’s the real takeaway here: The Eagles have put themselves in a strong position to build a contender. But it’s going to take 2-3 solid drafts in a row, something they haven’t done in a long time. It will also require deft use of free agency, so the pressure is on Howie to deliver. But the team doesn’t have as far to go as it might seem.
Remember the second-order effects of every move. Just look at how much better the whole OL looked with Lane Johnson back. Similarly, adding an impact WR will suddenly make every other WR on the roster look like a better player. They’ll see softer coverages and be able to slide into a role they’re better suited to.
To put a bow on it, here is what may current hierarchy of team needs is:
#1) Offensive line starters and depth
#2-5) See #1
#6) A legitimate NFL WR, hopefully 2 of them. They don’t have to be stars (though one would be nice), but they need to be able to run the full route tree and catch the ball.
#7) Defensive backs. Similar to the WR spot, a star would be nice, but it’s not mandatory. Depth is needed most. After that’s in position, the competition might produce a starter, or at least highlight where a free agent signing can be most effective.
#8) Defensive line. This is a sneaky one. It’s the strength of the team, so people will be tempted to ignore it. However, I’d like to see the team try to cycle in some new blood every year, even if it’s just a couple of late round draft picks. They’ve got an elite unit, but as the OL has shown, without proper maintenance, even elite units can decline quickly. It’s the foundation of the team, and once the screaming needs are taken care of (i.e. WRs go from terrible to serviceable), this should be a continued focus for Howie.
Annual investment in a great DL, even at the expense of other areas. Every team has weaknesses, and there’s just no way to fill every hole on the roster; the league is too competitive for that. Instead, the Eagles need to find a strength and make it so great that it covers up other holes on the team. With Cox/Graham/Logan in place, the DL is the best place to build that foundation. (So yes, they should give Logan his money).