NFC East Reporter
It is hard to believe that one year ago this Philadelphia Eagles team was in the Super Bowl. It’s even harder to believe that less than two months ago, they were sitting on top of the conference with a record of 10-1.
Because the Eagles team that no-showed in their wild-card playoff game on Monday night didn’t look anything like either of them. They don’t dominate the lines of scrimmage anymore. They don’t lean on their powerful running game. And they don’t pressure opposing quarterbacks, or cover and tackle opposing receivers.
They lost their identity. They forgot who they were.
As a result, their unfathomable fall is now complete. One year after coming within a whisper of a championship, they were embarrassed and eliminated by the Bucs, 32-9 at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium. It was their sixth loss in seven games dating back to the start of December — a spiral that nobody could have seen coming.
And the only good thing that could be said about their performance on Monday night is that they finally mastered the art of complementary football.
They stunk in every phase.
“It’s very embarrassing to go from 10-1 to losing six of seven,” said Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson. “There’s probably going to be some changes. It’s frustrating.”
“It’s almost like we couldn’t get out of the rut we were in,” said Eagles coach Nick Sirianni. “We need to find some answers.”
Assuming he keeps his job, Sirianni will have months to search for those answers, to try to figure out how they could collapse so quickly and completely. But they can start with this: Howie Roseman, their general manager, built them to be a power team on both sides of the ball. They were built to be a physical offense on the ground, using the run to set up big pass plays. And they were built to be a pressure team on defense to make things easier on their secondary.
But they’ve clearly lost sight of all that, especially on the offensive side. They came into his game knowing quarterback Jalen Hurts had a dislocated middle finger and that their No. 1 receiver, A.J. Brown, was out. Especially against a team that blitzes as much as Todd Bowles’ Bucs do, it seemed like the perfect time to rediscover their rushing roots.
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In fact, at the start of the game, it looked like they did. They ran D’Andre Swift on their first two plays. But that was apparently enough for offensive coordinator Brian Johnson, who called passes on 13 of the next 14 plays — a strategy that was both bold and completely misguided. By halftime — with the Eagles lucky to be down only 16-9 — Johnson had called passes on 21 of 26 plays.
That made no sense. It’s also not the Eagles. They are a run-pass option team. One of their best weapons when they’re playing well is Hurts as a runner. Yet in the biggest game of the Eagles’ season, Hurts threw 35 times (completing 25 of them for 250 yards)and ran only once — and it didn’t appear to be by design.
Swift, who ripped through the Bucs for 130 yards on 16 carries back in Week 3, ran just 10 times (for 34 yards). The Eagles just kept firing, even as the Bucs’ blitzes kept getting through. Every play seemed to feature Hurts backpedaling with an unblocked defender in his face as he tried to heave the ball downfield.
Johnson’s heave-ho strategy did work once. Late in the first half, Hurts hit DeVonta Smith for a 55-yard strike, and followed that up with a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dallas Goedert to make it a 16-9 game at halftime. But that was really it. Not that Johnson was deterred from his run-and-shoot strategy. He called just 15 runs in 53 offensive plays overall. He was calling the game like the Eagles were down 30 from the start, even though it was still a 9-point game late in the third quarter.
“It’s easy to look at the stat sheet and say ‘Oh, they didn’t run it enough,'” Sirianni said. “But there’s things not being accounted for when you’re in second-and-long and third-and-long. Whenever you’re not in flow and out of sync like we were, it’s going to be hard to get your carries. We obviously need to run it more.”
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The offense is actually the bright side of this disaster, because the Eagles defense has been a nightmare all year long. They did sack Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield four times on Monday night, but for most of the game, he had plenty of time to pick the Eagles apart, going 22 of 36 for 337 yards and three touchdowns. His numbers would’ve been even bigger if it weren’t for his butter-fingered receivers who had at least six drops.
The drops didn’t hurt, though, because the Eagles can’t tackle or cover, and they sure have looked confused since defensive coordinator Sean Desai was demoted and Matt Patricia took over the defensive play calling. They look like a team that isn’t quite sure what defensive scheme they’re actually playing.
They also look like the Keystone cops, falling all over each other as receivers take off down the field. That happened on the Bucs’ first touchdown in the first quarter when safety Avonte Maddox and cornerback Eli Ricks collided, leaving David Moore wide open. He then took off down the field, slicing in front of defenders and breaking tackles for a 44-yard touchdown that gave the Bucs and early, 10-0 lead.
He had another big one late, too, when he hit Trey Palmer with a short pass late in the third quarter. Eagles cornerback James Bradberry was right here to tackle him, but instead slid around him and down like he was a firepole. Palmer was unbothered and took off for a 56-yard touchdown that broke open the game and put the Eagles down 25-9 heading into the fourth.
But that’s what they’ve become: A team that won’t run on offense and can’t tackle on defense. Their offensive line couldn’t handle the pressure. Their defensive line couldn’t create pressure consistently. Their secondary was terrible in coverage.
It really would have been hard to tell these were the Eagles if their helmets weren’t green.
That’s on Sirianni, ultimately. It certainly didn’t help that he lost his two coordinators from last season when offensive coordinator Shane Steichen got the head coaching job in Indianapolis and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon got the top job in Arizona. But Johnson wasn’t going to go pass-crazy in a bad spot without his permission. And he surely could see the holes in whatever that defensive scheme is.
Even with all their injuries, the Eagles should’ve been better than this. They still have one of the best rosters in the NFL. They just needed to remember that, to remember what made them so dominant in the first place.
They never did.
“Everybody in that locker room is hurting right now,” Sirianni said. “We’re hurting right now. It’s tough to go out the way we did.”
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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