Last summer, the thing about the 2018 Eagles, the edge they were going to have in defending their Super Bowl title, was that they were finally going to be HEALTHY.
Carson Wentz would come back from the knee surgery, ditto Jason Peters. Darren Sproles would be full speed ahead. Jordan Hicks, too. Add all that to a roster that had just won the franchise’s first championship in 57 years. Looked unstoppable.
But injuries defined this season, even more than in 2017. The key players who were coming back didn’t just pick up where they’d left off, there were serious complications, in each case. And after looking at the losses the 2017 Eagles overcame, the 2018 Eagles said “hold my MRI machine.”
Jay Ajayi, Derek Barnett, Corey Clement, Ronald Darby, Mack Hollins, Jordan Mailata, Rodney McLeod, Jalen Mills, Joshua Perkins, Josh Sweat, Paul Worrilow and a training-camp invitee named Elie Bouka all ended up on injured reserve. As soon as players who’d had offseason surgery started getting their legs underneath them – Wentz, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Graham – other key guys started going down.
Finally, over the last month of the regular season and through the first postseason week, the IR parade slowed, and the Eagles came together as a group that finally looked to be able to defend its crown.
But Sunday in New Orleans, there they went again, spoiling a perfect start to the divisional round. Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks tore his right Achilles, something that could impact next season. All-Pro tackle Fletcher Cox was in and out with a foot injury that left him in a walking boot. Starting corner Rasul Douglas left for a while with an ankle injury, introducing Josh Hawkins to Eagles fans for Hawkins’ first defensive snaps, since joining the roster Dec. 26.
Hawkins was the 10th cornerback the Eagles used this season. Who has to use 10 cornerbacks?
Injuries are part of football, yes, next man up and all that, but everyone knows there are limits. The Super Bowl Eagles ended their run with 11 players on IR, but only Wentz, Sproles, Peters, Hicks, and maybe special teams ace Chris Maragos – who seems unlikely to play again – could be described as important figures.
This year, I count seven such players – Ajayi, Barnett, Clement, Darby, Hollins, McLeod, and Mills – and remember, that group does not include Wentz, who never went on IR. It also doesn’t include Mike Wallace, who came off IR late last month but never actually played after suffering a broken fibula in Week 2. And of course, it doesn’t include Brooks, who wouldn’t play this week or again in the playoffs, had the Eagles won in New Orleans.
Nobody loses nine or 10 guys who are starters or close to it, and goes on to win the Super Bowl. The Saints, who defeated the Eagles Sunday and will host the Rams for the NFC championship, have 11 players on IR, but only former Eagles nickel corner Patrick Robinson and wideout Dez Bryant, who never actually played for the Saints, are significant names.
Eagles management now has to decide exactly what is going on. The Eagles switched up the medical and training staff after last season. They have a huge group of people working in this area, following the emphasis established by Chip Kelly. Players still get the individualized smoothies.
Age and mileage account for some of these problems, but not all of them. Once more tight against the salary cap – Spotrac.com projects the Eagles farther over the 2019 cap than anyone else in the league at the moment – how does the organization build a roster that won’t be running on the same old injury treadmill next season?
One way is through the draft, where the Eagles should have 10 picks this year, five in the top four rounds. Last year’s haul was five, three in the top four rounds.
Some of this season’s injuries might provide opportunities. Darby and Ajayi are projected free agents, but they aren’t likely to strike it rich coming off ACL surgery. Would either be worth bringing back on a one-year, prove-it deal? But if you do that, do you just add more injury uncertainty, continuing the cycle?
And do you move forward on a long-term contract for Wentz? The stress fracture in his back isn’t as serious as another knee injury, it could just be random bad luck, but it is extraordinary that two years out of three, the franchise quarterback has been unavailable down the stretch.
The Eagles weren’t expecting another year of injury and uncertainty in 2018, after facing it down successfully a year ago. Yet, here we are.
*Both Golden Tate catches Sunday, for 18 total yards, came on the Eagles’ first two drives. Jordan Matthews’ 37-yard touchdown, the first score of the game, was his only catch.
*The Eagles will draft a running back this year, maybe more than one running back. O-line and pass rushing are major areas of concern as well. And speed everywhere, especially at wide receiver.
*Cre’Von LeBlanc, the waiver find of the season, showed amazing body control coming down with that first-play interception, shielding the ball.
*The Eagles suffered a torrent of injuries in both visits to the Superdome. Sunday, Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and Eagles right guard Brandon Brooks sustained torn Achilles tendons less than a minute apart, on the same Eagles drive. Surprising the Saints stay relatively healthy, playing so much on that surface.
*No points scored in the final 10 minutes and 28 seconds of that game, something that somehow didn’t register until I rewatched.
*Shout-out to Michael Bennett, who ripped through Max Unger and took down Alvin Kamara for a 3-yard loss that helped lead to the missed 52-yard field goal by New Orleans, and the chance to win that went through Alshon Jeffery’s hands.
That you could play receivers up on the line of scrimmage, disrupt their timing, and make them work to get into their patterns? Apparently, this is called “press” coverage, and sometimes it turns out better than just standing around, waiting for them to catch the ball in front of you. We here in Philadelphia had no idea of this concept until the Saints unveiled it.
Before Sunday, the Eagles hadn’t led anyone 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, all season.
Like pretty much every other Eagles loss, for many fans, the game that ended their team’s title defense was a referendum on defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
Point: The Eagles held the Saints to 20 points, in the Superdome, which should have given the Eagles’ offense a good chance to win.
Counterpoint: The Eagles’ defense couldn’t get off the field in the second half. It wasted nearly the entire third quarter in an unsuccessful effort to avoid giving up the lead on an 18-play, 92-yard drive, on which the Saints kept trying to shoot themselves in the foot with penalties. The Eagles wouldn’t let them.
Some fans were furious that Schwartz didn’t blitz Drew Brees, despite the fact that Brees had a 120.0 passer rating against the blitz this season, 114.1 when he wasn’t blitzed. It’s hard to see how blitzing would have helped much.
What might have helped would have been a less passive approach to coverage, especially on the third-and-16 throw to Michael Thomas during that endless drive. The Eagles had Avonte Maddox standing several yards to Thomas’s left, Nigel Bradham standing several yards to his right. It was an easy pitch-and-catch, and all Thomas had to do for the first down was slip a bad-angle dive at his legs by Bradham.
But overall, you don’t play press coverage with Josh Hawkins, who was seeing his first 21 defensive snaps as an Eagle on Sunday, thanks to the temporary injury absences of Rasul Douglas and Maddox.
Maddox has been a blessing, but he’s also a fourth-round rookie who had no role in the defense when the season began, as was the case with second-year corner Douglas. Cre’Von LeBlanc, the biggest late-season revelation, is still really new here.
All things considered, Schwartz wasn’t the reason the Eagles lost Sunday. Whether his defense will ever be a real, consistent strength is another question. Certainly this year there will be draft resources put into the defensive line, maybe into all three levels of the defense.
But the Eagles’ offense is the reason the season is over.