On the first play from scrimmage at the NFC divisional playoff game, Cre’Von LeBlanc intercepted a Drew Brees bomb. It was just the sixth interception Brees threw this season, second only to Aaron Rodgers.
On the last play of the Eagles' subsequent drive, Nick Foles threw a touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews.
A few hours later the Eagles had lost the game, but it was a game they never would have seen if their front office hadn’t mined the fringes of the NFL talent pool like the San Francisco 1849ers. The route from locker room to bus at the Superdome requires the visitors to walk the length of the playing field. Eagles general manager Howie Roseman and his chief lieutenants, Joe Douglas and Andy Weidl, made that walk with their heads held high.
Their house had crumbled around them, and they’d patched and filled like Bob Vila. They’d replenished, in-season, a roster ravaged by injury; a roster that stumbled to 4-6 before winning six of its last eight games. They had, in the middle of a Super Bowl defense, rebuilt well enough to upset the Bears and their top-rated defense in Chicago, then take the Saints — the best team in football — to the wire in New Orleans.
Roseman won two Executive of the Year awards after leading the Eagles to the top of the NFC during the 2017 regular season. That team — on the strength of additions like Alshon Jeffery, LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi, Chris Long, Tim Jernigan, Derek Barnett, Corey Clement, and, of course, Nick Foles — eventually won Super Bowl LII.
All things considered, Roseman and his staff might have done an even better job in 2018.
Doug Pederson took the handful of leftovers Roseman gave him and crafted a 9-7 record, 10-8 including the postseason. All in all, from March to January, it was an incredible thing to watch.
“We have great communication with the coaching staff," Roseman told the team’s website last week. “Coach Pederson may be the best listener I’ve ever been around. It’s very easy to understand what he’s looking for."
That became increasingly important as the season progressed. Surgeries delayed the return and/or impeded the effectiveness of seven core starters: quarterback Carson Wentz, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, left tackle Jason Peters, defensive tackle Tim Jernigan, linebacker Jordan Hicks, defensive end Brandon Graham and running back Darren Sproles.
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In the wake of their 41-point regular-season loss in New Orleans, the Eagles were 4-6 and utterly decimated by injury: starting running back Ajayi and his understudy, Clement; starting receiver Mike Wallace; starting safety Rodney McLeod; starting cornerbacks Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills and Sidney Jones. New injuries to Hicks and Sproles cost Hicks all or part of five games; Sproles, 10. And, of course, Carson Wentz developed a stress fracture in a vertebra that cost him the last five games.
That means that 14 players among the top 25 — 56 percent either removed or diminished by injury. If you consider that the injuries to Wentz, Sproles, and Hicks were new, then it’s 17 players, or 68 percent. No matter how you count it, Roseman & Co. effectively had to replace half the team in the middle of the season.
And they did so. Effectively. How?
“It’s very easy,” Roseman said, "for any of us to go down the hall and say, ‘Hey, we’re looking at this guy. Here are the trades. Tell me how we can picture him in our offense; in our defense; on our special teams.’ "
That’s exactly what happened after Mills was injured against Jacksonville. Douglas, the team’s vice president of player personnel, and Weidl, the player personnel director, saw that the Lions had waived LeBlanc. They suggested to defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz that the Eagles claim him, and did so Nov. 5. Two months later, Schwartz — who barely knew that LeBlanc existed before he coached him — said that adding LeBlanc “might have been the key to our season.”
The Eagles were much more familiar with Matthews, of course; he was their best receiver from 2014-16 and Wentz’s best friend, before they traded him in 2017. That’s why they added Matthews after Wallace — a one-year, $4 million upgrade over Torrey Smith — broke his fibula in Game 2. Matthews, dogged by knee issues the past two years, had been cut by the Patriots. He wasn’t what Wallace was expected to be — he caught 21 passes in his 16 games for the Eagles, and he wasn’t even targeted in four games — but three of his 21 catches were for touchdowns, including the 37-yard touchdown in New Orleans that gave the Eagles a 7-0 lead.
These are the sorts of moves that indicate how thoroughly Roseman’s scouting machine operates, and how attuned his evaluators are to the particular needs of the Eagles' coaches and their schemes.
“That comes in handy — even more so than in the draft — in the beginning of the year, in the middle of the year," said Roseman, whose staff can now anticipate the type of player who will quickly adapt to the schemes run by Pederson and Schwartz. "After three seasons in the same system, it helps us as evaluators ... to know what ‘good’ looks like.”
“Good” certainly looked like defensive end Michael Bennett, acquired via trade in March, who notched 10 sacks in 18 games. “Good” eventually looked like Golden Tate, acquired at the trade deadline for a precious third-round pick. He finished with 37 catches and two touchdowns in his 10 games, but seven of those catches and one of those touchdowns came in the two playoff games. His highlight grabs at Chicago — early, for a painful, 28-yard gain, and late, for the winning touchdown — validated the trade.
“Good” looked like the selection of tight end Dallas Geodert with the 49th overall pick, as Roseman sought to replace Eagles legend Brent Celek and “Philly Special” passer Trey Burton. Goedert became a stout blocker and finished with 35 catches and five touchdowns, including the first TD in the win over the Bears.
But “good” also wound up looking like Avonte Maddox, a fourth-round rookie who finished the season as the top cornerback and who will start at corner or safety next season. It wound up looking like second-year safety Tre Sullivan, whom the Eagles cut twice in the past two years but who played 56 of the defensive snaps over the last five games, in which the Eagles were 4-1. It wound up looking like veteran safety Corey Graham, a member of the 2017 team who was a training-camp addition this year. He struggled at times, and he battled injury, but he missed just two snaps over the last eight games, when the Eagles went 6-2.
At times, “good” looked like undrafted rookie Josh Adams, once a star at Central Bucks South, who ran 72 times for 366 yards and two touchdowns from Games 8-13. For a moment, it looked like defensive tackle Treyvon Hester, signed to the practice squad in September after Jon Gruden cut him from the Raiders, then promoted in October; then, on the field in January, his big left hand blocked Cody Parkey’s field-goal in Chicago.
And, all season, “good” looked like punter Cam Johnston, cut by the Eagles in 2017 but signed in 2018 to replace retired veteran Donnie Jones. Johnston set franchise records for gross (48.15) and net (42.7) averages, and his net was an NFL rookie record.
Was Roseman perfect? Could he have stocked the defensive-back corps better? Perhaps, but that position seems to have been a blind spot for him since his voice gained volume a decade ago.
Could they have added, say, C.J. Anderson, as the Rams did Dec. 18? Hardly. That was two days after Wendell Smallwood, Darren Sproles and Josh Adams combined for 106 yards on 28 carries and three rushing touchdowns, and did so against those very Rams. Nobody was asking for Anderson, who had gained 128 total yards in nine games since last season, and had been cut by the Broncos, Panthers and Raiders.
They weren’t perfect, but they were awfully good. Roseman and his staff either found or developed what the Eagles needed. Forced to find Value at the Margins, as Phillies manager Gabe Kapler likes to call it, the Eagles now have a handful of game-tested young players who could contribute for years.
“You look at some of those additions and you say, ‘They could be part of the future of this team,’ ” Roseman told the assembled press last week. “As we look at what kind of resources we have going forward, and our draft picks, and our money, getting the off-the-street guys that you get during the course of the season — guys who now you think can be part of the future of this team – it’s gratifying in a lot of ways.”
That’s why, after a loss, the brass was walking so tall across that field in New Orleans.
Those men had earned it.