Sometimes you have to go to big men to find out about the next big thing. So, here were the questions to Brandon Brooks and Jason Kelce, two Eagles offensive linemen and two pretty smart guys: What's the next innovation in pro football? What's the next stagnant system or stale, rote formality that someone is bound to exploit? What's a potential strategic advantage that few are contemplating now but that someday might pay huge dividends?
Actually, Brooks said one day after practice, there was one concept that the team's offensive linemen had discussed among themselves.
"You know how d-linemen rotate?" he said. "I've always wondered how long before it rotates like that with offensive linemen, because it's stayed the same for so long."
Kelce shook his head. "It'll never happen," he said. "Some teams do it, but if you have five guys on the same page, I think that's more important than necessarily being fresh. Cohesion makes so much more of a difference on the offensive line."
One of the teams that did it last season, of course, was the Eagles. They rotated Stefen Wisniewski and Chance Warmack at guard before finally settling on Wisniewski as their full-time starter. But that gambit was just a toe in the water at a time when Doug Pederson, Howie Roseman, and the rest of the franchise were cannonballing into the deep end of analytics and unorthodox football thinking.
The Eagles won their first championship in 57 years, in large part, because of the big things they dared to do. As other teams were hoarding draft picks and guarding them like gold bullion, the Eagles spent money, salary-cap space, and capital to acquire high-football-character veterans who accepted their roles and assimilated seamlessly into the roster. They crunched the numbers on teams' success rate on fourth down and rejected the play-it-safe impulse of so many coaches too quick to punt, and their fearlessness became so routine, such a natural aspect of Pederson's aggressive approach, that they could pull off a trick play — one that they had never run before — on fourth and goal against Bill Belichick and the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Put simply, the Eagles have established themselves as an organization willing to break from the pack and flout conventional football thinking. It's practically a mandate from owner Jeffrey Lurie, who in early August, after the Eagles announced contract extensions for Roseman and Pederson, sounded as if he and Phillies manager Gabe Kapler had shared talking points about intellectual boldness.
"I never want to be in a position where our executives are at all conservative or just following trends," Lurie told reporters, "because if you want to be the best and not be average, you better set yourself apart from the 31 other teams. Every year, your odds are about 3 percent to win it all. What's going to give you the 3 percent chance and raise that to 100 percent and it happening? You better be different, innovative, but smart about it."
Last season was last season, though. While Pederson's full-throttle play-calling will remain a staple of the Eagles offense as long as he's running the show, the Philly Special has already been put into mothballs, and no one is suggesting that Warmack ought to be stealing snaps from Wisniewski. Given Lurie's philosophy and the Eagles' recent history, then, it's a safe bet that the franchise's brain trust already has begun exploring what the next NFL frontier is.
After all, there's no telling how long a particular innovation might retain its usefulness. The run-and-shoot system and the Wildcat formation, for instance, had relatively short shelf lives. But Belichick's 2010 idea to have two athletic receiving tight ends — he drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez that year — had so much staying power that this year the Eagles drafted a Zach Ertz clone in Dallas Goedert.
So, back to the core question. What might the Eagles do next that's different? It's possible we're already seeing it. Consider the manner in which Pederson, since becoming the Eagles' head coach, has managed preseason playing time for his starting quarterback. In 2016, he removed Sam Bradford from the Eagles' preseason opener after one offensive series. Then, after Bradford was traded, Pederson made Carson Wentz the starter even though Wentz had taken just 39 preseason snaps and had missed the final three games with a fractured rib.
That nominal exposure didn't appear to retard Wentz's development at all. And since Pederson already appeared inclined to minimize his starting quarterback's preseason playing time, it's hard to believe that Wentz's experience didn't inform the Eagles' thinking when it came to the timeline for his return this season after his December knee injury. Pederson has said he likes to get his starting players 60-65 snaps during a preseason but acknowledged he has to walk a fine line.
"If you push them too hard, there's always a risk of injury," he said. "If you don't push them hard enough, there's still a risk of injury, and if you don't push them hard enough, the level of play doesn't pick up until Week 3 or 4. I'm a believer that you have to get your starters physically and mentally ready for Week 1."
But what if a starter – e.g. Wentz, Jason Peters, Darren Sproles – can get ready for Week 1 without having to risk playing in any preseason games at all? It's just a thought, and not a particularly big one. But then, neither is the decision, in and of itself, to follow a spreadsheet that suggests a team should go for it a lot on fourth down, and we saw how that one turned out.