Lombardi: Can the Eagles take the next step in 2022?

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Recently, Marcus Hayes of the Philadelphia Daily News joined The Lombardi Line and we asked him about the enthusiasm in the Philadelphia area regarding the Eagles’ chances in 2022.  Hayes said without hesitation, “The fan base is beyond excited and is expecting an 18-win season over the 17-game schedule.”  And he isn’t lying.  Eagles enthusiasm is running rampant back in the City of Brotherly Love, and it’s gaining steam each day at every local Wawa coffee counter as the countdown to the regular season begins.  In fairness, this level of fan excitement isn’t far-fetched.  The Eagles coming off a playoff season in 2021, and seem to have closed the gap on last year’s NFC East Champion Dallas Cowboys with the talent they added this offseason. 

Before we break down their chances in 2022, let’s look back to 2021 and understand how they overcame a 2-5 start to make the playoffs.  One of the main reasons for their success was the team’s ability to run the ball in its unique style.  The Eagles offense was similar to Oklahoma’s when Lincoln Riley was their head coach.  Everyone thinks of Riley as a passing guru, yet in reality the run game dominates his offense; his passing game is more deception than sophistication. Last season, the Birds had five games of gaining over 200 yards rushing and went 4-1; when they rushed for 150 yards or less, they were 3-6.  The Birds needed to run because their drop-back passing game was non-existent.  In the 10 games the Eagles threw for fewer than 200 yards passing, they went 5-5.   Simply stated, Philadelphia couldn’t throw the ball when it needed to.

One of the main reasons the Eagles overcame the 2-5 start was that they benefitted from a soft schedule, facing marginal quarterbacks. When examining a schedule, never look at the teams or the won-loss record for the strength of schedule -- only look at how many great passers the team faces. In the first nine weeks, the Eagles faced top-level passers Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady twice, Justin Herbert, Derek Carr and Dak Prescott … and lost every game.  They allowed 1,797 yards through the air, for an 8.68 average per attempt, 16 touchdown passes and only three picks.  In those six games, the opponents only threw 36 incomplete passes, going 171-of-207 on attempts.  After losing to the Chargers in Week 9, Philadelphia never faced another elite quarterback until the playoff game against the Bucs, which is a sure-fire way for a team to gain ground on the competition. 

The Eagles made the playoffs last year because they could run the ball effectively, get the lead and never worry about a passer -- until the playoffs.  The loss in Tampa, was never as close as the score as the Bucs were in front 31-0 going into the fourth, before the Birds scored two touchdowns.  They were fortunate, and now the expectations are rising because of their additions, starting with receiver AJ Brown in the passing game.

All Eagles fans are unsure of their quarterback Jalen Hurts. They want to believe in him, but are smart enough to not go “all in” just yet. They love his character, toughness and athletic skills, but even the most die-hard fans realize his limitations in the passing game, throwing the ball in rhythm and on time.  He is at his best in this run-based offense, featuring the play-action pass and utilizing his talents as a runner.  Give the Eagles coaching staff credit for realizing the passing game wasn’t going to win games, as much as they want to be known as a passing team.  Head coach Nick Sirianni went to the run-heavy offense, and it saved their season. 

With Brown and DeVonta Smith on the outside and Dallas Goedert inside, the Birds have enough skill talent to become a good passing team, which places the burden on Hurts to show marked improvement.  He has to become more than a one-look-and-take-off-to-run quarterback.  He has to show patience and poise before resorting to using his legs. With an offseason to study his movement, defensive coaches will be more inclined to control their rush and make Hurts beat them from the pocket. 

With all these new pieces on offense, you might believe the offseason is an important step towards Hurts’ further development.  Think again.  Sirianni isn’t a believer in the volume of work during the offseason, telling reporters recently, “Everything that we do is going to be thought out with the players’ health and safety in mind first.  That was one thing we felt like we did a good job last year, of staying healthy for different reasons and different thoughts and everybody’s voices going into it. I have to make the final decision, but we really felt like we benefited from some of those things that we did last year [in] the time length.”

Now I am all for staying healthy, and keeping the team in its best shape for the marathon season.  I do admit the offseason has gotten carried away with the amount of practice time coaches have attempted in the past, but the work is vital. The cut backs of time and practices were needed.  Football is much like boxing -- you must get the sparing rounds to be the best fighter.  How can the Eagles develop their young talent if they don’t spend time working hard in the offseason?  Training camp is over in two weeks, so how can teams get young players better if they don’t use the offseason?  Being a 6-11 healthy team isn’t good, either.  Injuries happen, and all winning teams overcome their injuries and find ways to win in spite of the setbacks.  Preventing injuries by not practicing football has proven not to work. How can you improve tackling, if you don’t tackle?  I’m not suggesting full blown to-the-ground tackling -- like they did in the old days -- but fundamentals and techniques of tackling is still important.  Football is a contact sport, and with contact comes injuries. 

Sirianni takes input from the Eagles front office, relying on their data to help strategize his planning.  James Clear, an American writer, famous for his book Atomic Habits believes “when researching strategies, emphasize patterns over stories.  One person succeeding means nothing, 100 people succeeding is a signal.” 

This forces me to ask, is Sirianni basing his cutback on practices based on a one-year sample size and ignoring the patterns?  Yes, the Eagles stayed healthy last year, but were the cutbacks the reason?  I’m not sold.  Their nine wins came against Atlanta, Carolina, Detroit, Denver, New Orleans, the New York Giants, Washington twice and the Jets – in other words, no one good.  Does cutting back work help?  The key to being highly successful in football is to develop the young talent during the summer and training camp so they can help the team during the stretch run.  Tom Brady isn’t cutting back, why should Hurts? 

The Eagles’ poor start last season was a result of the quality of opposing quarterbacks and their lack of readiness for the start of the season.  Philadelphia limited its practice time during training camp and wasn’t the best conditioned team as the season opened.  They looked gassed at times in the fourth quarter, especially along their defensive line. And their defense was soft, not aggressive and had a hard time creating turnovers, finishing 26th in that area.  Jonathan Gannon, their first-year defensive coordinator comes from the bend-but-don’t-break defensive philosophy, willing to allow completions and not explosive plays. The philosophy might work, if a team’s third down and red zone defense is in the top 10; Philadelphia was 23rd on third down defense and 28th in the red zone, two areas where they need vast improvement.  With the cutbacks of camp and the Birds reluctance to play their front-line players in the pre-season, how are they going to improve on their areas of weaknesses?  Will Gannon adjust his scheme?  Will he become more aggressive when facing the best passers?  These are all fair questions. 

Drafting defensive lineman Jordan Davis was a great move, but he needs to be in shape and ready for the season to have an impact. Can he be ready if the Birds aren’t working him hard every day?  That has me worried.  Signing defensive back James Bradberry can help their zone scheme as he was best when playing corner in the Cover 2 scheme when in Carolina.  When he has to be involved man to man, the Birds will need to match him on the right receiver.  The Eagles’ success on defense will need to come from their front seven especially their defensive line. With the addition of Hassan Riddick, they added another rusher to help pressure the passer. 

The Eagles on paper look like a team that could compete for the NFC East title.  Their schedule is not overloaded with great quarterback talent, as they face the AFC South in addition to the NFC North, which makes their 9.5-win total seem like an over play.  If they win five games in the East, then winning five more against two softer divisions doesn’t appear that challenging.  The Birds have a great regular-season feel to their team, much like the Utah Jazz in basketball.  When the game changes and becomes more pass than run, can they throw the ball to win a playoff game? 

For me, that’s not an easy question to answer. 

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