Okay, let’s get our one big negative story out of the way right now, so that hopefully we can all just enjoy training camp and the NFL season at hand.
The Philadelphia Eagles probably won’t improve upon last year’s 10-6 record. They should win the NFC East, because the NFC East is horrible. They could advance past the first round of the playoffs this time, because any given Sunday. Hell, I’m not even going to rule out winning the Super Bowl.
Over 10 wins in the regular season though? Nope. Not buying it. The Eagles might be considered lucky if they even reach that total again.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. This author just posted a lengthy series about all the various positions where the Eagles have improved, and as you can see from the graphic, the breakdowns were largely positive. The Eagles, overall, appear to be a better team.
They’re not significantly better, though. How could they be? Current projections have as many as 20 of 22 starters returning from 2013. That would be great, if we weren’t talking about a squad that won 10 games and was bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
It’s essentially the same crew — plus a few key upgrades and returns, minus a three-time Pro Bowler, and (hopefully) deeper.
It’s also not entirely a matter of the Eagles’ roster being better or worse. In the NFL, forces are always conspiring against you, and one needn’t look very far to find where they lay hiding in wait for the Birds. The reality is Philly rode multiple waves of good fortune across the finish line last season, and there’s almost no way it can all repeat.
Too many of the events of 2013 were rooted in coincidence and circumstance to continue favoring the Eagles.
To begin with, the Eagles are relying way too much on older players. Eight key contributors on offense and defense are either on the wrong side of 30 or turn before the Super Bowl — nine if you include reserve offensive lineman Allen Barbre, who is expected to fill in for at least four games while right tackle Lane Johnson serves a suspension.
There is Darren Sproles, Brent Celek, Jason Peters, Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans on the offense, and Trent Cole, DeMeco Ryans and Cary Williams on the opposite side of the ball.
Now, I’ve seen a lot of people dispute the notion that this is honestly a big deal, but athletic ability declines as we get older. Players slow down and get weaker. Sometimes, their bodies break down and they have trouble staying healthy. It can happen rapidly and without much warning. Every sports fan knows this.
Does that mean every player on that list is headed for a downturn or will miss time because of injuries? No. Does it mean every player on that list is irreplaceable? Of course not — although some positions have better depth than others.
But if any of those veterans’ performances were to slip or goes missing for any reason, it would take its toll on the team in some form. And given the sheer number of players on that list, I deem it very likely at least one or two will wind up exhibiting signs of aging.
The older players aren’t the only group of Eagles who are more likely to miss time in 2014. In general, the Eagles were very fortunate when it came to injuries last season, leading the league in adjusted games, lost according to Football Outsiders Almanac 2014.
That’s a fancy way of saying almost nobody was out of action for an extended period of time.
The Eagles were hit hard by a rash of torn ACLs during training camp, none bigger than to starting wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. However, once the season got underway, very few starters missed time at all or even more than a game or two. Really, it was only quarterback Michael Vick, which gave way to the incredible Nick Foles anyway, and safety Patrick Chung, who turned out to be very bad at football.
You can’t honestly count on that kind of luck again. Credit sports science all you want, nothing is going to prevent certain types of injury. It sucks to have to say or even think about, but you have to account for more players going down.
Yes, the Eagles’ depth is better, but reserves are reserves for a reason. One or two key absences could be all it takes to chop the Birds’ down to any other team’s level.
The Foles Factor
We don’t like to speak of Nick Foles’ third interception of 2013 around these parts. Some around here claim it never happened. But it did happen. I know it happened cause I saw it happen.
Foles was picked off by Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson at the Philadelphia 43-yard line with 4:45 remaining in the fourth quarter of a game the Eagles led by three points. However, a seemingly phantom defensive holding penalty overturned the play, making it as though it never happened, a call that — right or wrong — helped preserve a win for the Birds.
If that play stands, the Cardinals likely at least tie the game, if not take the lead. And considering the Eagles finished the game scoreless on their final six possessions, there’s a good chance they don’t come back.
Foles should be a better quarterback, but he’s going to commit more turnovers. There’s no way of getting around it. Nobody throws 27 touchdown passes with two interceptions. And the thing about turnovers is even if Foles throws only one more pick this year than he did last, it can cost the Eagles one win.
Granted, Foles started only 10 games in 2013, and you could make the case the Eagles would’ve won more games had he started all 16. It’s not exactly the only “minor” detail that will be a drain on their win total, either.
Teams can beat only the opponents that are on their schedule, so the goal here isn’t to take anything away from the Eagles in 2013. There’s no denying they played one of the weakest slates in the NFL, either — only three opponents who made the playoffs, one of which was without its starting quarterback — which almost certainly will not be the case again this season.
No. 1, the Birds will be running the NFC West gauntlet this year, four teams that had a combined record of 47-23, including postseason. That’s the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, the NFC runner-up San Francisco 49ers, a 10-win Arizona Cardinals team that somehow missed the playoffs and the upstart St. Louis Rams, who finished in last at 7-9.
As an added bonus for last season’s first-place finish, Philly draws fellow division champions the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers.
The silver lining is the every team in the Eagles’ division must go through the NFC West, making Green Bay and Carolina the only unique opponents. That’s why despite the fact that I think the Eagles will struggle to reach 10 wins again, they’ll still win the East, because it’s well documented how terrible the rest of the division is, and every one of them has a difficult schedule.
Looking purely at how this affects the Eagles, though, and it’s going to make it harder to string together wins, especially when age, and injuries and natural regression to the mean all rear their ugly heads. That’s not to say the Eagles won’t find a way to overcome in the end, but if you’re thinking 11-plus wins, you might be in for a bit of a rude awakening.
As many as 20 of 22 starters returning
If you told me the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks were returning 20 of 22 of starters, I would probably think, “Good for them.” When a 10-6 team that was bounced in the first-round of the playoffs up to 20 starters, that is a far less exciting proposition.
The actual number may wind up coming in less than that, not even accounting for injuries. Nate Allen has to hold off Earl Wolff at safety, Nolan Carroll is pushing Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher at cornerback, and it’s not difficult to envision tight end Zach Ertz or wide receiver Jordan Matthews pushing for larger roles in the offense.
Then again, one of the starters not returning happens to be a three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver coming off a career year, so it’s not like this is all addition here.
To be fair, the roster appears to be a lot deeper now than it was last season, which would be a big help. That being said, there are simply too many other variables involved to expect what is essentially the same group of core players to automatically continue trending up.
The Eagles have a good team that is building toward becoming a great team, but what did the franchise do to make that leap this year? The truth is the offseason additions were not enough to offset the fact that the road is only going to get harder in Year 2 under Chip Kelly.