There’s an old football axiom that the backup quarterback is the most popular player on the team. That might not be true everywhere, but the underlying principle is especially true in Philadelphia. Eagles fans have always loved the next man up, mainly because the guys who actually play are the ones you call WIP sports radio to bitch about. But the backups—yo, if only the Birds would give them a chance, ya know?
This has gone on for as long as I can remember, from fans who called for Jim McMahon to start over Randall Cunningham back when I was a kid, to the lovable lush who famously declared that Jeff Garcia—who had taken over for an injured Donovan McNabb in the 2006 season and led the Eagles to an unlikely playoff appearance—“is our baby” and predicted that particular postseason would ultimately prove to be “our year.” (It wasn’t.) Most recently, notably and improbably, Nick Foles led the Eagles to their first Super Bowl after Carson Wentz tore his ACL in early December, thereby ensuring that Foles will never have to pay for a Kenzinger ever again.
This season, Eagles fans got something they ended up liking even better than the backup quarterback: a backup team. Wentz became the first quarterback in franchise history to throw a touchdown in all 16 regular-season games, broke McNabb’s single-season team passing record, and, most impressively, became the first player in NFL history to throw for more than 4,000 yards without having a single pass catcher go over 500 yards. But while Wentz remained a constant, so many others around him were in constant rotation.
At various points this season, the Eagles were without Alshon Jeffrey, DeSean Jackson, Darren Sproles, Corey Clement, Malik Jackson, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Hassan Ridgeway, Rudy Ford, Jordan Mailata, Daeshon Hall, Wilson Goode, Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson, Frank Rizzo, Zach Ertz, Tim Flocco, Nelson Agholor, Jalen Mills, and Miles Sanders. Look at all those names. That is so many names you probably didn’t notice that I snuck in two former Philly mayors and one of my buddies who lives off South Street. And don’t pretend you know which is which. The only way you’d know some/most of those names is if you’re from Philly—and even then you might not be so sure.
Many of those players will be out for whatever remains of the Eagles’ season; the team is hopeful that some of them—like Ertz, Johnson, and Sanders—will be available when the Birds host the Seahawks in the playoffs on Sunday. That is not a sentence I expected to write.
This M*A*S*H unit masquerading as a football team went 9-7, somehow won the NFC East, and will play at home in the first round of the playoffs. That fact probably (definitely?) pisses off some (most?) non-Philly football fans—which, I have to tell you, only makes this bizarre season more enjoyable for Philly football fans. There’s nothing that Philadelphians love more than crashing a proverbial party that no one wants us to attend. The city really shines when given an opportunity to be gleefully obnoxious.
For those of you who are not Philadelphians, I get why you’re upset about all this. The NFC East was objectively bad this year. The other three teams in the division will likely have new head coaches next season. (“Likely,” because as I write this Jerry Jones is still trying to quit Jason Garrett, which, I must be honest, I hope he never does. Those two crazy kids are meant to be together.) But if we’re going to moan about bad divisions, we should start with the AFC East, which has been so awful for so long that it’s enabled the Patriots’ hegemony to continue unchecked for close to two decades now. Bad divisions happen, and they usually don’t materialize to the Eagles’ benefit. Philly fans will gladly take this one, thank you.
And anyway, how can you root against this replacement roster the Eagles stitched together with crazy glue and duct tape? In the final game of the regular season, the Eagles beat the Giants with, among others, Boston Scott (a 5-foot-6 running back drafted in 2018 in the sixth round), Greg Ward Jr. (a wide receiver who, at the beginning of 2019, was playing in the now-defunct AAF), Deontay Burnett (an undrafted free agent who was signed to the practice squad less than a month ago and then forced onto the active roster out of necessity), Robert Davis (a receiver taken in the sixth round who was also just promoted from the practice squad), and Richard Rodgers (a tight end they hired off the unemployment line before driving up the New Jersey Turnpike to East Rutherford).
Barely a month ago, the Eagles were 5-7 going into their first matchup with the Giants. There was little love for that version of the team. As Rodney McLeod told the Inquirer, “Everybody kind of wrote us off.” “Kind of” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. After starting 5-4, the Eagles lost to the Patriots (disappointing but not surprising), the Seahawks (disappointing but not surprising), and the Dolphins (disappointing and surprising) in succession. Not to mention ugly losses that came earlier in the season to the Falcons, Vikings, and Cowboys. Things were so bad that the highlight of the season was one of the team’s underproductive receivers becoming an all-time great meme. By the time that first Giants game rolled around in early December, Eagles fans were back to their natural and comfortable default position—booing everything and everyone.
But then players kept getting hurt, and the Eagles kept winning games, and now the no-name fill-ins have filled the void in Philly’s collective cold, black heart. The Eagles are the NFC East champs and home underdogs in the playoffs—which, as my friend and former colleague Mike Sielski wrote, is exactly the way Philly likes it. The Birds were completely left out of the NFL’s official playoff promo video. That’s the kind of thing Eagles fans eat up. The entire city is functionally one big bulletin board eager to lean into any sort of we-were-overlooked motivational material.
Philly Twitter has fallen for coach Doug Pederson’s broken menagerie of misfits. After Sanders went down, Scott scored three rushing touchdowns, becoming the first Eagles running back since LeSean McCoy to do so and just the fifth person in franchise history to manage the feat. Thom Brennaman, who called the game for Fox, howled “Oh my, who is Boston Scott?!” and then declared that he “[plowed] his way into the end zone and into the hearts of Eagles fans.” Thom with an H had no idea how right he was.
Notable fans have already convinced themselves that the team McLeod rightly said got written off earlier this season is now primed to beat the Seahawks. And, man, if that happens, please shelter in place because those gleefully obnoxious Philadelphians I mentioned earlier are gonna be so gleeful and so obnoxious.
Even suggesting that these Eagles—with their assortment of cast-offs, has-beens, and never-weres—could beat Seattle might seem like little more than a happy hallucination to you. That’s understandable. After all, Russell Wilson has never lost to the Eagles. But this has been a weird, unconventional season even by Eagles standards, and weird and unconventional are things that Eagles fans understand and enjoy. They’re used to it, which might be why Philly knows the truth here—unlike my Ringer teammate Robert Mays, who doesn’t like the Birds’ postseason chances. On the contrary, the Eagles have the league right where they want it.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Carson Wentz played all 16 games for the first time in his career in 2019; he also played all 16 games as a rookie.