There’s a joke, many years old now and bordering on hackneyed, about how you can pull up Twitter during an Eagles game and find every Mike, Nick, and Dan in the Delaware Valley ready to jump off the Commodore Barry Bridge because the Birds suck so bad. Then you can turn on the game to find out the Eagles are up two scores in the third quarter.
Most good jokes carry an uncomfortable kernel of truth, but this one is basically just fact. Eagles fans have a reputation for being needy, capricious, and prone to histrionics—largely because they are all those things. And by “they” I mean “we,” because as much as I evangelize for a detached, Zen-like approach to sports fandom, the Eagles turn me into a drooling, blabbering idiot. For example: I have a Philly Special tattoo, but as late as the week leading up to that year’s NFC championship game, I was pacing around like a caged leopard, telling anyone who’d listen that the Eagles would be better off ditching Nick Foles—whom I’d hated ever since he replaced Michael Vick in 2013—and putting Greg Ward Jr. under center for the first time in his professional career.
Somehow, this franchise makes everyone from West Chester to Wilmington 20 percent angrier and 30 percent stupider. And the 2021-22 vintage is the most Eagles team yet.
That by no means means it’s the best Eagles team. For that, you could make an argument for the Super Bowl–winning incarnation, or one of a few Andy Reid–Donovan McNabb–Brian Dawkins squads from the early 2000s. (To use the preferred style, His Royal Holiness Brian Dawkins.) Or you could go all the way back to the days of Greasy Neale and Chuck Bednarik. No, this team is the most Eagles team—meaning it’s so weird, so unpredictable, and so alternately glorious and infuriating that it embodies the id of the fan base like no other before it.
This is a team whose formidable running game makes it an underdog no one wants to face in the playoffs, but just six weeks ago put up just seven points in a loss to the New York Giants. You know, these jokers.
The Giants just QB sneaked on 2nd & 3rd down. This is unbelievably soft. pic.twitter.com/4ziBxYI55A— Bobby Skinner (@BobbySkinner_) January 9, 2022
A team that went from playing for draft position at midseason to wrapping up a playoff berth with a week to spare. But it also has a grand total of one win—at home, against the then-5-4 Saints—over teams that finished with a winning record. The four-game winning streak from December 5 to January 2—in which the Eagles overcame two-score deficits to Washington twice and trailed early against the Jets and Giants before winning by double digits—are the Eagles in microcosm.
Few teams are capable of such inexorable offensive greatness and susceptible to such mystifying self-sabotage all within the span of a quarter or two. The Eagles could be up by two scores in the third, and the Cassandras and Chicken Littles of Eagles Twitter would be completely justified in their frustration.
Of course, it’s not just that this team is inconsistent from quarter to quarter—the Eagles underwent a genuine midseason transformation. During the first half of the season, first-year head coach Nick Sirianni tried to install a pass-heavy offense, only to find that his plan fit his players about as well as Cinderella’s glass slipper fit her stepsisters. Jalen Hurts will occasionally miss an open receiver but never misses leg day. Rookie receiver DeVonta Smith looks like the real deal, and tight end Dallas Goedert was fifth in the league in receiving yards among tight ends. But Hurts’s other options are a series of busted draft picks who make Freddie Mitchell look like Jerry Rice.
In this day and age, a run-first NFL offense can seem counterintuitive. Calling for smashmouth action is usually the province of cranks and talk-radio callers, the kind of people who’d struggle to pass a football because they’ve torn up their hands dragging their knuckles on the ground all the livelong day. But over the second half of the season, Sirianni and the Eagles salvaged things by going back to the Stone Age.
In addition to Hurts and an exceptional offensive line, the Eagles have a four-headed rotating monster of tailbacks in Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Kenneth Gainwell, and the pint-sized Boston Scott. There’s not a Brian Westbrook in the bunch, but in concert they’ve been more than adequate. Hurts and Sanders are fourth and seventh in the league, respectively, in yards per attempt (minimum 100 attempts), and Hurts had more rushing touchdowns (10) than any other quarterback this season.
Even the Eagles’ revelatory second-half ground game has been a little weird, though; Sanders led all Philly skill position players in touches and was a close second to Smith in total yards, but he scored zero touchdowns. His 912 yards from scrimmage are the most by a player with zero touchdowns in 18 years, and the sixth most in a season since the merger. And as great as Hurts has been at times, he still hasn’t convinced everyone. Hurts sat out Week 13 with an ankle injury, and backup Gardner Minshew went 20-for-25 while giving off that soupçon of dirtbag charm Eagles fans have loved from a backup quarterback ever since Koy Detmer busted out the whuppin’ stick at the end of the 1999 season. Even weeks later, a minor quarterback controversy simmered in the background.
And perhaps the most surprising thing about the Eagles’ turnaround is the man who’s helming it. Sirianni wasn’t a popular choice to replace Super Bowl–winning coach Doug Pederson, having been hired as a 39-year-old with little experience over the likes of Duce Staley and Eric Bieniemy. Sirianni was a relative unknown and little about him inspired confidence. In photographs, he tends to have the nervous, hollow-eyed look of a high school freshman who has to give an oral presentation but just realized he left his notecards on the bus.
The introductory press conference was even worse; a nervous Sirianni stumbled and sweated, looking less like the next Reid than someone who shouldn’t be allowed to drive a car. Then after the draft combine, he said he’d played rock-paper-scissors with prospects to gauge their competitiveness (even if that is a useful player evaluation tool, it looks positively deranged to anyone not in on the gag).
But credit where credit’s due to this prolific author of cringe for recognizing what he had—Hurts, Sanders, the offensive line, and running game coordinator Jeff Stoutland—and correcting course when necessary. Not every coach (glances up the New Jersey Turnpike to the Meadowlands) is so flexible.
Now we know the Eagles are hot, we know they can run the ball, and we know Hurts—who dodged an avalanche of broken metal and human flesh while coming off the field two weeks ago—is a cool customer.
What we don’t know with any level of confidence is whether this team is good. Whether their George Patton–inspired offense is sustainable. Whether they’re as good as their record or merely better than their soft second-half schedule. That uncertainty makes it impossible not to project one’s own hopes and fears onto this cipher of a team. And given that Eagles fans have the most hopes and fears of any NFL fan base, the lead-up to Sunday’s confrontation with the Buccaneers could constitute a genuine threat to public safety. Particularly given what happened the last time these two teams met in the postseason, or the last time Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski came up against an underdog Eagles team in the playoffs.
Whether Hurts leaves Tampa a hero or with a Vita Vea–shaped hole in his torso, this game will be exciting, frustrating, and ludicrous. It will—like everything about this season’s Eagles team—be exactly what Philadelphia deserves.