A couple of weeks ago, on the Friday before the wild-card round of the playoffs, Jalen Hurts threw a football at the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice. It was big news because just the day before, he had merely gone through throwing motions with a white Gatorade towel to give his injured shoulder a break. That caution with Hurts’s injury led to 24 hours of panic across the Philadelphia area. Panic can be considered the default state for most Eagles fans, and the uncertainty surrounding Hurts’s injury wasn’t helping. But on that Friday practice, as Hurts zigzagged through orange cones, firing off pass after pass, reporters whipped out their phones to capture the footage, which provided temporary relief.
This is what it’s been like recently in the greater Philadelphia area—enjoying every high in a surprisingly successful season for an upstart Eagles team while dreading what disaster might come next. It’s an inescapable cycle, present in nearly every facet of day-to-day life. So much so that last Friday, the day before the Eagles’ divisional-round game against the Giants, I received a weekly email from my daughter’s first-grade teacher. It explained that the kids had a wonderful day of service to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and that they would be working on a special Valentine’s Day project. The sign-off read: “Go Birds.” It was time.
Then, last Saturday night, the Eagles destroyed the Giants in the divisional round. Hurts completed his first seven passes for 89 yards and two touchdowns. The Eagles were up 28-0 at halftime and went on to win 38-7. Now they’re set to host the NFC championship game against the 49ers on Sunday.
Before the season, the Eagles generated some sleeper buzz, but they were not expected to be here. They were tied with the Titans and Cardinals at plus-3,000 to win the Super Bowl. That ranked 14th, just below the Colts and the Browns. So what happened? How did this group get here, to within one win of the Super Bowl?
Let me try to explain.
Stats are courtesy of TruMedia and Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.
1. Jalen Hurts surprised everyone.
Standing at his locker following the Eagles’ Week 18 win over the Giants, wide receiver A.J. Brown was asked what he’s learned about Hurts from being around him every day. Hurts and Brown have been close ever since Hurts tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit Brown to go to Alabama. But this season was the most time they’d spent together.
“He hardheaded,” Brown told me with a laugh after the Eagles’ Week 18 win. He continued, “No, he’s just very determined. I knew that already just being his friend, but he’s obsessed with this, and you want to see that.”
Brown explained that he’s obsessed too, but he has a family at home and wants to see them after work. Hurts, as Brown put it, turns the lights on and turns the lights off at the Eagles’ practice facility.
The third-year quarterback actually lives out all of the clichés that have become a part of football culture. One day at a time. Don’t get too high or too low. Trust the process. Usually, we hear those phrases and roll our eyes. But those who have been around Hurts insist it’s all real. This is who he is.
“I’ve always thought that one of his biggest strengths is his intangibles, his presence, his calm demeanor, but at the same time competitive demeanor,” said center Jason Kelce. “At all times, he thinks that he’s the best player on the field. But the emotion is at the right level to keep the guys at the right place. His presence is very well suited for a quarterback in the NFL.”
The truth is that the intangibles matter only if a guy can play. And this year, the Eagles are 15-1 with Hurts as their starter. It’s hard to know how much room a player has to actually get better by the time he reaches the NFL. Oftentimes, we overrate the capacity for improvement in the pros. But with Hurts, it’s been a huge factor.
His completion percentage has jumped from 61.3 percent last year to 66.5 percent this year. Next Gen Stats tracks completion percentage over expectation, using GPS trackers to look at the likelihood of a completion on every pass based on distance, location, separation, pressure, and other factors. Last year, Hurts ranked 21st in completion percentage over expectation. This year, he’s second.
Hurts has worked the middle of the field more and been more decisive. He has better command pre-snap and understands when defenses are trying to disguise coverages. Hurts finished the regular season with 3,701 passing yards and 760 rushing yards. It’s just the fourth time in NFL history that a quarterback has hit those marks in a single season—and Hurts did it despite missing two regular-season games.
But the context of Hurts’s breakout season is critical because this type of franchise quarterback production isn’t what anyone, including the people who drafted him, expected. The Eagles selected him in the second round of the 2020 draft because they wanted an inexpensive backup for Carson Wentz, whom they had signed to a $128 million contract extension 10 months earlier. Wentz, of course, cratered and requested a trade. The Eagles needed a year to get their cap in order and catch their breath, so they rolled with Hurts in 2021.
After a slow start, the Eagles learned to lean on Hurts’s legs more, went 9-8, and earned a wild-card spot before losing to the Bucs. Yet in the offseason, the Eagles still weren’t sure what they had in Hurts. Had Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson expressed interest in playing in Philadelphia, well, the narratives around the Eagles might be a lot different right now. Ultimately, the Eagles looked around, didn’t see an upgrade, and decided to stick with Hurts for another season. It was the safest route. They maintained optionality for the upcoming offseason and acquired an additional first-round pick from the Saints. The thought was to give Hurts another year with a strong supporting cast and be ready to move to a better option in 2023 if necessary.
Hurts, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal in 2023, made that optionality moot. Regardless of how the Eagles’ playoff run ends, the most likely scenario is that they’ll sign him to a long-term contract this offseason. Hurts was first pegged as a backup plan, then a fallback option. Now he’s the face of the franchise and the quarterback who likely gives it the best chance of sustained success since the Donovan McNabb era.
2. Nick Sirianni found his way—quickly.
After the preseason, when the Eagles set their 53-man roster, Sirianni held a meeting in which he went over each player’s role in front of the whole team. It was a way to be transparent and accountable. He didn’t want any surprises.
Wide receiver Quez Watkins had 647 receiving yards in 2021, but the Eagles traded for Brown in the offseason. Sirianni, in front of the whole team, outlined Watkins’s new role in 2022, explaining that Watkins would be expected to make timely plays when the offense needed him but that the passing game would run through Brown, DeVonta Smith, and tight end Dallas Goedert. Sirianni was clear and detailed as he went through more players on the roster.
“You gotta appreciate the honesty,” said cornerback James Bradberry. “At the end of the day, no matter how you might feel about what your role is, at least he was honest with you and told you your role straight up.”
Eventually, Sirianni came to rookie third-string tight end Grant Calcaterra and told him he would have to step up if Goedert were to go down.
“I’ve never had anything like that before,” Calcaterra said. “I could see how it would bum some guys out, but at the end of the day, it’s better to know rather than to not know. Everybody wants to know their value and that they should be working to make their value greater, so I thought it was cool.”
Sirianni has pushed all the right buttons in his second season. But early in his tenure, it would have been hard to see this coming. The Eagles got off to a 3-6 start in 2021. He gave up play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, and the Eagles switched to a more run-focused approach with Hurts. The moves showed a humility that you don’t see in every head coach, especially one in his first season on a team with low expectations. He could’ve kept banging his head against the wall and maintained the same approach. But he didn’t. He made changes, and they paid off. In their last 27 games (playoffs included), the Eagles are 21-6. That includes a meaningless Week 18 game last year and four games started by Gardner Minshew.
Sirianni has shown a desire to coach the whole team and not be just a play caller. His game management has been outstanding, and he has consistently made optimal decisions in the game that have given the Eagles an edge.
Perhaps most important, he’s been authentic. Most of the time on NFL teams, it’s the coach’s job to calm down the players. With the Eagles, it’s the opposite. The players have taken on Hurts’s personality and a calm, businesslike approach to how they play. Sirianni, though, is a wild card. And he was feeling himself during the Eagles’ win over the Giants last week:
Sirianni reminds me of that older guy in the neighborhood that would run it up in hoops and just rub it in.. pic.twitter.com/uLvq7Xd4cm— SpreadOffense.com (@SpreadOffense) January 23, 2023
Those histrionics were not out of character. After a Week 11 win in Indianapolis, Sirianni turned to the fans and yelled, “That shit was for Frank Reich!” Sirianni coached with Reich in Indianapolis, and the two remain close. He wasn’t happy with the Colts’ decision to fire Reich and said as much.
“I would say the Colts game was probably the most fired up I’ve seen him,” said Bradberry. “It surprised me at first. When I thought about it, I said, ‘Yeah.’ I like it, though. You gotta have a competitive coach.”
Sirianni’s personality aligns well with the fan base. Eagles fans are at their most comfortable when they feel like outsiders hate them. If Sirianni coached the Cowboys or the Giants, Eagles fans would despise him at an unhealthy level. But he isn’t just a random over-the-top head coach now. He’s their over-the-top head coach.
Of course, none of that would matter if Sirianni were a bad coach. But he’s found ways to connect with players, and every time that an opponent has offered a theoretical blueprint for how to slow the Eagles offense down this season, Sirianni and his staff have come up with effective counters. Those counters are a big reason why the Eagles have had the season they’ve had.
3. They’ve kept the pass game simple and the run game complex.
The Eagles offense finished the regular season ranked third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. That’s tied for the franchise’s best offensive ranking in the Football Outsiders database, which goes back to 1981. That includes a stretch of 14 years with Andy Reid as their head coach.
They finished the regular season ninth in passing DVOA and first in rushing DVOA. The approach between the two couldn’t be any more different. The passing game is low volume. With Brown, Smith, and Goedert, most weeks the Eagles are going to have a matchup they like. If any one of those players gets a one-on-one on the outside, they’re taking them. This aligns well with one of Hurts’s best attributes as a passer—he gives his receivers chances. Hurts had 854 passing yards on go routes this season, the fifth most of any quarterback. He had 365 yards on screens to wide receivers and tight ends, second most. Brown was brought in to open the middle of the field, and the Eagles like nothing more than to take easy money by hitting him on slants. Hurts has 478 yards on slants, second behind only Joe Burrow.
The run game, however, is a different story. Offensive line coach and run game coordinator Jeff Stoutland has been the Eagles’ secret weapon. He originally joined the Eagles under Chip Kelly and is now operating under his third head coach. He’s the longest-tenured member of the coaching staff and the architect of the run game. Over the years, but specifically in the past two seasons with a threat like Hurts, Stoutland has developed one of the most diverse run games in the NFL.
One week, the Eagles’ go-to run might be zone read. The next week, it could be counter read. The next week, they might mix in more power or tackle trap. The goal, according to several players, is simple: never run into a bad look.
“[Stoutland] watches every clip,” said running back Boston Scott. “When we’re facing an opponent, he watches every clip. There’s not a clip that he does not watch. So based on that, he’s able to put a plan together. It’s not just inside zone, outside zone. We’re gonna have a lot of things we can throw at you, the versatility makes it hard to defend.
“It just depends on how deep you get, how much work you’re willing to put in to say, ‘Hey statistically, defenses show a weakness against this type of run.’ And then implement a plan.”
Having a bunch of different schemes is great, but some coaches prefer simplicity. There has to be a plan for instructing players on what to do without overwhelming them. Otherwise, you end up with mental errors and busted plays. With the run game specifically, all it takes is for one player to mess up for disaster to ensue.
“You’re always toying with that line,” Kelce said. “You want to be simplified in the eyes and the minds of the players and do things that they do constantly. But you also want to present different looks and different fits and things for the defense. The best coaches find ways to do what you do and make it look different to the defense.”
Not only did the Eagles have the highest expected points added (EPA) on rushes of any team this season, they had the second-highest of any team in the past 10 years. And at the heart of it all is Hurts. His decisions pre- and post-snap consistently put the Eagles in advantageous situations. Among the 46 players with at least 100 designed rushes (not scrambles) this season, Hurts posted far and away the best success rate at 66.7 percent. To put that into perspective, no other player was better than 48.6 percent. The difference between Hurts and no. 2 was roughly the same as the difference between no. 2 and no. 45. No other quarterback had as many designed runs as Hurts, and no other player was close to being as efficient. His running provided easy answers for the Eagles all season long.
Of course, given the shoulder injury, it’s fair to wonder whether Hurts can have the same rushing success against the 49ers. On Sunday, it’ll be strength on strength with the Eagles offense against the 49ers defense, which ranks first in DVOA (fourth against the pass and second against the run). The Eagles will do their best to not run into bad looks, and they’ll take their one-on-one shots outside. It’s the formula that’s worked for them all season, and if they find success one more time, they’ll have a good chance of playing in the Super Bowl.
4. They have overinvested in the offensive and defensive lines.
There has been carryover with the Eagles’ overall roster philosophy from Jeffrey Lurie’s early years as an owner, when Reid and former team president Joe Banner were by his side. The thought was simple then and is simple now: Find a quarterback, protect him with a good offensive line, and find a way to hit the other quarterback. If you can do that, you can figure everything else out.
The offensive line is at the core of everything the Eagles do—both in the run game and in the pass game. There are weeks when you watch Hurts on film and just cackle at how many pristine pockets he throws from. That’s a credit to the players, Stoutland, and GM Howie Roseman. Kelce and right tackle Lane Johnson were both first-team All Pros. Guards Isaac Seumalo and Landon Dickerson, along with left tackle Jordan Mailata, have been reliable starters. The Eagles have multiple backups—Andre Dillard, Cam Jurgens, Jack Driscoll—who could probably start on a lot of teams. Roseman has never wanted to be in a position where a couple of O-Line injuries doom the Eagles’ season, and that investment has paid off.
Meanwhile, the pass rush has keyed the Eagles’ defensive success. The Eagles racked up a league-best 70 sacks this year, sacking opposing quarterbacks on 11.4 percent of their dropbacks. That’s the highest single-season mark in TruMedia’s database, which goes back to 2000. If we look at just this year, the difference in sack rate between the Eagles and the no. 2 Patriots is the same as the difference between the Patriots and the no. 28 Jaguars. The Eagles’ second-string defensive line of Brandon Graham, Jordan Davis, Milton Williams, and Robert Quinn could easily be a productive starting group for a lot of NFL teams. Corners Darius Slay and Bradberry have won their one-on-one matchups, and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has found ways to force opposing quarterbacks to hold on to the ball.
Hurts’s play this year has raised the Eagles’ ceiling. But the talent up front on both sides of the ball has given them a high floor over the past two years.
5. Howie Roseman has shown an ability to pivot.
The first rule for every GM every offseason should be: Don’t fall in love. That’s easy to say and hard to do. But it’s a big reason Roseman has been able to build one of the best rosters in the NFL.
The Eagles had interest in wide receiver Christian Kirk last offseason, but they weren’t willing to pay the price the Jaguars paid. They were “deep in talks” with Allen Robinson II, but the Rams swooped in to sign him (yes, some luck helps, too). If the Eagles made either move, they probably wouldn’t have been in position to trade for Brown and sign him to a long-term extension.
In 2020, the Eagles had interest in signing cornerback Byron Jones, but he instead went to Miami. They pivoted and added defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who has emerged as one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL. Roseman subsequently traded for Slay to get the cornerback upgrade he wanted, and Slay has performed at an All-Pro level.
We can even go back to the Wentz trade. Had Wentz wanted to stay in Philadelphia following the disastrous 2020 season, he probably would have been the quarterback last year, given the team’s financial commitment to him. But he wanted out. In those situations, some general managers eschew value and just give a player away. Roseman stayed patient and ended up getting first- and third-round picks for Wentz, even though he’d performed like one of the worst starters in the NFL.
It’s hard to be patient and disciplined as an NFL GM unless you have job security. Roseman has stayed on through four different head coaches and right now has more control within the organization than ever before. Lurie has empowered him to make moves that serve both the short term and the long term. That includes the Wentz trade, which resulted in the biggest dead cap hit in NFL history at the time.
It’s one of the many reasons ownership matters. Lurie positioned Roseman to succeed, and Roseman has built one of the best rosters in the NFL.
Put all of these things together, and it’s not hard to understand why the Eagles are in the NFC championship game for the seventh time since 2001—the most appearances by any team in the conference during that span. Text threads among fans this week will be filled with links from national media types who are picking the 49ers. The fact that the Eagles are now the favorites to win the Super Bowl likely won’t gain a lot of traction locally. That’s not a comfortable headspace to be in for this group.
Having said that, there is a segment of the fan base that swears it’s been cured by the Super Bowl win at the end of the 2017 season. Those fans can now approach games like this one with confidence, believing wholeheartedly that the Eagles are going to come through for them. For another faction, that’s just never going to be possible. Sure, 2017 was great. But what about the ghosts of Ricky Manning Jr. and Ronde Barber and Joe Jurevicius? Those memories will never be erased.
The hope within the organization has to be that this is the start of something. But the truth is NFL teams never really know when the window is open. Most within the Eagles organization did not expect them to win a Super Bowl five years ago. Then they did, and it felt like the window would stay wide open. Over the next four years, they went 31-33-1 and failed to get past the divisional round. They fired Doug Pederson and traded Wentz.
Because of the strength of the roster, the influx of young talent, and Hurts’s makeup, this feels more sustainable. But as Hurts might say, nothing is guaranteed. Right now, it’s just about keeping that window open for two more weeks.