It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a version of the Eagles offense that resembles the unit many expect it to be. Therein lies the promise of 2019, as well as the difficulty in projecting it. Think about all of the different iterations of this team that have come and gone in the year-and-a-half that has passed since the eight-game winning streak that cemented their arrival as legitimate contenders in 2017.
There was the team with good Nick Foles and the team with bad Nick Foles. There was the team without Jason Peters and the one with him. There was the team without Jay Ajayi and then the one with him, and then the one without him again. Most significant of all, there was the team with Carson Wentz playing at an MVP level, and then the team with something less than that.
That the Eagles managed to win a Super Bowl amidst all of this flux is a testament to the herculean individual efforts of Foles and Doug Pederson. Really, though, you have to go back to Week 14 of that season to find the last time we saw the same sort of team that many envision this year’s bunch to be.
In the present moment, the Eagles’ 43-35 win over the Los Angeles Rams at Memorial Coliseum is remembered mostly as the day that everything changed. With under four minutes remaining in the third quarter, Wentz scrambled around right end and absorbed a ferocious hit at the goal line on a play that tore up his knee and put the season in the hands of Foles. Before that fateful turn of events, however, Wentz and the Eagles offense turned in one of their most impressive performances of the Pederson era.
For three quarters of a road game against a team that was nipping at their heels in the race for home-field advantage, Wentz carried the Eagles to a 31-28 lead, completing 23-of-41 passes for 291 yards and four touchdowns. In addition to serving as an inconvenient truth for those who fault him for never having won the proverbial “big game,” the victory was a statement about the capabilities of Pederson’s offense when playing with a full deck of personnel. They ran the ball with authority: Ajayi’s 78 yards on 15 carries paced a ground game that finished with 139 yards. They stretched the field: Torrey Smith’s 46-yard reception on third-and-11 late in the second quarter set up an important field goal. They got clutch play out of Wentz: in addition to Smith’s 46-yarder, Wentz completed passes of 20, 18 and 24 yards on third and fourth down.
The formula the Eagles deployed against the Rams is one that they struggled to recreate throughout 2018. The conventional wisdom seems to lay much of the blame at the feet of Wentz, but the bigger culprit was the mix of personnel around him. When Mike Wallace went down with a fractured fibula in Week 2, it robbed Pederson’s offense of one of its most important components, a deep threat capable of taking the top off of defenses and opening up the middle of the field. Smith may not have been a game-changer in his one year in the system, but he made safeties wary. Likewise, Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount weren’t the most well-rounded running backs in the league, but together with a healthy Corey Clement they gave the Eagles a stable of backs that, for the most part, took the ground that was available for them to take.
Pederson and general manager Howie Roseman clearly entered this offseason determined to recreate the formula that bore so much fruit for them in 2017. In DeSean Jackson, they acquired a veteran who they hope can give them even more of a vertical threat than Smith provided. In Jordan Howard, they landed themselves a back who they hope can bring the same short-yardage toughness as Blount with a little more burst. In Miles Sanders, they drafted a rookie who they hope can be just as explosive through the hole as Ajayi with a more durable frame and a more diverse game.
With the start of the season upon us, two big questions remain. First and foremost, will everybody live up to their billing? As dangerous as Jackson remains at the age of 33, he has missed at least two games while finishing with under 775 receiving yards in three of the last four seasons. Last season, after Week 6, he ranked just 51st in average yards per catch among players with at least 10 receptions. Over the last two seasons, his 12.34 yards-per-reception after Week 7 ranks 64th among wideouts with at least 382 yards receiving.
Jackson already has a broken finger that has raised some doubt on his availability for Week 1.
In the backfield, Howard seems like as safe a bet as any to give the Eagles a dependable between-the-tackles runner on first and second down and in short yardage situations. But Sanders remains virtually 100 percent projection.
The second question is the one alluded to at the top of this column, and should be considered in two parts. What will it all look like if all of the pieces fit together the way they did during that 2017 peak? And, conversely, what will it look like if one of those pieces goes away? If Sanders develops into a back capable of 15-20 touches per game, and Jackson remains healthy, this offense has the potential to reach heights yet unseen. But it has been awhile since we have seen the Eagles reach anything close to that altitude. The climb begins Sunday. Everything after that is the reason we watch.