The Eagles are the NFL’s weirdoes. Might as well accept it now. You’ll be hearing it all week. They are not a playoff team as much as they are a curiosity. If 2017 was the year of the underdog, 2022 is the year of the oddball. Maybe you don’t think that sounds so bad. Maybe you haven’t pictured Joe Buck saying it. Like I said: breathe.
Besides, they aren’t wrong. Buck, Troy Aikman, the folks on ESPN, everybody who has ever spent a sleepless night trying to figure out a name for their podcast — nobody knows what to make of this team. Heck, neither do we. Half the fan base wanted to fire the head coach two months after he got the job. It took until December for people to stop focusing on draft position. The quarterback’s approval numbers look like they were recorded by a seismograph. The last four months have felt like an immersive internet meme. It’s an old woman! A young woman! It’s purple! It’s blue! The Eagles are the NFL’s duck-rabbit. Their mystery makes them impossible to ignore.
It also changes the stakes of this Sunday’s playoff opener against the Buccaneers. The Eagles are different than they have been in previous postseasons. Whoever said there are no moral victories in the NFL clearly wasn’t thinking about a 9-8 team with a first-year head coach and a first-year starter hitting the road to face the defending Super Bowl champs and their extraterrestrial quarterback. The primary goal remains to survive and advance. But the Eagles have plenty to gain simply by looking like they belong.
I suspect that sentence will prompt plenty of reflexive opposition. Ours is a city that holds itself to a higher standard than “Don’t get blown out.” That’s a sentiment for places like Tampa, where you can lose a playoff game at 1 p.m. and be on a boat in the Gulf by 5 p.m. Here in Philadelphia, it will be 25 degrees and gray on Sunday. The Flyers have four games scheduled next week. Football season is all that we’ve got.
So allow me to clarify. Nothing about Sunday is a fait accompli. The Bucs are a very good team with a very good quarterback, but they have looked less than indestructible in recent weeks. They are trying to do something that no team has done in 17 years (back when Tom Brady had only three Super Bowl rings). They are banged up. Their leading rusher is battling a hamstring injury. Their fourth-leading receiver is currently waging a propaganda war. The Bucs are vulnerable.
The point isn’t that the Eagles are doomed. It’s that the list of potential outcomes is much longer than the victory/defeat binary by which most playoff games are judged. When everybody labeled 2021 a fact-finding mission, few assumed that we would still be finding those facts after 18 weeks. Yet, here we are. It’s the confounding thing about this season, this team, this quarterback, this coach, this front office, this ownership group. The more information we get, the less we seem to know.
What do we know? It’s a list full of asterisks and hedged bets. We know that they hired a functional head coach, the only member of this year’s rookie crop to make the postseason. Nick Sirianni was not the disaster that he could have been, that many other new hires are. We know that all five of the coaches that Jeffrey Lurie has hired have guided teams to the playoffs in their first or second seasons.
Yet the playoffs are an arbitrary benchmark. Like Sirianni, Brandon Staley guided his team to a 9-8 record in his first season at the helm. Like Sirianni, he did it with a second-year quarterback. The Chargers went 5-4 against playoff teams, including a win over the Eagles, who went 0-6 in such games. The Eagles had one inexcusable loss (Giants). The Chargers had two (Texans, Broncos). The list of first-year coaches who have qualified for the playoffs include two of Staley predecessors with the Chargers. Mike McCoy did it. So did Norv Turner. Elsewhere in the NFL, the list includes such notables Tony Sparano, Adam Gase, Eric Mangini, and Herm Edwards. What does it say that Sirianni is in the playoffs? What does it say that Staley isn’t?
Likewise with the quarterback. In nine of 17 games this season, Jalen Hurts was the best quarterback on the field. Give him a good offensive line, a good defense, and an intuitive coach, and your team will be competitive. That counts for a lot in today’s NFL. At the same time, it counts for a lot because today’s NFL is a place where teams are attempting to win games with Taylor Heinicke, and Teddy Bridgewater, and Sam Darnold, and Jake Fromm, and Garrett Gilbert, and Jared Goff, and Zach Wilson, and Trevor Siemian. And those are just the teams that tried to win games against the Eagles. Justin Fields, Trey Lance, Tua Tagovailoa, Davis Mills, the husk of Ben Roethlisberger — Hurts is a top-20 quarterback just by process of elimination. What does it mean that he is in the playoffs? What does it mean that Justin Herbert isn’t?
One thing that it means is that we get a chance to see. Sure, we’ll learn something if they win. But we’ll also learn something if they exceed expectations. Are these Eagles really a different team from the one that prompted so many questions back in September? Will we look back on 2021 as the start of something profound, or just one of those weird, ephemeral seasons? The postseason normally isn’t a time to value form over function. But this is not a normal postseason team.