Former Eagles president Joe Banner is doing a weekly Q&A with Inquirer Eagles reporter EJ Smith. This week, they discuss the Eagles’ shift toward younger players, the run-heavy offensive approach Nick Sirianni is employing, and the rookie class’ progress report midway through the season.
EJ: At the beginning of the season you said Howie Roseman and the Eagles’ decision-makers were hopeful to walk the line between rebuilding and competing in the short term. Since then we’ve seen a shift to younger players like Davion Taylor, Tyree Jackson and Milton Williams. Do you think that’s emblematic that they’re shifting to a more long-term view?
JB: We’ve seen them moving more toward getting the young guys playing time, giving them a chance to develop, and having a clear evaluation of them by the end of the year. I think they were hoping they’d be a little bit better than they are; I don’t think they’ve completely thrown in the towel, but I think actions speak louder than words. If you watch their actions, I think exactly what you suggested is happening, they seem to be moving toward getting young guys time to be ready for next year and to have a clear evaluation for this year, which I think is smart.
EJ: Is there a player who comes to mind who really benefited from being on a rebuilding team that had patience rather than a win-now team?
JB: There’s a lot of those. Some of them with people that are well-known to the fans like Brandon Graham. He was considered a bust in his first couple of years in the league. We never considered him a bust in the building; it was just whether he’d be pretty good or very good. We never lost faith in that pick even though the public did.
People forget, guys like Brian Westbrook, Tra Thomas, and some of the guys that have been some of the guys that have been some of the better players on this team weren’t great players as first- or second-year guys. You can even go through the roster of guys now. It didn’t last very long, but Lane Johnson wasn’t great in his first couple of games.
EJ: Shifting to the game, it’s kind of a topic every week, but what did you make of the defensive struggles after some apparent progress against the Lions?
JB: I tried to be the voice of reason after the Detroit game and both acknowledge that they played really well and that was notable and they deserved praise, but some of the things that we needed to see to predict long-term success weren’t there. One of the things I had in mind when saying that was watching [the Lions’ Jared] Goff and a pretty weak offense complete 14 of 17 passes in the first half of that game.
We’re seeing consistent success throwing the ball against this defense with very few interruptions and it’s very concerning. There’s no doubt in my mind that some of it is scheme. Some of it is also talent, but the coach can fix the scheme part pretty quickly if he sees it and has the right vision. That’s generally coming from the head coach or the coordinator or both.
Just the nature of football in the NFL with the speed and aggressiveness, the notion that a quarterback will throw a few bad balls, there will be at least some pressures or a drop, to see 80%, 90% of passes being completed should basically be impossible. Just the nature of the quality you have to be to be in the league, even if you’re not at the top, you should get 20% or 30% of passes incomplete.
EJ: What do you attribute the defensive struggles to?
JB: They built the team, which I think is wise, where you overinvest in the defensive line with the hope that it covers up any other weaknesses or sins you have. If you build it that way and the defensive line isn’t dominant enough, which has happened, you have a real problem.
For me, in the NFL, you have to get pressure. It isn’t an option. If you can’t get it rushing four more of the time, you have to get more aggressive and creative. It may expose players who aren’t playing great, but you have a better chance of stopping the play through pressure than coverage when you have the weaknesses in coverage that they do.
It’s very concerning. When you have a combination of both a deficiency in talent and coaching, that makes it seem like you’re a lot further than what you’re trying to get to than what you think they are. It’s really shocking to see the success teams are having through the air, and most of the success is players that are open by a decent amount. It’s not like some quarterback is just threading the needle; most of the time we’re seeing guys open by a significant amount.
EJ: On the other side of the ball, we’ve seen the offense find an apparent identity as a run-heavy team. What role do you think that played in the loss against the Chargers and the success they might have through the rest of the season?
JB: Some people try to portray my position as if I think they should throw the ball every down. That’s not what I think and I ran the team long enough that that should be fairly obvious. But you can’t change two facts. Touchdown drives in the NFL, unless they’re short drives, tend to overwhelmingly be from passing yardage and have more passes than runs in the drive. That’s just true. The second thing that you can’t fight is that the team that gets the lead early wins a much higher percentage of the games.
Both of those things say passing early to get the lead and then running more as the game goes on to control the game is the formula that gives you the best chance.
For me, this week was a classic example. You’re playing against a team that is very weak against the run but was missing three starters in the secondary, including both starting corners when the game started. They lost one of their corners fairly early. They’re playing against the fourth and fifth cornerbacks. With the receivers they have, the tight ends and the backs they have, that should create huge mismatches.
The fact that they played the first half of this game and were dominant and only scored 10 points, to me, makes that point. You will run the ball well, but you also need to know that if you do that, you’re likely to not score a lot of points. That’s exactly what happened in this game.
In the second half, they opened it up a little bit more, partially because they had to, they moved the ball better and scored more points in less possessions.
EJ: Does this approach, where Jalen Hurts is throwing less than 20 times a game, make it harder to evaluate him?
JB: A little bit, but what’s more telling is the fact that they’re playing this way. Believe me, all the stats about running and passing and getting early leads, they know. We did it when I was there, we left it behind. You can watch the way they play the game and how they built the team. Their preference is to play with the philosophy that I’m describing. The fact that they’re not does tell us that, at this moment in time, they’re trying to manage how much they’re putting on Hurts’ plate. That doesn’t mean they don’t think he’ll be great in the long run — we don’t know that — but we know that they currently feel like the best way to develop him is to gradually put a little bit more on his plate.
They’re being realistic about where he is and not just throwing a whole bunch of stuff at him, maybe like they did with Carson Wentz. Some teams do it very gradually, others do it very quickly. I think it’s clear their assessment at the moment is they need to layer this in and try to give him a little bit more each week. It doesn’t tell us where they are long term on the guy, but it tells us where they are at this moment.
EJ: What’s your overall impression of the rookie class so far?
JB: I think overall there’s some encouragement and some unknown. It’d be completely shocking to everyone if DeVonta Smith isn’t a very good player. We still have to make sure he can stay healthy at his size at this level, but the best receivers in the league have the ability to get open, have great hands, and the really good ones have great speed. He has all three of those things. The question is if he can perform them at this level at the uppermost skill levels, and I’m quite encouraged that that’s a yes.
Landon Dickerson didn’t start great; I was actually kind of worried with what I was seeing. I think he’s gotten better as he’s playing more, but still not up to what we thought he’d be based on how he played in college outside of the injuries. I’m still hopeful he’ll be a quality starter for them, though.
The rest of the guys, we really haven’t seen that much. There’s some encouraging things with Milton Williams, but we haven’t seen enough to study it with clarity. Kenny Gainwell obviously was picked to be a role player as opposed to a stud and I think he’s already playing that role. There’s reason to be quite optimistic that he’s going to be good at that.
EJ: There’s always been the perception that rookie wide receivers need a few years to really make an impact. How significant is Smith’s production considering that?
JB: I think this is actually shifting. Until the last four or five years, we rarely saw rookie wide receivers contributing at a high level. It took time to get used to some of the choices they have within routes and just getting used to the speed of the game and how good corners are at this level. The last few years, though, we’re starting to see rookies contributing at a higher level. I don’t know if that’s because people are giving them more of a chance or if there’s something else going on, but he’s performing at a level we haven’t seen many rookies perform at. He’s not unique in that, but it doesn’t mean it’s not conspicuous and it isn’t an encouraging sign.
Remember, he’s playing with an offensive line that has struggled at times, with a quarterback that, at best, is new and has had his ups and downs, and with a new coach putting in a new offense. To be achieving what he is and consistently getting open — he’s had a couple of drops but I’m not really worried about his hands — I think it’s further evidence of what he did in college and his reputation.
EJ: Avonte Maddox has been playing well and is set to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Do you think he’s a good candidate for an extension?
JB: I think if they can sign him to a modest deal, relatively short-term, they’d love to have him back. This is just my opinion, but I’m not convinced he’s good enough to win against really good teams. I am convinced that he’s playing well and has been improving. If I could sign him to a modest contract that wasn’t too long and give myself more time to develop him, I think that would be a wise move.