EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — On a night when the Chiefs started Patrick Mahomes, the Eagles rested Jalen Hurts and their starters in the preseason finale.
While that juxtaposition may suggest an editorializing, the Eagles are not alone among NFL teams that have increasingly emphasized health over any value the preseason may have in preparing key players for the regular season.
Nick Sirianni, as a result, will have most of his first team injury-free for his first game as coach when the Eagles travel to the Falcons — assuming no one gets hurt in the two weeks of practice before the Sept. 12 opener.
Whether they’re ready or not is a mystery, maybe only a little more than normal for a first-time head coach. But considering the relatively-inexperienced Hurts played only two series in the preseason and that Sirianni is implementing new schemes on both sides of the ball, it’s fair to question the Eagles’ strategy.
If Mahomes, who has only been to the last two Super Bowls, can stand in the line of fire for a couple of series in what is typically the most meaningless preseason game, why can’t Hurts? A week ago, the Eagles’ second-year quarterback was pulled from the lineup moments before kickoff because of a stomach ailment.
But rather than use his absence as reason for suiting him up Friday night, Sirianni had hinted as early as immediately after an embarrassing 35-0 loss to the Patriots on Aug. 19 that Hurts wouldn’t play as long as the Eagles performed well in joint practices against the New York Jets on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“The way we played that practice was a game, and we treated the post-practice just as we would a game,” Sirianni said Friday. “We came in and we evaluated. We did the whole film session, and the charts that we look at just like a postgame.
“And to me, you don’t ever come off two days’ rest and play another game. I don’t think that would be good for our guys health-wise and I felt good about where we were.”
He felt as much against New England following two days of controlled scrimmages, though, and proceeded to get trounced when the score was actually kept. Sure, the Patriots played more of their starters than the Eagles, but some regulars did play and it was difficult to see any benefit to getting shut out.
The youthful Jets didn’t offer as much competition in joint practices this past week, but with both squads essentially playing their reserves Friday night, the Eagles’ third preseason game ended in a 31-31 tie.
A few projected starters played. Receivers Jalen Reagor and Quez Watkins were on the field for a series or two.
“I still feel like they needed more work to get out there and catch a couple balls and go,” Sirianni said.
But if the second-year receivers needed more experience, why not rookie receiver DeVonta Smith? He didn’t even play in the first preseason game because of a knee injury. Smith has already looked more seasoned than Reagor or Watkins, but it’s not as if he was error-free in his only preseason action last week.
The same applied to Hurts, who attempted just seven passes in the preseason opener. He completed four — two were dropped — but he missed one throw and one read. He looked relatively sharp in all four joint practices, but quarterbacks are off limits and tackling elsewhere forbidden.
There is simply no substitute for live football, which is why Andy Reid had Mahomes at the controls, along with Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and other offensive starters Friday night. The Chiefs quarterback wasn’t his usual sharp self last week.
Perhaps that is why he played. He may not have been happy about it. But Mahomes would complete 8 of 9 passes for 117 yards and close both his drives with touchdowns passes. Does that necessarily mean the Chiefs will carry that momentum into the season? Who knows? It can’t hurt.
But what if Mahomes were to have gotten hurt? Sirianni hasn’t mentioned the medical department in his explanations for the conservative approach, but it has influenced his decision-making. The Eagles have implemented an approach in recent years to put as many key players on ice as possible, and it’s one they’ve adopted from teams such as the Rams.
The Rams haven’t played most of their starters in their last four preseasons with Sean McVay as head coach. Whether there’s a correlation or not, they have been one of the healthiest teams in the NFL. In those four years, they have finished first, fourth, 10th and second in the least amount of adjusted games lost to injury, according to Football Outsiders.
The Eagles, meanwhile, have been one of the league’s most injury-plagued squads. In the last three years, they finished 32nd, 21st and 30th in adjusted games lost, and only two other teams over that span — the 49ers and Jets — have lost more games to injury.
Last offseason, general manager Howie Roseman hired Ted Rath from the Rams to lead the Eagles’ sports performance department. There wasn’t exactly a cause and effect after his arrival, but there also wasn’t a preseason last year.
Clearly, the Eagles are following his lead, although Sirianni said that resting starters in the preseason wasn’t pre-planned.
“Not necessarily,” Sirianni said. “Everything was evaluated. We had every intention, even [after] practicing with the Patriots, of playing them in that game. Everything was a case by case.”
The Eagles have avoided major injury thus far. The most significant setback in training camp was a back injury suffered by reserve tight end Tyree Jackson that will keep him out for a few months.
There have been an assortment of soft-tissue injuries and various bumps and bruises. But the Eagles are slated to enter the season — one with an additional game — far healthier than they were in the previous three seasons. But the injuries can pile up if the players aren’t in game shape when muscles are stretched to the max.
Of greater concern is readiness, or a lack thereof. Some past and current staffers believe the Eagles’ slow starts post-Super Bowl were partly attributable to a soft-hands approach that led to some using September, rather than August, as the month to get into shape.
And that was with returning quarterbacks, established schemes, and teams not far removed from winning a title. How ready could Sirianni’s squad be without the benefit of long camp practices or significant playing time in the preseason?
“Let’s go,” Sirianni said when asked how prepared he was for his inaugural season as Eagles coach. “I’m ready.”
But will the players be?