The Eagles beat the Lions with a viable offensive strategy, but don’t expect them to stick with it | Mike Sielski
They routed the Lions with a dominant display of ground-and-pound football. But the franchise’s decision-makers don’t want the team to play that way.
This is not a season that Jeffrey Lurie, Howie Roseman, and the Eagles wanted or planned to have. Before anyone gets carried away with the team’s 44-6 eye-opener Sunday in Detroit over the winless and generally horrid Lions, before visions of a power-running attack start dancing through anyone’s head, one should keep that overarching truth at top of mind. The season that the Eagles are having is not the season they want to have, and once it ends, they will likely do everything they can to avoid having a similar one.
That assertion sounds obvious at first. The Eagles are 3-5. Of course they don’t want to be 3-5! But that assertion goes beyond the team’s record through eight games, beyond even what the team’s record, in a best-case scenario, might be once the season has ended.
The Eagles ran the ball 46 times Sunday. As my friend and former colleague Paul Domowitch noted, they hadn’t compiled that many rushing attempts in a game since Week 1 of the 2013 season, back when Chip Kelly was the NFL’s Brand New Thing and LeSean McCoy was scooting through running lanes as wide as an IndyCar track. Jalen Hurts threw just 14 passes. If you’re an Eagles fan, you’d be happy bottling and mass-producing whatever elixir Nick Sirianni administered to his coaches and players and presumably drank himself before kickoff.
“We do what we need to do to win football games and what we think is best to win football games,” Sirianni told reporters Sunday. “We got some good runs early on, and the offensive linemen kept coming back to the sidelines, saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got a lot of momentum right here. We’re pushing them up front.’ So we just kept staying with it.”
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Better still, that strategy might very well be the best one for Sirianni and the Eagles to adopt and rely on for their final nine games. Presuming Lane Johnson is healthy enough to remain a fixture at right tackle, the line is the offense’s greatest strength. There is plenty of depth and diversity at running back — among Miles Sanders (once he returns from his ankle injury), Boston Scott, Kenneth Gainwell, and Jordan Howard — and none of those players is the team’s most productive, and maybe most elusive, runner.
Hurts is, and given that he has started just 12 games in his NFL career and has revealed some limitations in those starts, it was unsustainable to have him account for so much of the Eagles’ success or failure. Whether you believe that those limitations will always exist or that Hurts might outgrow them in time, deemphasizing his influence on the offense made sense. The approach that the Eagles took against the Lions made sense. And that approach would make sense against the Los Angeles Chargers this Sunday, too. The Chargers allow 5.1 yards per rushing attempt, the worst mark in the league.
But that approach is likely to have a short shelf life for the Eagles — and by short, I mean no longer than this season. If Lurie’s tenure as the franchise’s owner and Roseman’s as its player-personnel chief have proved nothing else, they have proved that the two men in charge of implementing the Eagles’ football-related strategic vision don’t believe in that approach.
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Lurie and Roseman have been up front about what they do believe: that an NFL team’s highest priority should be to score a lot of points, that throwing the ball is the best and most direct way to score a lot of points, that a great quarterback is essential to that endeavor, and that a team should do everything possible to acquire one and create the conditions necessary for him to thrive. Those conditions, generally speaking, don’t involve taking the ball out of that quarterback’s hands by having him turn around and shove it in the belly of a running back. One could argue, actually, that Lurie and Roseman regard the quarterback position as more important than the head coaching position. There is evidence to suggest as much.
As fed up as Lurie was with Chip Kelly by the end of the 2015 season, for example, it wasn’t enough for Lurie or Roseman simply to fire Kelly, replace him with Doug Pederson, and give Sam Bradford a second season as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. It would have been reasonable, at the time, for them to do so, and for a while, it appeared they would. The Eagles had been 7-6 in the games Bradford had started and finished, and they signed him to a two-year contract worth as much as $26 million. Then they became enamored with Carson Wentz and determined that Bradford wasn’t quite good enough.
» READ MORE: Eagles’ Nick Sirianni, Jonathan Gannon, Jalen Hurts save their jobs against hapless Lions | Marcus Hayes
Which brings us back to a fact that, amid the dramas great and small that arise during an NFL regular season, can be easy to forget: Jalen Hurts was not supposed to be the Eagles’ starting quarterback in 2021. Carson Wentz was. The Eagles are supposed to be riding the arm of the quarterback whom they traded up twice to draft, who signed a four-year contract potentially worth $128 million to play here, and who then decided he didn’t want to play here anymore. They are not supposed to be ground-and-pounding their way to victories. If Sirianni sticks with that approach this season, it won’t mean that the Eagles might have found a long-term formula to win games with Hurts. It means that Lurie and Roseman will try to find a new quarterback so that, in their minds, the Eagles don’t have to settle for such a future.