CHARLOTTE, N.C. — To an outside observer, the most difficult part of this Eagles season is going to be resisting the urge to make week-to-week declarations about the competency of this team. Jalen Hurts, Nick Sirianni, Jonathan Gannon — foretelling their ultimate fates is the sort of thing that will require the full narrative arc of a season.
More than anything else, that is what we saw on Sunday afternoon. The Eagles (2-3) walked into halftime looking like a sure bet for a 1-6 start. Two quarters later, they walked out of Bank of America Stadium with a 21-18 win that kept a winning 2021 season still very much in play.
The question we’re left with is one that we’re probably better off avoiding. How do you reconcile the outcome with the team that we saw on the field for much of the game? For three quarters, the Eagles were the dumber football team. They were the less talented football team. They were outmanned, outplayed, and outcoached. If they subtracted the snaps that they won from the snaps that they lost, they would likely have found themselves squarely in the red.
Yet football is a funny business, and as the stadium emptied late in the fourth quarter and Hurts waved his arms like a conductor from the sideline to the stands, the fans who roared in response were clad almost exclusively in green, their trip south to Carolina culminating in one of the more improbable victories you’ll see.
A blocked punt and three bad throws by a bad opposing quarterback might be good for the bottom line, but they don’t come close to erasing all the red flags. Nor the yellow ones, for that matter. On an afternoon where they mustered just 273 yards of total offense, the Eagles walked away victorious thanks in large part to Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold and a perfectly schemed punt block. Those aren’t the kinds of things you can count on each week.
At the same time, winning in the NFL is often the sort of thing that defies conventional formulas. For all of their faults — their struggle to set the edge on defense, to work the middle of the field on offense — the Eagles won a game that setting and circumstance suggested they shouldn’t have. A victory is an immutable fact and an important one. Everybody seems to agree that Matt Rhule is a good coach, and that his Panthers defense is a competent one. But the game went to the team that was coached by Sirianni and the defense that had prompted calls for its coordinator’s job.
“Sometimes you win ugly,” Sirianni said. “It’s just a matter of keep fighting, keep going.”
We should not discount the fact that the Eagles did both of those things, or what that says about a team that features Sirianni on the headset and Hurts under center. Bad teams don’t often do what the Eagles did against the Panthers. They rarely win games in which they trail by two possessions at halftime (the Eagles entered the locker room trailing 15-6). Bad teams rarely win games where they give away eight points on a couple of personal-foul penalties and a fumble into the end zone. They rarely win games where their quarterback compounds these miscues with a horribly thrown interception. That the Eagles won this one doesn’t come close to establishing them as a good team. But it does say they have something that bad teams lack.
You can say the same thing about Sirianni and Hurts as individuals. Against the Panthers, both spent enough time tripping over themselves to make you wonder whether either is long for the NFL world. Sirianni’s head-scratching devotion to his horizontal passing game reached a maddening level in the first half as the Panthers consistently blew up his yawn-inducing mix of swing passes and bubble screens. At one point, Hurts was in double digits in pass attempts and averaging just 2 yards per. That’s hard to do.
“You’re looking at your call sheet and you’re calling plays you thought would be good, some of the quick stuff, the screens — that’s attributed to them and how they played us,” Sirianni said. “They had a good game plan for us. We just had to switch it up a little bit.”
Meanwhile, Hurts’ arm strength and stature repeatedly made you wonder if the coach’s scheme was mostly one of necessity, the product of a lack of confidence in his quarterback’s ability to make the middle-distance throws necessary to control the heart of the field. His one interception wasn’t a dumb pass. It was simply a bad one. Same for a couple of throws that he made on the Eagles’ final possession of the first half.
On the first, he correctly recognized that he had a free play after a Panthers defender jumped offside. Problem was, he never gave his receiver a chance to make a play, sailing a deep throw out of bounds to a single-covered Jalen Reagor. A couple of snaps later, he was so focused on an out route to Zach Ertz that he completely missed a blown assignment that left Quez Watkins wide open on a vertical route.
Yet Hurts remains an easy player to root for, due in large part to the things he did to push the Eagles over the finish line. He scored the Eagles’ go-ahead touchdown on an option read that he carried around left tackle, his second score of the day. On the ensuing two-point conversion, he shook off a free blitzer, scrambled to his right, and threw a strike to DeVonta Smith in the back of the end zone to give the Eagles’ a 21-18 lead. For all of his physical limitations as a thrower — and they are serious ones — he counterbalances them with a play-making ability and confidence that few NFL quarterbacks can boast.
“He’s such an old soul,” offensive tackle Jordan Mailata said. “He’s got an old head on his young shoulders.”
The questions remain. Will Sirianni make Hurts’ read-option abilities a more central part of the Eagles’ attack? Can Hurts handle the pounding that would ensue from such a strategic shift? Can the Eagles stop a good quarterback? Does it matter, given the number of bad ones remaining on their schedule? Can they sweep the Lions, Jets, Giants, and Washington? That’s eight wins right there, one shy of a winning season.
With the Bucs looming Thursday on a short week, things seem likely to get worse in a hurry. Again, though, the 2021 Eagles are not a week-to-week project. All we can do is continue to watch it all play out.