Words you haven’t heard much in this city: I’m with Tony Romo.
Well, you should be. Here at the dawn of the 2021 season, the conventional wisdom makes no sense. For the first time in a long time, the Eagles will enter Week 1 in much better shape than the consensus suggests. They might not be a great team, but they also aren’t anywhere close to awful. And Romo seems to be one of the few people who understands it.
“I think the Eagles are going to be a surprise team,” the former Cowboys quarterback and current CBS analyst said in a conference call last week. “If you go in and think they’re really not ready, they could shock a lot of people and go 10-6 or 11-5 very quickly.”
Everybody seems to forget that the No. 1 reason for the Eagles’ 4-11-1 record last season was an offensive line that played most of the year without its two best players. The defense didn’t help matters, but it was injuries in the trenches that made the wheels come off. If Brandon Brooks, Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson remain healthy, the 2021 version of this team will be competent. It will be competitive.
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When you think about the Eagles on the offensive side of the football, you should be thinking about the things that you saw in the three games that Jalen Hurts started and completed late last season. Only one team in the NFL gained more yards than the Eagles did in Weeks 14 through 16. Their 1,312 yards ranked behind the Bills, who were regarded as a pretty good team. They ranked fourth in rushing yards with 514. They ranked 10th in passing yards with 798. They tied for the 10th-lowest number of turnovers committed.
On a per-drive basis, the numbers weren’t as impressive: 35.6 yards per drive (15th), a score on 28.9% of their drives (24th). Still, the offense was at least functional, despite an offensive line that was missing three starters and a wide receiver corps that was led in snaps by Alshon Jeffery, who is currently unemployed.
Functionality might not sound like the shrewdest of marketing campaigns. Kelce probably won’t draw much of a crowd if he shows up on the Art Museum steps in February and delivers a speech about how functional the 2021 Eagles were. But it’s actually a relatively high bar in today’s NFL, where at least 15% of the teams could be dead on arrival.
I’m including the Broncos, Jets, Lions and Texans in that bunch, but there’s a slew of other teams that warrant consideration. The Giants finished last season with 54 fewer points than the Eagles. The Panthers are starting Sam Darnold at quarterback. The Bears are starting Andy Dalton. Hurts doesn’t have to be great in order for the Eagles not to stink. He just has to be better than those guys. Hell, Gardner Minshew is better than those guys.
Part of the reason people are so down on the Eagles is that those people have not properly calibrated their brains for the current era of the NFL. At some point, they’ll look back and realize that a new one has dawned over the last year, and that Hurts has a decent chance to finish this season as one of the top 15 quarterbacks in the league.
We are in uncharted waters at the game’s most important position. More than a third of the league — 12 of 32 teams — will enter 2021 with a new starting quarterback. Seven of those quarterbacks are guys whom other teams have already given up on. Dalton, Darnold, Teddy Bridgewater, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, Tyrod Taylor, Jameis Winston — these are the defining faces of the quarterback position in 2021.
The eye test might place Hurts as a future journeyman. But everyone is a journeyman right now. Look at the passing leaders from five years ago. Of the top 10 finishers in passing yards, four are retired (Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer). So are Eli Manning (No. 13), and Sam Bradford (No. 16) and Alex Smith (No. 22). Soon joining them could be Joe Flacco (No. 7) and Cam Newton (No. 21). Any season could be the last for 44-year-old Tom Brady, or 38-year-old Aaron Rodgers, or 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger, or 37-year-old Matt Ryan.
The Eagles don’t need Hurts to be a franchise-caliber starter to be competitive. Scroll through the league and count the number of quarterbacks who are likely to be starting for their teams in three seasons: Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott and Baker Mayfield definitely make the list. Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow probably warrant inclusion, but you’re ignoring history if you’re including any of the other nine quarterbacks drafted in the first round over the last two years. Of the 16 quarterbacks selected in the first round between 2014 and 2018, only five are still playing for the team that drafted them.
Point is, more than half the league is in the same position as the Eagles are with Hurts. Except the Eagles offense looked more functional in Hurts’ three starts than the Jets offense ever did with Darnold, or the Cowboys offense with Dalton, or the Panthers offense with Bridgewater. The fact that Hurts has NFL experience and has yet to spectacularly fail puts him in a select group of NFL passers.
Is there a realistic scenario in which the Eagles are picking near the top of next year’s draft? Absolutely. If the offensive line isn’t healthy and the defense isn’t adequate, this will be a difficult football team to watch. On the flip side, if neither of those things occur, the Eagles will end up surprising a lot of people. Big-play potential, blocking proficiency, a quarterback who can make plays with his legs: It’s a formula that can win plenty of regular season games in today’s NFL.
The Eagles might not be a good team in the classical sense of the term, but they shouldn’t be miserable to watch.