When the Eagles won Super Bowl LII, quarterback Nick Foles earned the Most Valuable Player award, Zach Ertz caught the winning touchdown pass, and the defensive line sealed the deal.
But the offensive line won the game. And the offensive line got them there. It was the best line in the league.
In fact, the Eagles’ offensive line has been the franchise’s best unit since Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz arrived in 2016. This season, however, age and injury have ruined any chance at continuity and competence.
Make no mistake: Pederson’s play-calling has been weird and inefficient, and Wentz has been the Eagles’ worst player. But the line is the biggest reason the Birds are 3-5-1. On Sunday, the Eagles will field a ninth different combination of starters in the team’s 10 games.
The instability has revealed Wentz’s flaws and Pederson’s shortcomings. Pro Bowl linemen like Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson can cover up a lot of warts.
“Offensively, you’ve got to have that continuity and that consistency with the up-front guys. That’s where everything starts with protection, the run game, all of it, right? It starts with those front five,” Pederson said. “And having this many combinations through 10 weeks of the season has been a challenge.”
It is a challenge Pederson and Wentz have failed to meet. The Eagles offense, powered by a stable and talented line, finished in the top 14 in the NFL in total yardage each of the last three seasons.
They rank 27th now.
The Eagles line finished the 2017 regular season ranked No. 1 by profootballfocus.com as they went 13-3 and took the No. 1 seed into the NFC playoffs. They did so despite missing Peters, the best lineman in franchise history, for the last nine games. They won the Super Bowl without him, too, but his replacement, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, started every game Peters missed.
Most top playoff seeds feature top-flight lines. Of the 12 teams that earned byes the last three seasons only one team’s line ranked outside the top half in the NFL; Minnesota was 22nd in 2017, and that seemed like a misprint, since they ranked 12th in pass blocking and 11th in run blocking that season. In fact, of the 24 categories -- the 12 teams’ pass blocking and 12 teams’ run blocking -- only six times did PFF rank a bye-worthy seed outside the top 10.
Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland has proven himself to be among the best in the business when afforded continuity.
Last season his line finished ranked No. 1, when he used just three offensive line combinations and got 73 of 80 total possible starts among the five line spots last season. Peters missed three games and Johnson missed four, but the backups had pedigree: First-round rookie Andre Dillard replaced Peters and Vaitai replaced Johnson in his final three absences. The line was the main reason Wentz guided a group of practice-squad players to the NFC East title.
The line ranked fifth in 2018, when it used only three different lineups and got 72 of 80 starts from the primary starters. Again, the blockers sent the team went to the playoffs despite the struggles of Foles, who, as usual, was inconsistent; and Wentz, who, as usual, got hurt.
The decline of the line does not absolve Wentz from blame even if you grade his performances on the curve of offensive line inconsistency. Don’t blame his blockers for his inaccuracy while unmolested; his inability to anticipate blitzes; his confusion when diagnosing defenses; or, in his fifth season, his habit of making the sorts of bad decisions reserved for rookie quarterbacks and teenage rock stars.
Incidentally, the spotty line play has revealed that the $128 million man, while tough and talented, also remains mechanically flawed, inexplicably unseasoned, and grossly incomplete. He has proven incapable of succeeding unless protected like some fledgling prince. Among quarterbacks with at least eight starts, Wentz ranks last in passer rating (73.1) and completion percentage (58.2), has thrown the most interceptions (12), and ranks second-to-last in yards per attempt (6.1). Nick Foles ranks last.
Meanwhile, when Pederson prepares game plans, he can’t seem to take into account that Sua Opeta isn’t Isaac Seumalo, that Nate Herbig isn’t Brandon Brooks, and that Jason Peters isn’t ... well, at 38, he isn’t really Jason Peters anymore.
The 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, who won the franchise’s only Super Bowl title, started three offensive linemen whol played the majority of their position’s snaps in 2016 and 2017 and would have had a fourth if not for Peters’ midseason injury. This is not uncommon.
When the Patriots won Super Bowl LIII after the 2018 season, four of their five linemen had been starters for two previous seasons, and the fifth, Trent Brown, became the highest-paid offensive linemen when he left in free agency that spring.
The same was true of the Patriots team that won the Super Bowl after the 2014 season. Dante Scarnecchia was, for years, the Stoutland of Massachusetts -- or, more accurately, Stout has become the Scarnecchia of Philly. The Patriots stink this season, and yes, Tom Brady left, but Scarnecchia retired in January.
“Dante is the greatest offensive line coach in the history of the NFL,’' Brady said last year.
Maybe Scarnecchia is the real G.O.A.T.
And maybe Stout had more to do with Wentz’s success than Pederson.
The cavalry is coming
Left guard Isaac Seumalo returns Sunday after a seven-game absence with a a knee injury. Peters, who missed four games, seems sound for the moment, as does right tackle Lane Johnson, whose chronic ankle and knee problems have cost him three. Perhaps a measure of continuity will help Matt Pryor, a sixth-round pick in 2018 making his sixth career start. Perhaps familiarity will rejuvenate All- Pro center Jason Kelce, who, at 33, is having the third-worst season of his 10-year career; he had six bad snaps in against the Giants.
The line might be aligning just in time. The Eagles are in first place in the noxious NFC East, but they next play the Browns, Seahawks, Packers, Saints, and Cardinals, all of whom have winning records. A victory against even one of those teams would make the division title and its playoff berth more realistic for the Eagles when they finish the season against Dallas and Washington.
And any team that makes the playoffs in a pandemic-marred season might have a chance to go far, especially if it can dominate the trenches.
“I think hopefully in the next month and a half of the season, we can start getting that continuity and start getting that consistency,” Pederson said. “Hopefully, we can carry that on and sustain that the rest of the season.”
And maybe well beyond.