They looked like an actual football team. Go figure.
Nick Sirianni didn’t have a real offseason and he’s dealt with a lot of injuries. He doesn’t have any experience as a head coach, and has scant experience as a play-caller. But his offense didn’t collapse Thursday night against the Steelers.
Jonathan Gannon, Sirianni’s defensive coordinator, has never even had control over an entire positional unit — he coached cornerbacks, not the entire defensive backfield, in Indianapolis — but his defense worked calmly and smoothly.
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as such a surprise.
After all, 60% of the offensive linemen — Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson — are on Hall of Fame trajectories. Zach Ertz played the safety-valve role that sent him to three straight Pro Bowls, despite a bizarre drop.
Jalen Hurts, the young starting quarterback, still has loads of heart and no discernible pulse, which is the perfect combination for the job he’s asked to do in this city. He completed three of his seven pass attempts for 54 yards and led a field-goal drive on his first possession, but, more to the point, he committed no turnovers and the offense committed no penalties.
Similarly, the first-team defense is anchored by tackle Fletcher Cox, the team’s best player, who is flanked by Brandon Graham, a Pro Bowl end, and Javon Hargrave, a sixth-year NFL starter. They play in front of corners Darius Slay, who is a star, and Steven Nelson, whose resume mirrors Hargrave’s.
Again, this is just football, and what happened Thursday night was not even that; it was preseason football. It’s a simple proposition. With this many veterans, coaching should be coincidental. It can be an impediment.
Sirianni has presented himself as an inauthentic cheerleader whose methods — rock-paper-scissors as an interview tool, video of hot-dog eater Takeru Kobayashi’s technique as a primer on detail — do not align with football’s stodgy traditions. But give Sirianni and his staff credit for at least this: In his first preseason game, they did no harm.
To be fair, there were a few intriguing occurrences in Thursday’s 24-16 loss.
Quez Watkins turned out to be as fast as we thought. He romped 79 yards for a touchdown on a receiver screen, which might be the highlight of backup quarterback Joe Flacco’s last six seasons. But we expected Watkins to be fast. He ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash at last year’s NFL scouting combine, the second-fastest time by a receiver. Besides, with a name like “Quez,” he’s got to be fast.
Tyree Jackson caught two passes for 32 impressive yards in the first game of his life as a tight end. Last year Jackson, who is 6-foot-7 and weighs 249 pounds, was a gigantic first-year, undrafted quarterback in Buffalo (he played at the University of Buffalo) who got cut out of training camp, settled for the XFL, then last winter decided to try a more violent position.
There’s a possibility that the Eagles’ two most productive receivers this season are converted quarterbacks. Greg Ward, a third-year player who was a quarterback at the University of Houston, led the Birds with 53 catches and six touchdowns in 2020.
Jalen Reagor learned how to better run patterns. He caught two passes for 20 yards and looked crisper than he ever did as a first-round rookie last year. Maybe he should have had a third, but Hurts’ pass to the sideline was short.
The results mattered less than the method by which they were attained.
The biggest issue — play-calling and communication — happened as it was supposed to happen. The rookie head coach seamlessly transmitted instructions to the second-year quarterback, who started just four games last year. Don’t roll your eyes. Efficient play-calling can be a challenge. We’ve seen Super Bowl-winning coaches (Andy Reid, Doug Pederson) struggle with this simple exercise, even in the preseason.
Further, the first- and second-team defenses generally positioned themselves in the proper spaces. Again, don’t scoff.
Alex Singleton, the late-blooming linebacker, shone in the preseason game the way he has shone at training camp. Zech McPhearson, a fourth-round corner, showed up again and again, raw but physical, and a willing tackler.
On the other extreme, defensive end Derek Barnett — whose $10 million presence on the roster and first-team status can be linked only to his connection to general manager Howie Roseman, who drafted him in the first round five years ago — was handled by the Steelers’ offensive line much the same way he is handled by other offensive lines -- that is to say, without incident.
If Barnett’s having no impact on another football game is the worst thing that happens to your football team, you should be thrilled.