This is a column about the Eagles’ search for a head coach, so let’s begin with a thought experiment about … basketball.
Imagine that the NBA decided to change its rules to make it easier for teams to score points. But instead of just cracking down on hand-checking, the league took the radical step of increasing the dimensions of the actual basket. Under Adam Silver’s edict, a rim’s diameter would swell to 20 inches from the standard 18, which would add more than six inches to the hoop’s circumference. The basket would look like an ocean. Players, no matter their shooting abilities, would launch three-pointers from just inside the midcourt stripe. Even Ben Simmons wouldn’t hesitate to jack up some Js.
Now, let’s say you’re Daryl Morey or Masai Ujiri or any other sharp NBA executive looking to build a roster in this new era of the sport. What quality or qualities would you value most in a player? Since it’s so much easier to make a three-point shot, would you hunt for as many long-distance snipers as you could find? Or maybe for the best one available, for the next Steph Curry or Kyle Korver?
No, I don’t think you would. I think that, if you were a smart executive, you would look for the best way to neutralize opposing teams’ scoring capabilities. You would look for guards and forwards and mobile big men who could disrupt an opponent’s offense, and you wouldn’t worry as much about your own team’s ability to score. Why? Because the rule change applies to all players. If it’s easier for everyone to make threes, then the value of a player who could make a lot of them when the basket was smaller has declined.
Put simply, if you were smart, you would do the opposite of what Jeffrey Lurie and Howie Roseman have generally tried to do in building the Eagles.
The scarcity of the great QB
Throughout the 10 days since they fired Doug Pederson, Lurie and Roseman have reportedly interviewed a diverse swath of candidates: former head coaches, offensive and defensive, and special-teams coordinators, some experienced, some inexperienced. Lurie said that it didn’t matter to him whether the new coach came from an offensive background or a defensive one, but “I feel like defense has variables, variations throughout the year. But if you want to be a dominant team, you need to be a top offensive unit.”
There is nothing new about Lurie’s thinking here. The last three head coaches he hired — Pederson, Chip Kelly, Andy Reid — were play-callers at their core, and a primary reason Lurie has gone offense-first is that the NFL, over time, has loosened its rules to encourage more passing and scoring: protecting quarterbacks, tighter pass-interference calls, etc.
Those changes, in turn, have allowed quarterbacks to emerge as the clear-cut stars of the league and of their franchises, which has been another major factor in the Eagles’ approach. It’s one thing to make the playoffs a few years in a row. It’s another thing to do it with Donovan McNabb or Carson Wentz or another quarterback whose name is or will soon be instantly recognizable to the apparel-buying public.
So yes, Lurie has leaned into the notion that a great quarterback is the most reliable mechanism for sustained excellence in the modern NFL. And three such quarterbacks — Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes — will play this Sunday in the two conference championship games. But how many of them really exist, and in an age when it is easier to play quarterback than it has ever been before, how much effort and how many resources should a franchise expend in searching for and/or developing one?
The other side of the coin
Sure, Lurie and Roseman can peruse the list of the 15 highest-rated passers this season and note that 10 of them were on teams that made the playoffs. But as Robert De Niro says in Heat, there’s a flip side to that coin. There were 23 quarterbacks this season with a passer rating of 90.0 or higher, a figure that, as recently as the Eagles’ 2017-18 Super Bowl season, would have been three points above the league average. Only 13 of those 23 teams qualified for the postseason. What was terrific is now mediocre, and a team that isn’t getting truly elite quarterback play has to strengthen itself in other areas to thrive.
Consider, then: Of the 10 teams whose defenses allowed the fewest yards per play, seven reached the postseason. Among them were the Rams, quarterbacked by Jared Goff; Washington, with Dwayne Haskins, Taylor Heinicke, and Alex Smith (on one good leg); the Steelers, with Ben Roethlisberger (age 38); the Saints, with Drew Brees (age 42) and Taysom Hill; and the Bears, with Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles. Not a Steph Curry among them, not anymore. Not even a Seth Curry. (No offense, Seth.)
Go back to last season. The 2019 San Francisco 49ers went 13-3 and were a quarter away from winning a Super Bowl with a quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, whom they tried to de-emphasize as much as possible. How were they so dominant? Their defense ranked first in the NFL in yards per play, passing yards allowed, and net yards per passing attempt and among the top 10 in points allowed, yards allowed, sacks, and takeaways. And even this season, with the underwhelming troika of Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, and C.J. Beathard, the 49ers still managed to win more games (six) than the Eagles did (four).
None of this is to say that the Eagles and their new head coach shouldn’t prioritize rehabilitating Wentz or maximizing Jalen Hurts’ potential. But it is to say that, as much as Lurie and Roseman like to fancy themselves as forward thinkers, they might be relying on a stale formula and backward logic. Yes, the NFL encourages teams to score. It has been that way for a couple of generations now, and it isn’t changing. That’s the system in which the Eagles are operating, and it’s stagnant. So perhaps it’s time for the Eagles to develop a willingness to exploit that stagnancy, and to find a coach who knows how.