There were 4 minutes and 25 seconds remaining in their 32-6 victory over the Falcons when perhaps the best reason to be optimistic about the Eagles this season revealed itself. At that moment, Jordan Mailata, late on a Sunday afternoon, decided to demolish a man.
The victim was Richie Grant, one of the Falcons’ safeties. The circumstances were these: Jalen Hurts threw a quick wide-receiver screen pass to Jalen Reagor, and Mailata’s responsibility on the play was to fire out from his left-tackle spot and block Grant to create a lane for Reagor to reach the end zone. “The timing had to be perfect,” Mailata told reporters in Atlanta after the game. To Grant’s everlasting regret, it was.
Grant is 6 feet tall and 200 pounds. Mailata is 6-foot-8 and 365 pounds, which means he weighs 1.825 Richie Grants. Mailata is basically Richie Grant plus a middleweight boxer, and moving at full speed, he didn’t hit Grant as much as he ran through him like finish-line tape. Imagine a scarecrow in the path of an oncoming tractor trailer, and you get the idea. Reagor zipped 23 yards for a touchdown without an Atlanta defender laying a hand on him.
“I was just doing my job, you know?” Mailata said. “I had that play earlier in the week [at practice], and the timing wasn’t right. So when we called the play in the huddle, I knew what I had to correct. … It was knowing the snap count first, then knowing the timing on the screen, and just beelining it and burying someone if you get the opportunity.”
The center of their success
It was early Monday morning, when the NFL released its official snap counts from each of Sunday’s games, when the best reason to be optimistic about the Eagles this season revealed itself. Every starter on the Eagles’ offensive line – Mailata and right tackle Lane Johnson, guards Isaac Seumalo and Brandon Brooks, and center Jason Kelce – had played every one of the team’s 71 offensive snaps.
The rest of the Eagles’ success Sunday is secondary to that fact. Yes, Jalen Hurts was a different, better quarterback than he was as a rookie. Yes, in his first game, DeVonta Smith looked as smooth and polished as a veteran. Yes, Nick Sirianni appeared not the least bit overwhelmed in his debut as an NFL head coach. But the foundation for all that good work was the Eagles’ offensive line. Hurts was sacked just once. The Eagles rushed for 173 yards, averaging 5.6 per attempt. In his play-calling, Sirianni stuck to the formula that the Eagles, during Jeffrey Lurie’s reign, have favored and have tried to follow for years: throw it early to get a lead, then run it late. Sirianni called 27 passes in the first half and just eight designed runs.
A coach can and should do that only when his line is playing well enough to allow him to do it. For all the deserved criticism and blame dumped on Carson Wentz for his awful performance and its trickle-down effect on the entire team, the Eagles could not play this way last season because neither Wentz nor their offensive line would allow them to play this way. In fact, one of Doug Pederson’s biggest mistakes was that he tried to have the Eagles play this way even though they couldn’t. It was why, for example, they lost their opener in Washington, the tone-setter for their 4-11-1 season. Injuries wrecked their line, and Pederson often called plays as if he were oblivious to the mess.
Johnson missed nine games. Seumalo missed seven. Brooks never suited up. Jason Peters, 38 at the time, started eight games. Nate Herbig started 12. Matt Pryor started 10. Of course Wentz was bad. Of course he was. But it’s never just The One Thing.
Just one game, but ...
There was 9:55 left in the third quarter Sunday when the best reason to be optimistic about the Eagles this season revealed itself. They had the ball on their own 44-yard line, and Hurts handed the ball off to Miles Sanders on a stretch play to the right.
Johnson came charging out to the right and swept away Falcons cornerback AJ Terrell as if Terrell were a pile of dust. Kelce knocked linebacker Deion Jones backward onto his butt, then pushed safety Duron Harmon out of the play. Sanders gained 18 yards.
This was one game. Just one. Brooks tore his left Achilles tendon last year after tearing the right one the year before, and he was “limited” last week, according to the Eagles’ injury report, because of a knee issue. He’s 32. Johnson is 31. Kelce is 33 and seems indestructible, but this is professional football, and one never knows. Losing one of those players, or Seumalo, or Mailata, would be damaging. Losing more than one would be crippling, as last season demonstrated.
But … as long as those starters remain healthy, it won’t be long before the excellence that the Eagles’ offense showed Sunday won’t be surprising anymore. It will be the baseline expectation. “This is the unit,” Sirianni said Monday, “that determines whether you win or lose games. That’s just where games are won: up front.” Like Jordan Mailata said, those five were just doing their jobs. If they can keep doing them, everything about the Eagles gets interesting, and fast.