The executive standing outside the Eagles locker room was smiling a weak smile behind the mask.
“We’re getting there,” he said.
The Birds had won by 38 points on the road the previous week. They’d lost by only three points, to a first-place team with a first-rate quarterback, minutes before, and that on a last-minute field goal — a field goal earned after No. 1 cornerback Darius Slay and starting end Josh Sweat left with injuries.
The Eagles have faced the hardest part of their schedule and emerged 3-6. They are a competent team with, all things considered, a reasonable chance to reach the NFC playoffs, mainly because head coach and play-caller Nick Sirianni figured out what his offense can do.
If nothing else, the past fortnight proved they are a viable football team with exploitable strengths and manageable weaknesses. This was completely predictable.
Now, they prove their worth.
They should win at least seven of their final eight games. They should win despite their hindrances — namely, limited quarterback Jalen Hurts, timid defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, and, of course, Sirianni, whose clumsiness is waning by the hour. He hasn’t called a ridiculous onside kick in more than 14 days.
The Eagles are competent, and they should string together some W’s, and Sirianni knows it.
“We can go on a run,” Sirianni said after the 27-24 loss to the visiting Chargers, “but what I told the guys ... we don’t come in this next week and get all eight wins right there.”
You might recall that Sirianni absorbed some well-deserved mockery when he used a budding flower as a metaphor for his team’s foundation and maturation, but his point is well-taken. Every rebuild requires an adjustment period, and while Sirianni took about a month too long to decipher his players’ weaknesses, at least he has deciphered them now.
That’s why Sirianni and his team see the types of teams waiting for them, and they’re hungry to get to them.
There’s no reason the Eagles can’t come home from Denver on Sunday with a win; they’re facing TB, but this time it’s Teddy Bridgewater, not Tom Brady. Then, Trevor Siemian and a Saints pass defense that’s appreciably worse than the Eagles’. After that, it’s all downhill: Giants-Jets-Washington-Giants-Washington, and a finale with the visiting Cowboys in a Game 17 on Jan. 9, when near-freezing temperatures are the norm in Philadelphia.
By then, the Eagles should have built upon the identity that was obvious all along — obvious to everyone except Sirianni, anyway.
Hurts lacks mechanical efficiency, polish, and experience. He missed two touchdown throws Sunday, but that’s who he is. Also, his 650 pounds of inexperienced guards — any combination of Landon Dickerson, Jack Driscoll, or Nate Herbig — can’t pass-block. So, logically, now, they run: 85 rushes for 412 yards and six touchdowns in the last two games. Not coincidentally, they’ve scored 68 points.
Similarly, the last two weeks the Eagles allowed Hurts to throw just 31 passes, but he has a 102.2 passer rating in those two games, which is almost 20 points better than Hurts’ six previous games. Combine that with zero turnovers, zero sacks, and 133 yards rushing yards on 17 runs, mostly well-considered scrambles, and you’ve got yourself a decent quarterback. For a change.
The Eagles haven’t given the ball away the last two weeks.
After leading the NFL in penalties for eight weeks, they finally dropped out of the top spot. Two penalties in Detroit and three Sunday left them at 63, and now they’re tied for fourth — but they’re tied with the Cowboys, who’ve played one fewer game. Even better.
“We continue to cut down on some self-inflicted wounds,” Sirianni said. “You can lose games instead of win games, right? So, we’re trending in the right direction in that.”
Rookie receiver DeVonta Smith rebounded from three drop-addled games for five catches, 116 yards, and a touchdown.
Since running back Jordan Howard — a 6-foot, 224-pound, punishing veteran — was rescued from the practice squad two weeks ago, he has 128 yards on 29 carries and three touchdowns. Why he was ever on the practice squad is anyone’s guess.
Are there issues? Certainly.
Gannon blitzed like Jim Johnson in the first half Sunday, which made sense, considering Justin Herbert was the NFL’s 28th-ranked passer against the blitz and the fifth-ranked passer when not blitzed. The Eagles led, 10-7, at halftime. But Gannon blitzed less in the third quarter and hardly at all on the fourth, and the Chargers scored 20 points, and Herbert was hit only once, and he completed 84% of his passes, and Sirianni was left, like the rest of us, to wonder why.
A little more blitzing would mean a few more mistakes by the opposition’s quarterbacks. The Eagles are tied for 22nd in takeaways, which usually occur when the passer is getting sacked, hit, or hurried. Gannon’s been reluctant to challenge the likes of Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, and Brady, but he’s got to get gutsier against Daniel Jones and the Giants, Taylor Heinicke and Washington, and Zach Wilson and the Jets ... right?
And look, Gannon’s defense isn’t a joke. It stopped the Chargers twice on fourth down, and it surrendered 21 points or fewer four times. There are a few worrisome injuries in the secondary — Slay left in the fourth quarter with a hamstring problem and nickel corner Avonte Maddox left briefly with a knee issue — but the defense, like the team overall, is relatively healthy nine games into the schedule.
It’s relatively healthy, getting better, and looking at a cakewalk over the next two months.
“We have a lot of growing to do still,” Sirianni said.
That’s fine. Over the last two weeks, they put down the right type of roots to do it.