It might not be wrapped and won’t be on for the holiday, but two former Philadelphia coaches could conspire to deliver a gift to the 4-9-1 Eagles: A road to the playoffs.
Matt Rhule and his Panthers visit Ron Rivera at Washington on Sunday afternoon. A Panthers win would keep the Eagles alive in the NFC East race, assuming the Eagles win at Dallas on Sunday. That chain of events would bring a 6-9 Washington team to Philadelphia next week for a winner-take-all season finale.
Rhule made Temple a college football force from 2013-16. Rivera, from 1999-2003, was one of the best linebackers coaches the Eagles ever had.
It would be an inspiring finish for a Philadelphia sports scene whose prospects generally looked gloomy just a few weeks ago: a leaderless Phillies organization, a rudderless Sixers franchise, and a football team that hadn’t had a winning record all season.
The Phillies hired Dave Dombrowski two weeks ago to replace president Andy MacPhail, and Dombrowski made his first order of business reopening negotiations with star free agent catcher J.T. Realmuto. Last month, the Sixers hired Daryl Morey to run their dysfunctional franchise, and Morey and Doc Rivers – the first bona fide winner they’ve had on the bench since Larry Brown – quickly assembled a deep, complementary cast around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons that debuted with a season-opening win Wednesday night.
At the end of summer, the Flyers and first-year coach Alain Vigneault stole the first seed in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, then won a playoff series for the first time in eight years. Now, fueled by goalie Carter Hart and veteran Kevin Hayes, they’re projected to be a postseason force again. As summer turned into fall, the homegrown Union won the Supporters’ Shield for the best record in MLS.
But Philly’s a football town, and even these promising developments provide little joy during the Yuletide. The Eagles already delivered one gift.
Backup quarterback Jalen Hurts saved the season with an upset win over the Saints two weeks ago, delivered a historic performance in a loss in Arizona, and made the Eagles a 2½-point favorite over the Cowboys. If Carson Wentz can be fixed, the Eagles might have two franchise QBs. As we’ve seen, with Wentz’s knack for incapacity (wrist, rib, knee, back, concussion), you need at least two quarterbacks for any team with him on it.
Hurts’ proficiency might not qualify as a surprise. After all, he took second place in Heisman Trophy voting last season, and he fell to the second round of the draft only because he didn’t fit the plug-and-play mold most general managers crave these days. But most general managers aren’t running a “quarterback factory” like Howie Roseman, so the Birds’ brains must’ve known all along what they had in Hurts. Right?
By contrast, this Washington/Carolina/Philadelphia confluence, and the subplots surrounding it, are purely providential. Things could hardly be going worse for the Team With No Name.
Alex Smith had led Washington to three straight wins before he left the game at San Francisco two weeks ago with a calf injury. Dwayne Haskins replaced Smith, but even though Washington still won, Haskins looked lousy against the 49ers. Haskins looked worse last week in a loss against the Seahawks, and then things really got bad for Haskins.
After the game, Haskins attended a party that violated both the NFL’s and Virginia’s COVID-19 protocols, and did so without wearing a mask. He was fined $40,000 and could have been suspended. That’s the most public issue Washington is dealing with this week.
Smith’s calf is a bigger problem. Is Smith at 75 percent better than Haskins at 100 percent? Would Washington be better off risking a loss against the Panthers to ensure a healthier Smith against the Eagles, and beyond?
Smith might not be the biggest injury issue. A nagging ankle injury cost No. 1 receiver Terry McLaurin practice time this week. The turf toe that cost rookie running back Antonio Gibson the last two games, and practice time this week, is subsiding. But again, would Gibson and the team be better served with another week of rest? Gibson has 11 touchdowns, more than any two of his teammates combined.
Then, of course, there is the omnipresent Snyder Factor. There is an ongoing messy business divorce among principal owner Daniel Snyder and his partners. Snyder and his team also are the subject of an investigation into allegations from 40 female employees of sexual harassment by the team since Snyder came aboard in 1999. Most recently, there was discovery this week of a $1.6 million settlement in 2009 between Snyder and a female former employee over his alleged sexual misconduct .
Finally, there’s an intriguing coaching connection.
Rhule replaced Rivera as the Panthers’ coach this season. Rivera went 76-63-1 in his 8¾ seasons with the Panthers and led them to Super Bowl 50 after the 2015 season. But he was fired with four games remaining last season.
A Washington loss might be too much to ask, even from Santa. The Panthers are 4-10. They’ve lost eight of their last nine games, and they’ll be without Christian McCaffery for the 12th time in 15 games this season.
But Washington is trying to give this game away. It would be a lovely gift, indeed, both from the Panthers’ rookie head coach and for Philadelphia, the city that helped launch the careers of both Rivera and Rhule.