FOR MOST OF US, New Year's Day will be a day of promise, of hope, of resolve, our 2017th reminder of this common era that all things old must again turn new. For the Eagles, it will be a day to survey the depths from which they have just begun to climb.
When the Cowboys visit Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday, one of the wilder calendar years in franchise history will come to a close on the first day of a new one. Roughly 140 miles south on I-95 - two to 10 hours, depending on traffic - the Redskins will entertain the Giants, lending a further level of appropriateness to the occasion. They call it New Year's Day, and in the NFC East, last year's designation more than lived up to the billing.
What was supposed to be one of the worst divisions in football will leave the regular season as one of the best, a transformation so sudden and seismic that it's worth spending a few minutes making sense of it all with paper and pen.
Isn't life with a franchise quarterback supposed to look brighter than this?
There are plenty of superfluous reasons to think that it might be, starting with the Eagles' impressive victory over the playoff-bound Giants in Week 15. Two weeks earlier, they took a 22-21 lead over the 8-6-1 Redskins with 4:59 to play, and in their overtime loss in October to the Cowboys, who entered Monday's game 12-2, they led until 3:04 remained. Add to that the fact that the Eagles appear to have found next decade's quarterback, and you would seem to be left with no small feat for a team many had pegged at four or five wins.
But when you look at the totality of 2016 relative to the rest of the division, it's difficult to argue that the Eagles did anything but lose ground. If the 2017 calendar is a fresh blanket of white, the facts that follow are the inedible yellow.
Chief among them is less a fact and more a reminder of the significant manner in which the Eagles' current situation deviates from the recipe they used to cook up those five NFC Championship appearances during the Donovan McNabb-Andy Reid era. As important as the quarterback and coach were to the franchise's success, two other variables were equally so: first, a salary-cap strategy executed by Joe Banner that rarely left them strapped for disposable cash; and second, a division that spotted them five to six wins per season.
The Eagles will enter 2017 with neither of these things. Perhaps Carson Wentz will prove to be the kind of quarterback who can single-handedly shift the balance of power, and perhaps that is what the Eagles had in mind when they acquired him in exchange for first-, second- and third-round draft picks and two veteran players (who are now playing on a playoff defense). But such players are few and far between, as the Colts and Andrew Luck continue to remind us. And in all other facets, the Eagles are playing from behind.
While you can narrow that gap by arguing things like overall point differential (plus-22 compared to the Giants' plus-18), and their competitiveness in their division games, there are counterarguments, too.
In that first game against the Cowboys, only one of their five scoring drives was longer than 50 yards (the Cowboys had five). Three of their four scoring drives in that loss to the Redskins travelled 37, 46 and 53 yards, and the Eagles also scored a defensive touchdown, one of three defensive or special-teams touchdowns they tallied against the Redskins in two losses this year. They also had a pick-six in the aforementioned 24-19 win over the Giants. Those points are worth the same as the offensive ones, but history suggests that method of scoring is difficult to sustain over multiple seasons.
Much attention has been lavished on the Cowboys' ability to land a potential franchise quarterback and a clear franchise running back in last year's draft, but the real problem facing the Eagles is the job the Redskins and Giants have done rebuilding their rosters while maintaining salary-cap flexibility.
The airwaves are already crackling with expert analysis of the skill-position players the Eagles should target in free agency, but such prospectuses tend to ignore the fact that free agency is a financial market and not a grocery store. The talent level of potentially available players matters far less than the market's valuation (in dollars) of that talent. The reality of the Eagles' situation is that they will come to the bidding war with one of the smallest checking accounts in the league. According to figures tracked by OverTheCap.com, 16 of the other 31 teams in the NFL are at least $30 million lighter against the salary cap than the Eagles in 2017. There are several cost-savings moves the Eagles can make to give themselves some breathing room under the cap, but no combination of them will come close to bridging the chasm that exists between them and the teams they will bid against in the marketplace.
The Cowboys could lose starting guard Ronald Leary, wide receiver Terrance Williams, strong safety Barry Church, cornerback Morris Claiborne and defensive end Jack Crawford, and they'll need to do some trimming just to fill those voids with replacement-level free agents. But the Giants and Redskins already have doubled the money the Eagles could conceivably free up for themselves. Despite the pending free agencies of stars Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants) and Kirk Cousins, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon (Redskins), and the looming contract extension coming to Odell Beckham Jr. (Giants), both teams have the flexibility to come out of this year's market with a net positive.
It might be too early to render a definitive judgment on the swap meet the Eagles staged last offseason, but the additions of Wentz and Rodney McLeod and the subtraction of Byron Maxwell's salary are currently the only clear winners. The most recent new year showed things can change quickly. For the Eagles, though, the change must be exponential.