This Eagles season feels familiar, and for now, there’s only one reason to hope they can save it | Mike Sielski
In 2005, the season after they reached the Super Bowl, the Eagles saw a talented team fall apart because of injuries. This team, though, isn't quite there yet.
There had never been an Eagles season like the last one, which means, in turn, that there has never been an Eagles season like this one. So it's difficult to find a historical corollary that can account for their regression from the franchise's first Super Bowl-winning club to a team that has lost four of its first seven games, burping up two double-digit second-half leads along the way.
When you've never won a Super Bowl before, you've also never had to be a defending Super Bowl champion before. Again, this is unprecedented stuff for the Eagles, and this season really is uncharted ocean. I suppose you could look back at the 1961 Eagles for some smidgen of sepia-toned insight from the last Philadelphia team that was the reigning NFL champ. But aside from one obvious conclusion – that if Sonny Jurgensen could throw 32 touchdown passes during a 14-game season in that era of pro football, under those conditions and rules, then he would throw 75 touchdown passes during a 16-game season today – there isn't much to be gleaned from such a deep dive into the past.
The more appropriate year to examine is probably 2005, when the Eagles brought back most of the players from a team that went 13-3, dominated the NFC throughout the regular season and postseason, and lost Super Bowl XXXIX to the Patriots by just three points. But the 2005 Eagles were nowhere near the same team as the 2004 Eagles. They went 6-10, losing eight of their last 10 games, and the narrative that was popular then and has grown into gospel since is that Terrell Owens — from his demands for a new contract to his distracting and attention-seeking driveway sit-ups to his conflicts with Donovan McNabb, Andy Reid, and offensive coordinator Brad Childress – singlehandedly blew the season up.
Owens' months of petulance certainly didn't aid the Eagles in any way, but the real reason that the '05 Eagles fell apart was simpler and more conventional: too many injuries. McNabb played through a groin tear for nine games before he aggravated it so badly during a Monday night loss to the Cowboys that he had to have season-ending surgery. Todd Pinkston, the Eagles' other starting wide receiver, sat out the entire season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Brian Westbrook, Lito Sheppard, Correll Buckhalter, Tra Thomas, David Akers, Hank Fraley – all of them and more missed significant stretches of time, played through severe pain, or both. By December, the Eagles' offensive starters included quarterback Mike McMahon, running back Ryan Moats, and wide receivers Reggie Brown, Greg Lewis, and Billy McMullen. Ew.
The parallels between that season and this one, then, were easy to spot, even before ESPN's report – timed oh-so conveniently to land just 30 seconds after defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's media availability ended Tuesday afternoon — that defensive end Derek Barnett would undergo season-ending shoulder surgery. Barnett will join an ever-growing list of wounded and, as of now, unavailable Eagles: Rodney McLeod, Jay Ajayi, Mike Wallace, Mack Hollins, Timmy Jernigan, Chris Maragos, Haloti Ngata, and Richard Rodgers. Yes, the Eagles could still be, and probably ought to be, 5-2 this season, despite all those injuries, but like Owens' feed-me-change-me behavior in '05, they don't help.
There is a difference, though, between that Eagles team and this one. That one, on offense at least, lost its very best players: McNabb, Owens, Westbrook. This one has not, and the irony of the Eagles' 3-4 record is that their best players have been good, excellent, or even outstanding: Carson Wentz (with the exception of those final few decisions/throws against the Panthers), Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, Malcolm Jenkins, and Fletcher Cox. In some respects, each of those five stars already has borne a greater burden than last season.
Take Cox, for instance. The Eagles' defensive-tackle rotation in 2017, with Jernigan and Beau Allen, allowed Cox to play just 59 percent of all the Eagles' defensive snaps. This season, Cox has played 83 percent of the snaps. Because of the Eagles' lack of depth at the position, he can't afford to come off the field.
"He's worked really hard to put himself in a position to play more," Schwartz said. "He really wasn't taxed [against the Panthers]. The way that game was going, until the fourth quarter, he really wasn't taxed. We didn't play very many snaps. We were getting stops. The offense controlled the ball for most of the third quarter. We got a quick stop. They controlled the game the rest of the way. I don't think it affected him as much. Ideally, you'd like to have a better rotation, but that's not where we are right now."
Right now, they're not in a great position, not at 3-4, not with so many injuries and so much upheaval. Right now, short of sacrificing too much at the trade deadline for a short-term solution, the Eagles' best chance to avert the disaster of 2005 is to lean on those core star players, to ask them for more and hope they can deliver it.