Eight years ago, the Eagles finished the regular season with four straight wins, coming back from the depths of an injury-strewn start to salvage an 8-8 record and generate some hope that Andy Reid could still revive a team that had drifted since the end of the Donovan McNabb era.
Owner Jeffrey Lurie didn’t jump on that bandwagon with both feet, however. He warned those last wins could be “fool’s gold,” capable of blinding the organization to the need for a thorough overhaul.
We know how it worked out. The front office stayed the course with some minor patch-and-fill, and there was nothing golden about the 4-12 season that followed. This led to Reid’s exit, the entrance of Chip Kelly and all the hilarity that brought, and eventually to Doug Pederson and a Super Bowl win. On balance, you’d have to say the franchise rebounded fairly well.
Here we are again, though, with the team having required some late-season magic for the second straight year to finish at a modest 9-7 and qualify for the playoffs. The biggest difference between the 5-1 record at the close of 2018 and the 4-0 finish to 2019 is that the franchise quarterback made it to the end this time, and made it impressively.
That was the plan, and the reason the team again prepared for the season with only minor adjustments to the core and not the rebuilding that seems inevitable as the roster ages. They added a couple of players at skill positions on offense, essentially stayed pat on defense, and hoped for the best not only with the health of Carson Wentz, but with the entire roster.
With the exception of the quarterback, the hope was not rewarded. Whether the bad luck was also the result of bad planning – primarily the DeSean Jackson reach – the team went down the final stretch with an unlikely cast of heroes on offense and a patched-together defensive backfield. But it worked, albeit in a forgiving division, and that bottom line is all that matters, at least until Sunday afternoon.
The constant has been the quarterback. In the four must-win games that followed the Dec. 1 loss to Miami, he raised his completion percentage almost two full points, raised his quarterback rating three points, and went from the 18th-ranked passer in the league to the 13th-ranked.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but doing it late in the year after a preponderance of the season’s stats have already accumulated is difficult just from a mathematical standpoint. Doing it with Greg Ward, Rob Davis, Deontay Burnett, and Josh Perkins is remarkable.
Regardless of the degree of difficulty, they did get this far, and, fairly or not, much of how their season is remembered and judged will depend on the rest of the story. That goes for Wentz, too.
“Nothing changes. It’s another game. We know what’s on the line,” Wentz said. “It’s a one-game season and we’re excited about it.”
If that does become the case, and the postseason is only a one-game season for the Eagles, the organization might look at the coming offseason differently. It is already assumed there will be changes. The list of free agents is lengthy and some of the decisions will be easy.
Some other decisions, however, will depend on how the front office feels about the core of the team heading into 2020. And even though it is only one game, what happens Sunday against the Seahawks could have a big influence there.
A win, or even a well-played, narrow loss, will validate the final four games of the regular season. A poor showing, particularly by the quarterback, will make the late run seem like a mirage created by the dreadful dregs of the NFC East. Or, to borrow a phrase, “fool’s gold.”
So, those are some of the stakes for the Eagles, and some of the questions that will be asked, if not fully answered.
Does Wentz really need top-flight talent at the skill positions to have an explosive offense, or should the organization concentrate instead on the building-block positions on both sides of the ball, because a raid on the league’s practice squads will satisfy the former need?
Is it just a piece here and a piece there that is missing, or should the team contemplate a rebuilding that will take longer to complete? And, in either case, what should they do with receivers Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, and Nelson Agholor, none of whom will affect Sunday’s outcome?