The Philadelphia Eagles have been going through a transition period for the better part of a decade. After being unable to duplicate their 2005 Super Bowl run, the team decided to part ways with head coach Andy Reid in 2012. The Eagles tried to avoid a complete rebuild and instead attempted to reload with Chip Kelly. When that didn’t work, they decided to embrace a new, yet familiar, era.
Following Kelly’s departure from Philadelphia, team owner Jeff Lurie hinted about recapturing the heights of the Reid era. There was a list of head coach candidates interviewed by the Eagles, including Tom Coughlin, Duce Staley, and Doug Marrone, but the job was eventually given to a first-time head coach, Doug Pederson.
Pederson has a long history with the Eagles organization — and Reid — and fits well into Lurie’s vision for the team’s future. A former backup quarterback for the team in 1999, he went on to coach quarterbacks under Reid in Philadelphia. He then followed Reid to Kansas City for a three-year stint as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator.
The Eagles didn’t develop a franchise quarterback under Kelly, but they quickly proved it was a priority under Pederson. The team traded up in the 2016 NFL draft to snag quarterback Carson Wentz with the No. 2 overall pick, giving up four draft picks — including a first-rounder in 2017 — in the process. He started every game as a rookie.
Despite a hot start to the year, the Eagles finished 7-9 in 2016 and missed the playoffs. Now the Eagles are going all-in on a head coach preparing for just his second season at the helm, with a second-year quarterback who was thrust into the starting role just a week before the start of his rookie season.
They came up short in their first year together, but the promise they showed is a good sign for the future.
Getting the Eagles back to the “glory days”
Under Reid, the Eagles had swagger. He had years of rosters that included dynamic trios. First there was Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, and Brian Dawkins. A few seasons later, the roster included the once-in-a-lifetime offensive combo of Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, and DeSean Jackson.
Yet, despite years of playoff runs, they never won a Super Bowl. In fact, the franchise has never yielded a Super Bowl ring.
“It takes a very patient, disciplined approach,” Lurie said in March at the owners meeting.
“The best structure is to have a terrific quarterback.”
A year ago, the Eagles made a big move that they hope will lead to an eventual Lombardi Trophy when they drafted Wentz. He was always expected to be the future of the franchise, but as a rookie, he was slated to sit back and learn from veteran Sam Bradford. That was the plan at least, until the Vikings lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a knee injury and made the Eagles an offer they couldn’t refuse: Bradford for a first-round draft pick in 2017. Just eight days before the regular season opener, Wentz was handed the keys to the offense.
Wentz finished the season completing 62.4 percent of his passes for 3,782 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He also set an NFL rookie record with 379 completions and broke franchise rookie records for passing yards, completion percentage, passing touchdowns, pass attempts (607), and passer rating (79.3).
The quarterback wasn’t the only Eagle rookie to get significant playing time last season. Most of the team’s 2016 draft picks saw a considerable number of snaps their first year in the league, including cornerback Jalen Mills and running back Wendell Smallwood. Mills only started in two games but played in all 16, lining up for 65 percent of the team’s defensive snaps throughout the season.
That experience was important to their development.
“It kind of shows you the future a little bit,” Smallwood told the team website after the season. “We kind of took our steps toward what we want to be and what this team wants to develop into, so I think young guys coming in and contributing early kind of gives you a little bit of hope.”
The Eagles put a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of young players last year. While it didn’t result in a playoff berth, it established a good foundation to build on in the 2017 offseason and beyond.
The turnaround in Philadelphia needs to be quick
The Eagles already lost three years to the Chip Kelly experiment, so they can’t afford to be too patient. They wasted money, resources, and more importantly, draft picks, on players who are no longer of value to the organization, including the likes of Matt Barkley, Josh Huff, and Eric Rowe.
General manager Howie Roseman has made a lot of moves the past two offseasons in an effort to restructure the locker room, spending most of the team’s salary cap on keeping franchise players and renegotiating deals to free up money now.
Last year, longtime Eagles Lane Johnson, Vinny Curry, Fletcher Cox, and Zach Ertz were all signed to extensions. This offseason, Ertz even accepted a restructured contract that converted $3.255 million into a guaranteed roster bonus, freeing up over $2.5 million in cap space.
The team’s front office has also made it a priority to lock up new talent on short contracts to keep costs low, while surrounding Wentz with enough experience to both succeed and grow. Roseman and staff worked out one-year deals with a few big-name veterans this offseason: running back LeGarrette Blount, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, and defensive end Chris Long. They all fill a position of need. Blount is the bruiser the running game was missing, Jeffery gives Wentz a true No. 1 wideout, and Long can help the pass rush and has a reputation as a likable locker room presence.
They also signed deep threat Torrey Smith to a three-year deal that works out to be a one-year deal with two option years.
In another nod to the Reid era, the team signed Nick Foles to a two-year deal, bringing the former Eagles draft pick back to Philly. Foles played for Reid last year in Kansas City and also played for Reid and Pederson in 2012. He should be a good mentor for Wentz and help speed up the learning process.
Veterans help to train the next in line
With inexperienced guys suiting up and lining the sideline, veterans have stepped up to help lead the locker room on both sides of the ball. The team brought in Smith and Jeffery to add some depth and experience to one of their weakest positions.
With a rookie quarterback under center, the passing offense ranked No. 24 in the NFL last season. The Eagles had the youngest wide receiving corps in the league and also had the highest drop rate in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
So far, the new faces are working out.
“For us, and for Carson, really, (Jeffery is) just somebody that brings a little bit of that leadership into the room and makes that room better," Pederson said, according to 247Sports. "The experience thing is a big factor in what we’re doing, and he can lead by example.”
It’s not just happening on offense.
"I think this offseason, the approach has been great," Wentz told ESPN. "I think we've added on both sides of the ball guys that can help us both in free agency, through the draft. I'll tell you one thing: I love the guys in that locker room, and I think we have a chance to do something special."
Both sides of the ball are trying to build on a foundation of young talent, but the defense has a leg up with coordinator Jim Schwartz, who not only was a former head coach for the Detroit Lions, but also has 20 years of NFL coaching experience. The defense also has guys like Malcolm Jenkins, who was mentioned in trade rumors early in free agency, and despite fielding some calls, Roseman noted that no deal was close to being made. He further explained that Jenkins’ reputation as a player and a leader makes him an invaluable asset.
It’s not all one-sided either. Just as the veterans are having a big impact, the younger players have shown some old dogs a new trick or two.
“I told him [Pederson] being 10 years in, this kid [Wentz] is inspiring me,” veteran tight end Brent Celek said. “He’s adding youth to my game just by the way he’s acting, being in the huddle, taking command. It’s beyond impressive. It’s great. We have to keep it going.”
Celek, and several others sporting an Eagles jersey, played under Andy Reid earlier in their careers. With Pederson now at the helm, the future is expected to look a little bit like the past.