The Eagles completed one of the swiftest turnarounds in history when they beat the Patriots in Super Bowl 52 on Sunday. The year before, Philadelphia finished 7-9, dead last in the NFC East. The Eagles had a middling offense and appeared to be worlds behind the Cowboys in their own division. They made up that gap and then some in one year, going to 13-3 in the regular season and then sprinting through the playoffs.
Here’s what changed:
They developed a running game.
The Eagles boosted their yardage per carry from 4.1 in 2016 (18th in the league) to 4.5 (third) in 2017. They swapped out their entire running back core either intentionally or due to injury, jettisoning Ryan Mathews, signing LeGarrette Blount, trading for Jay Ajayi, and leaning on undrafted free agent Corey Clement for depth after Darren Sproles got hurt.
Nobody from that trio had mind-boggling individual numbers, as top backs Ajayi and Blount split time after the trade for Ajayi on Halloween. But Ajayi was incredibly efficient, going for 5.8 yards per carry on his 70 runs for the Eagles in the regular season. He ran for 4.4 during Philly’s playoff run, while Blount went for 4.5.
Ajayi’s known as an explosive speed back and Blount a powerful short-yardage guy, but both of them were workmanlike in the playoffs. All of the success the Eagles’ run game had is extra impressive in light of All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters missing most of the year. The Eagles had a dominant right side of the line, from center Jason Kelce to guard Brandon Brooks to tackle Lane Johnson. That didn’t hurt.
Their passing game went from mediocre to elite.
Carson Wentz was solid as a rookie, but he wasn’t the clear top-five quarterback he played like before tearing an ACL in December. With help from that improved running game and a beastly offensive line, Wentz upped his passer rating from 79 to 102 and his yards per attempt from 6.2 to 7.5. He stepped from average to a star, which wasn’t surprising for a former No. 2 pick, but was still vital to the Eagles getting the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Nick Foles was even better than that in the playoffs, with a 116 rating.
It helped that the Eagles signed a top receiver, Alshon Jeffery, who for years languished on bad Bears teams but still had all the physical tools to be great in Philadelphia. Jeffery wasn’t out-of-this-world good, but he was one of the better receivers in the league. So was third-year man Nelson Agholor, who’d been objectively bad in his first two seasons after getting picked in the first round out of USC in 2015. New signing Torrey Smith didn’t do much in the regular season but helped a good bit in the NFC playoffs.
The Eagles, on the whole, bounced from 27th to seventh in passer rating and from 30th to 14th in yards per throw. Paired with the improved running game, the Eagles went from 28th to 10th in yards per play and 16th to third in scoring.
They made an already-good defense a little bit better.
End Derek Barnett was a quality first-round pick. His year will be most memorable for the fumble recovery that squashed the Patriots’ last best chance at a comeback, but he was sturdy all year as both a pass rusher and run stopper. Chris Long turned out to be a coup of a free agent, signing for two years and $4.5 million. The Eagles already had an all-world defensive tackle in Fletcher Cox, but they got more quality there when they traded a third-round pick to the Ravens to get Timmy Jernigan.
In the secondary, GM Howie Roseman bought low on Ronald Darby, who’d been great as a 2015 rookie in Buffalo but stumbled in his second season. He sent receiver Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-rounder to get him, and Darby rewarded the Eagles by playing like a No. 1 cornerback. (Matthews wasn’t much good for Buffalo, even when he was healthy.) Patrick Robinson, another free agent signing, was even better than Darby. That made two really good starting cornerbacks joining the fold.
The cornerback play feels like an especially critical upgrade. Robinson might have been the best nickelback in the sport. Darby was really good on one side, and Jalen Mills held up fine on the other, improving a bunch from 2016. The group made for a huge upgrade from Mills, Leodis McKelvin, and Nolan Carroll the year before. The Eagles went from a 85.7 passer rating against (11th in the league) to a 79.5 (ninth).
Philly’s defense finished fourth in scoring, up from 12th.
And that approach to roster-building carried to the offense.
Foles will go down as one of the greatest free agent signings ever, even though nobody figured that at the time. Doug Pederson was familiar with Foles from an earlier stint as the Eagles’ QBs coach, and signing him turned out to save the season.
The Eagles bolstered their offense with other signings, too. Blount, Jeffery, and Smith were all free agents when they came to the Eagles. Ajayi, a midseason trade pickup, was probably the Eagles’ best all-around back. Clement was an undrafted free agent who wound up with 100 receiving yards in the freaking Super Bowl. Kicker Jake Elliott came from the Bengals’ practice squad when Caleb Sturgis was lost to injury.
NFL rosters turn over a lot every year. It’s standard for even good teams to have 20 new players at a time. These Eagles had 26. They built their team like patchwork, but the pieces Roseman brought in could not have fit together more beautifully.