Eagles avoid the ghosts of 1994, 1996 and 2014 … for now

The Philadelphia Eagles have given us a number of truly memorable seasons over the years, far more good than bad. Since Jeff Lurie took over as owner in 1994, the Birds’ 253 wins are 7th-most in the NFLand among NFC teams, only the Green Bay Packers‘ 292 wins are better.

They are one of the league’s marquee teams and have been for the better part of a quarter century.

In the first half of this year, Nick Sirianni’s Eagles took the league by storm, racing out to an 8-0 record before Monday Night’s stumble against the Washington Commanders ended dreams of an unbeaten season. After that dispiriting, sloppy loss, everyone was wondering whether the Commanders exposed the Eagles as a team that wasn’t nearly as good as their record, or whether the Birds really were that could and would bounce back on Sunday in Indianapolis.

For the first 45 minutes, the former looked to be true.

The Eagles had scored three points and the absence of tight end Dallas Goedert appeared to be crippling the offense. Jalen Hurts’ accuracy and legs were fine, but key penalties and turnovers handed the Colts a number of advantages, and Hurts’ decision-making appeared to regress. But the Birds rallied behind the legs of their franchise QB, scoring 14 points in the final frame for a 17-16 victory, their first in 12 years when trailing by 10 or more points in the 4th quarter.

We all remember the last one.

It was a victory of intestinal fortitude, heart, and desire, delivered by Hurts’ legs and an offensive line that chewed up the Indy defense for those final 15 minutes. But for a while there, the Eagles resembled three teams from their recent past that suffered heart-breaking late-season meltdowns.

  • In 1994, Rich Kotite’s final season as head coach, the team blew a 7-2 start, losing their last seven games, and finished 7-9. The NFL Network has called it the second-worst collapse in league history, and it’s hard to argue it shouldn’t be No. 1. Early in the season, they defeated the defending world champion 49ers in San Francisco 40-8 and looked like a truth Super Bowl contender. After racing out to that hot start, Kotite, who was on the last year of his deal, started urging Lurie, in his first season as owner, for a new one. Lurie said no. Knowing that they were all getting fired at season’s end, Kotite’s Eagles crashed and burned, starting with a disastrous home loss to the Cleveland Browns that fans of that era still remember as the game that ended linebacker Byron Evans’ career, and ended with Randall Cunningham getting benched for Bubby Brister in the season-clinching loss.
  • Two years later, in 1996, Kotie’s successor, Ray Rhodes, began his second season 7-2 as well. That seventh win was a legendary victory in Dallas against the Cowboys in which James Willis intercepted a Troy Aikman pass in the end zone with under a minute left to play, lateraling to Troy Vincent for a 103-yard TD return. It almost seemed as if that victory let the air out of the team’s collective balloon, as the Birds lost four of their next five before winning their final two games and earning a wild card berth at 10-6. But a 14-0 wild card loss to the Niners in San Francisco essentially ended Rhodes’ run of success in Philly, thanks in no small part to being saddled with QBs Ty Detmer and Rodney Peete. What looked like a Super Bowl team quickly became just another going nowhere playoff loss.
  • In 2014, Chip Kelly still looked like the NFL’s next great genius. Nick Foles spent the first half of the season setting all kinds of passing records, throwing just two interceptions until getting hurt after eight games. Still, backup Mark Sanchez led the team to a scintillating Thanksgiving night win over the Dallas Cowboys to run their record to 9-3. They looked like a juggernaut. But a three-game losing streak followed, and even though they won their final game to finish 10-6, it wasn’t enough to reach the postseason. The Chip Kelly era was coming to an end.

I will admit, as I watched the Eagles struggle for three quarters yesterday, I wondered if I was watching what would become the fourth bullet point on this list. But the Eagles had something in their corner that those other three teams did not.

A real, true, viable franchise QB.

In 1994, Cunningham was not nearly as good as Hurts is now, nor was he as good as he was at the beginning of his career. Bubby Brister certainly wasn’t the answer. Neither was Ty Detmer. Or Rodney Peete. Or Mark Sanchez.

Trailing by 10 points with 15 minutes to go, Hurts led the team on a long scoring drive, culminating with a beautiful touchdown throw to Watkins. On the final drive, the Eagles relied on his legs to do the damage, converting a key 4th and 2 near the goalline and then scoring on a QB draw after a damaging sack (or run play for loss, most likely) on 3rd down from the 7.

The comeback said a lot about this team and its quarterback. Unlike those previous Eagles squads mentioned above, the 2022 Birds did not suffer a crushing collapse. At least, not yesterday. They persevered and avoided their first two-game losing streak of the season. As a result, thanks to losses by the Vikings and Giants, the Eagles have a two-game cushion (thanks to their tie-breaker over Minnesota) for both the top seed in the NFC and in the NFC East as well.

It was a huge victory for their Super Bowl chances, but it didn’t come without some important questions to answer.

  1. Has the league figured out Sirianni’s RPO-dominant offense?
  2. Can they rework the offense to score points without Dallas Goedert?
  3. And perhaps the most important question β€” do they believe in Jalen Hurts as a passer?

There were times on Sunday that it didn’t appear as if the coaching staff wanted Hurts throwing the ball to dig them out of their mess, that they didn’t trust him to use his arm to bring them back.

On the first play of the final drive, Hurts dropped back to pass but was immediately pressured and threw incomplete. On 2nd down, he completed an 8-yard pass to AJ Brown. On 3rd and 2, he threw deep downfield to Miles Sanders, who was smashed in before the ball arrived for a huge pass interference call.

With a 1st and 10 at the 28 and 3:38 left in the game, the Eagles did not attempt another pass the entire game. One might argue that the team was trying to burn the clock in order to prevent the Colts from getting the ball back, but down 16-10 and still needing 28 yards to get into the end zone, the Birds ran no huddle. You don’t run no huddle, with 20+ seconds on the play clock, if you’re trying to burn time.

The decision not to have Hurts attempt a single pass the rest of the way was compounded by the head-scratching decision to run Boston Scott three straight times at the Indianapolis 17 with 2:42 to go. In fact, the 3rd down run came just nine seconds before the 2-minute warning, when taking the play clock all the way down would have allowed them to call a 3rd down play without being rushed. For some reason, Sirianni and Co. they decided needed Scott to stay on the field to run.

It was all very weird.

At the end of the day, Hurts did his job with his legs. To be fair, Hurts has not looked as comfortable in the pocket over the last two weeks as defenses appear to be shifting tactics against them. But it seemed clear, on that final drive, deep in Colts territory, the coaching staff wanted to play it as safe as possible and not risk Hurts throwing an interception.

In this game, it worked. The Eagles avoided a humiliating loss and the stressful hand-wringing and talk of a late-season collapse that would have undoubtedly ensued. Time will tell if what we saw at the end of the Colts game was a true loss of confidence in Hurts’ passing, or just a silly day by the coaching staff.

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